My TEDx University of Dar es Salaam Talk, Africa’s 21st Century Hunters and Gatherers.

My TEDx talk was on opportunities brought by the digital economy in Africa and how youths are capitalizing on them. This article is the script of the talk.

Photo Courtesy | TEDx University of Dar es Salaam

Sometime in 2013, at the National Football Stadium, Benjamin Mkapa Stadium, over 10,000 people showed up. It is usual for the stadium to be packed during football games, but it was for the football match. Instead, it was an interview. Thousands of candidates showed up to interview for 70 Constable and Corporal positions posts. Those who showed up had a 99 per cent chance of not getting the job, but they still showed up.

It is a common scenario in major African cities. The continent is getting more youthful and urbanized, the opportunity is becoming scarce, and youths are desperate. The continent median age currently stands at 19.7 years old, and the rate of urbanization is going up year after year; by 2020, it was 47 per cent. By 2050, Africa’s cities will be home to an additional 950 million people. Fifteen fastest-growing cities in the world are all in Africa. Dar es Salaam, my home town, is expected to attain a megacity status by 2030, with more than 10 million people living in the city. The youthful population and increased urbanization can be a blessing or curse to the continent. How do we create opportunities for over 10 million youths getting into the job market every year if our capacity currently can only accommodate less than 30 per cent of them?

The image you see (see image below) is becoming a norm in Urban Africa. Urban Africa is home to millions of youths who survive on what I call Urban Digital Opportunities, from photographers, digital influencers, digital artists, forex traders, online marketers, content creators and others. They are all surviving through basic skills and the opportunities brought by Africa’s Internet Economy in which Google and IFC estimate to reach $180 Billion by 2025. These are the 21st Century African Hunters and Gatherers. Young Africans who have developed rare skills quickly converted into cash are also known as Urban Digital Skills.

Image Courtesy | Unsplash

Skills that help them survive and support their families in a complex African urban setting. If that is not enough, you have thousands of African youths who survive from fixing electronic gadgets and installing mobile apps to urban dwellers. The difference between Jua Kali in Nairobi, the guys at Aggrey Street Kariakoo, Dar es Salaam, and the tinkers of the Huaqiangbei market in Shenzhen is that one government has decided to see it as an opportunity and the other one a distraction. The African informal economy is the African economy. The critical question is, how do we capitalize on it? How do we formalize the Africa digital informal sector?

By default, youths diverted their attention to Urban Skills because of life challenges. The vital question is how do we intentionally capitalize on them. How do we equip our youths with relevant urban and future skills to stay relevant in the market in the next 50 years? While I commend the effort to provide African youths with skills on emerging and future technologies, the challenge is now. How do we fix it now? The solution, for now, is to capitalize on the existing urban digital skills that are relevant to our current situation. Our education system is struggling to catch up, establishing Urban Skills Labs. Physical and virtual skills lab will offer youths on-demand urban skills that they will never get in time from formal education system capitalizing on existing free courses and materials available online and strategic partnerships. More emphasis should be given to multi-competence programs offering skills that can be easily transformed into services that create direct income for youths. Urban Skills Labs will not replace universities; instead will address the widening skills gap in Africa and bridge the gap between tertiary education and the needs of the industry. The quick-fix approach to urban unemployment challenges will not work, and the Boda Boda economy is not a permanent solution. While it can, to some extent, address the problem, it is not sustainable, and we can’t all be Boda Boda drivers.

The future is here, robots will not take our jobs any time soon in Africa, but applications have been eating jobs in the continent for the past ten years. The advancement of technology and digital transformation in crucial sectors will pose further challenges. Every industry is getting disrupted, and our education system is still operating in the same way. Our next challenge will address desperate youths looking for opportunities in Urban Africa. The crash between governments and youths in urban Africa will become a norm if the most critical issues are not addressed. Lack of opportunities, increased inequality, corruption, manipulative social algorithms, and civil rights abuse will push African youths to the limits. We need to act, and we need to work now. I’m unapologetically optimistic about the future of Africa, and I believe we will have a better tomorrow if we intentionally decide to have it. Thank You.

Thank you, TEDx University of Dar es Salaam for the opportunity to share my ideas. It was a great experience. Thanks, Marc Ngotonile and Alex Mkwizu, for your fantastic feedback.

You can access the talk presentation here.