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Why skills development is key for digital transformation in Africa

Written by Karishma Banga

The ‘Digital Roadmap’ launched by the Pathways for Prosperity Commission this week correctly emphasises the need to put people at the centre of the digital future by equipping them with foundational skills in literacy and numeracy, digital skills and ‘soft skills’ such as communication, management, analytical thinking and problem-solving. Lack of relevant skills in the digital age can limit opportunities for African countries to make the most of digital technologies and catch up.

The skills the digital economy needs range from the ability to use a mobile phone, the internet and social media to advanced skills in data analytics, app development and network management. Currently, African countries are lagging behind: ITU data suggests that only 2% of Kenyans are using the internet to find and apply for jobs, against a global average of 17%. In Sudan and Zimbabwe, only 4% of adults are able to copy and paste files. Effectively developing these skills in African countries will require a targeted approach, addressing both supply- and demand-side challenges.

Supply challenges

On the supply side, channels of skills development include formal education, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and employer-led training. For out-of-school youth, marginalised sections of society and adult learners, access to digital and soft skills training can be expanded through non-formal TVET provided by government institutes outside the formal education system, non-governmental organisations and civil society, international organisations and the private sector. Experience in South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya shows that, for TVET to be effective, funding needs to go to accredited and flexible courses that are aligned with employers’ needs.

The effective provision of digital and soft skills will require continuous professional development for TVET trainers and resources to meet the relatively high cost of teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and ICT. More investment in digital infrastructure is needed, as are standard-setting bodies to grade digital and soft skills and provide certification that is recognised by employers and higher education institutions.

Links will also need to be developed with the private sector. Some large manufacturers in Kenya, such as automotive firm Megh Industries and Panessar Interiors, a furniture company, provide training on digital machinery. But these are exceptions: according to the World Business Environment Survey (WBES), less than half of firms surveyed across several developing countries offer any formal training to their workers. This will need to change.

Demand challenges

On the demand side, governments can help develop digital skills by fostering a competitive domestic market and putting in place complementary policies on innovation, international cooperation, trade, technology transfer and data, foreign investment and regulatory reform, and building digital capacities. This can generate incentives to innovate and upgrade through technological development, creating demands for skills upgrading in the digital economy.

Government policies to strengthen innovation and knowledge systems can help firms develop marketing strategies, move into more sophisticated products, boost technology uptake and increase implementation and innovation. Integrated skills and labour strategies can support skills upgrading and employment initiatives and develop the infrastructure for training programmes in digital skills.

Collaboration and coordination

Coordinating mechanisms are needed to improve interaction and collaboration across educational and research institutes, training providers and businesses. Examples of these intermediate institutions include industry associations and R&D consortia, makerspaces, hubs and technology parks. Many have their own curricula centred on the future of the workforce, and provide training in robotics, artificial intelligence, digital fabrication, 3D printing and blockchains.

Public–private collaborations can support hubs and makerspaces that are integrated and linked with the rest of the domestic economy. The success of iHub in Kenya and Kumasi Hive in Ghana in driving innovation and skills is well documented. In a digital economy, these intermediaries can also be online platforms linking jobs with available skills.

Policy interventions are also needed to increase women’s access to and enrolment in formal and non-formal TVET, as well as developing gender-sensitive, employer-led training models.

Limited budgets mean that difficult decisions will need to be made. Some countries may choose to reorient secondary and tertiary education towards STEM subjects, while others may focus on inclusivity by fostering basic ICT skills. Another trade-off is between today’s workers – a large percentage of whom lack basic digital and soft skills – and the future labour force, for which early investments in digital and soft skills should be prioritised given the relatively higher returns.

The choices and trade-offs governments make in deciding education policy priorities will ultimately depend on a country’s cultural, political and geographic context. Complementary actions and skills strategies therefore need to be developed at country level to close, or at least reduce, the skills gap in the digital economy. The Digital Roadmap offers important recommendations on this.