By Gavin Weale Founder and CEO, Digify Africa
Lerato Ndhlovu, 23, grew up in Orange Farm in Gauteng, a township to the south of Johannesburg. Like more and more young South Africans, she has aspirations of building a livelihood for herself in the ever-growing digital economy.
A current participant of Digify Africa’s Digify Pro programme, where ‘high potential, low opportunity’ young people are put through an intense 10 week programme to become employable in digital marketing, she’s now on a path to what has the potential to be a high-earning career. “I did not know that a career in digital marketing existed until like three years ago,’ Lerato says. “I wanted to start a side hustle for myself like an e-commerce store. I wanted something that would help me with financial security, and after building the store I went on to learn about digital marketing whilst sourcing for items and ever since then I've been caught up in the digital marketing world.’
With the increasing digitisation of society and business, and the ability for people everywhere to learn skills online and offer paid services from their laptops, this should be one of the most equitable paths to choose for aspirational youth on the African continent. But there’s one small problem: access to learning digital skills. Access to a computer and more importantly data is either scarce or prohibitively expensive, especially in South Africa.
“I had my first laptop in late 2014 – more like my only laptop – and we're still going strong.” Lerato explains. “I could not use it because there was no wifi around and the only place I could connect to wifi was at the Library which was a long-distance walk. I started using my laptop more in 2016 when I had a smartphone that allowed me to hotspot my laptop. I did not use it much because I did not know what to do with it other than my assignments.”
To those living or working in South Africa, this is a familiar story. A story where access and privilege entrenches opportunity; a vicious cycle that prevents progress for young South Africans with high aspirations but low means.
So how do you equip youth with digital skills when they have such limited access to either a computer or the internet, or both? And in the age of Covid, with many programmes for those who rely on face-to-face training being cancelled or suspended, how can the education sector pivot its delivery model dramatically towards online learning that is accessible for all?
As an organisation trying to help young people use digital skills to get jobs or launch and grow businesses we, like many education or learning organisations, are fighting a battle against the digital divide that mirrors the economic divide in this country. Our first challenge is reaching those who most need the support in the first place: how do you connect with the unconnected?
Much like the advent of the Mxit platform over a decade ago, one of the most compelling and perhaps unlikely solutions is to look at what is in the hands of young people already. More often than not, that means some kind of mobile device, and WhatsApp. ”Within my community, every young adult or youth that I come across has access to a basic smartphone and uses WhatsApp,” Lerato told me recently, when I asked her whether or not she thought learning delivered via WhatsApp would reach people on very low incomes. “The cheapest smartphone from PEP is R400 in cash and on layby, paid within four months, for R100. Youth on a grant of R460 are able to afford one... and low-income earning young adults.”
Love it or loathe it, WhatsApp is the most popular social media platform in South Africa (and in much of the developing world) with 23 million users (over 40% of the population here). By 2026 this number may be closer to 28 or 29 million, meaning more than half of all South Africans would be using WhatsApp.
Although it is designed as a messaging platform, WhatsApp has a surprising versatility in terms of being able to deliver content, interaction and collaboration, to add to its incredible reach and ease of use.
Many organisations around the world have begun to leverage WhatsApp’s potential for social impact in general, and South African organisations have played a leading role. Turn.io, a company founded in Johannesburg, have been pioneers of this, creating the SA government’s Covid information service on Whatsapp, attracting over 1 million users within three days of launching.
They have gone on to help dozens of other impact organisations around the world to get their own WhatsApp services up and running; creating a direct channel for users to access information and support about healthcare, education, and any other number of social issues. They recently launched a global programme called Chat for Impact in partnership with WhatsApp to help and support a group of 10 global impact organisations to accelerate their WhatsApp driven services to advance social justice causes.
But in the field of education in general, some exceptional examples of innovation in delivering learning have emerged in the last year. Nessie the Mathsbot, built by South African agency Triple Eight (on behalf of their client Nestle) has won awards for its role in empowering parents to coach their children to solve maths problems. In Zimbabwe, a 27-year-old “unqualified” teacher called Maxwell Chimedza – who says that he does not know how to use a computer – has been using his Samsung Galaxy phone and WhatsApp to tutor learners to take their A-level exams, yielding 41 A-grade marks from a class of 64.
Similarly, here at Digify Africa, we have been using WhatsApp as part of our digital skills programme delivery since 2018, when we began using groups to manage and interact with some of our learning cohorts.
We had been frustrated at the lack of appropriate online learning platforms for the young people we most wanted to reach - more often than not these platforms fell into the trap of being designed for desktop computers and are built on the assumption that users have a strong and stable internet connection. It’s an obvious point but so easily overlooked: many of the highly successful online learning solutions designed in Europe or America are completely inappropriate and inaccessible for most African youth.
In 2019, I was invited to Facebook’s F8 Hackathon in California, where I got to work with some young developers to build a demo of a WhatsApp service to deliver basic learning around digital skills which could link to job opportunities. Out of the dozens of teams from all over the world who competed at the Hackathon, we were the only ones to build something using WhatsApp. We were received with some raised eyebrows, and even asked a couple of times: “why would you want to use WhatsApp for learning? Why not use Facebook Messenger, which is a much slicker experience?”
The answer, which is harder for those living in developed countries to fathom, is that we have to prioritise accessibility. Developers may have a choice, and will veer towards the sophisticated solution; end-users may not have that choice, when all they have available is a basic smartphone.
Unexpectedly, our demo won second prize at the Hackathon, and got the attention of Facebook themselves. A year later, we partnered with Facebook Africa to build our first full prototype using Facebook content, and then this year we have launched a new version, Naledi.
Naledi is a fully realised learning bot aimed at entrepreneurs across Africa who want to learn how to use free Facebook tools to grow their businesses online. It features engaging content, and an immersive learning experience that includes study groups in a self-paced learning journey that allows the participant to upskill themselves at their convenience, and get help if they are stuck. Naledi offers a practical learning alternative suited to the African context - literally putting the solution into the hands of learners.
It hasn’t been an easy journey to bring Naledi to life, with the main challenge being how you make the experience as fun and interactive as possible. This has taken many months of testing and tinkering, breaking up content into bite-sized chunks, pushing the envelope with WhatsApp’s functionality (like using buttons and emojis), adding interactive elements like moderated support groups, and getting tons of user feedback. Above all, we tried to give the bot its own personality; relatable, co-created, based on one of our young team members, and 100% authentically African.
“The learning experience was entertaining and different,” Lerato told us, after playing around with Naledi. “It felt like I was learning from my friend. Learning about] engagement on Instagram messenger stood out for me... my sis Naledi showed me the light.”
The advent of WhatsApp learning is in its infancy, and the proof of its effectiveness has to go beyond simple engagement levels and encouraging feedback. It needs to allow users to cultivate skills that are genuinely useful and use them to grow a livelihood. From Lerato’s point of view, the early signs are positive. “With the knowledge I have acquired from my sis Naledi,” she says, “I’m hoping to volunteer in a small kasi business and offer my skills and to add the experience in my portfolio… getting me a step closer to being employed.”
This is simple, straightforward innovation using the technology that already exists. WhatsApp is of course a free, global platform. But what we are talking about is a layer built on top, that has been designed and developed in Africa for the local context. And the potential is huge, if we grow the ecosystem of organisations taking this approach and keep learning how to make it as effective as possible.
Linkages between different bots could provide a full spectrum of educational opportunities - from basic education to skills that lead to jobs, or to support entrepreneurs who can’t afford or access one of the many entrepreneurship programmes available. Referrals could be made from skills providers to job brokers and matchers, some of whom – like Harambee in South Africa – are also using WhatsApp as a central tool for their services.
And above all else, the question is whether we can get this solution into the hands of those who most need it.
“WhatsApp within my community has replaced SMS or phone calls, that's how widespread it is,” says Lerato. “It will highly be impactful taking into regard how low data costs are and how easily accessible WhatsApp is.”