Poverty and Education in East Africa:

Breaking the Cycle

The impact of poverty on education in East Africa remains one of the biggest challenges, combined with huge structural issues such as the lack (if not absence) of employment opportunities for school and university graduates.

That is one of the reasons why we focus on building affordable quality homes. This not only improves the health of entire families and communities (boosting school attendance and lowering the dropout rate) – but also provides a safe space for children to do their homework (adequate lighting, no leaks or even floods).

Despite progress over the last decade, 67 million children worldwide, of whom approximately 53% are girls, do not have access to basic education currently.

The Education Commission projects that if current trends continue, by 2030 just 4 out of 10 children of school age (1.4 billion children) in low- and middle-income countries will be on track to gain basic secondary-level skills.

School attendance & learning outcomes of children by 2030
Figure 1 – A global learning crisis: The expected learning outcomes of the children and youth of school age in 2030

Barriers to education: from poverty to instability

UNICEF identifies 13 significant barriers to education in developing countries:

  1. Direct costs (e.g., fees, clothing, books)
  2. Indirect costs (i.e., opportunity cost of attending school)
  3. Local attitudes and/or traditional practices
  4. Health and nutrition
  5. Crisis and instability
  6. Distance to school
  7. Poor quality environment (e.g., infrastructure, overcrowding, sanitation, violence)
  8. Poor quality content (e.g., outdated curriculum, inadequate materials)
  9. Poor quality processes (e.g., untrained teachers, poor school management)
  10. National legal framework (e.g., lack of compulsory education requirement)
  11. Poor legal enforcement of education policies
  12. Lack of national budgetary allocation to education
  13. School isolation from the national education system

Barriers to education are particularly prevelant for girls, children from minority ethnic groups, children with disabilities, and children living in conflict areas.

As barriers to education are broad and vary greatly by region, it’s important to take a cross-sector approach to identify opportunities for investment that will affect children’s access to quality education in sectors such as:

Beyond the provision of public education, the aim of many organisations such as the Education Global Fund is to measure and establish a link between educational outcomes (e.g. good grades) and the quality of the environment (or external factors), both within schools and the surrounding community.

Why education poverty is worse in East Africa

Various global indices including the Social Progress Index and the Human Development Index show that low educational attainment is most widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Sub-Saharan African countries often suffer from relatively unstable economies as well as conflicts and droughts which further worsen the educational crisis and poverty levels.

Some of this burden is shared with the private sector when it comes to providing accessible and quality services for water, electricity, transportation, energy etc. But in this respect, governments also bear the responsibility of building schools, providing teacher training and nationwide curriculums and tests to monitor progress.

An educated workforce is essential for stimulating long term economic growth and reducing poverty in Africa (or anywhere else). That’s why many organisations focus on developing countries where educational level is low but opportunities exist for high impact.

Secondary school enrolment rates: education poverty map
Figure 2 – Secondary school enrolment rates
Countries in the lightest shade have a secondary school enrolment rate of less than 20%

A strong potential for development

The Educate Global Fund identified countries with a significant gap in educational attainment despite strong economic growth (Figure 3 below). In countries where fewer than 20% of children enrol in secondary education, it is difficult to imagine how social progress can be sustained without educated citizens, yet given the underlying demographic and economic resources available, it is within these governments’ power to raise millions out of poverty.

The East African community represents a market of 146 million people experiencing strong economic growth; however, secondary education enrolment rates (less than 20% for Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) remain low.

In comparison, Kenya appears to “excel” in the region, with a secondary education enrolment rate of 33%. Despite reliance on grants and donations, the East African region meets most of the pre-conditions required for successful investments in education.

In particular, successful investments in education tend to require improved infrastructure, road and transport networks, and advances in mobile payment and technology.

GDP growth and secondary school enrolment education poverty
Figure 3 – Secondary school enrolment rates versus gross domestic product growth

In Kenya, 95% of children attend primary school; however, “youth” (defined as the 15–35 age bracket, which represents 35% of the Kenyan population) have the highest rate of unemployment (67%).

The population currently counts 22 million children and young people under the age of 18. Every year, over one million young people enter the labour market without any formal skills.

School enrolment and youth unemployment in Kenya

Figure 4 – School attendance and youth employment in Kenya

Globally, the education sector is significantly under-invested relative to other sectors. A 2015 survey by The Global Impact Investing Network and J.P. Morgan showed that 58% of capital allocated to impact investing flows towards housing, agriculture, energy, and micro-finance, compared with only 2% invested in education.

The education sector is undeniably strategic to economic development; therefore, the lack of capital investment will have lasting consequences for

  • Security
  • Stability
  • Community wellbeing
  • Livelihoods
  • New opportunities in both emerging and developed market economies.

The Education Commission proposes that getting all children learning will require total spending on education to rise steadily from $1.2 trillion per year today to $3 trillion by 2030 (in constant prices).

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Investing in SMEs to tackle poverty in Africa

Investing in SMEs (Small & Medium Enterprises) presents a number of advantages, including:

  • Increased employment within local communities (especially for youth and vulnerable groups) – also making it interesting for the youth to study as long as possible
  • Increased production capacity
  • Development of local value chains and markets

By investing in job creating SME’s, the aim is to create attractive post-education opportunities for young people, which can engender a virtuous cycle of progress in the future.

That’s why all our Habitat for Humanity projects abroad incorporate an element of boosting local jobs and training the community. That way, we don’t just build a home, we help build the local market and offer new job opportunities.

In Kenya, SMEs and informal enterprises account for 60% of the gross domestic product, and 80% of all new jobs were created by SMEs in 2012.

Investiing in SMEs: local builders in Kenya

By investing in SMEs that positively affect educational outcomes for children in low-income rural communities and informal urban settlements, the idea is to target the “missing middle” (lack of SMEs in low income countries which account for 50% of GDP in developed countries).

The needs of this demographic are under-served by the government (due to limited budgets, reach, and/or capability) and the private sector. Investments in education for low-income communities (aside from large infrastructure projects) will remain financially unattractive for the private sector over the next 15–20 years.

Reducing the impact of poverty on education in East Africa will take every single actor in the economy: government, private sector and NGOs to ensure that all the “ingredients” are there to make the improvements needed:

  • Infrastructure (schools, transports)
  • Job opportunities for graduates
  • Trained staff
  • Lower poverty levels (impacting health, access to electricity, housing etc)


The following post is adapted from a working paper published by the Educate Global Fund.

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