Building the digital skills of the largest future workforce

By Catherine Cheney 24 May 2016

Programmers at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya. What more is needed to build digital skills in Africa that will be home to the largest workforce in the world by 2050? Photo by: Erik (HASH) Hersman / CC BY

Cornellius Ngondo, an instructor at Moringa School in Nairobi, Kenya, promises to take his programming students on “an amazing journey into the techy and geeky side of life.”

He talks about the languages a computer understands, with Java used to build Android, Python used to build most of Google, and PHP used by “Mark Zuckerberg, in a dorm room, on a diet of pizza and coffee, to make Facebook.”

Despite the rapid growth of digital skills building programs, the demand for programming skills from employers and students still outpaces supply. While students need more than basic coding familiarity to launch billion dollar companies, courses such as these have the potential not only to equip young people with the skills they need to succeed, but also to promote entrepreneurial opportunity and economic growth across the continent. What more is needed to build digital skills on the continent that will be home to the largest workforce in the world by 2050?

The World Bank ICT Innovation Team is working to answer that question by launching a Rapid Tech Skills Training program to test whether bootcamps such as Moringa School are having a real impact on youth employment and economic activity in emerging markets. Kenya is one of three pilot countries for this program that seeks to identify success factors of coding bootcamps, devise toolkits building on those best practices, and inform policymakers of ways they can support the growth of these technology skills trainings.

Can coding become a building block of global education?

Efforts to teach children to code are growing across the world. But despite the momentum and support from various sectors, the global development community can do more to ensure that coding will become a part of basic education.

While local solutions are essential, global companies are showing a growing interest in expanding computer science education in emerging markets, rolling out efforts that are one part philanthropy and another part smart business. Google, for example, recently announced its plans to train 1 million Africans with digital skills in the next year.

“It’s really just a drop in the ocean,” Charles Muritu, country manager for Google in Kenya, said at the recent World Economic Forum on Africa. “We need to be a lot more ambitious. We need to have more companies, more organizations, more governments, joining in this initiative."

Google launched a new online portal Digital Africa and is supporting a youth content agency to host workshops in South Africa Kenya, and Nigeria. Each of these countries already has coding bootcamps in place. In South Africa, there is Harambee, a youth employment accelerator funded by the government and working in partnership with 50 corporate employers across the country. In Kenya, Moringa School offers a 12-week crash course for junior Web developers modeled after courses from the Hack Reactor bootcamp in San Francisco.

Andela, a talent accelerator based in Lagos, Nigeria, takes its own demand driven approach to building top-tier tech talent.

“Our goal is to train 100,000 genius level young people across the continent over the next 10 years, and if and when we do that, it will barely make a dent in the challenges that the U.S. alone is facing in finding technical talent,” Jeremy Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Andela, said at the Emerging Markets Venture Forum hosted by the World Bank last week.

Two trends are converging and creating a global demand for coding education: an increasing share of jobs are held by emerging market professionals and an increasing share of those opportunities are available to those with computer science and technology skills. Johnson said he believes that while the digital revolution began in Silicon Valley, its future will be written across Africa, in cities such as Nairobi, Kenya, widely referred to as Silicon Savannah. The company trains full-stack developers in Africa and and pairs them with employment opportunities at clients such as Microsoft and IBM. But because Andela accepts less than 1 percent of applicants, from a continent where only 1 percent of the 11 million young people who enter the labor market each year have basic coding skills, the company will be the first to admit that more is needed to transform education and bring opportunity to where it is needed most.

The African Development Bank will dive into the details of its new Jobs for Youth in Africa strategy at its annual meetings in Lusaka, Zambia, this week. Launched last week, the strategy aims to create 25 million jobs for youth in Africa over the next 10 years with an ecosystems approach to strengthen human capital, expand employment opportunities, and build labor market linkages. As part of the strategy, an innovation and information lab will assess best practices and incubate the most promising new ideas.

“Programs that forge strong employer relationships and then train individuals to fill known vacancies will be most likely to result in jobs,” Devang Vussonji, who leads Dalberg’s employment and education practice from his base in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, told Devex.

He emphasized that 21st century jobs demand not only digital skills, but also foundational skills syuch as literacy, “soft skills” such as creativity and collaboration, and work-readiness skills such as punctuality. Another area in need of further investment, he said, is training for a cadre of teachers who can spread these skills outside of these bootcamps.

The World Economic Forum on Africa also marked the kick-off of Africa Code Week, an event organized by the software company SAP in partnership with more than 100 local and international organizations from the public and private sector. Critical to the success of the program is the training of teachers and parents, who can participate in train-the-trainer sessions and OpenSAP online courses between now and October 2016, when 30 African countries will participate in the week of coding workshops.

From Silicon Savannah to Silicon Valley, coding bootcamps such as Moringa School are continuing to spring up to bridge the digital skills gap. By working in partnership with Moringa School, iHub Research, and other coding bootcamp providers and research organizations on its project to “decode bootcamps,” the World Bank may help inform new and more ambitious initiatives by the African Development Bank and others.

“The program seeks to lay the foundation for a swift response to boost demand-driven labor market trainings that are necessary to tackle youth unemployment in today’s fast-changing world,” writes World Bank ICT innovation specialist Cecilia Paradi-Guilford. “Solving developmental challenges by effectively embracing technology has become not just desirable, but inevitable.”

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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