Oladepo: Basic Literacy Skills Will Bridge Digital Divide

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Executive Director, Tech4Dev, Diwura Oladepo, in this interview with Nosa Alekhuogie, speaks about the need to empower rural and underserved communities with basic digital skills. Excerpts:

Tech4Dev and Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), in the United Kingdom, signed an agreement to train people in Northern Nigeria on basic digital skills. What must have informed this initiative, and what does it seek to achieve?

In a time of social distancing and government-enforced lockdowns to curtail the spread of COVID-19, digital technology became the enabler of the continuation of work, education, and communication. But for millions of people who are unable to use technology, the offline world is economically and socially isolating. COVID-19 has further illuminated the ‘digital divide’, which is even more pronounced in Nigeria and worse off in poor rural clusters of Northern Nigeria. Therefore, it has become pertinent, especially on this path to the new normal, to focus on digital literacy, to support vulnerable populations to leverage technology for commerce, education, and communication to improve their socio-economic recovery and pandemic resilience and build a more prosperous future. Nigeria’s National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (2020-2030) vision is to transform Nigeria into a leading digital economy, providing quality life and digital economies for all in 10 years. This strategy is also to drive the digital economy agenda and to develop a large pool of digitally literate and digitally skilled citizens. Digital literacy and skills is one of the 8 pillars that the Nigerian Government has identified as an accelerator to achieve its vision. Consequently, digital literacy has become a survival necessity for all given the current mandate and global technology progression. To bridge the digital divide, it is essential to introduce learners in underserved communities to the world of digital literacy and equip them with the basic digital knowledge required to succeed in the 21st-century world.and workplace. The Basic Digital Literacy for Rural Clusters in Northern Nigeria programme was designed to combat this problem. By investing in digital literacy for vulnerable people living in rural clusters in Northern Nigeria, this programme contributes towards reducing the poverty index by increasing the employability of beneficiaries and closing the gap of access to digital skills needed in the digital economy.

What is the financial commitment of Tech4Dev and FCDO towards the digital training skills, and what is each partner bringing to the table?

To successfully implement the basic digital literacy training, Technology for Social Change and Development Initiative (Tech4Dev), a non-profit organisation that creates access to entrepreneurship opportunities, is committed to bringing its expertise, resources, personnel, key trainers, among others in executing the programme across the selected states, while the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UK is supporting the project with £229,200.

How many northern states will the initiative cover in the first instance and what are the plans to cover the entire northern region of the country and extend same to other regions of the country?

The Basic Digital Literacy project is designed to reach 1,000 beneficiaries in 10 rural clusters, across 10 states in Northern Nigeria. The ongoing training has already been implemented across some northern states, which include: Benue, Kwara, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Zamfara, Kogi, Plateau, Jigawa, Sokoto and Niger.

Are you collaborating with the federal government on this initiative, and what is the level of government’s involvement?

We are collaborating with the state governments in the respective 10 selected states as well as independent stakeholders to provide digital centres with active computers able to cater to the training in the individual states. The programme will last for a couple of weeks with beneficiaries equipped with basic digital skills.

Since you are offering basic digital skills, who are the target audience and beneficiaries and what is the duration of the courses to be offered?

The programme will reach 1,000 beneficiaries, targeting 50 per cent vulnerable women and girls that are aged between 8-18 years and 45-65 years. It also targets 30 of Persons with Disabilities (PWD), e.g. mobility, speech, polio, among others and 20 per cent for other vulnerable groups. The training was scheduled for 12 weeks.

How will the training impact on the community and the country, especially at this period when the global economy is talking about digital transformation?

The training takes us one step closer to achieving a nation where digital innovation and entrepreneurship are combined to create value and prosperity for all by 2030. We hope that these beneficiaries would transfer their knowledge to their peers and that they will support their immediate families with the added income they realise by putting the skills to work. All these have a ripple effect on the greater community. The success we have recorded is an indicator that we can scale this to other communities and impact the nation as a whole too.

Is this initiative a one-off training or a continuous one, considering the fact that Nigeria has large population of people that are digitally illiterate?

The engagement with FCDO on the Basic Digital Literacy project is a one-off training. However, we are currently, engaging with the respective state governments to ensure that beneficiaries from the project can participate in intermediate digital literacy training and chart a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education for the young participants. Tech4Dev runs intermediate level digital skills initiatives, and we hope to partner with the states governments to ensure these participants can partake in them.

What happens after training? Will there be financial and infrastructural support that the trained persons will leverage on?

We maintain contact with our beneficiaries after the training; this is to connect them with opportunities and platforms that would allow them to hone their skills further. As an organisation, we are continually engaging partners who can support our beneficiaries by providing access to the necessary infrastructure and financing they require.

What is your assessment of startup development in the country, in relation to training and innovation to develop home grown solutions that will address specific needs of the people?

We believe that the startup landscape has experienced some growth and progress, which are evident in the number of startups raising capital from foreign investors and positioning for exits, which was not a common phenomenon five to six years ago. Despite this progress, there is still much to do. Building a thriving startup ecosystem requires the interaction of several factors, but skill and talent are the most important of them all. There is no successful ecosystem without a combination of the right and quality skillset, and therefore, as an organisation, we are focused on empowering people with the needed technology skills to ensure they can effectively participate in the technology ecosystem.

Nigeria’s National Broadband Plan, Economic Sustainability Plan as well as Digital Economy Strategy have all identified digital skills as key to economic prosperity for all Nigerians. What are your plans to leverage these government initiatives to enhance digital skills among Nigerians?

We are already well-aligned to these initiatives as they echo the ethos that has guided our mission so far. We are actively engaging and are open to being engaged by the government and partners to ensure the success of these initiatives in the coming years. We have the expertise, experience, and willingness to do the work.

How will the programme affect Nigeria’s approach to digital literacy?

We are currently wrapping up the programme and preparing for a stakeholder engagement event where we will be sharing key learnings from the programme. These learnings will be documented in the programme handbook and factsheets. We hope that organisations will learn from our successes and the challenges we have had to scale and join hands to drive digital literacy in Nigeria further.

With COVID-19, digital literacy has become a must-have. How will you leverage on the necessity brought about by COVID-19 to deepen digital literacy across Nigeria?

We will do more, create more awareness and foster the penetration of digital skills training. We believe the situation created by COVID-19 allows our voice to be clearer, and the importance of the work we do, more apparent. Now we would make it louder and more effective.

How will this project help to close the existing digital divide in the country to enable inclusive digital access among the people of Nigeria?

Women and persons with disabilities are among the most marginalised groups in Nigeria. The situation is even further compounded when they are located in marginalised communities. Through this training, we are creating leverage for these beneficiaries. The benefits of this leverage will be seen, and we trust that it will compel stakeholders to participate in these efforts, thus increasingly closing the digital divide and fostering inclusive digital access.

How will you monitor the progress of those trained after the training? Are there Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure their performance after training?

Yes, there are KPIs. We monitor the STEM participation of beneficiaries; how many of them are leveraging these skills within their jobs or careers and indirect impacts such as the change in their family’s living standards.

What is your assessment of technology development across Nigeria, and what are some of the challenges that government should address?

Nigeria is still growing with regards to technology development. A large proportion of the population are aware of technology but are not active participants in the digital age. The cost of being digitally active is still on the high side when you contrast it to the average Nigerian income. We need to drive down both the cost of power, cost of internet connectivity and provide access to fast and reliable internet connectivity. We will make a lot of progress if these are accomplished.