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Swiss firms help build professional skills in Africa

Knowledge transfer is said to be in the DNA of European companies. And it is no secret that the Swiss have made vocational training central to their diplomatic and business culture. This, many would like to believe, spells good news for the African continent with its rapidly expanding and increasingly ambitious young population.

“If you want to do some things locally, it starts with education,” Mattias Rebellius, the CEO of Siemens Schweizexternal link, told business leaders and diplomats during the opening of Africa Business Dayexternal link, held at the company’s pristine new campus in Zug last month.

The day’s theme, “Overcoming the infrastructure gap in Africa”, demanded continuous recognition of the educational needs of a continent that by 2035 will be half urbanised and boast a population of 1.8 billion, most under the age of 21. In that context, globalization offers a mixed bag of challenges and opportunities. Climate change clouds the picture.

From the perspective of foreign companies, three African needs – electrification, industrialisation and digitalisation – present a rich palette of business innovation opportunities. Not everyone is sold on the trade-offs between risk and reward, painfully aware that doing business in Africa requires risk tolerance, patience and a long-term vision.

“New doors are being opened for Swiss companies through different initiatives,” noted Verena Utzinger, board president of the Swiss-African Business Circleexternal link (SABC), pointing in particular to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.external link

Bridging the infrastructure gap

“The infrastructure gap is still large,” she cautioned. “It is for this reason that experience sharing and knowledge transfer between Swiss and African actors across the public and private sectors takes place to continue developing innovative solutions.”

The hands-on experience has long been the backbone of Switzerland’s vocational training system at home. International cooperation in this field external link has been growing since 2008, when Switzerland launched a bilateral VET cooperation initiative with India.

Switzerland has an international trainee exchange agreement with South Africaexternal link. It is also supports vocational skills training in Rwandaexternal linkNigerexternal link, and Tanzania.external link And the Swiss – African Research Cooperation (SARECO), external link in place since 2013, spurs collaborations at the crossroads of business and education.

The private sector plays its part. Swiss companies active in Africa typically offer general skills training in line with their business needs. In many cases, these efforts fit into locally recognised certification schemes.  Swiss companies often educate their clients on how to best use their product, a service they increasingly sold as a separate good.

Educating clients and training staff

A case in point is African Milling School in Kenya, which was set up by the Swiss-based Bühler Group to promote the company and its products. Their educational programme is sold to clients who need technical training for their staff.

“Africa is a market with strong growth,” explains Martin Schlauri. As a result of metropolitanization, there is a growing demand for staple foods which in turn allows the food processing sector to grow. Companies that process grain are willing to invest in new capacity but struggle to find trained personnel for operation and maintenance.

Students at the African Milling School
The African Milling School opened its doors in 2015. A total of 180 apprentices and advanced level millers have been trained. Another 420 trainees have undertaken short courses on specific skills. The fee costs are covered by their employers.


The key question for companies, notes SABC managing director Michael Rheinneger, is whether providing such training is more of a hassle or a cost factor, or whether it opens additional revenue streams. Many Swiss companies do so in house, with little self-promotional fanfare. Others advocate selling the training if the numbers don’t add up.

The South Africa-based genomics company INQABA Biotecexternal link is among those who provide internships with an eye to shaping and recruiting young talent in the biotech industry. “When things work out we sometimes hire them,” confirms the firm’s Swiss executive director, Oliver Preisig.

The Alpine Center, which faithfully follows the Swiss formula mixing on-the-job training with theoretical knowledge, opened up a school in Kenya and is exploring options to do the same in seven other sub-Saharan nations.

“We wanted to bring the Swiss hospitality education outside of Switzerland because not everybody wants or can afford to go to Switzerland,” Eric Hofman, the president of this Swiss business school for hotel management,  told

Niche products

There is no denying that Swiss willingness to engage and train local professionals contrasts sharply with the approach of Chinese companies. The latter typically bring their own manpower to execute projects in Africa. But that does not mean that specific business goals of Swiss companies neatly align with the broader development aspirations of African nations.

“It is very challenging because you have high-tech products and you have the mission, which is also to really do something for the most disadvantaged and that is where the gap often is,” he says. “That cannot be addressed with a pure business approach. It is an illusion to think that with Swiss high-tech products you can directly do something for the bottom of the pyramid. This is just not realistic. That is a corporate responsibility task.”

Local partners needed

The practical incentives to train up local partners and staff are high regardless of industry. The best time to do that, according to Siemens’ Ute Redecker, is during project implementation. Above all, training must serve a business purpose; otherwise, it is not attractive for the companies to invest in, especially when considering the tendency of young talent to job hop.

“You need the local partner,” says Redecker, who was born in Namibia and works as the general manager of the digital grid of Siemens Smart Infrastructure.  “If there is a loose screw wherever on an inverter, somebody has to go and fix it before it goes off and the thing doesn’t work anymore. This is something where you will not send an expert from Europe anywhere. This has to be seen and corrected immediately.”

Switzerland is among the six governments funding the Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG), an external link which aims to boost the economy of poverty-stricken and fragile countries through innovative infrastructure projects.

“For us, when we are co-developing a project it is about training the local partner,” said PIDG CEO Philippe Valahu, who gave the keynote speech at the SABC event. “(So) that at some point you are out of there and they are dealing with it. Otherwise, it makes absolutely no sense.”

Broader industrial landscapes

Industry-specific training can spark huge demand. This was the experience of Swiss commodity trading and mining giant Glencore in Zambia, where it mines copper.

The Mopani Central Training Centre in Zambia.
Glencore invested CHF21 million in The Mopani Central Training Centre in Zambia.


In 2014, Glencore established the Mopani Central Training Centre. The boarding facility was set up in response to the shortage of artisan skills, a problem stemming from the nation’s shift to increasingly academic education.

“The initial purpose was to help us bridge the skills gap that we encountered,” explains Anna Krutikov, Glencore’s sustainability chief. About 4,000 new jobs were created at the Mopani Copper Mines after privatisation in 2000.

The centre offers apprenticeships in engineering, artisan skills and operational skills. Students learn through simulation in a virtual mine and follow a curriculum inspired by South Africa, which has a strong mining history.

The curriculum is accredited by the government of Zambia, which also places and funds its own candidates in the programme.

“We now offer training to artisans from other industries, not just mining,” says Krutikov. “We are trying to think about the broader industrial landscape.”