Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
8th Jan 2020

Africa ascending: Four growth markets to watch

The following feature article marks the second and final instalment of a special series on emerging markets in Africa, and has been adapted for publication here from the 2019 edition of ICEF Insights magazine. The complete issue is available to download now


Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world, and its economy grew by more than 5% in 2018. One in five Egyptians is aged 15–24, and fully a third of them are unemployed. Of those who are unemployed, 34% hold degrees.

Most university-bound students attend one of Egypt’s 24 free public institutions, while students who achieve lower grades in high school tend to enrol in one of the country’s 23 private institutions. Many graduates do not find jobs matching their skill level.

With a higher education crisis looming, the government passed legislation in 2018 that allows international branch campuses to operate in the country. As well as offering domestic students a better future, Egypt hopes to become a Middle Eastern education hub through this new strategy.

Given Egypt’s massive youth population, however, even a significant expansion of the domestic higher education sector will not accommodate enough students. The number of Egyptian students going abroad for higher education has nearly tripled in the past decade, from 12,300 in 2008 to at least 32,000 today, and this growth trend will almost certainly continue.

Roughly a third of Egyptian students are studying in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The US is third, with just under 3,600 Egyptian students as of March 2019. While Egyptian enrolments in US institutions have been relatively flat, enrolments have increased by 78% in Canada over the past five years and now number around 2,500. Other top destinations include France, Malaysia, and the UK, each with roughly 2,000 Egyptian students in 2017/18.


Northeast Africa, bordering Israel, Libya, and Sudan


  • Population: 101 million
  • Population growth rate: 2%
  • Population aged 15–24: 19%
  • Population under 25: 52%
  • Youth unemployment: 34%
  • Languages: Arabic (official), English and French widely understood by educated classes
  • Religions: Muslim (90%), Christian (10%)

Keys to the market

Colleges and universities establishing a presence in Egypt would do well to focus on linkages with the private sector to connect students to the real needs of the marketplace. SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) are major sources of employment in Egypt, and therefore programmes fostering entrepreneurship and innovation are much needed.


A democracy that consistently ranks in the top three countries in Africa for freedom of speech and of the press, Ghana is a peaceful oasis in a region often plagued by unrest. Its economy is growing steadily; 2019 is expected to be the third year of GDP growth exceeding 6%.

However, there is inadequate economic diversification. Many jobs in the country’s dominant agricultural and resource extraction industries require little formal skills training, and youth unemployment is disproportionately high among those with some higher education. A dearth of job opportunities at home motivates Ghanaian prospects to look carefully at post-graduate work and immigration policies in destination countries. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that three-quarters of Ghanaians would emigrate if they had “the means and opportunity.”

With Ghanaian universities able to accommodate only around 20% of those who apply, and given quality issues in the private education sector, demand for study abroad is increasing sharply. UNESCO counted 12,560 Ghanaians studying abroad in 2017, up 40% from 8,965 in 2012. This is a conservative estimate, given that there are at least 7,000 studying in China alone.

While Ghanaians traditionally favoured the US and the UK as destinations, they are now considering a much wider range of study abroad options. Australia, Canada, China, South Africa, and Ukraine have carved out strong positions in the market. China is offering thousands of scholarships per year to Ghanaian students, and Germany, Japan, and Russia are also notable for their incentives.


West Africa, bordering Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo


  • Population: 30 million
  • Population growth rate: 2%
  • Population aged 15–24: 19%
  • Population under 25: 57%
  • Youth unemployment: 14%
  • Languages: English (official and language of instruction), Akan, and Hausa (among Muslims)
  • Religions: Christian (71%), Muslim (17%)

Keys to the market

Twenty-two accredited agencies are recognised by the Government of Ghana. As Michael Aidoo, the CEO and executive director of the Accra-based agency CELC International, explains, “In Ghana, you have to be a registered agency. You must register with the Ghana Education Service. Not only that, you should be a registered company in Ghana. That is the most important thing.”


Kenya boasts one of the most diversified economies in Africa; agriculture and resource industries remain the most important sectors, but manufacturing, technology, tourism, and financial services are also well developed. The economy grew by 5.7% in 2018 and is expected to take a similar track in 2019.

The British Council projects that Kenya will have a population of 5.7 million college-aged students by 2024. These students hold the promise of meeting Kenya’s goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2030, but at present, its education system does not equip enough of these students with skills the country needs. Kenya’s higher education system has expanded rapidly in recent years thanks in large part to the entry of several private universities and polytechnics. But there are persistent quality concerns and government funding has been declining.

UNESCO estimates that 14,000 Kenyans are studying abroad, and the US, Australia, the UK, and South Africa host the bulk of them. That said, Kenyan outbound study has been essentially flat for several years. Partly this is because many Kenyans no longer see the value in higher education and need to find jobs as soon as possible. Demand is growing substantially for skills training. China is now a major player in providing vocational education in-country, with many graduates of programmes going on to find jobs in China-owned, Kenya-based companies.

This is a market ripe for some of the disruptive innovations transforming post-secondary education, such as short-term vocational training and micro-credentials.


East Africa, on the Indian Ocean, between Somalia and Tanzania


  • Population: 52 million
  • Population growth rate: 2%
  • Population aged 15–24: 20%
  • Population under 25: 59%
  • Youth unemployment: 19%
  • Languages: English and Swahili (official and language of instruction), Hausa (among Muslims)
  • Religions: Christian (83%), Muslim (11%), small Hindu and Sikh minorities

Keys to the market

Quality vocational education is in demand in information technology, accounting and project management, geology, engineering, pipe fitting, welding, drilling, and operation and maintenance of equipment used in resource extraction. Partnerships with corporations to deliver skills training could be promising, and Kenyans will see value in educators that can match them with employers.


Nigeria’s domestic higher education system simply can’t educate the number of young people applying for spaces. According to Nigeria’s National Universities Commission, between 2012 and 2017 fewer than 20% of applicants to Nigerian universities gained admission, leaving 6.3 million qualified students without a place. One in five Nigerians is aged 15–24, and this is the fundamental reason that Nigeria will be one of the fastest growing markets for study abroad for the foreseeable future.

UNESCO estimates that there are around 90,000 Nigerians studying abroad today.

The country shook off a two-year recession in 2017 and returned to modest growth of 1.9% in 2018. While the government has endeavoured to make the economy less dependent on oil and gas, diversification is happening slowly and jobs outside natural resource extraction and agriculture are scarce: nearly a quarter of Nigerians were unemployed in 2018 and many more were underemployed. Boko Haram’s terrorism continues to plague the country and widens the divide between the poorer North and more affluent South. Basic infrastructure is generally weak, with frequent labour strikes, underfunded hospitals, and electricity shortages.

Many middle-class Nigerian families have a common goal: to start new lives in other countries. For that reason, Nigerian prospects, like Ghanaian ones, tend to look closely at immigration opportunities in destination countries. Top destinations include the US, with 15,980 students in early 2019; Malaysia, with roughly 13,000 in 2019; Canada, with 11,290 in 2018; and the UK, with 10,540 in 2017/18. Ghana and South Africa are popular regional hubs drawing thousands of Nigerians.


West Africa, bordering Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin


  • Population: 201 million
  • Population growth rate: 3%
  • Population aged 15–24: 20%
  • Population under 25: 62%
  • Youth unemployment: 37%
  • Languages: English (official), Hausa, Yoruba
  • Religions: Muslim (52%), Christian (47%)

Keys to the market

In Nigeria, vocational education retains a stigma; families see practical rather than academic programmes as appropriate only for the lower classes. Yet highly skilled graduates in specific trades are the employees Nigeria most needs. Intelligent branding of vocational education – combatting outdated stereotypes – will be important for colleges recruiting in Nigeria. Nigerians are also frustrated by student visa hassles and will look for destinations where their visa applications are most likely to be accepted.

For additional background, please see:

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