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MBUGUA: Youth hold key to ICT growth in Africa

By Ng'ang'a Mbugua
Friday, December 18th, 2020
Youth hold the key to ICT growth in Africa
In summary

Without a doubt, young people in Africa are riding the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) crest, chalking up notable successes both at home and abroad.

In November, for instance, ICT students from Africa emerged as among the best performers during the Huawei ICT Competition Global finals, highlighting the potential that is latent in the continent and the fact that young people in Africa are keen to drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

From Nigeria to South Africa, university students have demonstrated their ICT credentials, coming up with innovations that signal the important role that higher education institutions have been playing in driving the use of technology to solve local problems.

The work done by these institutions also showcases the huge potential to create jobs that ICT offers.

Despite these successes, there are still challenges that the continent ought to address if it is to better reap the benefits of ICT.

The first and most glaring is the low internet penetration that is still prevalent in many countries across Africa.

Sadly, the continent still lags behind the global average in terms of quality, accessibility and affordability of ICT infrastructure and services. For instance, by last year, internet penetration in Africa stood at 39.6 percent, compared to a global average of 62.7 percent.

Although there are countries like Kenya, which are trending above the global average (at 89.9 percent penetration), these are outliers compared to countries like Burundi where internet penetration stands at a paltry 5.3 percent of the population.

Generally, therefore, Africa needs to do more to get its population connected. This is critical for the creation of more economic opportunities, especially for young people and rural communities.

Besides ease of access, private sector players in the ICT sector should be challenged to ramp up mobile broadband download speeds to increase the ease of using internet services for both individuals and businesses.

As it is, average speed in Africa stands at 2.7 megabits per second, which is roughly half as fast as the global average. Achieving faster speeds calls for increased investment in the sector if Africa is to make tangible strides in bridging the global digital divide.

In tandem with the expansion in investment, private sector players also ought to be offered incentives to accelerate knowledge and skill transfer to young people especially in poor urban settings and rural areas which have been historically marginalised.

Getting young people in these communities connected is one of the sure ways of driving job creation, thus reducing inequalities in opportunities that historically perpetuate income disparities.

One of the challenges that African countries are still grappling with is the mismatch between training and the job market needs.

Although many young people have access to training opportunities at post-secondary education level, the skills they learn do not adequately prepare them for the world of work, hence the need for industry players to be willing to take on such youths and empower them through on-the-job knowledge and skills transfer.

Again, this calls for government incentives to motivate private companies to invest in training partnerships with vocational training institutions.

As Africa Development Bank (AfDB) President Akinwumi Adesina aptly observed, a knowledgeable and highly skilled workforce will “propel the continent into the fourth industrial revolution”. This thinking has inspired the bank’s campaign to create synergy between governments, private sector players and training institutions to drive innovations that will transform the future of work.

Increasingly, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and Big Data are rapidly changing the way we work, learn and live.

These technologies are themselves evolving every day, hence the need for companies already using them to embrace young people with high potential and walk the transformational journey with them through on-the-job training or sharing knowledge with fellow workers involved in the processes.

This way, the youth will acquire the skills they most need to be productive employees. In turn, not only will they be relevant to the labour market, they will have the incomes that propel them and their families to a higher quality of life.

In the long run, private sector firms will also benefit from the retention of such talent.

As it is, many company executives are having sleepless nights over how to hire the right employees in the rapidly changing world of work. According to a PwC report, 63 percent of CEOs say the availability of key skills is the biggest threat to the growth of their organisations. That means if they were allowed to partner with training institutions, they would be in a position to improve the quality of training and, by extension, get the right fit for the jobs available in their organisations. In turn, the increase of well-paid jobs can attract more Kenyan talents into the ICT sector, thus making a virtuous circle.

And that is where governments come in to create the policy framework that would make such synergy possible and beneficial for all. A good example is the long-term partnership between ICTA and Huawei in providing ICT skills, as well as infrastructure and IT services, which successfully leverages the resources of a global ICT leader to nourish local capacity in Kenya.

Our world today is increasingly waking up to the reality that the days of blanket training, especially in the area of technology, are rapidly fading, hence the need for innovation even in the design of training modules.

With the right synergies, a vibrant workforce and the right digital infrastructure, there is nothing to stop Africa from giving its young people the tools they need to play a more meaningful role in the global ICT value chain.

Mr Mbugua is a Partner and Head of Content at House of Romford. [email protected]

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