Driving the digital workforce of the future in Africa

A group of innovative universities in Sub-Saharan Africa are working on a common problem. How can they bring economic opportunities to the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population? Their solutions to upscale training in digital skills could make all the difference to the continent’s future.

The answer lies in upscaling training in digital skills. In itself, this can contribute to economic development and provide better lives for thousands of young people. Although youth unemployment and under-employment remain at strikingly high levels in Sub-Saharan Africa, the market for digital skills is growing.

An International Finance Corporation report estimated that 230 million jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa will require digital skills by 2030, creating over 650 million training opportunities.

International companies are turning to Africa for digital talent – for example, thousands of software engineers work remotely through online talent marketplaces like Andela.

Within Africa, a growing number of micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises are entrepreneurial in their outlook, many with digital or tech-enabled offerings.

African employers simply won’t be equipped to train the large number of people needed to keep up with business demand and tech opportunities.

Universities and innovation

Instead, universities are stepping up to play a decisive role: bridging the digital gap between employers, teachers and young aspiring entrepreneurs and employees.

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic made much of this possible, by accelerating internet access throughout Africa and equipping students to learn online. As universities innovate, digital skills – and related capabilities like critical thinking – could become the catalyst for broad economic vitality and a wave of African innovation.

One of the forerunners is Botho University, a private institution headquartered in Gaborone, Botswana, with operations in Lesotho, Namibia, Eswatini and Ghana. Botho is Botswana’s largest private tertiary institution, with a stated mission of producing “well-rounded, entrepreneurial and globally employable graduates” and with a wealth of experience in distance learning.

Botho aims to impart a digitally enabled, self-paced, innovative curriculum delivered by digitally skilled staff. As a multi-country university, the school collaborates with the governments it works with to ensure that their offerings are relevant to national priorities.

With concentrations in business, engineering, health, education and sustainable tourism, Botho has also focused on employability – putting in place support structures that help employers and graduates find each other.

Honoris United Universities, the first and largest pan-African private higher education network, comprises 70 campuses and learning centres in 10 African countries. Its programmes focus on employability, with work readiness built into the core curriculum, and a focus on partnerships with businesses. The network also has links to 190 European universities.

Le Wagon, an immersive coding bootcamp based in Paris, expanded into Africa by partnering exclusively with Honoris, making intensive coding courses available across the continent.

In the bootcamps, students develop programming skills; in executive education, they upgrade and refine those skills. The network also has ongoing initiatives to advance employability in South Africa and Tunisia. Its Tunisian presence includes a programme for engaging and supporting female students.

Honoris is currently developing a series of technology hubs with start-up incubators in 15 African countries – a fitting project for a school where many alumni become digital entrepreneurs.

Two other African institutions have developed a presence in this field.

The Kibo School of Technology is an online university based in Nigeria, offering affordable computer and software engineering courses. Kibo’s five-week bootcamp classes include peer learning, mentorships and paid internships. The company is itself a start-up, raising US$2 million in 2022.

Gebeya, headquartered in Ethiopia, is a talent marketplace and training bootcamp launched by the software development network CODERS4AFRICA. It connects digitally skilled African talent to the global employer marketplace.

Students can enrol in software engineering or IT training bootcamps. Graduates and freelancers join the platform, build their skills and search the jobs marketplace for opportunities, leveraging the connections Gebeya has built with employers.

Digital acceleration

As universities introduce more tech programmes, they are also engaging in their own digital transformation.

The International Finance Corporation’s Digital for Tertiary Education Program (D4TEP) has been helping universities develop their own digital acceleration plans. As they apply advanced technology to improve operations and create better student and faculty experiences, they also raise their ability to impart the necessary skills to large numbers of students.

Five key elements are important for any university developing employability-focused talent in digital skills – in Africa or any emerging economy:

• Making employability a first priority, with a strategy for accomplishing this mission.

• Setting up enough organisational support and adequate financial and human resources. The most effective organisational structures involve close coordination between the career centre, alumni relations, entrepreneurship support and admissions, so that data from the entire talent function can be leveraged to continually attract students.

• Promoting employer engagement, with segmentation strategies that tailor student referrals, internship opportunities and other connections to different types of companies.

• Focusing on the quality and relevance of learning. Besides technological skills, the most employable students are those who have training and practice in critical thinking, teamwork and team management and creativity and innovation as well as basic employment readiness.

• Establishing the appropriate management information systems, with key performance indicators for analysis and evaluation, as well as the ability to set goals and targets to track progress over time.

As these programmes grow in scale, they will also become financially more sustainable, and they will develop forms that are unique to Africa. Others will join and these skill-based networks could become a linchpin of growth for the entire continent’s economy.

Alejandro Caballero is a principal education specialist at the International Finance Corporation, where he evaluates investments in private education companies. Zukiswa Mthimunye is an operations officer at the International Finance Corporation, responsible for early stage evaluation of investments in private education companies in Africa.