Africa’s untapped youth must drive the continent’s Fourth Industrial Revolution

19 April 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Getty Images. Director Nico Badenhuizen. Video MS Teams. Video Edit Aeysha Abrahams. Read time 8 min.
With its massive youth population, Africa has the talent to satisfy the local and global demand for IT skills, digital and post COVID-19. But it must be developed in numbers and fast.

COVID-19 can do for Africa’s information technology sector what Y2K, or the Millennium bug, did for India’s. India used the global crisis, tapping into their vast youth population to train millions of software engineers to combat the problem. Those engineers now run multinational companies around the world. And Africa can do the same in the wake of the pandemic, said Fred Swaniker, the founder and chief executive officer of the African Leadership Group (ALG).

This message underpinned Swaniker’s 13 April lecture, “The Impact of African Youth on the 4th Industrial Revolution”, the first in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) 2022 series of Vice-Chancellor Open Lectures.

The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly scaled up the adoption of digital technologies across the globe, with far-reaching changes as connections went virtual. Zoom went from a nice-to-have to a necessity, said Swaniker. But the move to digital technologies highlighted massive shortages of technology talent, particularly in Africa where economies and government policies were lagging.

“African governments and companies realised that they required software developers, cloud developers and other tech talent to keep their businesses running, and organisations were evolving from physical to completely remote workspaces,” he said.

By the end of the century, Africa will make up 40% of the world’s population yet it has only 2.6% of the world’s software engineers, said Swaniker. With its massive youth population, Africa has the talent to satisfy the local and global demand; but it must be developed in numbers and fast.

New leaders for Africa

One of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2019, Swaniker is on a mission to develop better, skilled leadership for Africa and the world: three million young African leaders by 2035.

 

“Collectively, these endeavours aim to transform Africa by developing three million African leaders by 2035.”

The conduit is the ALG, described as “an ecosystem of organisations that aims to catalyse a new era of ethical, entrepreneurial African leaders for the continent”. Over the past 15 years, Swaniker has founded and led the African Leadership Academy, the African Leadership University, the African Leadership Network and The Room. This is a community of global leaders that unlocks opportunities for “undiscovered” talent, starting in Africa.

“During the pandemic, we started training the software engineering talent, leveraging technology and doing so at a very low cost and very high speed,” he said. “Collectively, these endeavours aim to transform Africa by developing three million African leaders by 2035.”

Africa has the world’s youngest working population (an average age of 19 compared with Germany’s and Japan’s 47 and 48) and is forecast to have the largest workforce by 2035: 1.1 billion people.

“Now the world is the oyster for a young African software engineer. You can be an engineer sitting in Ghana and working for Zara in Spain. You can be sitting in South Africa working for Microsoft in London … You no longer have to leave your country, your home, your village … This is an incredible opportunity for us to export … talent but without the brain drain.”

For the first time in history, jobs without borders are a reality, he said. According to a recent report, about 38% of African software developers already work for companies outside the continent.

“There is a unique opportunity for African youth to power the global workforce.”

And like those Indian IT specialists who left India for jobs abroad, some landing top jobs with Microsoft and Google and other technology companies, they can bring back ideas that will grow the sector and their countries’ economies.

“It’s a very, very exciting time. And it is just waiting for African youth.”

Beyond the classroom

But this opportunity requires new ways of education. The success of ALG’s method is learning beyond the classroom, not only theory but practical skills tackling real-world projects, Swaniker noted.

“For example, the software engineers we’re training build software. They’re not just learning theory; they’re delivering projects and learning on the job. This is how talent should be developed. We have to go beyond the classroom if we’re going to unleash this potential.”

 

“The world needs to know that Africans work hard; that Africans can perform at the highest level.”

Their students undergo 70 to 100 hours a week of training for 12 months, building “real software”.

“This is very difficult, and we make it so intentionally. The world needs to know that Africans work hard; that Africans can perform at the highest level,” he added.

And then finally, students undertake a three-to-six-month specialisation in cybersecurity, product management, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, data science, autonomous driving, or blockchain or cryptocurrency.

“These technological trends are changing all the time. We need to be flexible and agile.”

While these specialisations acted like the branches of a tree, the stability came through the roots and trunk of the tree, he said, in the foundation that is laid first.

Students’ base training starts with a six-month programme of learning leadership skills, critical thinking, communication, project management, working teams and self-development.

“They learn how to lead themselves and manage their emotions. They learn how to analyse data and make decisions,” Swaniker said. “And this is very important, because we don’t want to create engineers who don’t have values or understand ethics or the societal implications of some artificial intelligence that could destroy our society in different ways.”

Connecting to networks

As networks are essential to success, this talent is connected to the world.

“You can’t realise your full potential if you don’t have access to the right networks, someone who can mentor you, who can give you a first internship and invest in you,” Swaniker said. “And, if you’re starting a venture, someone who can open doors and help you find your first customer, who can join you in your organisation as a co-founder.”

 

Here ALG is a key facilitator, “investing heavily” in networks.

“We bring together networks from Africa from around the world. Students learn to invest in relationships, spend time getting to know their peers, and those with social capital, building those relationships, and showing that they’re doers, not just talkers, because Africa has too many talkers and we need more doers.”

Global companies also begun to set up operations in Africa, said Swaniker. For example, Microsoft has announced two development centres, one in Kenya and one in Nigeria, where they are hiring local software engineers to build software products for Microsoft globally.

“There is no other continent that has the talent potential that we do,” he said. “And we cannot lose this opportunity. We are sitting at an historic time, where the world is desperate for exceptional talent. Africa has that large pool of untapped talent. And as the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes place, this could be a moment to take to the global stage and to really create tremendous opportunities and to transform Africa in ways that have never been imagined.”


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The Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture Series

 

The Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture series was established to enable anyone in the community, whether they are connected to the university or not, to have the benefit of hearing first-hand from academics, researchers and innovators from South Africa, but particularly from those around the world, who have distinguished themselves in their areas of expertise.

Attendance to the lectures is free of charge as the series is one of the ways that UCT seeks to give back to the Cape Town community.

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There was no lecture in 2015.

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