When I read headlines from the many African centres of industry and commerce, I am struck by how blessed the continent is – not only with natural resources, but with an unparalleled opportunity for growth.

Africa has the fastest growing digital consumer market on the planet and is quick to generate or embrace new technology and digital trends. In terms of economic growth, the GDP of 25 African countries is expected to grow 5% annually between now and 2025.

        Africa's fastest growing economies

Africa also has the fastest growing working population. Over the next 25 years, it is estimated that Africa’s working-age population will double to 1 billion, exceeding that of China and India.

That’s not the only thing that will change: the jobs being done will, too. Of the children entering primary school today, 65% will work in job types that don’t yet exist. But in Africa, only 1% of children are leaving school with the digital skills required to compete in this cut-throat job market.

Africa’s potential is enormous, but only if its young people have the right skills. And because the future (and a significant chunk of the present already) is digital, this is about coding skills.

No longer a ‘nice to have’

Almost everything in our lives depends on technology, but how much time do we devote to thinking about what it constitutes and teaching our children how it works?

The changes I’ve already discussed mean that a skill like coding is no longer a “nice to have” – it’s absolutely essential for anyone wanting to be a part of our now digital economy. US President Barack Obama put it nicely: “In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill. It's a basic skill.”

But it’s one that too many young people, especially in Africa, are lacking. It’s time to change that.

Rwanda: a regional leader

In Africa, companies are scrambling to fill positions with employees who possess the right digital skills. The African Economic Outlook reported that in the youth labour markets of 36 African countries, there is a 54% mismatch between the skills of job seekers and employer requirements.

Lack of skills versus skills mismatching in Africa
Image: African Economic Outlook

Such a gap not only threatens the opportunity for economic growth, but will leave young people jobless and in poverty, and ultimately lead to a negative feedback loop including political instability and social security, as we’re already seeing in other parts of the world.

Rwanda is the perfect illustration of how investing in ICT skills can help a country overcome a traumatic past and emerge as a regional high-tech hub with enormous economic growth and job opportunities needed for its rapidly increasing young population.

The Rwandan government has committed to developing a knowledge-based economy, thereby encouraging the use of ICT as a tool for promoting self-employment, innovation and job creation. The country has distributed 204,000 laptops to 407 schools across the country - making it the third largest deployment in the world under the One Laptop per Child project.

To sustain Rwanda’s impressive transformation and extend its valuable lessons to other African countries, it is vital to invest in initiatives that accelerate digital skills development at various phases of education – from primary to graduate level.

Investing in digital skills

When it comes to big issues like education and poverty, we must all collaborate, with the public and private sector closely working together. Forward-thinking businesses play a vital role in generating strong economies and building an environment that embraces education, technology and innovation. They build the bridge between what students learn in school and the skills that are required in today’s fast-paced business world.

Take the example of Africa Code Week, the largest digital literacy initiative ever organized on the African continent. Through this programme, in 2015 alone, 90,000 young people in 17 countries across the continent were introduced to coding. This year, the target is even more ambitious: 150,000 young people across 30 African countries. Without the network of non-profits, governments and corporations working together, this type of programme would not exist.

What this demonstrates more than anything is that as with other challenges, this one will only be overcome if everyone is on board. As the African proverb says, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

This article is part of our Africa series. You can read more here.

The World Economic Forum on Africa is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda from 11 to 13 May.