Sub-Saharan Africa is home to the youngest (and fastest-growing) population in the world. A growing number of these young people need to be educated, with an increasing percentage of the youth expected to be educated in private schools and universities.
By 2022, approximately one in four children—up from one in five today—may be enrolled in private schooling, suggesting the time for investing in the sector is today.
All that said, private investment in schools is still limited by capital and operational engagement from investors. That has to (and will) change.
This piece looks at the countries offering the best opportunities for investment in education.
A recent piece on healthcare investments in Africa placed Kenya in the top five for 2018. The same applies here with similar thinking.
Kenya is poised for a strong 2018 with a lot of pent up excitement and capital. Investors will find an exploding opportunity in the education space—both secondary and tertiary.
Local and international businesses are asking for stronger middle management in the Kenyan market, as well as growth in entry level applicants in the medical and engineering fields, as well as in the tech space.
Despite the business community’s call for more private education, the gap hasn’t necessarily closed as quickly as its supporters would desire, largely because private schools remain controversial in Kenya.
The challenges of private schools with large financial backers, such as Bridge International Academies, is known. A group of Bridge’s schools were ordered closed in 2016 by authorities in Uganda (but later allowed to stay open in 2017), while other schools have been under constant criticism in Kenya.
The attacks grew so much that Sean Geraghty, chief academic officer at Bridge International Academies, responded with a letter to the editor in the Guardian back in August this year.
Regardless of the setbacks, private schooling is still growing in the country and families are willing to pay. With middle class families paying north of $5,000 in total school fees and accessories for secondary education in the countries, there are consumers for creative investors.
Navigating the political and social dynamics, such as incentivizing teachers to attend class and teach, can be a challenge, but shouldn’t slow capital into this space.
It generally makes good practice to invest in a sector in a country where officials demonstrate support for growth. Ivorian officials are doing just that with their budget.
The government spent about $1.8 billion, or nearly five percent of GDP, in the education sector in 2016, according to the World Bank. Yet, Ivorian students still performed below the African average in reading and mathematics.
The market, accordingly, is calling for higher quality in the education sector, with many families happily prepared to look to the private sector.
The return of the African Development Bank to the market and growing presence of international businesses and organizations in the country is providing a consumer market for graduating students from both secondary schooling and college.
According to the country’s 2016-2020 national development plan, primary school enrolment has drastically increased from 73 percent in 2008 to 98 percent in 2014. Yet, the literacy rate in the country is 53 percent for those under the age of 24.
Private investment can achieve a lot in the secondary educational space, taking the very young Ivorian population from primary through secondary and tertiary to an insatiate employment market.
Other francophone Africans would also be tempted to come to the market as the francophone region is generally searching for stronger education options.
Although the total dollar amount is up, the percent of funding in the budget allocated to education is down and has brought President Muhammadu Buhari criticism from opposition officials and business leaders.
The investment opportunity for private education in Nigeria remains large despite the investment throughout the past several years.
Approximately 40 percent of students in Nigeria are already in private schools across the country, with a higher percent observed in certain provinces (i.e., nearly 60 percent in Lagos States). The number continues to grow along with some complaints regarding quality and availability.
The competition for high quality private education is the driving factor for more investment in the space.
Nigerians see employment opportunities in the market, from being teachers to private equity investors themselves, and are willing to spend for the skills and qualifications to fill those roles. Studying abroad has always (and remains) a viable option for those who have money.
But, as the Nigerian economy regains steam, local salaries do not justify the hundreds of thousands spent abroad in the U.S. or even half of that spent in the U.K. Strong secondary and college options will have to increase to support the demand in Nigeria’s business market.
The Senegalese government currently spends about 20 percent of the budget on education, including salaries, facilities, and technology. The return on the government’s spending is lacking by most accounts in this space.
Final year primary students in private schools are achieving competency levels on 80 percent-plus average compared to a sub-50 percent average by students in public schools.
Senegalese officials want to improve public schools but also, to the benefit of private investors and according to their National Development Plan, want to grow the percentage of students in private schooling from around 20 percent currently to 50 percent by 2022.
Officials are actively encouraging this growth by increasing authorizations for private providers and making efforts to reduce land acquisition timelines.
At the moment, the process can take nearly three years—sometimes requiring presidential decree—and comes at an expensive price tag, particularly in Dakar.
Training teachers to meet the need in the market is also an opportunity. The ministry of education is openly struggling to teach and recruit teachers. Teachers, many of which lack full qualifications, generally offer their services in both public and private schools.
Private investors in the space will have to up-skill their own administrators and instructors, but Senegalese officials openly express an interest to see investment in this space too.
Fees paid in the country surely have not approached the $4,000 or $5,000 observed in larger markets on this list, but that is not a limiting factor for this hungry market, especially if the government remains adamant to support growth with its own cash.
Officials are also quietly discussing with investors an opportunity for private schools targeted at Muslim communities, which is a regional need.
Ethiopia is home to nearly a 100 million people, of which more than 63 million are under the age of 25, with a population growth rate of 2.5 percent.
Educating this massive populace in one of the region’s fastest growing economies remains an obvious investment opportunity. The government generally commits more than 25 percent of its budget to education, but this is not sufficient, as the statistics suggest.
The country’s teacher to student ratio, at 46:1, is higher than the African average of 42:1, compared to 25:1 in private institutions. Literacy rates and competency rates in reading and mathematics are almost double in private schools.
Then why are private schools not hitting a boom in the country?
Averaging between $700 and $800, schools fees are estimated to beyond the economic reach of more than 90 percent of Ethiopians. Private investors are slowly spending to create higher quality, low-cost schools at the tertiary level, but the secondary level is still under-served.
Ethiopian officials are expressing an interest in boosting this space, even better explaining the rules of land leasing and foreign ownership in the education space to inquiring investors.
That said, the sector is definitely less acclimated to private investment than other countries, but that still cannot overshadow the country’s massive need for capital and operational infusion over the next decade.
Wild card countries to watch
The country is already a regional leader at the university level with more than 50 private institutions. It supplies the tertiary market in the region and will do so until high quality options arise in other regional countries.
Building out some of these private universities with satellite campuses across the region could be very profitable in the near term.
A Lusophone conglomerate (including Mozambique, Angola, São Tomé and Príncipe & Equatorial Guinea)
Education in the Lusophone countries is an open space with many investors not familiar with the language and culture. But private capital is needed at primary through tertiary levels, especially with lower literacy rates and competency levels in reading and mathematics. Cross border networks and satellite campuses could pay dividends.
The conundrum of creating profitable institutions with high quality services, low fees, and international standards and capabilities is what attracts entrepreneurial investors (or so they say).
Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker focusing on the natural resources and energy sectors, with private equity experience in emerging economies. He earned a law degree in tax and commercial law at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and a master’s of business administration in finance, entrepreneurship and operations from the University of Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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