3 Pillars for Sustainable Growth in the Digital Age

Africa’s economic recovery post Covid-19

The Covid-19 health pandemic drove the world economy into a severe downturn. In Africa, it threatens widespread business closures and deeper poverty. Governments and business leaders have been debating and looking for the best formulas to control the economic damage and protect the most vulnerable segments of society. As a regular participant in these debates, as a trained economist, and a practicing technologist, I have identified 3 pillars for sustainable and equitable economic growth that are most relevant in the context of Africa.

For growth to be inclusive, all segments of society must benefit. In this respect, the digital era has ushered in a new equalizer, an economic asset that unlike mines and factories, is owned by every person. It can be developed through specific education to become a leading mean of economic production. It is our intellectual capabilities. More knowledge of the right kind can bring to Africa’s poorest the lucrative white-collar jobs of the digital era. Upgrading blue-collar workers to knowledge workers, and knowledge workers to continuously learning workers, is that development plan that will bring the most equitable and sustainable recovery.

How can we achieve this? Let’s get some inspiration from celebrated thought leaders. And then from governments and organizations who have applied the concept in real life.
The Knowledge Economy
The “knowledge worker” was first mentioned by famed economist Peter Drucker in 1959, someone whose job requires them to “think for a living”. That new higher class of specially trained workers apply analytical knowledge to develop products and services. In this digital era these products and services have become ever more valuable, underpinning the biggest companies in the stock market. This knowledge worker had to evolve with constant technology advances, therefore making continual training a necessity. Hence the emergence of the “learning worker” who underpins the new digital economy and the resource we in Africa need to develop more.

However, the combination of education, training and policies to prepare the right workforce mix for the 2020s needs careful thought. The shortest distance between training, jobs, and greater national incomes needs to be considered. Not all curriculums will yield the desired results. In the digital age and with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, information and communication technologies (ICTs) must be more represented so that we can achieve the desired micro and macroeconomic outcomes. Knowledge work in our time requires constant learning to keep up with accelerating and converging technological developments. Therefore, ICT training should be prioritized since it has become the leading enabler of growth in so many sectors and industries.  
ICT Infrastructure
ICT companies are currently having a huge impact on economic development by transforming many aspects of business and society. They have transformed many industries, from media and commerce to banking, travel and manufacturing. Even the medical and agricultural industries that save lives. They weigh on more industries than we can mention, and have enormous potential to redefine and reinvent the public and private sectors and our living conditions. With Covid-19, our reliance on ICT has suddenly increased by an order of magnitude. Internet connectivity and cloud platforms of all kinds are the backbone of home work and the backbone of distance learning from elementary schools to college. Today, ICT touches every aspect and corner of our lives, from the way we learn, the way we work and the way we interact with our friends and family, to the way we learn. perceive the world in general. The quality of our life depends on it. Since we are aiming for inclusive growth, it is necessary that we connect every citizen to this new means of economic production, making it abundant and accessible to all. It will enable more "worker learners" to develop independently and reach their full potential and bring prosperity to all corners of the country and not just to a select few pockets. Connectivity also facilitates other pillars of economic development, such as access to online financial services and e-commerce.
In 2011, a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that “without access to the Internet, which facilitates economic development and the enjoyment of a range of human rights, marginalized groups and states in development remain trapped in a disadvantaged situation, thus perpetuating inequalities within and between states ”. Some countries have identified the link as a fundamental human right applied in laws or court decisions. Examples include France in 2009, Finland in 2010 and India in 2019. Some countries, such as Spain, have guaranteed reasonably priced broadband "universal service" since 2011, available nationwide.
Lucrative Employment
The training of the "knowledge worker" must be accompanied by placement programs for this newly created intellectual and socially diverse group. Covid-19 has shown even more clearly that government policy should promote sustainable and equitable models where everyone has equal opportunities. Otherwise, we end up without social safety nets for untrained workers, we perpetuate poverty and we face the risk of associated unrest.

To achieve inclusive economic growth, barriers to entry to the knowledge labor market must be lowered. Otherwise, investing in training does not lead to a full virtuous cycle. These programs should be merit-based and avoid favoritism to create a level playing field. It's not just about connecting people to the Internet, it's about wisely connecting all the points of success.

Huawei ICT Academy is one example of the educational initiatives that caught my attention during the pandemic with its presence, reach and scale of activities. They go beyond free education by organizing contests and job placement activities across the continent. They are part of a developing ecosystem made up of different actors (NGOs, professional cooperatives, public-private partnerships) working together, mainly during virtual meetings, to define and implement a strategy for equitable and sustainable economic recovery.
In conclusion, Africa's economic recovery depends heavily on a combination of education, IT and communication infrastructure, lifelong learning, and inclusive employment policies for all social segments.

Let us imagine together the possibilities of this future based on a knowledge economy. Industries that are born or prosper. A more equitable society. And let's think about how to set up short and long term goals that are ambitious, but achievable with great will.

Training needs to be accompanied by job placement programs for this socially diverse pool of newly minted ICT smart workers. Covid-19 has made it even more glaringly clear that government policy should favor sustainable equitable models where everyone is given equal opportunity. Else we end-up with flailing social safety nets for untrained workers, we perpetuate poverty, and we face the associated risk of unrest.

About the author:

Sami Tayara, founder of the consulting firm Aiconomica covering the EMEA region, expert in ICT and digital transformation

This article was also published in French in Le Matin journal. It can be found at this link.