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African insights: TVET systems and the changing world of work - the digital transformation

Stephanie Allais, 2023


This article is based on a 2021 BILT-commissioned Scoping Study of TVET trends in Africa1, which aimed to understand how African TVET systems are positioned to plan for and develop new qualifications and competencies for the changing world of work. This article explores a challenge with regard to digitalization and TVET: the focus is on utilizing technology to deliver TVET rather than on the changing skills profiles of jobs, the world of work and the implications for TVET curricula and qualifications. The term ‘digitalization’ across the labour market and TVET stakeholders is not used in a consistent or mutually understandable way.

Africa is a region in which the youth labour force is growing significantly and the poverty rates of working-aged youth are falling slowly, and informality is the most prevalent form of paid work

Digital transformation of work and TVET: A gap for African TVET systems?

Policies about digitalization abound2, at a continental and national level, in relation to the potential of digital technology to transform many policy areas including the future of work and the labour market in Africa. However, it is much harder to find information about implementation planning or results. Sub-Saharan Africa is unlike other regions in several ways, including lower levels of technology adoption. Digitalization is often referred to as a major opportunity for economic development (Choi, Dutz and Usman, 2020), and the hope is that digitalization can create jobs and lift people out of informal working relations. However, African countries face a significant digital divide due to a lack of basic infrastructure and high capital costs that hamper automation investments.

Africa is a region in which the youth labour force is growing significantly and the poverty rates of working-aged youth are falling slowly, and informality is the most prevalent form of paid work (ILO, 2020b). How digitalization will transform this demographic, labour market and economic situation is not clearly mapped but expectations are high on schools and TVET institutions to deliver a digitally transformed curricula which itself can be delivered using digital methods.

Stakeholders in the BILT Africa Scoping Survey agreed that TVET systems need to respond to changes in the world of work. However, as seen across the literature review, case studies and interviews into TVET and digitalization, there seems to be more focus on the digital delivery of TVET than on considering the new digital skills requirements for programmes and qualifications workplaces that are digitalizing, or for new occupations and types of work. There are some exceptions, such as an increasing focus on mechatronics within South African TVET colleges. There was also evidence of short courses designed to develop general digital skills.

Digital transformation of work and TVET: A gap for African TVET systems?

Digitalizing TVET delivery is believed to be an opportunity to improve the quality of education and to offer solutions to educational inequalities and restricted access by:

  • Removing the requirement for trainees to be on-site for their learning which can be an obstacle for those from rural areas, women with caring responsibilities and people who must combine learning with work; and
  • Tailoring quality curricula which combine the best online educational resources from across the world thereby improving courses and teaching.

However, concerns such as lack of resources, scarce digital infrastructure, as well as teachers’ weak digital skills have further demonstrated the vulnerability of TVET systems. This was clearly evidenced during the COVID-19 crisis: TVET delivery was shown to be even less resilient than general education during the pandemic when online learning was used (Langthaler and Bazafkan, 2020). In general, online education rates are low, although detailed numbers are hard to obtain.

The pandemic highlighted many challenges for trainees, with online delivery of TVET, as well as speeding up a focus on increasing digital learning (Allais and Marock, 2020). To be successful in online learning, students require digital skills (assuming that online learning is viable at a systemic level in countries in Africa). A South African study showed that many secondary and tertiary students do not know how to type and/or are not able to use their devices effectively due to a lack of skills and understanding of software and operating systems. In addition, students mentioned that they cannot conduct effective searches, nor differentiate between academic and non-academic knowledge, and cannot effectively engage with academic content (DHET, 2020). Furthermore, the problem with online learning is by no means limited to technological problems – for example, students in most poor communities lack a quiet room in which they can engage with an online session even assuming they have stable/sufficient connectivity and the necessary equipment.

For the sector as a whole, an impact study on digitalization within African TVET educational systems showed that the digitalization of the TVET sector is ongoing, but evidence in terms of quality improvements and expansion of access is limited (ILO, 2020c). A major emphasis has been on upskilling TVET teachers and trainers in digital literacy and skills. For example, in Tanzania, TVET colleges have provided continuous pedagogical and technical support and mentoring using digitally skilled colleagues and hiring outside expert consultation and training workshops (ILO, 2021). The challenge has been how to integrate digital competence into teaching and learning practice. Studies showed that teachers and trainers need both digital literacy skills development (to be able to use digital technology) while also needing support to integrate digital technology in a pedagogically effective way for their teaching and learning programmes (DHET, 2020). This is not to say that there are not good examples of how to integrate digital technology into TVET in African countries. In both Kenya and Zambia, online learning management systems have been integrated into their TVET colleges; a broadcasting channel to support and address TVET students’ learning needs has been introduced in Algeria and Mozambique; and online teacher training has been used for practitioners in Lesotho.

Are digital skills needed by African economies?

Countries such as Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria and South Africa reflect increasing reliance on digital technologies, particularly mobile cellular and the internet; high levels of digital skills such as digital literacy, web development, and mobile telephone development are reported (Choi, Dutz and Usman, 2020). But the extent to which new technologies are actually being introduced in workplaces is at best uneven. Most African countries, including those mentioned, lag in other advanced skills such as artificial intelligence, scientific computing and human-computer interaction.

The ILO (2020a) suggests that jobs in Africa may be less under threat from digitalization. They argue that there are opportunities, for example, in internet-based crowd work, in which young people tend to earn more than older workers and can be more attractive to young people compared to other work alternatives available. But they also point out that although most crowd-workers are relatively well educated, their digital skills owe little to formal education. This raises a double concern whereby fewer people on the African continent have either the formal education or sufficient access to the digital technology to develop their skills informally, thereby further exacerbating inequalities in the region.

This makes it uncertain to define what digital skills are, and will be, needed for African economies and jobs. As discussed in Article 1, skills anticipation systems for TVET are focused on employer identified skills gaps, with the implication that the focus is on occupational and sector-based digital skills needs as opposed to a broader definition of digital skills for informal digital jobs (and even less on any general digital competence to support citizenship). Furthermore, technology is changing too fast for complex qualification and curriculum systems to keep up.

Research conducted by the Mastercard Foundation argues that most digitally-related jobs (e-hailing ride hailing drivers, e-commerce agents, etc.) will require basic productive digital skills, although a small portion will require developer skills to engineer and maintain digital platforms (CENFRI, 2020). There is a strong emphasis from interviewees on entrepreneurship, particularly at the level of survival skills, but a Mozambican study (Lugg et al., 2019) points to higher level skills requirements for successful entrepreneurship in the digital space. Fox and Signé (2021) emphasize basic cognitive and socio-emotional skills remain significant, and argue that African education systems are not producing these.

The BILT Africa Scoping Study asked respondents to select the three economic sectors with the greatest need for new qualifications. 90% of stakeholders selected ‘Agriculture, forestry, and fishing’, 74% selected ‘Construction, manufacturing, mining and quarrying’, and 67% selected ‘Information and communication’. When asked whether the sectors they viewed as priority had specific digital competency requirements, they gave the answers presented in Figure 1 below.

Furthermore, 24% of respondents felt that their occupational classification systems, which are the basis for developing qualifications, are very responsive to changes in the world of work implied by digitalization, as seen in Figure 2 below. 66% rated their systems as either ‘fairly responsive’ (46%) or not very responsive (20%).

Fox and Signe (2021) argue that it is the service sector where opportunities for an expansion in formal wage employment seems most possible in African countries, but they also express concern that this formality is likely to increase slowly, thereby offering limited wage gains for most workers. They see possibilities for digital3 technology to improve agricultural productivity, thereby supporting increased farm earnings and poverty reduction, as well as possible benefits to the environment, but through increased automation rather than higher skilled employees. They do not see agriculture as an expanding area of employment. Likewise, while manufacturing has recently expanded in some African countries and digital technologies are seen as offering some new opportunities for smaller-scale production for domestic and regional markets, the main new technology is likely to be capital intensive and therefore may reduce employment, as opposed to increasing it.

Conclusion: the multiple challenges to policy-makers, TVET practitioners and researchers

The issues discussed pose considerable challenges for TVET in Africa. Much research into the changing world of work is either small scale and anecdotal, or focuses on what might change and the potential opportunities for African countries. There is insufficient research into what is actually changing in African workplaces. This in turn has implications for skills anticipation systems – which are already struggling, as discussed in an earlier article, Insights into employer engagement in skills anticipation in African VET systems.

Most of the focus on the digital transformation of TVET systems is about increasing the availability of online courses within a context of extreme digital divides and poverty, where TVET institutions do not have the resources (either funding or staff) to make such a leap and where the evidence of effectiveness is uncertain.

As noted in the other articles in this series, there is insufficient tailored research into the specific impact of digital skills needs on African jobs and the informal labour market and how the TVET system can best respond in a way which supports all learners.

The purpose of the Atlas is to shed light on the trends experienced across TVET systems in Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Europe while pinpointing examples of how some of the challenges discussed above are addressed.

  1. Carried out by the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of Witwatersrand, lead author Stephanie Allais

  2. A key policy in this regard is the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa, adopted by the African Union Commission in 2020.

  3. Fox and Signe use the term 4IR technology to signify technology implied by the 4th Industrial Revolution frequently defined as the digitalization of value chains; of product and service offerings and of business models and customer access, see: revolution-needs-new-forms-of-leadership


Allais, S. and Marock, C. 2020. ‘Education for work in the time of COVID 19: Moving beyond simplistic ideas of supply and demand’, Southern African Review of Education, 26(1), pp. 62–79.

CENFRI 2020. Skills for a digital economy with a focus on Ghana, Kenya and Senegal. Mastercard Foundation.

Choi, J., Dutz, M.A. and Usman, Z. (eds) 2020. The Future of Work in Africa. Harnessing the Potential of Digital Technologies for All. Washington D.C.: World Bank.

DHET 2020. Students’ access to and use of Learning materials. Survey report. Department of Higher Educationand Training.

Fox, L. and Signé, L. 2021. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Work: Could this Bring Good Jobs to Africa? Evidence Synthesis Paper Series 06/2021. Leiden: INCLUDE Knowledge Platform.

ILO 2020a. Global Employment Trends for Youth: Technology and the future of jobs. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

ILO 2020b. Report on employment in Africa: Tackling the youth employment challenge. Geneva: International Labour Office.

ILO 2020c. The Digitization of TVET and Skills Systems. Geneva.

ILO 2021. A Resource Guide on Sector Skills Bodies. Geneva.

Langthaler, M. and Bazafkan, H. 2020. Digitalization, education and skills development in the Global South: an assessment of the debate with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. ÖFSE Briefing Paper.

Lugg, R. et al. 2019. JOBA’s Investment Portfolio for Skills for Youth Employment in Mozambique Re-thinking demand, and building skills partnerships for youth employment. JOBA Learning Paper prepared for Mott Macdonald and UK Aid. Johannesburg: JOBA, Singizi, and REAL.

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