• Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Bridging the digital divide in Africa: How technology and education can empower the next generation

Project management skills equip women with versatile toolkit – PMI

Digital literacy should start at school like the three Rs — reading, “riting” and “rithmetic”.

Digital literacy is the ability to use, create, and communicate with digital technologies and media. It’s an imperative in Africa because it can enable better education, innovation, and economic growth. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 230 million jobs will require digital skills by 2030, according to the Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa report that IFC recently published.

Africa controls 70% of the world’s $1-trillion mobile money market, which lulls 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.

The success of mobile money and the resultant rise of African techpreneurs has spurred the technology investment scene on the continent. 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. However, urgent action is still very much required – as the African continent needs a smarter approach to addressing data illiteracy and digital skills shortages.

The information explosion we have today is something we have never seen before. Data is all around us, and it is playing a vital, ever-growing role in our lives and livelihoods – even when we do not always realise it. Connectivity is enriching the human experience, but only for those who are connected.

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 have 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, without acknowledging the gulf between people with digital skills and those without. The new work opportunities that technology is creating need 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.

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!

Policies to promote digital literacy in Africa are important to address the challenges of digital divide on the continent. Nigeria’s National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy is a good example of a policy that seeks to drive digital literacy and make Nigeria a global outsourcing destination for digital jobs. The strategy emphasises the need to partner with relevant institutions to promote globally competitive training that focuses on digital technologies. A practical example is Nigeria’s collaboration with IBM.

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.

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 coordinating mechanisms are needed to improve interaction and collaboration across government, educational institutes, training providers and businesses.

Citizen development is one of the strategies to improve 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 skill 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 code and participate in the digital economy is squandering the best opportunity in decades to close the digital divide.

George Asamani is the Managing Director: Sub-Saharan Africa at Project Management Institute.