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Africa: a youthful continent with immense potential

Chris Norton, Regional Director – Africa, Veeam, explains how a focus on education and ICT infrastructure would go a long way towards making the continent and its young population more competitive on the global scale.

Africa is a vibrant, diverse and innovative continent. According to the Brookings Institution, a research think-tank based in the US, Africa is underestimated and misunderstood but holds immense potential to contribute positively to the global economy and drive prosperity for its people.

As Africans, we must agree we are often misrepresented by regions that don’t understand our diverse culture and local nuances, but we cannot neglect the incredible innovation and development throughout the continent.

Africa has the youngest population in the world meaning that the continent has the dynamism and energy to become a substantial force as the future workforce comes of age. However, there is a degree of urgency to unlock this potential because other regions, both to the East and the West, are hurtling ahead with technological advancements that not only provide more convenience for consumers on those shores, but it also gives their businesses a competitive edge.

It is certainly possible for Africa to become more competitive internationally and help generate jobs, especially for the youth, but at the very minimum, it requires a focus on education (and skills) and, broad information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure rollout, supported by governments and driven by an entrepreneurial private sector.

The world is undergoing a rapid evolution with mass uptake of cloud computing and its ability to harness Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, automation, and more. Digital Transformation is no longer a concept but a reality for businesses around the world striving to remain competitive and differentiate their products and services. The Veeam Data Protection Report 2021 found that 96% of organisations around the world are accelerating cloud usage.

The risk for Africa is that it gets left further behind. The report also found that 88% of organisations in Africa said that after disruptions from the global pandemic, their Digital Transformation projects were either delayed or obstructed by a reliance on legacy systems (46%) and very importantly, and a shortage of IT skills (38%).

Even in African regions that are more technologically advanced, such as South Africa, a lack of skills puts the brakes on what could be possible and results in a greater “digital divide”.

Many companies in South Africa are mature from an IT perspective but because the hunt for skills is so competitive, with far fewer available skills than there is demand for, often these companies just cannot find the people to build the complex infrastructures they need to take full advantage of cloud computing. This is compounded by countries abroad valuing the skills and costs of local talent, meaning the “brain drain” to other shores exacerbates the challenge.

Beyond skills, experience on the ground in Africa reveals that infrastructure provides another obstacle to Digital Transformation. Assuming they do find the skills or employ the services of third-party vendors – many of which on the continent are well-versed and skilled not only in IT matters but also in the nuances of doing business on the continent – many companies, across various countries, simply cannot build the types of ecosystems they need to be globally competitive because there isn’t sufficient fixed infrastructure and connectivity to support this.

It is prudent to point out that obstacles in Africa don’t mean the end of the road. This is an innovative and dynamic continent and companies will often develop solutions that leapfrog generations of technology – an example is the FinTech industry, where Africans led the charge to financially include millions of people, who went from nothing to transacting with an e-wallet. This doesn’t ordinarily happen in developed markets.

However, this innovation can only take the continent so far from a Digital Transformation perspective. So, what can the continent do?

There needs to be a concerted effort to roll out ICT infrastructure on the continent. This requires buy-in and the lobbying of governments and regulators. The rollout can be expedited with strategic public-private partnerships.

A study published in the IIMB Management Review Journal 2018 called “ICT infrastructure and economic growth: A causality evinced by cross-country panel data”, based on information gathered from G-20 nations, found that to stimulate economic growth, a country needs to upgrade and roll out ICT infrastructure with a focus on broadband adoption.

In parallel to a broad investment in ICT infrastructure, education must be prioritised. Education is the bedrock of skills development and futureproofing the nation. All efforts to lobby for broader inclusion should be supported and applauded, especially in South Africa’s context of institutionalised unequal access to quality education. Many businesses already offer internships and other skills-building initiatives and these are crucial in securing future workers for the industry.

Upskilling within IT departments also has a key role to play in ensuring there are enough skills on the continent. As an industry, every one of us needs to continually learn – both formally and informally. Businesses would do well to incentivise skills development and this is the reason companies such as Veeam invest so much time in career development of its employees with vast internal training programmes but also as a 100% channel business there is a dedicated effort on ongoing partner training. Skills are the currency of IT.

Ebene Cybercity in Mauritius is a useful case study. Originally designed to attract ICT companies, it now houses financial services, consulting firms and others from several countries. Every plot of land has been utilised and its 45 office blocks provide jobs for 30,000 people.

In Cybercity, there is a well-educated Mauritian population that is employable and affordable compared to developed markets, they speak at least three languages, including French, Creole and English, and undersea fibre cables bring fast broadband infrastructure to the precinct. Each of these businesses, whether they are call centres or financial services firms, require further IT investment in the shape of cloud data management, data backup, security and more.

This is an African example of economic growth and job creation driven by education, ICT infrastructure rollout and helped in no small measure by economic and political stability underpinned by reliable energy. Imagining Ebene Cybercity being magnified hundreds of times across the continent paints a picture of the potential this youthful continent has, waiting to be unleashed. All stakeholders pulling in the same direction can make this a reality.

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