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In Africa, technology and human capital go hand in hand

Sheila Jagannathan's picture
Photo: eLearning Africa
Rwanda’s progress from the devastating civil war two decades ago to one of the most rapidly developing African countries is a remarkable narrative on development.

Twenty-four years ago, the country was torn apart by civil war and one of the worst genocides human history has known; one in which more than a million people were killed in only three months.

Now, with years of sustained economic growth—predicted to be around 6.5% this year, the country is well on the way to achieving many of the ambitious development goals set out in the Rwandan Government’s ‘Vision 2020.’ This strategy seeks to move away from agriculture and rely instead on services and knowledge as the new engines of economic growth, with the objective of achieving middle-income status in the near term.

I had the privilege of getting a snapshot view of Rwanda’s success during the few days I spent in the country last month attending elearning Africa 2018, the continent’s largest conference on technology-assisted learning and training. The choice of Kigali as the location for this year’s conference is highly symbolic: Rwanda has put education and skills at the heart of its national strategy, and can send a powerful message to other African countries about the importance of investing in human capital to support overall development.

The theme of this year’s eLearning Africa was ‘Uniting Africa’, and most sessions discussed how to overcome barriers and improve cooperation to help African countries meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Africa’s youth population is projected to double between 2017 and 2050 to reach almost a billion people, while other regions will see their population get older. To help this young population thrive, it will become crucial for Africa to invest in skills and adapt to the trends that are currently reshaping the global labor market, especially automation and digitization.
 
The conference focused largely on the role digital education could play in addressing these challenges to help African countries accelerate growth and reduce poverty. Digital technology could go a long way in in improving the quality of education in many countries. Likewise, e-learning will make it much easier for tomorrow’s digital entrepreneurs to learn continuously throughout their careers thanks to open access virtual platforms like Edx, Coursera, FutureLearn, and the World Bank’s Open Learning Campus, with accreditation to the world’s leading universities.
 
E-learning in Africa should receive a major boost from the expansion of mobile internet, which is expected to cover practically all parts of the continent within a few years’ time. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that, by 2025, Internet penetration will rise to 50 % (600 million users) and smartphone ownership will increase six-fold. This will transform the way Africans can access quality education, skills building, and training. The conference was therefore a timely opportunity to take stock of today’s situation and plan ahead to see how ICT and education can help to ensure that the Africa of tomorrow is truly inclusive.
 
Margot Brown, World Bank Director of Knowledge Management, highlighted several important initiatives led or supported by the Bank to bolster knowledge and learning in Africa. I also spoke on our experiences developing Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), which have attracted considerable participation from African youths seeking to enter the job market. Based on the feedback we received, there was a lot of interest and goodwill among participants to collaborate with the World Bank Group to promote eLearning as an important vehicle to ‘Uniting Africa’.
 
Speaking for myself, I have seen how the spread of new forms of technology-assisted learning and innovative pedagogies are making a real difference in the lives of many Africans. One example is the agriculture sector, where mobile phones have made an enormous contribution to the spread of training and information about better forms of crop management and animal husbandry, resulting in significantly improved yields in many parts of Africa. Other traditional forms of communication, such as radio, have also been very successful. Farm Radio International, for instance, provides high-quality radio programs that help small-scale farmers increase their productivity and income. Working with 650 radio partners in 40 Sub-Saharan countries, they are followed by millions of listeners across the region. The recently launched ‘Her Farm Radio’ follows a similar approach with a focus on female farmers, who make up 70% of Africa’s agricultural workforce.
 
Nelson Mandela famously said that education is “the key to everything.” Among conference participants, there was not only full agreement with Madiba’s view, but also a serious exploration of how digital learning can accelerate Africa’s transformational efforts at eradicating poverty and boosting shared prosperity.
 

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