Policy & GovernanceLow Literacy Levels in Africa.

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“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”
― Kofi Annan

What is responsible for Africa’s low literacy levels compared to the rest of the world?

The ability to read and write, or literacy, is considered a basic human right. It has been connected to improved public health, economic progress or even higher levels of self-esteem. A person who is unable to read may have low self-esteem or feel emotions such as shame, fear, and powerlessness.

According to Our World in Data , while only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the share has reversed: only 14% of the world population in 2016 remained illiterate. Over the last 65 years the global literacy rate increased by 4% every 5 years – from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015.

Globally however, large inequalities remain, notably between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. Burkina Faso, Niger and South Sudan are the African countries at the bottom of the rank with literacy rates still below 30%.

Let us look into some of the factors that contribute to the high illiteracy levels in Africa.

  • Poverty:

In a country like Mali for example, which had 33% literacy level as of 2017, public education is provided at no cost to the population, with the exception of books, uniforms, and other fees. Because of the high rates of poverty in this country, many families are unable to afford the costs associated with sending their children to school. The enrollment rate in Mali, therefore, is low when compared to the global average, which results in low levels of literacy.

Also as economists tend to demonstrate, economic development normally boosts educational growth. In this regard, countries which have more resources to allocate to education both as an investment and as a consumption good, achieve a higher participation in education as shown by evidence from more industrialized countries.

  • Gender Bias:

According to World Atlas , while approximately 38% of adults across Africa were found to be illiterate by 2017, of these individuals, roughly 66% were women. In some of the countries in Africa, girls often stop attending school after the first few years of primary education, due to pressure to get married and have children. In Niger for example, which is the least literate country in Africa with only 19% literacy level as of 2017, the lowest enrollment rates are found among girls who are traditionally placed in child marriages and expected to stay home.

  • Political and civil unrest, violence, and warfare:

The warfare experienced by countries such as South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone has contributed to low levels of literacy, making development and improvement in their public sectors difficult to achieve.

South Sudan experienced approximately 50 years of political and civil unrest, violence, and warfare that left it struggling to meet the need for public education. It became an independent nation in 2011 and since then, it has been working to improve its educational system for both youth and adults.

  • Poor quality of education:

According to Challenges of Quality Education in Sub-Saharan Africa – Some Key Issues, although UPE (Universal Primary Education) policies have contributed significantly to access and equity in primary education, the push for UPE in many countries has come to be identified with increasing deterioration of the quality of primary education. There seems to be strong evidence of internal inefficiency due to enrolment of over-age children, high rates of repetition and dropout rates, and use of unsound pedagogical approaches.

Also lifting of teachers’ morale through monetary incentives is a major challenge due to poor economies. From the poor situation of the teaching and learning environment as well the quality and morale of the academic staff, not much is expected in the quality of instruction.

  • Low public school enrollment rate:

The UNESCO Institute of Statistics states that, of the 63 million out-of-school children of primary school age, 34 million, or more than one-half, live in sub-Saharan Africa. In Eastern and Southern Africa, 1 out of 9 primary-age students is not in school.

Among the key underlying factors affecting primary school enrolment rates are economic ones.

  • Limited resources allocated to education:

Some governments in Africa do not make education a top priority for example, According to World Atlas , Guinea allocated only 1% of the national budget to education.

The scarcity of learning materials in the classroom is the most serious impediment to educational effectiveness in most African countries. In some Sub-Saharan African schools, there is only 1 textbook for every 13 students.

  • Language

The World Literacy Foundation states that most lessons in Africa are taught in English or other non-local languages. This is hard for students who often struggle with second language comprehension. To make matters worse, even teachers face challenges instructing in a language (English) they’re not fully proficient with.

  • Family or Multigenerational impact

For someone born into an underprivileged milieu to parents with little formal schooling, the likelihood of being illiterate or experiencing serious learning difficulties will be higher. This is known as intergenerational transmission of illiteracy.

Mothers who have had some education are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school as mothers with no education.

Diana Thuo

Financial Engineering undergraduate with deep interests in Personal Finance and Investment.


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