Updated: Feb 6, 2021
by Sila Yildirim
The COVID-19 pandemic represents one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime, threatening to overwhelm health, social and economic systems worldwide. Economic activities are stalled, many small businesses have had to close, and individuals fear what might happen to their jobs. The world's biggest economies have already taken a hit due to the introduction of social distancing and other measures to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis.
Though infection rates across Africa remain comparatively low, the consequences of the lock-down still looms large: it threatens to have devastating long-term economic and social effects in African countries where economic systems are less equipped to face such an economic downturn.
Photo courtesy of Spencer Davis. Skills development programmes can increase contributions to the local economy and be an integral part of recovering from the COVID-19 crisis
Africa’s Informal Sector and Employment
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an estimated 86% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s workforce is engaged in the informal sector (Source: ILO, 2015). The informal sector is usually comprised of
micro or small business owners that, due to the unregulated nature of their business, have no access to a safety net, credits and loans or any financial support services necessary to keep their business afloat in times of crisis;
those informally employed, typically daily wage workers, that do not adhere to national labour legislation, income taxation, social protection and as a result, often are not entitled to certain employment benefits (Source: ILO, 2018).
Most informal workers do not work informally by choice but in the absence of other means of livelihood. Informal workers face multiple problems and are usually poorer and more vulnerable than workers in formal employment (Source: Bonnet, Vanek and Chen, 2019). For them, a lockdown and closing businesses could be devastating, depriving them of any income.
What is more, training and skills in the informal sector have been acquired through learning by doing, and passed on in non-institutionalised ways -without standardisation or certification- from parents, relatives, friends or community members. This puts these employees at a severe disadvantage when it comes to further skills development and access to better job opportunities. Their practical, hands-on training likely failed to equip them with the transferable soft and life skills, business skills and an entrepreneurial mindset necessary to meet the needs of changing economic landscapes and work environments.
Informal, family-based learning will be even more common during the Covid-19 pandemic due to the interruption of education and increased school drop-outs.
Building Skills to Respond to Crises
A response that takes into account particular local circumstances is crucial. Unsuitable solutions for African countries, e.g. those that do not sufficiently acknowledge informal economic activities and employment, can easily lead people into abject poverty. Additionally, solutions have to consider Africa’s young population. Investments not only in health but also in improving the future of work in Africa can lead to long-lasting changes and opportunities for more inclusive economies as well as a skilled and prepared workforce.
A possible solution is technical and vocational education and training (TVET). TVET is a term commonly used to describe institutionalised training programmes that qualify for non-academic professions. It comprises education programmes that are designed for learners to acquire the knowledge, skills and competencies specific to a particular occupation, trade, or class of occupations or trades (Source: UNESCO UIS, 2011).
In Sub-Saharan Africa with its large informal sector, there is a need to make formal TVET relevant to the informal economy in order to be truly driven by labour market demands and realities, by offering
recognised certification and qualification pathways to informal economy workers,
different types of flexible further training opportunities to re- or upskill, or
business advisory, start-up and employment services (Source: ILO, 2013).
In the face of a crisis, this could decrease employee vulnerability by increasing their resilience and preparedness for uncertainties and volatility, and increasing their access to new employment opportunities.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic risks further increasing the number of people working in the informal economy and calls for urgent investment in skills and lifelong learning for informal economy workers as well as in informal apprenticeships. In order to offer these programmes during the pandemic in the form of distance or e-learning, investment in IT and mobile internet access is indispensable, as thus far in sub-Saharan Africa, less than a quarter of the population use mobile internet on a regular basis.
But every crisis lies an opportunity as well: the focus of international development cooperation and public funding should move towards linking the informal sector to regulated skills training programmes. In the long term, ensuring the workforce can build resilience and be agile in times of crisis will be crucial to help them reduce the risk of falling into poverty. In addition, skills development programmes outside the formal education system can increase contributions to the local economy and be an integral part of recovering from the COVID-19 crisis.
Sila Yildirim is a Reporting and Programme Development Specialist currently contributing to the Syrian crisis response in Gaziantep, Turkey.