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How to Develop Work-Ready Digital Skills in African Youth?

By Guest Writer on November 5, 2020

digital skills youth

Although Kevin has a master’s degree in science and had been teaching ICT to secondary school students in Kenya for over 25 years, he scored just 61% on a digital skills test run by Cenfri.

This test asked participants to research and digitally present a day trip to Nairobi for German tourists and order a pizza through a delivery app. Kevin only used Word in his presentation because he was uncomfortable using PowerPoint or Excel, he failed the pizza task because he neglected to download an app, and he struggled to complete the final questionnaire on his own.

Many participants let their computer batteries run out during the test, and only 56% managed to order a pizza by downloading an app on their smartphones. Cenfri’s test found that, despite assumptions around the tech savviness of Kenyan youth, the country has a dearth of digital skills.

As countries transition to digital economies, we see increasing digitalisation of personal and professional lives, whether it’s using Facebook to buy parrots or Andela to hire remote software developers. It’s no wonder that improving digital literacy and filling digital skills gaps is top of the agenda in many countries, especially in Africa, the youngest and fastest-growing continent where millions of young people are preparing for the future of work.

Caribou Digital and Cenfri have been working on various digital skills and upskilling initiatives in Africa, supported by the Mastercard Foundation. We — Isabelle and Annabel — recently came together to facilitate an online discussion on Youth and Digital Skills for the Future, as part of ODI’s ‘Youth and Digital Technologies in sub-Saharan Africa’ consultation. Incorporating insights from this session, here we share our thoughts on skills gaps for youth in a digital age: What’s happening? What could be done better?

What Are Digital Skills?

While some jobs require advanced digital skills, such as cloud computing and data analytics, everyone needs basic digital skills to thrive and survive in a digital economy. To better understand what types of digital skills are needed, Cenfri has developed the following categorizations:

  • Consumer digital skills are the capabilities that all individuals need to function socially, economically and politically in a digital society: using messaging or social media, making an online purchase, filling in an online application for a passport, navigating a search.
  • Productive digital skills are the skills that individuals require to apply existing digital technologies for productive purposes: selling goods or services via a digital platform, using programs like Excel or Word for business purposes, and online advertising.
  • Developer digital skills are the skills required to develop, customize or modify digital technologies and digital infrastructure: coding, data analytics and data science, creating and applying AI and IoT technology, cyber security, network administration.
  • E-leadership digital skills are the skills required to conceive and execute business models to deliver public or private goods by utilizing digital technologies.

In our ODI session, experts shared their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of digital skills training. Sarah Boateng, Founder of IGEA Enterprises asserted that “how to browse the net safely and navigate spam are simple but crucial skills which need to be taught.

Basic, or consumer digital skills are mostly self taught, but usually require someone, a friend or an agent, to demonstrate what to do and share tips on what to look for and what to avoid.

Muigai Samuel, the ICT Director for Tharaka Nithi County Government in Kenya, added that, above all, the critical skills for young people are “early introduction to basic computing and access to the internet”.

Who Is Filling Digital Skills Gaps?

The training ecosystem is vast, and youth (by some definitions this includes those in their mid-thirties) are being upskilled on digital skills, both online and in person, through many different channels. Schools to universities, private learning institutions to NGOs, and employers to peers — each has a role to play. We touch on insights from a few below.

1. Public Schools

Some schools are now teaching digital skills, with some governments trying to make ICT part of the core curriculum.

  • Rwanda has taken this one step further, introducing “smart classrooms” and the one-laptop per child initiative. 55% of schools have smart classrooms, but lack of electricity has hampered further progress.
  • In 2017 Kenya launched their DigiSchool program, and South Africa and Ghana have made ICT compulsory. But this is not without its challenges.

Cenfri’s recent study on ‘Skills for a Digital Economy’ found that the variability in the quality and supply of ICT teachers, a theoretical rather than practical curriculum, and infrastructure challenges — such as this Ghanaian ICT class with no computers — hamper these initiatives.

Combined with the fact that Africa has the lowest rate of school enrollment and the highest drop-out rate, relying on schools to provide digital skills is beset with problems.

2. EdTech & Private Learning Institutions

Basic numeracy and literacy levels can significantly limit the teaching of digital skills, and EdTech apps are often used to bridge some of these foundational skills gaps. However, despite the use of EdTech doubling in Africa in May, as a response to school closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption is still low.

One study found that just 19 million out of over 450 million children in Africa are using Edtech, and most of these ‘users’ are consuming it by watching TV. Mobile phones are the primary way in which Africans access the Internet, but the cost of data and low smartphone penetration continue to limit meaningful learning.

A number of private learning institutions also provide training on digital skills, from coding academies to training institutes focused on building the next generation of African software engineers.

While the growth of the technical training industry over the last decades has been impressive, these institutions tend to train higher-educated individuals on specific, more advanced digital skills with the ability to train only a small number each year. These institutions also have to grapple with global competition for such talent.

3. Private Sector

Caribou Digital’s research has identified the private sector as a key player in the training landscape. This research specifically looks at the role digital platforms (from e-commerce to ride-hailing) play in filling skills gaps.

While difficult, and expensive, their research reveals that all platforms are making heavy investments in training the small-scale vendors and self-employed individuals who earn a living across their platforms. This investment in training reveals the significant skills gaps that exist within the workforce.

In interviews with HR managers, Cenfri’s research also found a range of private sector players investing in filling skills gaps.

There is a huge gap and students from tertiary institutions struggle to settle in because they lack these essential skills. Organisations take it upon themselves to accelerate and bring such talents up to speed on these skills.” — Head of HR, MNO

4. Peer/Self-Learning

In Kenya, 83% of all employment opportunities are found in the informal sector. Formal education does not readily supply the unique digital skills needed to navigate these jobs. Caribou Digital’s research into how micro-entrepreneurs in Kenya use digital tools for business found that many digital skills were acquired through peer or self-learning.

For example, YouTube videos and online support groups — like Facebook groups for online article writers — on social media platforms are popular modes of skills acquisition.

We Need a Multi-Pronged Approach

The market needs a multi-pronged approach to learning digital skills, firstly to meet the diverse content needs for learning within the four different types of digital skills, and, secondly, to meet the needs of learners from different life situations with different time and money resources.

Given the number of youth who are not in education, training, or formal employment, peer and platform learning is an important resource. During the ODI session, Catherine Fitzgibbon, an independent development consultant working on a project with FSDA, described challenges identified in a project to boost smartphone usage with youth in Kenyan slums, “many youth still want a trainer or facilitator to support them in attaining more nebulous skills such as ‘business’. One comment was that they could not ask questions to the online videos.”

Not Just a Digital Skills Gap

But we shouldn’t just be thinking about digital skills when preparing youth to thrive in the digital age. According to the IFC (2019), roughly 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in a job that doesn’t exist yet. Fundamental to job-readiness is continuous learning — the ability to adapt and evolve.

At Caribou Digital we’ve thought a lot about the range of skills needed for the future of work. In doing so we created a simple ‘Skills for a Digital Age’ framework that outlines a broad set of skills — from digital literacy to financial and soft skills — and a list of suitable and innovative delivery channels that support varying levels of digital access.

This dynamic framework can be used across any demographic, in any country, when thinking about the skills needed to access meaningful and fulfilling work.

How Can We Do Better?

In addition to thinking beyond just digital skills, a range of other actions could help push the needle on digital skills training across the continent.

  • Start early: increase and improve teaching of digital skills from primary school. Primary schools have the most inclusive reach for children, especially girls, to be exposed to and build confidence with digital skills.
  • Adaptive curriculums: build skills for employability, through practical projects, problem solving and presentations. Enabling teachers to introduce new ways of learning the content through “real life” projects can build skills in teamwork, communication and critical thinking.
  • Exposure to digital businesses: industry-linked e-leadership exposure and training opportunities for rising stars with mentorship. The opportunity to be placed in a digitized company to experience how it operates can provide a fast track for youth.
  • Enabling environment: access to devices and the cost of data remain a challenge for young people. Community hubs or access points provide a way for youth to get online and learn digital skills with access to a human facilitator to ask questions or seek support from. Ajira and the Digitrucks are some examples of this.

The future of work is exciting, but, in order to thrive in the digital age, individuals need to be equipped with a variety of skills, not all of which are strictly digital. Many channels exist to teach these skills, but certain limiting factors — access to smartphones, electricity, literacy — can hinder even the best laid upskilling plans.

We hope that by looking at the bigger picture these skills gaps, digital and otherwise, will start to close.

By Annabel Schiff, Caribou Digital, and Isabelle Carboni, Cenfri, and originally published as How do we develop work-ready youth in a digital age?

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One Comment to “How to Develop Work-Ready Digital Skills in African Youth?”

  1. Harrison says:

    Soon there will be a ” digital rush”, due to effects of covid-19. I surely believed this article is really timely. As time has come for everyone to embrace digital work. which can supersede so called white collar jobs. So many thanks for sharing