CODING THE FUTURE

Readying the youth for the digital economy

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Africa’s large youth population and positive economic growth potential primes the continent to play a leading role in the digital economy. However, successfully navigating the complexities presented by vast amounts of data in today’s hyper-connected world requires excellent science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.

Therefore we urgently need to address the scarcity of STEM skills among our youth, and the place to start would be to look at the new universal language called coding—a language in which every child deserves to be fluent, according to modern techno-belief.

Agreeing with this new notion, is SAP Africa, a market leader in enterprise application software, who last year established two SAP auditoriums in South Africa, the most recent one officially opened by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, at the Cape Town Science Centre. At the heart of these centres will be the introduction of programmes to teach tomorrow’s workforce the language of coding from a very young age.

Meena Confait, Head of the SAP Skills for Africa project, says these centres will be extensively used for various SAP customer and partner interactions, for CSR activities and for the SAP Skills for Africa graduation ceremonies.

An important component of these initiatives is SAP’s Africa Code Week to be hosted in October this year, with the aim of simplifying the face of software coding for the Africa’s youth and readying them for the digital economy.

In defining the digital economy, Confait says it is the convergence of technology trends (such as hyper-connectivity (including internet-connected sensors in appliances, cars, machines, etc), super-computing, cloud computing, mobile devices and social networks to create an intelligent, efficient, responsive, and collaborative environment. This environment enables people and businesses to interact in ways never imagined. The digital economy is reinventing the world economy and promises a dramatic surge in productivity and value—for those ready to embrace it. The digital economy will transform the way we live and work, how business runs, and how society functions—and how they do this in a time frame that is radically shorter than any other major economic transition in history.

According to SAP CEO, Bill McDermott: “There are more than 8 billion computing devices in the world, but only 50 million people who actually know how to program and interact with those devices. Africa Code Week is a significant opportunity to overturn that imbalance. But more than just giving future developers the ability to be technological innovators, we’re giving young people the tools to fulfil their own dreams. If ever a region was ready to seize opportunities, it’s Africa. I believe that Africa has a remarkable young generation and initiatives like Africa Code Week gives us an opportunity to marvel at what the future holds,” he says.

Confait, who joined SAP in 2014 to help develop the skills development programme as part of SAP’s investment in Africa and create a sustainable programme with a view to job creation and the provision of more SAP consultants in the African market, says access to technology, information and data is now limitless.

“In many countries around the world this evolution into the digital age has been embraced and schools and universities have adapted to make it central to how they teach and how they encourage students to learn. But with a developing economy such as South Africa, digital education—technology-fuelled learning—is not accessible for all. What SAP sees is a cavernous gap between the education that young people are receiving and what the employment market needs.”

According to Statistics SA, our unemployment rate is currently sitting at 25.6%. Unemployment is calculated based on active job seekers, thus when including those who have given up on searching, termed discouraged job seekers, the true unemployment figure for South Africa sits closer to 40%. And nearly 50% of this 40% who are unemployed, are between the ages of 14 and 25.

“South Africa is, however, not unique. Youth unemployment in North Africa sits at 30%, and this is even higher in some Sub-Saharan African countries. Zambia’s Finance Minister, Alexander Chikwanda, recently announced that youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb.”

Confait told Achiever in an exclusive interview that skills development on its own is meaningless unless it translates into giving young people a real chance at securing a job. “SAP Skills for Africa is SAP Africa’s skills development and job creation initiative aimed at developing ICT skills in Africa as part of SAP’s global commitment to promoting education and entrepreneurship. With growth and the scarcity of skills on the African continent top of mind, this programme—a first of its kind in the industry in Africa—offers selected students the opportunity to develop world-class IT and business skills, effectively giving them an opportunity to play a role in contributing towards Africa’s future economic growth and infrastructure development.

“Critical to the success of the initiative is the collaboration with SAP customers and partners and SAP is both proud and pleased to be partnering with South African businesses and government. What is really meaningful is that the SAP Skills for Africa initiative is unique in the tech industry on the continent: many companies are investing in worthy skills development with the best intentions, but SAP is doing something unique by linking skills development to job creation through the internships that for the most part result in jobs for talented individuals,” she says.

Comparting Africa to the rest of the planet, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Africa has the largest youth demographic across the globe. Over the next 25 years, it is estimated that the continent’s working-age population will double to one billion, exceeding that of China and India. Compounding the potential problem in relation to this boom in working-age youth, is the lack of education, specifically technology training. It is estimated that less than 1% of African children leave school with basic coding skills, yet Government, the private sector and non-profit companies are unable to fill positions with employees holding this very skill set.

“Worldwide and in Africa, SAP is fighting the digital divide. We want to create an IT-friendly ecosystem in countries where SAP operates and make tangible the high potential of IT in social inclusion. The (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report 2014 – 2015 also positions South Africa last out of 144 countries across the world for the quality of science and mathematics education. This creates a much greater problem for the country as South Africa now greatly lacks scientists and engineers. The WEF report includes a metric for the availability of scientists and engineers, and it ranked South Africa at 102 out of 144 countries worldwide. The Global STEM Paradox, a report issued by The New York Academy of Sciences, reiterated the need, stating that Sub-Saharan Africa needs 2.5 million more engineers to address the continent’s gravest development problems,” according to Confait.

Looking at what needs to be done in the country to boost STEM skills development, she is of the opinion that the private sector and Government need to collaborate. Addressing the parlous state of these basic skills and putting talented South African youths in the position to play in the global market when it comes to finding a job one day, is also critical.

“As market leaders, SAP Africa takes the role it’s playing in helping with this effort very seriously. There needs to be closer collaboration between Government and the private sector to take a joint responsibility to develop more of these skills. We are seeing great examples of this starting to happen, but we need to do more and on a larger scale. SAP Africa recognises that skills development with a view to concrete job creation is one of the best ways to deal with skills shortages facing the technology industry, and to help address South Africa’s chronic youth unemployment issue.

“Digitisation is fostering huge economic growth worldwide, creating six million jobs in 2011 alone. As a result, computer literacy has become a significant driver in establishing future generations in the workplace,” she believes.

Although much still need to be done when it comes to STEM skills development, there are pockets of excellence being created through the SAP Skills for Africa programme in South Africa (and elsewhere across the continent) where organisations such as the City of Johannesburg and the Gauteng Provincial Government have seen the need to invest in ICT skills and work more closely with organisations to leverage the right skills and more proactively meet the needs of their customers.

SAP is also providing world-class technology in many of South Africa’s cities to help Government provide better services to the citizens. The Media, Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education and Training Authority (MICT SETA) has also played a key role in enabling the SAP Skills for Africa initiative in South Africa by contributing funds. STEM skills development will most certainly have a positive effect on the country’s bottom line as, contrary to belief, the IT industry is one of the few that is still generating jobs.

“In order to improve the situation and contribute to skills development, captains of business need to step up and play their part alongside business and many are doing so,” says Confait. “The solution therefore requires a more integrated approach to education, involving Government and schools, supported and substantiated by parents, communities and community based organisations. Research shows when communities, parents and schools work together to support learning, students perform better academically and stay in school longer.”

According to the latest research, by 2020, 80% of all future jobs will be STEM related, with almost double the pay of non-STEM related careers. That’s only four years away, meaning that the importance of channelling our youth in the direction of STEM, and the importance of promoting STEM among our youth, have been receiving more attention lately. This is a topic close to SAPs heart. And Confait says it’s not just about doing the right thing; it makes solid business sense too.

“SAP is committed to driving business in Africa with the ultimate objective of improving people’s lives through deployment of industry specific solutions in mainly the public sector, energy and natural resources, telco’s and infrastructure. This commitment is backed by a significant investment plan up to 2020. To demonstrate how important the topic of STEM education is, a key component of this plan is the training of many new consultants in Africa. With the right training, these skilled people, in the main economic hubs of Africa, will be in a position to enable governments and the private sector to improve the way they do business across the continent and ultimately the world.”

But if the need for STEM skills development is this huge, and with only four years to go, one might wonder if it’s not optimistic to think that we can play catch-up in such a relative short period of time and actually start doing something about this burning 21st century issue.

Although there has been a lot of emphasis lately on solving African problems, we need to find African solutions. We also cannot ignore the amazing success stories around the globe. In the digital economy space, according to the Digital Evolution Index (DEI), created by the Fletcher School at Tufts University, developing countries in Asia and Latin America are leading in momentum, reflecting their overall economic gains. But analysis revealed other interesting patterns.

“Take, for example, Singapore and The Netherlands. Both are among the top 10 countries in present levels of digital evolution. But when we consider the momentum, such as the five-year rate of change from 2008 to 2013, the two countries are far apart. Singapore has been steadily advancing in developing a world-class digital infrastructure, through public-private partnerships, to further entrench its status as a regional communications hub. Through ongoing investment, it remains an attractive destination for start-ups and for private equity and venture capital. The Netherlands, meanwhile, has been rapidly losing steam.

“The Dutch government’s austerity measures, which started in late 2010, reduced investment into elements of the digital ecosystem. It’s stagnant, and at times slipping, consumer demand led investors to seek greener pastures. Emerging economies will continue to evolve differently, as will their newly online consumers. Businesses will have to innovate by customising their approaches to this multi-speed planet, and in working around institutional and infrastructural constraints, particularly in markets that are home to the next billion online consumers.

What is key is that, while we may all be on a digital journey globally, we are all traveling at different speeds,” Confait concludes.

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