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Technology to drive innovation and skills into Africa

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Nhlamu Dlomu, KPMG Executive Board Member, Partner, Head of People and Change.
Nhlamu Dlomu, KPMG Executive Board Member, Partner, Head of People and Change.

With a focus on encouraging intra-Africa business and the need to fast-track growth and development, there is no doubt that focus on key areas that form the cornerstone of all economic development is needed. Africa is presented with a number of challenges, and with that, opportunities. However, these opportunities can only be unlocked, if we tackle them systematically and if we focus on the core of what drives an economy – its people, its ability to innovate and thereby its ability to improve growth.

In fact, leading global summits taking place over the next month or two are all steering conversations in this direction. It is about unlocking regional growth in Africa, understanding our demographics and how they can work for us, and developing solid strategies to mitigate the skills gap and drive forth sustainable job creation opportunities – through encouraging innovations and enabling a better Africa.

At the outset, we need to focus on unlocking regional growth, finding ways to work together – across Africa. Some of the key questions that need to be addressed here however, include: what are policy makers currently doing and what can they do better, similarly, what are industries doing and what can they do better?

The answer? Innovation. While this seems like a buzzword, there is certainly potential waiting to be unlocked – our problems and challenges can become our opportunity and with the rate of technology innovation, there is no doubt that growth can be catapulted by new ways of doing things.

Africa has very often done things differently, leapfrogging the banking sector with the advent of online and mobile banking, for example, and using innovation to create growth and opportunities. This is evidence of the power of technology and in the coming years more focus needs to be placed on harnessing the power of what new technologies can offer and, as industry players, finding ways that we can better use it to create opportunities.

Organisations should start thinking now about what the implications of technology are on their own businesses. Core to this is understanding the impact it will have on the workforce. Statistics1 indicate that one of the top 5 labour market shifts that are affecting strategy include the changing workforce, at 43%, driven strongly by workforce technology. The automation of services is a key change that we are, and will continue to, witness. While 39% of employees demonstrate concern about their position becoming obsolete as a result of such technology, it is certainly not necessarily the case.

The second key element of focus across Africa is strategies that we should be looking at to improve job creation. While we know that Africa is rife with unemployment and an under-skilled labour force, there are certainly things we can, and should, be doing now. Job creation in a changing world means encouraging entrepreneurship and as such, this is a key pillar and – as it comes with numerous barriers to entry – it is up to governments and the private sector, alike, to really harness the benefits that good entrepreneurs can offer the economy and for the improvement of the local workforce in Africa.

The question is, what can we be doing immediately to make this change?

The continent is entrepreneur-rich and so, it is no longer about creating more space in an organisation for everyday functions, but rather about creating a platform for entrepreneurship – servicing your organisation with these exact small businesses. This will mean helping these start-ups to formalise their work and create a sustainable business over time. Business incubation and leveraging what bigger business has available to it for the development of entrepreneurs and start-ups is key to such growth. In fact, it is merely about simplifying the process, giving smaller businesses access to technology that enhances their opportunity for success, and coaching them around how to grow their business – however this seems to be one of the major stumbling blocks in Africa.

Research indicates that 80%2 of South African companies, for example, are using contingent, intermittent, seasonal, or consultant employees within their businesses. This indicates a definite shift on the continent and again demonstrates the need for the change in policy. However, this is the challenge – policy is not aligned to achieving such entrepreneurial growth.

With such a young African demographic, we have to ask ourselves, in what way does our demographics give us an advantage. With 59%2 of executives stating that Millennials entering the workforce are impacting workforce strategy, there is no doubt that – as business and government – we need to start thinking about what we should be doing differently to harness this demographic and drive new job opportunities.

As such entrepreneurship also has a pivotal role to play in skills development and workplace equality. If the skills are not available, we need to encouraging self-learning, life-long learning and skills transfer. The easiest way to do this is through technology, as it creates an opportunity to carry skills across boundaries – making them accessible in a particular country.

Proper online, virtual learning needs to be enhanced. Cross-border learning, backed by reputable organisations. Africa needs to create lifelong learning opportunities per country in Africa to truly harness the power of skills transfer and upliftment. In fact, in Africa, there are already examples of this – like the Africa Leadership College and University in Mauritius. We need more organisations like these across Africa – if we are to witness a big jump in skills development and cross-border learning. Furthermore, business funding to create viable joint venture education programmes will go a long way in driving such programmes – where proper skills ironically, is central to business success in Africa.

While the above all lends to the growth and development of the continent, Africa cannot ignore the key basic requirements that all African economies need to address as a pre-requisite to successful innovation and job creation. This includes: the development of robust education, healthcare and infrastructure programmes that will enable innovation to thrive and, secondly, strong cultural shifts with regards to economic participation of women and youth, the improved pace of economic diversification and strong economic and political leadership.

With this said, Africa is rife with opportunity and, despite strong economic headwinds expected into 2017, with a focus on these elements, the continent has a real opportunity to witness the change that is so longingly required – a change in policy, process, culture and the drive towards innovation is at the core of Africa’s opportunities.

By Nhlamu Dlomu

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