Higher education students need practical skills to be employable, or employ themselves, says Martin Bosompem.
Africa has the most youthful population in the world, with estimates suggesting young people make up 60 to 70 per cent of the total population, but too few have access to jobs. Unemployment among graduates is becoming one of the most serious problems facing youth in the continent.
One major factor contributing to graduate unemployment is the defective education system, which focuses too much on theoretical teaching. There is next-to none of the practical training needed to either be employed in the job market, or become self-employed.
Fixing this calls for making big changes in how governments conceive the higher educational system, as well as formulating policies to encourage businesses to start-up and then stay sustainable.
Changes in African higher education systems must focus first on drastically reforming curriculums. These need to be practice-oriented and demand-driven. And they need to instil entrepreneurial competencies among graduates from all programmes and subjects.
This is necessary because at present practical training is so poor that many graduates are not employable, even in the few jobs available. Employers usually spend their own resources on re-training those that they choose to hire before these new staff can become productive.
In addition to curriculum reform, higher education systems should be adequately resourced in terms of both infrastructure and the personnel needed to train students. And as part of their training, students need to be linked up with industries and firms through internship programmes.
Entrepreneurship education is rare in most higher education systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even when it exists, it focuses more on helping students in business and economics programmes. But it should be part and parcel of the system in all fields – from the arts through to the pure sciences, agriculture, the social sciences and even medical schools.
Incubators in universities
Entrepreneurship training should focus on helping students develop viable business plans that they could start after graduation. One way of achieving this is by establishing ‘business incubators’ within universities. Such incubators can serve as a place where students nurture their business ideas and plans, and even try them at a micro scale before they start them up in the real world.
A good example, from my own institution, is the University of Cape Coast Business Incubator in Cape Coast, Ghana. The incubator provides students with infrastructure – an office space with equipment – as well as technical and financial support. Even though the incubator is housed in the Business School, it offers assistance to students in any programme in the university, provided that the student has a solid start-up business idea.
An entrepreneurial development agenda for higher education must put a priority focus on agriculture and agribusiness which, according to the latest World Bank report on Agribusiness in Africa, should kick-start economic transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa by the year 2030. 
Curriculums that encourage agribusiness would need to focus on mechanised farming and modern technologies for agricultural production, such as precision agriculture – ICT-based farm management systems. They would also need to focus on processing, preservation, value addition and other aspects of the agricultural value chain.
Broader help for start-ups
But starting up businesses, especially in the agribusiness sector, is not just a matter for higher education policy. It also needs to be encouraged with broader policy changes by African governments.
Despite the fact that most African countries have policies and laws governing aspects of establishing a business, such as copyright and patents, these laws are scarcely enforced. Many innovators have their works copied, or even stolen, but they get no help from law enforcement agencies.
And protecting intellectual property is not the only challenge. My research shows that many graduates in agriculture are not willing to start their own businesses because of the apparent risks associated with such a venture. 
Financial institutions take similar stands, and are often unwilling to provide credit facilities to those graduates and others who are bold enough to start a new venture. Also, in many African countries there are no dedicated insurance policies available that can protect agribusiness against times of trouble.
Implementing policies that make it easier to start up a business, along with changes in the higher educational system – from creating curriculums that are practical and market oriented to instilling entrepreneurial skills – could go a long way to minimising graduate unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Martin Bosompem is a lecturer at the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, School of Agriculture, University of Cape Coast in Ghana. He can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter @mbosompe
This article is part of the Spotlight on Making higher education work for Africa.
 World Bank Growing Africa: Unlocking the potential of agribusiness (World Bank, January 2013)
 Martin Bosompem and others Perceived entrepreneurial competencies of undergraduates and self-employment creation after graduation: implications for youth policy in Ghana (International Journal of Business and Management Studies 2013)