Health and Healthcare Systems

4 ways African governments can bridge the digital skills gap for a post-COVID economic recovery

An employee of tech start-up Sendy, which offers online logistics services, works on her computer at their office in Nairobi, Kenya, October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner - RC1FE1B5F060

An employee of tech start-up Sendy, which offers online logistics services, works on her computer at their office in Nairobi, Kenya Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Nadia Hewett
Project Lead, Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology, World Economic Forum
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The Great Reset

  • In a post COVID-19 world, it will be more urgent than ever to find intelligent, data-driven solutions to the most pressing problems in Africa.
  • Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies, like Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and big data are fast-tracking the digital transformation in numerous sectors across the continent.

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, 1 in 3 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. As African governments battle the immediate response to the coronavirus crisis, there is a parallel focus on the future and what an economic recovery will look like.

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The potential benefits of digitalization for various industries are more and more evident. Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies, like 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 incentivize, recognize and assess the skills that people acquire along the way.

While emerging technologies have the potential to be a much-needed response to some of Africa’s issues, they inevitably will 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.

Ministries of Education need to re-think how skills can be obtained. Governments and communities need to take a fresh look at how they develop emerging technology skills and knowledge. Here are some ideas African governments could explore:

1. 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 formalize 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 show-case their skills and job readiness with prospective employers.

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

Key milestones for learning content delivery via free ebook download, online live classes, YouTube-based self-paced learning and the unique online-to-offline content USB to address the challenge of lack of internet in many parts of Africa. Image: Data Science Nigeria (DSN)

The United Arab Emirates has an example for African countries to learn from. Developed in cooperation with the Dubai Future Foundation, the Smart City University is a blockchain-powered decentralized 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 personalized educational paths, including hands-on work projects, relevant reading materials, conferences, and in-person or online workshops that have digital certifications.

2. Investment in calculus skills can be a game changer

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

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.”

Milena Marinova, Pearson

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 AI could be used to solve intractable learning challenges. 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 personalized 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 personalized learning and feedback, it can be an effective way to bolster the skills of a STEM workforce.

3. Using the culture of storytelling to teach youth about the latest technologies

Another means is to inspire the next generation of Africans to build with emerging technologies through using the culture of 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 1 million African youth,” Anne Connelly explains. 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.

4. 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.”

Riaan Bothma

There is an opportunity for the private sector to lean in and help educators design comprehensive curricula that is 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 1000 students from over 70 universities across 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.

Africa’s capacity to adapt and exposure to the future of jobs Image: World Economic Forum

There is also an opportunity for traditional educational institutions to take advantage of open-source content available. For example, The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution draws on the Forum’s global platform for interaction, insight, and impact, 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 within blockchain technology deployment. The 14 modules cover some of the most important topics for well-though-out blockchain deployment and is an example of a resource available to educators.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.

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