Nigeria’s Window of Opportunity to Digitally Transform is Closing

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By Bunmi Banjo, PhDc

As recently as January of this year many governments and international organisations were discussing the Future of Work as an event that would commence in five, maybe ten years from now. The World Economic Forum published a report on January 22, in which they mapped future opportunities for jobs in new digital economies, and noted an ambition to drive initiatives for as many as one billion people in the global labour market over the next 10 years.

That was a long time ago, in the days before we found ourselves in the middle of the worst pandemic humanity has faced in 100 years. The COVID-19 crisis has sped up the arrival of the future and has thrown the shortcomings of our societies and governments into the spotlight.

Many countries, even richer ones, have millions of young people that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The ongoing effects of the virus have kept students and teachers at home, and made a move to e-learning necessary. This theoretically could have levelled the playing field in education, since digital platforms, ebooks, and simulated experiments can be utilised by anyone with internet access.

The value and importance of electronic and mobile learning during this period cannot be overestimated. Unfortunately, these opportunities are lost on most Nigerians. Educators have varying levels of digital literacy and most people can simply not afford the data and devices required to sustain online learning on existing high bandwidth platforms.

COVID-19 has exposed how unprepared we are to educate our people, but what about the 50+ million products of our education system across levels in the last decade or so? According to the national bureau of statistics, 23 per cent are unemployed, and 20 per cent underemployed. Of the remaining 28 million who are presumably fairly employed, more than 10 million are estimated to lose their jobs in the coming months as the pandemic continues.

Most of these would be because their current jobs either cannot be feasibly done remotely or their employers have not made the investments necessary to make working from home a reality. So, we are talking about 31.5 million Nigerians in their working prime without a path to contribute positively to the economy in the foreseeable future.

While the story of job losses reflects the pressure placed on businesses by the pandemic, this is not a permanent situation. History has shown that as more industries digitise, new opportunities are created. However different skills will be needed to harness these opportunities that will eventually abound in several sectors, including financial services, insurance, agriculture, entertainment, and healthcare. This will be the case at the national, regional and global levels.

The job market requires critical thinkers, innovators and solution-oriented individuals. To be competitive Nigeria has to do more. There needs to be a National Digital Transformation agenda that starts with lifting the digital capabilities of the people that will shape the future of our society. We need a new paradigm, led by the government in collaboration with the private sector and public at large. One that would put us on a path to create jobs, and improve the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of Nigerians.

An education framework fit for the digital age would adopt new curriculums that focus on programming, applied mathematics and basic data analytics. At the very minimum, such areas as information and data literacy, communication and collaboration, digital content creation, internet safety, and problem solving would be included. To achieve this widely, we need strategic policies and resources in place to help institutions of learning effectively use technology. Adequate digital skills training must become a mandatory component of all teacher training programmes from the primary to tertiary levels.

A society that is fit for the digital age must also include public servants with the skills and ways of working that are needed to deliver government services digitally. Governmental services need to accelerate the adoption of data and digital technologies to deliver personalised, integrated, and proactive services, and drive productivity and efficiency at all levels of government.

The public sector also needs to attract, retain, and nurture high-quality talent and the right leadership across the whole of government required for a culture of innovation and change. There will be plenty of such talent available in the coming months as retrenchments abound in the private sector.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is the time to build practical, locally relevant platforms that will help boost the nation’s skills while people are staying at home. A low bandwidth digital platform that allows content to be saved for offline review on mobile devices can be developed in partnership with the private sector. Training content can be curated by teams of savvy young Nigerians who are itching to help Nigeria get ahead in this regard, with advice from subject matter experts and potential employers. Such a platform would give people access to free, high-quality digital and numeracy courses to help build up their skills, progress in work and boost their job prospects. As so many will be required to stay at home in the coming months, such a platform would offer a great opportunity to learn new skills and gain the knowledge that would improve economic prospects in the post-COVID era.

Training Nigerians to be digitally skilled is of national strategic importance and thus must be led and encouraged by the government. We need a clear roadmap for how digital technology would be implemented nationally to bridge the digital divide that is widening with COVID-19, enhance knowledge, and prepare us for the days ahead. We have a small window to build a digital nation and give ourselves a chance to be competitive in the future. If we do not take it, we may never recover from the resulting economic abyss.

…Banjo is a technology leadership and future of work speaker and advisor, and CEO of Kuvora, a Digital Transformation and Workforce Skilling consultancy. She is a former Google Africa executive where she built the company’s digital skills program that provides free training to millions of people.