I LOVE this quote from Bill Gates; “Be nice to nerds, because chances are you’ll end up working for on”. It has many truths to it.
As the Knowledge Economy takes hold of the 21st century, young nerds – who were once seen as odd for spending so much time behind their computer screens – are now the popular kids in town. In Africa, there is a growing community of tech-savvy youths who are becoming important entrepreneurs, social innovators and pioneers of human development, and they are quickly being recognised across the world.
These are the young African men and women who are at the forefront of Africa’s digital revolution, and they are becoming incredible role models for the hundreds of millions of ambitious and innovative youth on the continent.
The challenge facing all of us who are passionate about Africa and about technology, is that although sub-Saharan Africa is rapidly expanding its ICT infrastructure, the sustained application of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curricula in the education systems of most countries is remarkably low; and therefore the opportunity for all kids to be cool are insufficient.
According to The World Economic Forum Global Information Technology Report, out of 148 economies, South Africa’s ranking for Science and Maths education is 148 while it ranks 70th in the WEF’s Network Readiness Index, which indicates the country’s performance in terms of leveraging ICT to boost competitiveness and well-being.
Countries across sub-Saharan Africa, except Ghana and Mauritius, are following the same pattern – high infrastructure readiness but low skills within the ICT sector. During the mobile revolution of the nineties, sub-Saharan Africa was focused on digital leapfrogging and developing the supporting infrastructure to close its digital divide. This objective has largely been achieved and is a credit to the continent. However, education and skills development have been drastically left behind.
STEM subjects contain critical and much-needed 21st century skills, and so it’s essential that we help our youth develop them, through quality learning materials, skilled teachers and affordable access to devices that promote digital literacy. The systemic application of world class STEM disciplines is the key toward building the next generation of critical thinkers, problem solvers and innovators that will improve the competitiveness of Africa’s economy through technology and collaboration.
Our focus now must be on creating the skills and enabling the opportunities for our youth. They most certainly have the talent! In fact, Africa is home to some of the brightest young minds I know, and most of the youth I speak to say they want to solve local problems using technology, and they aren’t waiting for someone else to do it for them.
For example an all-female coding team from Uganda who developed an application, Mdex, that uses a compound lens, computer vision and pattern recognition to help diagnose the presence of sickle cells in babies. Every year in Uganda 30,000 babies are born with these deformed cells, and 80% of them don’t make it to the age of five because they aren’t diagnosed and treated.
What our youth need, is access to skills development and opportunities to apply their creative minds. We must, therefore, do everything we can to encourage and incentivise young Africans to pursue skills such as coding. Software development is a global phenomenon and is fast becoming one of the most impactful and important careers around.
As a young coder, Mpondo Ndamase, told me: “We need to show people that technology is not just there for entertainment. We need to use technology to address issues and create life-saving solutions that speak to the communities we come from.”
Coding will also become more important as Africa continues its journey toward a mobile-first and cloud-first continent. Feature phones still dominate the landscape, and SMS-based activities rule mobile usage. But as people start realising the wealth creating and productivity enhancing capabilities of cloud-based solutions and smart devices grow increasingly affordable, programming will emerge as the most important currency and desired skill for our youth.
And they will not just be building mobile or PC apps, but rather entire systems that deliver on the promise of Africa. For example, ZiDi, a cloud-based system developed by MicroClinic Technologies in Kenya monitors service utilisation and consumption of vaccines and all essential drugs, while accurately forecasting the potential demand for over 5,000 health facilities in Kenya.
I’m personally excited to get more of Africa’s Youth passionate about careers in ICT and to raise awareness of its opportunities. The delivery of quality education in Maths and Science remains the challenge, but the desire from students to take these subjects will grow – and that’s half the battle won.
-The writer is general manager of Microsoft Africa Initiatives