Digital literacy vital for African economic growth

May 19th, 2023
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“When nothing is sure, everything is possible”. As we face seemingly insurmountable uncertainties like political instability, an energy crisis, 32.5% unemployment, business needs to focus on novelist Margeret Drabble’s pithy reminder not to disregard the possibilities that exist to recast our collective futures. And the solutions lie, as they often do, in how we capacitate and empower the people in our organisations and businesses to do the same.


At its core, human capital management is about optimising the value and potential of people in organisations by identifying, attracting, developing, and retaining talent that aligns with a company’s strategic objectives and values. It also involves creating a culture of learning, innovation, and continuous improvement that inspires employees to perform at their best. Its distinctly unhuman description belies the reality that human capital management is a critical driver of success especially in South Africa’s knowledge-based and service-oriented economy.


No matter where business leaders, owners, entrepreneurs, traders and executives find themselves in our economy, the role that digital technology must play in this success cannot be overstated. Technology is evolving quicker than we can comprehend, causing huge flux in the labour market. Automated systems have already replaced countless manual jobs in the service economy, and the threats of Chat GPT are evident in the knowledge economy. This flux also means that new fields and careers are emerging daily which we should all be able to take advantage of.  Menial jobs can be completed quicker and more accurately, allowing more time for vital tasks geared towards outcomes rather than mere outputs. This contributes to having a more efficient and purposeful workforce overall. 


The pandemic showed us that South Africa’s human capital are infinitely capable of adaptation. It also showed us how horrifyingly vast the chasm is between those who have access to reliable internet and data, and those who do not.  


According to a recent study by the World Bank, the digital divide  between Africans and the rest of the world is huge, and it’s making digital transformation nearly impossible. Key challenges facing Africans are limited internet connectivity and extortionately high costs of cellular data and hardware like computers. The World Bank found that these facts pose one of the biggest threats to the alleviation of poverty on the continent, especially since the African workforce is projected to become the largest in the world by 2100 when more than 22 million Africans are expected to join the workforce each year. It is absolutely imperative that these millions of people are digitally literate: that they are reliably connected to the global economy with functional technology and confidence in their digital skills in order to navigate this immense potential for employment and inclusive economic growth. 


The certainties of population growth mean that it is vital that business leaders seize the opportunity to embrace digital technologies to empower our human capital. In South Africa, we face the additional strife of straddling the digital divide between millions of unskilled and unemployed job seekers, and a small but highly skilled professional class who provide globally sought-after services both home and abroad. 


Amidst this complexity, there are nonetheless multiple opportunities to retain top talent, grow employment, and responsibly leverage digital technologies to transform how, why and where we contribute to inclusive economic growth. 


Obviously information technology skills will be in high demand. Software development, IT support, network administration, and the ability to effectively teach these skills from basic to advanced levels are a starting point. 


Secondly, South Africa’s abundant natural resources, including wind, solar, and biomass can and are already being used to generate clean energy. It feels impossible to imagine during stage 6 loadshedding, but it’s clear that the renewables revolution has begun and the entrepreneurs amongst us are already creating jobs in renewables planning, design, manufacturing, installation, and maintenance.


South Africa is also one of the world’s largest producers of agricultural products, and adopting new technologies can help farmers become more productive, efficient, and grow new jobs. AgTech solutions like precision agriculture, hydroponics, and drones for aerial surveillance require skilled labour to create and execute. Agriculture has traditionally struggled to attract new and young entrants. A recent study by the Institute for Futures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School found that the role that technology can play in farming means that new and exciting opportunities are only just beginning for generations to come. It can also unlock new opportunities for unskilled labour to support the restoration of degraded land, the development of more fertile environments, and more sustainable crops. 


Lastly, with the pandemic-powered boom in online shopping, there will be a need for skilled professionals who can manage e-commerce websites, operate safe payment platforms, handle efficient logistics, and provide astute customer support services. This potential presents an opportunity for South Africans to venture further into e-commerce and create jobs for themselves and others.


What is certain and sure is that digital change is always here, and we have many millions of people to navigate through it. By focusing on ensuring that as many of our people are digitally literate and skilled, business can proactively create the possibilities for our human capital to benefit and grow. 


Co-authors: Adam Craker, CEO and Zandile Mathe, Head of People Advisory

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