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Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO
Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO

The success of mobile money and the resultant rise of African techpreneurs has spurred the technology investment scene on the continent. At the recent US-Africa Business Forum US President Joe Biden announced the Digital Transformation With Africa initiative, which will invest $350m to expand digital access and literacy in Africa. During the last decade the promise of Africa’s $180bn digital economy started an undersea cable race among Silicon Valley giants to build the region’s internet infrastructure.  

Africa controls 70% of the world’s $1-trillion mobile money market, a fact that lull you into believing the continent is a land of digital abundance. Being Pollyanna about the explosive growth in mobile payments masks the full magnitude of the digital divide. For instance, compared with other regions in the world Sub-Saharan Africa still has the highest monthly cost, as a percentage of GDP, for one gigabyte of data.

According to the 2021 Ibrahim Forum Report, 82% of pupils in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to the internet and 89% to household computers. At least 20-million people live in areas not covered by a mobile network. Moreover, wide gender disparities in ownership of and access to digital devices has left many girls behind. Also, only 50% of countries have computer skills as part of their school curriculum, compared with 85% globally.

Although increased internet access and related infrastructure profoundly affect the continent, they are only partial solutions to narrowing the digital divide. People often limit the divide to access and devices. But it also refers to the gulf between people who have access to digital skills and those who don’t. The new work opportunities that technology is creating needs people to be digitally literate, with more than just the ability to use the internet. These include skills in data analytics, app development and network management. 

Digital literacy should start at school like the three Rs — reading, “riting” and “rithmetic”. However, policymakers have primarily focused on delivering visible results: affordable internet, with little influence on strategies to address skill development. Outside of Kenya, where coding was introduced in primary and secondary schools last year, curricula at best address basic computer literacy — the ability to use a computer.

Policies now, please

Part of the failure to turn fast internet into the next Flutterwave (the Nigerian fintech company) sits with policymakers, who missed the opportunity to invest in skills alongside the quest for coverage. With technology evolving rapidly, students and workers need access to flexible and affordable reskilling pathways to transition into new digital careers. Universities must also look at how they can deliver a talent bench to take up these jobs. 

The Project Management Institute, a non-profit organisation, has been advocating to make it easier for students to access skills development opportunities over the internet. It offers free citizen development courses to interested universities in Africa. But co-ordinating mechanisms are needed to improve interaction and collaboration across government, educational institutes, training providers and business.

Citizen development is one of the strategies to address digital literacy. Citizen developers create software and applications with little or no coding experience and will be central to digital transformation in the future.

If we continue to ignore technological progress and the accelerating rate of new skills sets required, we will produce a workforce unfit for the 230-million jobs requiring digital skills by 2030 (IFC 2019 Digital Skills Report). 

As we face the fourth industrial revolution, improving access at the expense of the ability to participate in the digital economy is squandering the best opportunity in decades to close the digital divide. 

Asamani is MD: Sub-Saharan Africa at the Project Management Institute.

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