Educating for the digital economy

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

At the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese e-Commerce billionaire Jack Ma wondered aloud, almost in despair, about the way kids are currently educated around the world.

Education is a big challenge now – if we do not change the way we teach 30 years later we will be in trouble. We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter – we have to teach our kids something unique. In this way, 30 years later, kids will have a chance.”

The “unique” education Mr Ma hopes for is open to debate. What is not is the urgency of ensuring learners are better prepared for success in a likely future all-digital global economy.

And whereas in the specific African case, basic education using the simplest tools remains a challenge, there is tremendous hope that positioning African wards for the digitial economy would not be similarly tasking.

It is not just a supposition. These days, there is hardly any young African who does not know how to use a smartphone. And the many things that can be done with it on the internet. For good or ill.

Increasingly, digital skills, still mostly acquired outside of classrooms, turn out to be more useful in jobs, as do social skills, than the formal instructions received at schools. But that was when all you needed to get ahead in the workplace was the mastery of a word processor, spreadsheet software and the use of search engines on the internet.

In the digital economy, with unparalled opportunities for entrepreneurship for the skilled, much more stronger tech skills would be required. One would probably be at a tremendous disadvantage at some point if one could not code, build an app or demonstrate a mastery of artificial intelligence. Fortunately, some of these skills can be acquired online for free.

In any case, some schools are beginning to incorporate the learning of these skills in their core curriculum; albeit mostly at the secondary and tertiary levels. That is all very well. What is required, however, is for these skills to be imbibed early on. Just like kids are taught a language to be instructed with, so must they be taught coding as a language for communicating successfully in the digital economy.

As there is a huge risk Africa may yet again be left behind, as the global economy evolves rapidly into another technological age, a digital one this time, the urgency of a radical approach cannot be overemphasized.

Why the urgency? It is increasingly doubtful the continent would industrialise substantially anytime soon. Wage advantages that many economists supposed would hitherto shift labour-intensive manufacturing from China, where wages are now high, are beginning to seem farfetched.

As manufacturing jobs leaving China have been heading to emerging Asian countries like Vietnam, Philippines, and Bangladesh instead, with a simmering trade war between China and America accelerating the process, the expected shift in global manufacturing in favour of Africa would probably not be from China, but from these countries; if it ever happens.

That is even as wages are already rising in these emerging Asian countries. But the other advantages they have, like better supply chains, greater integration with a still relevant China, an ample skilled population and so on, mean they are likely to remain competitive.

And if eventually these emerging Asian manufacturing hubs become prohibitively expensive, it may not matter much. Why? Automation, not cheap African labour, would have probably bridged the gap already. In other words, Asia is likely to keep its current advantages.

Put bluntly, the likelihood that Africa would ever garner a competitive edge over Asia in manufacturing is very slim. If African countries hope to move ahead then, its policymakers must begin to look beyond manufacturing to services.

With technology, a country or continent can leapfrog in services. For instance, African countries could train a workforce that targets the upstream stages of global value chains, which are more digitally inclined.

A good architect could easily send his or her drawings to clients from and to anywhere in the world. And to draw, all that person requires is a computer and the appropriate software. A programmer can code from anywhere on the continent for any client in the world.

These are not suppositions. They are already happening on the continent. For impact, they should be scaled up.

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