/ 9 June 2020

Four ways African governments can bridge digital skills gap needed for post-Covid economic recovery

Kagiso Trust is helping South Africans prepare for the fourth industrial revolution
The technology has huge implications for the country and the world. Experts say if South Africa fails to prepare, it will be preparing to fail. Graphic: John McCann/M&G


According to the World Bank, 83% of global population growth between 2015 and 2100 is expected to come from Africa. In other words, by 2100, one in three people on the planet will live in Africa. We expect the demand for everything, from resources and land to adequate healthcare, to increase exponentially. 

In a post-Covid-19 world, it will be more urgent than ever to find intelligent, data-driven solutions to the most pressing problems. Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and big data are fast-tracking the digital transformation in numerous sectors across the continent. But governments and educators must first teach people to be lifelong learners, and they will need to find new ways to boost, recognise and assess the skills people acquire.

Emerging technologies will inevitably change the nature of jobs. Developing digital and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills are critical to unlock opportunities. As one of the youngest populations in the world — more than 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 25 — it is essential that adequate investments in education are made to equip the new generation of Africans joining the workforce with the right skills. 

As per the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index from 2017, employers across the region already identify inadequately skilled workforces as a major constraint to their businesses, including 41% of all firms in Tanzania, 30% in Kenya, 9% in South Africa and 6% in Nigeria. 

Recognition of non-traditional certification programmes

Higher education is not accessible to all. But quality online learning resources could enable people to acquire certain digital skills. Governments need to look for opportunities to formalise non-conventional learning pathways. 

Platforms such as Data Science Nigeria, Zindi, Blockgeeks and others make hands-on learning possible, irrespective of where in Africa you are. They also allow students and practitioners to showcase their skills and job readiness with prospective employers. 

Formalising these non-traditional certification programmes becomes an urgent task when you consider that, despite the plethora of data available to solve the continent’s issues, very few African tertiary institutions offer degrees in data science or machine learning. 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has an example for African countries to learn from. Developed in co-operation with the Dubai Future Foundation, the Smart City University is a blockchain-powered decentralised learning platform that supports the development of digital skills. It aims to increase the percentage of digitally skilled talent in the UAE by sidestepping traditional institutions. Individuals can create personalised educational paths, including hands-on work projects, relevant reading materials, conferences and in-person or online workshops that have digital certifications. 

Investment in calculus skills 

Universities are not producing enough STEM graduates to fulfil future job needs. While there is a greater number of these graduates worldwide than ever before, STEM jobs remain unfilled. 

Milena Marinova, who leads the AI Products and Solutions Group for Pearson, points to one key gap in the STEM pipeline: calculus. 

“For thousands of students, calculus is a frustrating barrier to a STEM career. Roughly one-third of students fail or drop the course out of frustration. According to the National Institutes of Science, women are 1.5 times more likely to drop calculus, simply from a lack of confidence rather than ability. Yet nearly every STEM job requires at least one semester of it,” says Marinova.

The solution isn’t simple, but the use of advanced artificial intelligence can change the way people learn difficult subjects like calculus.  

Marinova formed a team of engineers, data scientists, and learning specialists to understand how artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to solve intractable learning difficulties. The result was the world’s first AI enabled mobile calculus tutor: Aida Calculus. It was built to give students instant step by step feedback and guide them to a solution through personalised hints, interactive and relatable explainer videos, and worked-out similar examples. 

Over time, Aida learns what approaches work best for each student. Not only is this a tool that African universities can use to supplement and scale personalised learning and feedback, it can be an effective way to bolster the skills of a STEM workforce.

Storytelling to teach youth about new technologies

The next generation of Africans can be inspired to work with emerging technologies through storytelling. One such example is a collaboration between graphic novelist and storyteller Chief Nyamweya of Kenya and blockchain educator and investor Anne Connelly of Canada. Trust is a graphic novel that shares the story of a young Kenyan woman who learns about blockchain and uses it to transform the world around her. 

“The goal of the book is to introduce youth to the technology and link them to further resources where they can get education and training. Our goal is to reach over one million African youth,” Connelly says. 

The book will cover the basics but will also link to online blogs and other learning resources as they are partnering with tech and education networks across the continent to increase the reach. 

Future-ready curricula

The World Economic Forum’s paper on the Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa highlighted the importance for African educators to design future-ready curricula that accelerate the acquisition of digital and STEM skills to match the way people will work. Riaan Bothma is involved in research in Sub-Saharan Africa to address future skills development related to the 4IR and he agrees. 

“While there is no shortage of talent in innovation, the digital divide perpetuates the disconnect between technology, entrepreneurs and the skilled workers required to run a technology business. Having a degree is not essential for work at modern companies anymore. Tertiary institutions need to re-design themselves to prepare the youth of Sub-Saharan Africa for the disruptive potential of Industry 4.0 and to remain relevant in the disruption,” says Bothma

There is an opportunity for the private sector to lean in and help educators design comprehensive curricula essential for tech job-ready skills. In March this year, Zindi ran the first ever pan-African, inter-university hackathon (UmojaHackAfrica) which brought more than 1 000 students from over 70 universities in Africa together on the Zindi platform to compete across a range of machine learning challenges. 

The deployment of private-academia collaborative models — to enhance universities’ traditional coursework with real-world data science problem-solving for real clients in the market — is invaluable. In a post-Covid world, where learning will likely be increasingly distributed and online, partnerships like these will become more and more important.

There is also an opportunity for traditional educational institutions to take advantage of open-source materials. For example, The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution draws on the Forum’s global platform for interaction, insight and effect to develop and share open-source frameworks and content on emerging technologies. 

In April 2020, the Forum published a Blockchain Deployment Toolkit, which enables readers to get access to global best practices. The 14 modules cover some of the most important topics for well-thought-out blockchain deployment and are an example of a resource available to educators.

Nadia Hewett is the blockchain project lead at the World Economic Forum