Op-Ed: Entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa on how Africa can benefit from a defining moment in the Digital Age

By Strive Masiyiwa*

How best can governments, business, and civil society ensure the extraordinary power of digital technologies is marshaled to grow prosperous economies that uplifts lives for all citizens? And how can they avoid what some fear will be socio-economic catastrophe due in part to automation replacing jobs currently done by human beings?

This is the pressing global challenge that inspired the launch of the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development, which I co-chair with Melinda Gates and Hon Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s Minister of Finance. 

As an entrepreneur who has founded several technology companies over the past two decades, I can say from experience that whilst the digital age undeniably presents new challenges, it also offers amazing new tools for both nations and citizens to create new wealth in new ways. For instance, innovations in areas such as healthtech and edutech show great potential to bridge divides of opportunity and equality that have plagued the world since time began.

It is at this defining moment in the “early” digital age (because we’ve only just begun) that the Pathways for Prosperity Commission released The Digital Manifesto, a 10 step guide for developing countries – based on its final report The Digital Roadmap– at our final Commission meeting recently held in Nairobi. Based at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, the Commission’s work was led by a global team of experts who spent two years carrying out extensive research, engagement and analysis. Their findings were not doom-saying but cautiously optimistic:

The future wealth and health of all the world’s 7.7bn+ citizens demands urgent people-centered policymaking, visionary action and country-level collaboration, especially in developing nations where populations tend to be younger and unemployment is already a crisis. It is here that the stakes are highest, but in my view, also where the opportunities of the digital age can be the greatest – if the right decisions are made without delay by leaders across all sectors.

That digital technology is rapidly transforming the world is well known by now. “But for better or worse?” is what people increasingly ask. The Digital Roadmap and The Digital Manifesto highlight several key priorities, all focused on ensuring the answer is: “For the better”. 

I will only mention one of the Commission’s final recommendations, one that is close to my heart and where our companies have launched some social ventures over the years. This is the critical importance of equipping people of all ages and walks of life with 21st century skills, both through online courses but also changing national educational curricula urgently to ensure our schools teach both the digital skills and the soft skills that the world needs, and automation can never replace. We have to ensure that education both for young people and those who need upskilling and reskilling is available, affordable, inclusive and focused on jobs of the future.

The young people I know are especially ready and eager to seize the opportunities of the digital age. Our role is to not to give them hand-outs but rather the tools and opportunity to learn, so they can invent new and better tools for future generations. This is something that they are already doing! This is how best to build pathways for prosperity that include everyone.

I know this firsthand because every week for the past six years I have written a Facebook blog post which now reaches 4m+ young entrepreneurs across Africa. In my posts, I often pose the question: “What is in your hand?”By this they know that I mean their smartphones, which several have already used to launch their own digital-era businesses. And as an online mentor I demand their businesses have an online presence like a website. This is not the future. This is the reality of now. 

There are so many digital age success stories the world needs to hear about. Ivy Barley, for example, is one of the young digital age stars I met on my Facebook platform. She is a social entrepreneur who a few years ago founded a technology company in Ghana called “Developers in Vogue” (or “DIV”) specifically to train women coders and developers. Her website proudly proclaims: “Innovation starts here!” #LetASisterKnow

DIVs mission? To use technology to revolutionize not just the lives of the techpreneur women who go through her coding boot-camps and then get jobs at places like Microsoft and Google or launch their own tech ventures, but to reach out and positively transform the entire African continent, maybe even the world.

Sometimes innovative success stories such as Ivy’s get lost in headlines that are focused on the negative uncertainties of the digital age. The fact is, throughout history, new technology has always been greeted with caution. Look at the people barely a century ago, with businesses built around horses and buggies, who feared the combustion engine would take away jobs. It did. It also created exponentially more new ones.  That is the way we must look at the digital age!

What is critical, as the Digital Roadmap and The Digital Manifesto points out, is not just to talk about the challenges ahead, but to take decisive actions now to ensure our nations and citizenry are digitally ready, protected and empowered to get ahead, far ahead, in the 21st century.  

The future of humanity always depends on us, but the stakes at this point in history are indeed very high. Let’s do the needful without delay.

*Strive Masiywia, co-chairs, The Pathways Commission

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