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Impatient, dynamic Generation Z's role in a digital Africa

Paula Gilbert
By Paula Gilbert, ITWeb telecoms editor.
Johannesburg, 22 Mar 2018
The future of Africa's Gen Z lies in the hands of a robust digital economy.
The future of Africa's Gen Z lies in the hands of a robust digital economy.

Africa's Generation Z will play a definitive role in building Africa's digital economies in the years ahead.

This is according to the African Generation Z Report 2018 report from Liquid Telecom, which takes an in-depth look at how Gen Z could shape business and innovation in Africa in the future.

Generation Z is classified as those born between 1995 and the early 2000s. This generation is the first not to know life without the Internet or social media, which has shaped their attitudes and abilities to operate online.

"Gen Z are not just comfortable with rapidly changing technology ? they are set to become the authoritative figures on technology in the modern workplace," the report says.

In Africa, this is particularly important as approximately 20% of Africa's population is aged between 15 and 24, marking it as the youngest region in the world. In SA, around 41% of the population is aged 21 or younger. Africa's youth are, however, hardest hit when it comes to unemployment and underemployment.

"Technology is empowering Gen Z to do things no other generation before them could. Access to information online has reduced dependency on traditional teaching methods, enabling young Africans to teach themselves coding and other valuable IT skills. This is creating a culture of entrepreneurship among young adults, who are questioning traditional ways of working and adopting new approaches to tackling problems," the report says.

Access to technology can inspire a new generation of African techies, according to Ben Roberts, Liquid Telecom's group chief technology and innovation officer (CTIO.

"But the hope and promise of this generation also presents potential disaster if there aren't enough new jobs to sustain them. No industry or business today has been left untouched by digital disruption. The way society interacts online has fundamentally changed - and a lot of jobs that exist today could be gone in the not-so-distant future," Roberts adds.

Liquid Telecom says by 2020, the digital economy is estimated to account for over 26% of global GDP, presenting Africa with a huge opportunity to be part of the new digital world order.

"Across the region, businesses and governments are taking steps to ensure Africa can compete in the digital age. Digitalisation is expected to bring an additional $300 billion to Africa by 2026, and with this comes an expanding digital sector that can fundamentally change how people live and work. However, in order for Africa to fulfil its digital potential, a new generation needs to step forward with fresh ideas, a hunger to learn digital skills and a passion to use technology for the better of everybody."

The report found that while this generation is demonstrating an enormous passion and appetite for technology "many of them aren't motivated by personal economic gain, but by the goal of using innovation to solve some of the region's largest problems and improve lives".

Innovators rise

With their natural affinity for technology, Africa's youth are poised to drive massive digital innovation, which presents both employment opportunities for them and socio-economic development hope for their countries, the report says.

Oswald Jumira, group head of innovation partnerships for Liquid Telecom, is seeing "massive innovation coming out of Africa, much of it from very young entrepreneurs". Jumira believes innovation hubs and the efforts of large enterprise to take ICT skills development to school-age youths is helping drive this groundswell.

"Across Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, for example, there is a lot of activity in terms of teaching the youth to develop apps. And many of the award-winning and most promising apps coming out of Africa, designed by the youth, address uniquely African problems."

He says Africa's Gen Z is displaying value systems that differ from those of their predecessors.

"They are growing up in a global sharing economy, so they have a new approach to ownership of goods. They are very passionate about what interests them and will immerse themselves in it. They are also very entrepreneurial, confident, and less likely to want to work for a boss."

While these traits may be encouraging in terms of Gen Z's potential to innovate, Jumira believes they will also force change in the traditional workplace.

"Gen Z is impatient and dynamic, they adapt to change easily. So they might get frustrated by the 'old guard' and traditional ways in the workplace. They don't want to be taught so much as to self-teach in an environment that facilitates this."

Gen Z vs Millennials

Ben Roberts, Liquid Telecom's group CTIO.
Ben Roberts, Liquid Telecom's group CTIO.

Millennials have become a major talking point over the past few years, especially the role they are playing in the modern workforce and the future of jobs.

"Across the developed world, Millennials, who reached adulthood in the early 2000s, embraced the digital revolution and helped drive its innovation, while Gen Z was born into a digital world and cannot remember a time before Internet access, smartphones and an 'appified' world."

Analysts believe this generation has lost faith in formal tertiary education and the traditional career path, and may be more inclined to move directly into the workplace if possible.

But Africa's Gen Z-ers are actually a disparate group and unlike Gen Z in the more developed world, much of Africa's youth face more basic challenges and a range of unique priorities.

"While the developed world's Gen Z has typically grown up in a digital environment, millions of youth across Africa have yet to experience the basics such as reliable electricity, adequate sanitation, dependable education and digital technology," the report says.

Internet penetration across the continent still falls well below international averages, and data costs remain relatively high, excluding millions of Gen Zs from the international digital world.

The International Telecommunication Union's 2017 IT Facts and Figures report noted that in 104 countries, more than 80% of the youth population are online. In developed countries, 94% of young people use the Internet compared with 67% in developing countries and only 30% in the least developed countries. Nearly nine out of 10 young individuals not using the Internet live in Africa or Asia Pacific.

However, given the opportunity, young people across Africa lead adoption. In Africa, the average Internet penetration is around 21% but for 15- to 24-year-olds it is around 40%.

"Therefore, one of the key differentiators between Millennials and Gen Z - growing up as a 'digital native' - does not apply to millions of African youth. This divide may align millions of youths more closely with Millennials than with Gen Z. But there is no telling how quickly they may bridge the divide and identify with Gen Z once they have affordable high-speed access."

Acknowledging the difference between international Millennials and pan-African youth, some industry watchers adopted 'Afrillennials', a term coined by Student Village, for the younger Millennials. Liquid Telecom says the differences between Afrillennials and global Millennials are likely to extend into the Gen Z zone for years to come.