Education for all, occupational choice and business formation in Africa

‘Education is the engine of growth,’ Professor Elias Papaioannou.

Elias Papaioannou, Professor of Economics at London Business School (LBS), with his colleagues, Stelios Michalopoulos, Associate Professor of Economics at Brown University and Torsten Figueiredo Walter, Assistant Professor of Economics at New York University Abu Dhabi is examining the success of school expenditure in terms of economic payoff in post-independence Africa. In a conversation with LBS Africa Club President, Themba Muchaneta, Professor Papaioannou expounds on the objectives of his research and discusses some of the preliminary findings. His research was awarded funding from the Wheeler Institute during our biannual call for proposals.

Evaluation of the impact of large-scale school construction programmes on educational attainment in Africa is required for improved policy design

Good education is needed to plug the skills shortage in Africa, to widen employment options, to boost entrepreneurship and to drive innovation. Post-independence governments across Africa have designed and implemented large-scale school construction programmes to educate the masses. Africa has witnessed an unprecedented increase in access to education in the past decades. Thanks to large-scale school construction throughout the continent, many more children live within reach of a school today.

Despite these efforts, education inertia persists, with educational intergenerational mobility lagging or reversing in some places. Nearly one third of African children still do not finish primary school and more than half do not finish secondary school. Education exclusion has stunted human capital development across the continent – manufacturing employment remains small, innovation is weak and many large corporations “complain” that there is a skill shortage. To address these persistent issues, policy makers, institutions and educators must understand what has worked and what has not. Professor Papaioannou hopes that the data collected and analysed by his team will be a tool for policy makers to design evidence-based and impactful policies.

Using ‘big-data’ to unearth the outcomes of education policies in post-independence Africa

Professor Papaioannou and his team are using big data to map the expansion of schooling infrastructure across more than 25 African countries, since independence. The study is connecting schooling with employment, occupational choice, entrepreneurship and business formation, using a plethora of geo-referenced data. The project will quantify the impact of large-scale school supply and major educational policies (including, for example, compulsory primary schooling, educational attainment, occupational choice, employment across sectors and entrepreneurship).

The team are sifting through colonial archives, census reports, and using geo-mapping techniques to build a dynamic map, which will identify the location of schools built from the early sixties up until recent period.

The team will perform econometric analysis on the school mapping data to measure the education attainment of students born in specific regions over a relevant period. Researchers will chart the upward or downward mobility of students and determine the impact, if any, of school expansions in specific areas. The study will identify the school construction policies that yielded the highest number of schools. Furthermore, the researchers will examine the relationship between school construction, infrastructure and industry. Do students in schools located near transportation network systems, capital cities, or industrial hubs fair better than their peers? Finally, the study will assess whether the ethnic homeland or birth region of a country’s leader and key politicians benefit more from school construction programmes than other regions.

Professor Papaioannou believes this comprehensive exploration of educational policies will shed light on the poverty trap dynamics and help policy makers design effective interventions.  “We can learn a lot about successes and failures in Africa … [through] this project…on education, which is a core aspect for the future of Africa,” Professor Papaioannou.

Unearthing heterogeneity in the impact of educational polices in Africa

Early findings from the study has highlighted the vast cross-country differences and large inequities in the education gains of some African countries. While non-African countries, including the US, show similar regional inequalities and inequities, this is often at the tertiary and post-graduate education levels, but in Africa, there are disparities even at the primary and secondary education levels.

Professor Papaioannou explains that granular analysis of celebrated educational statistics reveal heterogeneity within countries, but homogeneity with other countries. He points to the well documented differences between the Sahel regions of Northern Ghana and Northern Nigeria and their southern counterparts. Education attainment is low in the North of Nigeria and Ghana, but high in the south of both countries. Data implies that education gains on the continent have not been equally distributed across space. The findings suggest other factors may be contributing to the heterogeneity in educational attainment. The team have companion works investigating the role of ethnic and religious affiliations in educational policy and attainment.  

The case for further African research

“Up until I would say the mid-2000s, there were very, very few academic papers looking on African countries, or issues related to Africa.” This is changing according to Professor Papaioannou, “we see more and more exciting research about various Africa related issues”. Professor Papaioannou’s current paper, typifies the change. The extremely data intensive project has been funded by the Wheeler Institute. The grant from the Wheeler institute allows the project team to recruit talented research assistants and to continue their decade long work on African development. Professor Papaioannou and his colleagues have previously examined the colonial and pre-colonial origins of political centralisation in sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, they have investigated the impact of the artificial borders, drawn up by European colonisers beginning at the Berlin Conference of 1885, on African development. They have also looked to understand the relationship between ethnic features and political centralisation.

The research team hope that the findings uncovered in this study will fuel further research. Professor Papaioannou explains that the study has taken a pan-African approach, nuances between countries and the actual education curriculum and method of delivery will not be addressed. He envisions researchers from other global educational institutions and, more importantly, researchers from African institutions taking the research forward.

Themba Muchaneta highlights the importance of research not just for policy making, but also business education. He questions Professor Papaioannou on the integrity of the learning material used for business education, he pondered whether dependency on a case protagonist or firm for data and access could result in unbalanced and self-serving case studies. Professor Papaioannou underscores the balance and complexity associated with case-writing, he calls for more African case studies and research to provide business students and instructors with a holistic view of African topics. Professor Papaioannou is optimistic about greater research and case focus on Africa, he believes that as Africa continues to grow, there will be increased curiosity from the world on how companies and individuals are able to thrive in such environment.

Moving away from African ‘Big Man’ syndrome – Africa needs strong institutions and not strong personalities

Themba Muchaneta contrasts the policy focus of Professor Papaioannou’s research with the human capital and leadership focus of educational entrepreneurs on the continent. Professor Papaioannou praises the work of educational entrepreneurs but cautions that Africa needs to shift from being defined by its leaders to being defined by its institutions: “[Africa]should try to build more on institutions and develop its own state capacity which will make the continent…less dependent on a particular leader” He warns of “good policies being reversed by some other big man”. He cites the strong institutions that have allowed Botswana to manage its diamond revenue successfully. Professor Papaioannou emphasises the co-importance of good leadership and institutions by referencing the heralded leadership of Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela Nelson, whose exemplary leadership produced a constitution that guaranteed equal rights to all South Africans. After over two decades of democracy in many African countries, the strength and independence of African institutions are growing, and so is public confidence and trust.

The early findings from Professor Papaioannou’s research are clear – to tackle the persistent inertia in educational development, African politicians and policy makers must re-examine their interventions. Using the data and results from studies such as this, leaders must formulate evidence-based interventions that raise educational equity. Policy makers and educators must acknowledge the heterogeneity of educational successes and weave these complexities into their decision-making process. As highlighted by Themba Muchaneta, Africa is too nuanced for broad-based policies, tailored, comprehensive and data backed interventions are needed to harness Africa’s greatest resource – its young people.

Professor Papaioannou’s conversation with Themba Muchaneta focusses on his paper “Intergenerational mobility in Africa” recently published in Econometrica, co-Authored by Alberto Alesina of Harvard University, IGIER, CEPR, and NBER, Sebastian Hohmann of Deloitte and Stelios Michalopoulos of Department of Economics, Brown University, CEPR, and NBER.


Elias Papaioannou is the Co-Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development and economics professor at London Business School, focusing on international finance, political economy, applied econometrics, growth, and development. In the academic year 2019/2020, Elias held the Varian Visiting Professor of Economics at the MIT Department of Economics.

Themba Muchaneta is an MBA 2021 student at London Business School and president of the LBS Africa Club. Themba is extremely passionate about pursuing a career focused on technology-enabled disruption in emerging markets. Themba is a Systems Engineer with work and internship experience in multiple areas across the Technology, Logistics and Transportation, including roles in business development and due diligence advisory.


Kemi Badru (MBA2021) is Co-President of the Infrastructure & Construction Club and Co-President (Finance) of the Private Equity & Venture Capital Club at London Business School. Kemi is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *