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Youth and women at the heart of digital economy – but still a long way to go

Published Feb 14, 2022

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Although aimed at South Africa’s youth, women form a strong focus of an ambitious programme offering digital skills by one of the country’s leading banks in partnership with global tech giant Microsoft and empowering non-profit skills development organisation Afrika Tikkun.

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Women and South African youth are at the heart of the initiative to build a digital economy and society that leaves no one behind. The DigiSkills platform offers five free online short courses and learning tracks covering in-demand training for underserved populations and South Africans affected by the country’s economic woes in the aftermath of COVID-19.

This initiative trained and opened the doors to earning for 1 000 South Africans opportunities by the end of 2021. In the long term, as many as 5 000 will undergo training. Of 1 000 individuals currently registered on the system, more than 60% are women.

Launched against a backdrop of the country’s alarming unemployment, poverty, and inequality challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic, the plan hopes to dent South Africa’s high unemployment rate. In their second quarter of 2021, a record 34.4% rate meant that there were 7.8 million citizens out of work. The most brutally affected were youth and women in poorer and remote areas. At least 2.2 million jobs were lost due to the pandemic.

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“We are mindful that majority of those who have lost their jobs, or those who are unemployed are female. This partnership intends to give equal opportunity and access to all people, irrespective of academic background, gender, race. However, as African countries, the social development partner in this initiative, our bigger focus is to look at inclusion,” said Lillian Barnard, Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft South Africa.

During the launch via a Microsoft Teams webinar, Barnard said that while aimed at youth, this project has a mission to access women consciously. “So what we typically do is not just focus on women or young girls; we want to make sure they benefit. But at the heart of it is to get to the youth of our country, which we know that when you extrapolate to the unemployment statistics, you will find that the majority of unemployed sits within our youth population,” she added.

Barnard said Microsoft has specific programs to ensure that the corporation focuses on women, including an exciting initiative with Tech the Deck in Nigeria, reaching out to women in 54 countries. “So that is very woman-specific. I agree that when we look at particular tech jobs, we will find that it’s still very male-dominated. We need to do more to make sure that we encourage young women to take up tech careers. There needs to be a pivot on women.

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“But I don’t think that every program we do, we should have that because in South Africa, we have a real challenge which we need to make sure that we tackle, and it needs to take a bit more of a holistic broader approach,” she said.

The DigiSkills programme intends to positively impact the skills narrative by helping those who need it most by providing five learning paths that cover critical technical and specialist skills required by businesses today and in the future.

This initiative will draw on each partner’s individual and collective capabilities to provide the support needed to access the training by recruiting potential candidates over 18 with a working grasp of English, economically displaced, underserved, or unemployed.

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They will also provide access to free digital skills learning tracks of their choice through a low bandwidth online learning platform utilizing the Microsoft Community Training Platform. The training comes with optional subsidized industry-recognized Microsoft certifications and exam writing at Nedbank facilities in major cities across South Africa.

They are equipping participants with a blended learning model facilitated through Afrika Tikkun with support mechanisms including peer groups, mentors, and facilitators, shown to meaningfully increase the likelihood of participant success and fast Afrika Tikkun Services Higher engagement rates.

It will also enable livelihood opportunities through career development intervention, including career guidance, job readiness training, and job placement support.

Onyi Nwaneri, CEO of Afrika Tikkun Services, said it is imperative to accelerate investment in digital skills meaningfully and tangibly contribute to building a digital economy. The time to act is to overcome unemployment challenges and harness the positive benefit of engaging in the digital economy on individuals, families, communities, and the country.

While the initiative is open to all, she said an intentional approach focuses on women. “More importantly is that women, and I say it with due respect to our male counterparts, are hustlers by nature. They’ve got families to look after; they’ve got to change the score for themselves. So when we send out the call for people to be part of developmental programs, we find that young women answer that call faster, and we do work with them in that way,” said Nwaneri.

According to Khensani Nobanda, Group Executive for Marketing and Corporate Affairs at Nedbank Group, the Digital skills initiative provides the tools needed to mitigate poverty, unemployment, and inequality by improving employability, enabling livelihood opportunities, and unlocking opportunities to participate in the emerging competitive digital economy.

The program is a focused, intentional and transformational approach to achieving these outcomes and creating shared value. “This speaks to solving social challenges with core business capabilities to drive both social impact and business value,” said Nobanda.

“So for me, it’s also important that we see a lot more women coming into tech, and making sure that tech doesn’t come across as just for you men or young boys. As a bank, a lot of the programs that we do, whether you’re looking at the Youth X platform or you’re looking at the YES initiative, we do try and ensure that at a minimum, we’ve got a good mix of male and female. But also making sure that as young women come into the organization, their career paths in terms of where they can go or what they can achieve are obvious,” she said.

The partnership builds on Microsoft’s Global Skilling Initiative, which has given more than 400 000 people in South Africa access to digital skills like software development, data analysis, and customer service specialization since June last year.

But equipping people with skills for the 21st century does pose another challenge – it means skilled people are in demand. Speaking ahead of the high-level summit between the European Union and the African Union in Brussels on 17-18 February, the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) said that one of the main obstacles to developing a critical mass of Africa-based researchers to conduct cutting-edge and globally competitive research had been the brain-drain.

A lot of thinking has gone into finding ways to halt or slow down the brain drain. One way that is currently perceived globally as providing an effective means to tackle it and lead to favourable outcomes for research and innovation is the identification and development of “Clusters of Excellence” for different thematic areas supporting African transformation.

ARUA noted that a similar indaba to the one next week ran its course five years ago. The need for science collaborations and the strengthening of African universities' research and innovation capacity as priorities in the African-European partnership was mooted. Since then, there have been several positive developments from the European Union, including the launch of the Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs in September 2018, followed by the first AU-EU research and innovation ministers’ meeting held in July 2020.

Dr. Robin Drennan, Director: Research and Innovation at Wits University, said it is vital that Africa, specifically, is engaged in research and innovation to solve its problems with its talent and know-how. “It is equally important that the continent is in touch with the world of research and knowledge growth so that when new inventions come along, we can embrace them and adapt them in tune with our unique own needs and requirements,” he said.

In this context, South African universities must maintain their position as leading research-intensive universities in Africa, training skilled and socially engaged citizens and adding knowledge to our understanding of the world and its changing nature. We at Wits University are constantly speaking with partners, collaborators, and officials, locally and internationally, to bring to bear our capacity for innovation so that we can make a difference in the lives of people in our city, country, and continent.”

Ahead of the summit, the vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, Professor Tawana Kupe, said he would like to see partnerships strengthened and expanded. “We need more science collaboration, and the strengthening of African universities' research and innovation capacity should be part of the priorities of the African-European partnership,” he said.

Through our membership of ARUA, Kupe said the University of Pretoria (UP) supports the development of research clusters at African universities as part of expanding its partnerships with the Guild of European Research-intensive universities.

In a statement coming out of the joint conference hosted on 22nd November 2021, ARUA and the Guild members called on African governments to support the initiative of developing Clusters of Excellence with matching funds. “We said that governments must make support for the Clusters of research excellence initiative and the expansion of the research infrastructure at African universities a priority at the upcoming EU-AU Summit. We also requested national and regional support for the research clusters associated with various universities, a major priority for African governments to be adequately reflected in annual budgets,” he added.

Kupe said vice-chancellors are united in believing that this will be the best way to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and transform Africa.

But there’s still a long road ahead!

Edwin Naidu writes on higher education and gender, and this article has been updated.

Sunday Independent

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