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Africa Powering Digital Transformation

GBSN and its first corporate member, Ecobank Academy, convened the Talent for Africa virtual forum, which was born out of the belief that no sector—business, government, education, or non-profit— can make meaningful progress alone, especially in a such an incredibly diverse, complex, and dynamic environment as Africa.

Indeed, we view collaboration between the sectors as absolutely necessary to achieve the future that Africa wants. The space between the sectors holds the greatest potential for innovative solutions. The forum highlighted the monumental importance of leadership, management, and entrepreneurship across sectors and across the continent. Sessions aimed to explore the challenges of building education and development capacity and aligning it with the needs of a rapidly changing continent.

Digital transformation plays a central role in the sustainable development of Africa. Yet the continent does not yet have the tech talent to enable this transformation. How do we develop the skills to support the needed investment? How can business, academia, government, and civil society work together to create an environment that unlocks the full potential of Africa’s aspiring entrepreneurs? Can business schools and universities take the lead in connecting diverse talent needed to accelerate innovation? The fifth and final session in the Talent for Africa series aimed to answer these questions.

One final time, we remind our audience that collaboration between sectors such non-profit, academic, and government is absolutely necessary to achieve Agenda 2063 and ultimately serve Africa’s wants and needs. This week, GBSN’s Rob Vember was joined by Thunderbird School of Management’s Director for Africa, Philip Thigo; Kizito Okechukwu, Board VP and Interim President for Digital Africa; and Meriem Zairi, Senior Managing Director for SEAF.

“Policy should be agile in incorporating innovation and technology into new country capabilities. Technology extends beyond how we live and work…technology is structured around the linearity of each country’s success, power, energy, etc.” 

From the perspective of working with students, how we can overcome a broken system?  Kizito noted that the challenge on the continent is that 80% of the labor force is between the ages of 15 and 25 years old and don’t have the required skills to meet the market demands.  The response is how we build the scales to meet the millions of jobs with the millions of potential employers.  Policymakers and governments must realize that this is a big project, and schools/universities are great tools to overcome the skill gaps, they just need to think differently.  

From the private equity perspective, Meriem notes everyone knows that education and talent are the two key pillars, but talent is difficult to attract and retain.  Africa has that talent and is continuing to produce talent.  Philip agreed with Meriem and noted how Thunderbird is attempting to disrupt the market with a new model of education.  The continent of Africa is a largely informal economy, with a huge talent potential from young people and from women.  The current frame of education is not working. Innovation must be encouraged.

How can we accelerate learning and new collaborative learning initiatives? 

It feels we are running out of time to foster creativity and develop growth.  Philip notes how policies need to evolve.  Yes, it is important to look into the future, but it is just as important to be realistic in creating environments that work for Africa.  In the classroom, schools are working on homegrown solutions to develop and harness young talent, all due to the hard work of the faculty and lecturers.

This session had an engaged audience. One participant noted how old fashioned methods of teaching, such as the radio, might be innovative tools for teaching.  Child labor is still a huge problem in Africa, as is the fact that nearly 300 million people live 50 km or more from any internet broadband or connection because many Africans work on small farms and in agriculture.  We can’t keep on with old ways, we must be innovative.  Meriem agreed and discussed her work with agriculture technology.  One of her entrepreneurs has developed a method for using satellite images to improve water, fertilizer and overall profitability for local farmers in the community.  This is just one example of using limited infrastructure to innovate and identify productivity pools.  Additionally, Kizito works in South Africa, a country that is struggling with internet access, and is having electricity shutdowns in order to disseminate equally. Kitzito notes that infrastructure is critical to startup and developments and remains a challenge but also another source for innovation.  Thunderbird is training students in a global consulting lab experiential learning program to help SMEs overcome some of these obstacles.

In education, we need to embrace change. We cannot just focus on what we teach, but how we must look at how we teach, that includes building digital skills and fostering talent, said Kizito.  Agility and the ability to build solutions and utilize imagination is wholly African.  We are resilient, said Thigo.  Meriem closes the discussion with the final statement, innovation is not a “nice to have,” but a “must have.”

As we conclude with the Talent for Africa Forum, we remember that Africa is rising as a global player and is a true beneficiary in the global arena and we are here to celebrate that, as well as help the rest of the world to benefit from it. Thank you for your participation in the Talent for Africa series!