It’s a brave new world. The age of big data, AI, and information technology has drastically transformed the global landscape. But have you ever stopped to consider how this shift is affecting Africa? The vast continent is no longer a bystander in the global digital economy. It’s actively participating, innovating, and creating a future brimming with opportunities.
The Rising Digital Economy in Africa
The digital economy will play a critical role as Africa’s surging youth population ages into the workforce and many countries across the continent reduce their dependence on natural resource extraction and agriculture. (Read more about this economic shift in this interview featuring Chris Garland of Botswana.)
The Role of Technology in Job Creation
The power of technology to create jobs is phenomenal. As Africa embraces the digital age, new sectors emerge and, with them, new professions. Fintech, Agritech, Healthtech are just some of the sectors witnessing an unprecedented upsurge of job opportunities. Tech platforms are providing marketplaces for goods and services in each of these industries, directly creating economic opportunities for millions of Africans.
Technology’s Impact on Economic Growth
It’s not just about jobs. Technology plays a crucial role in boosting Africa’s economy as a whole and making the continent more competitive on the world stage. It’s stimulating innovation, increasing productivity, and increasing efficiency across industries and throughout the supply chain.
Farmers in Kenya and Mozambique are using apps to monitor crop growth. Warehouse managers in Johannesburg and Cairo are leveraging digital inventory platforms to keep their supply chains running smoothly while reducing waste. Fintech startups in Cape Town and Lagos take advantage of increasingly powerful AI tools to deliver ever more responsive solutions.
And they’re all hiring right now. Technology is quite literally the future.
The Mechanisms of Building a Digital Workforce
Building a digital workforce isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. It’s a process and a fairly complex one at that. However, the rewards far outweigh the challenges. So how does Africa go about building this digital workforce?
Education and Skill Development
The first step is education and skill development. Tech literacy is a must in the new economy, a skill that’s arguably as important as reading and writing in the new economy. From basic computer skills to advanced coding abilities, basic tech capabilities pave the way for the digital workforce.
Accessibility to Technology
Of course, skills alone aren’t enough. Accessibility to technology is equally important. From affordable internet to readily available devices, breaking down barriers to technology access is a vital step in the journey. That’s why many African countries have already doubled down on large-scale rural broadband efforts, and more follow every year.
The rise of digital entrepreneurship has also contributed immensely to building the digital workforce. Tech startups are not just creating innovative solutions but also generating employment opportunities.
Consider the impact of successful African tech startups like Andela, a remote hiring platform for engineering and software talent, or Jumia, one of the largest online grocery shopping platforms in the developing world. Each supports a workforce of thousands and generates millions of dollars in annual economic activity. And they’re just two of the many success stories to come out of the continent’s tech space in recent years; you don’t have to look too far to find others.
It’s Happening Right Now
Several African countries already stand as a testament to the power of technology in job creation and economic growth. In some ways, they’re ahead of “developed” peers in the Global North.
Look at Rwanda’s flourishing tech sector, which now supports a significant share of the small country’s economic activity barely a generation after a devastating civil war. Or take Kenya’s robust mobile banking system, which pioneered digital payments at a time when most Americans were still using flip phones.
These stories demonstrate that, despite challenges, the digital economy is a viable and lucrative path for African countries with forward-thinking policymakers willing to invest in digital and physical infrastructure — and human capital too.
The Challenges and Potential Solutions
Despite the digital economy’s immense potential in Africa, there are significant challenges to building and supporting a digital workforce. Fortunately, all can be overcome.
Infrastructure and Affordability
One of the biggest hurdles to a full-scale digital transformation in Africa is the lack of reliable and affordable internet across much of the continent. Without it, Africans outside the continent’s most connected cities — Nairobi, Kigali, Pretoria, and so on — could be left behind by the transformation and shut out of the most lucrative opportunities.
The solution is straightforward if time- and capital-intensive. Broadly speaking, a renewed focus on infrastructure development spurred by low-cost international loans must drive innovative solutions like low-cost satellite and mobile internet services in harder-to-reach areas.
Cybersecurity and Data Protection
In the digital age, data is the new gold. But it’s also a double-edged sword. With the increase in digitization, cybersecurity threats have become a harsh reality. Adequate measures to protect data and ensure privacy are non-negotiable.
Governments need to create an environment that fosters innovation within the tech space while safeguarding users’ data and ensuring a safe digital experience for all.
The EU’s landmark GDPR regulation could be a model for individual countries to adopt, but the prospect of a continent-wide standard is slim at the moment simply because there are so many competing national interests involved.
Good Governance Initiatives
Even if a GDPR-like framework is out of reach, governments and NGOs across the continent must continue to press for good governance legislation and work to reduce corruption and graft. After all, the digital economy is part of the broader economy, and the same rules apply to its functioning.
The potential of technology to drive job creation and economic growth in Africa is undeniable. It’s a challenging journey, but one that holds immense promise. And as we watch Africa’s digital workforce grow, we’re not just observing a transformation but a revolution. In 10 years’ time, the continent’s economy could be all but unrecognizable — in a good way. And that’s truly exciting.