It’s no secret that public education systems in Africa struggle to meet the needs of students. According to UNESCO, of the 59 million primary school-aged children who are out of school, 30 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, half are unlikely to ever enter formal education.

The rural impact

This problem is even more pronounced when one focuses on Africa’s rural context. Yet it is precisely these communities that have the potential to make the greatest impacts — whether positive or negative — on the continent and, ultimately, the entire globe.

That’s because Africa is changing rapidly, often at the expense of its incredible natural resources, including wildlife. Rural Africans rely heavily on local natural resources for survival, often leading to deforestation, illegal poaching, slash-and-burn agriculture, destruction of water resources, and other devastating environmental activities. Long-term consideration of the environment is ignored for short-term survival needs.

“Limited education often leads to limited opportunities for jobs and income. Poaching syndicates know this...”

Teaching conservation

I don’t believe that people generally have a specific intent to destroy the environment; simple human nature dictates that survival to tomorrow override any future issue. But without the abundance of Africa’s trees, wildlife, fertile soils and more, the continent faces a future with ever-greater water shortages, food insecurity, uncertain air quality, reduced economic growth and more.

Education is intertwined with the conservation of Africa’s natural resources. Anecdotal evidence suggests, for example, that lack of education correlates with men’s ability to be lured by the incomes associated with illegal wildlife poaching. A warden in one of Uganda’s national parks told me that, almost universally, poachers that have been caught have been men who dropped out of primary school — if they went to school at all. This makes sense: Limited education often leads to limited opportunities for jobs and income. Poaching syndicates know this, and take advantage of those looking for any means to scrape by. Educating boys can reduce the supply of poaching labor.

If we want to adequately protect Africa’s unique and critical ecosystems, education must be a key component of any approach. Providing quality education and encouraging parents to keep their kids in schools — especially in the rural context — provides numerous benefits that can meaningfully improve the long-term prospects of Africa’s natural resources and its communities. The potential impact of quality primary education cannot be overstated.

Education alone won’t solve all of Africa’s challenges. But it must be a part of any long-term solution to the variety of issues faced by rural communities across the continent. The future of this continent is really in the hands of its youngest generation. We must do everything we can to support them at a young age.