IBM invests R945m to boost Africa's digital skills

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Hamilton Ratshefola, country general manager for IBM South Africa.
Hamilton Ratshefola, country general manager for IBM South Africa.

Computing giant IBM is investing $70 million (approximately R945 million) in building digital, cloud and cognitive IT skills to help support a 21st century workforce in Africa.

The initiative, 'IBM Digital - Nation Africa', provides a cloud-based learning platform designed to provide free skills development programmes for up to 25 million African youths over five years, enabling digital competence and nurturing innovation in Africa.

IBM says this is part of its global push to build the next generation of skills needed for "new collar" careers. New collar is a term used by IBM to describe new kinds of careers that do not always require a four-year college degree but rather sought-after skills in cyber security, data science, artificial intelligence, cloud and more.

According to IBM, for the youth of Africa to be able to benefit from a cognitive future, there needs to be a much higher level of digital literacy. It notes that at the top of the skills pyramid are developers, who need to know how to create solutions that can leverage the power of cognitive, and entrepreneurs who are aware of the potential.

Digital literacy

IBM Digital - Nation Africa is designed to help raise overall digital literacy, increase the number of skilled developers able to tap into cognitive engines and enable entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs grow businesses around the new solutions.

Through a free, cloud-based online learning environment delivered on IBM Bluemix, a cloud platform for business, the initiative will provide a range of programmes from basic IT literacy to highly sought-after advanced IT skills, including social engagement, digital privacy and cyber protection.

Advanced users will be able to explore career-oriented IT topics, including programming, cyber security, data science and agile methodologies, as well as important business skills like critical thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship. The initiative aims to empower African citizens, entrepreneurs and communities with the knowledge and tools to design, develop and launch their own digital solutions, says IBM.

Based on Watson, the cognitive online system will adapt and learn, the computing company says. It will review the multiple interactions the education initiative will have with students, to help direct them to the right courses and help IBM refine the courses to better adapt the material for users' needs, it adds.

Watson will also create a depth of knowledge using anonymous information gathered from interactions with students. This will help entrepreneurs and developers understand which current Bluemix solutions best meet their needs and refine their idea to help them design a solution that has greatest market potential.

Future workforce

With the aim of equipping as many as 25 million people with sought-after IT skills over the next five years, the programme will be launched from IBM's regional offices in SA, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt. IBM believes this will enable the expansion of the initiative across the continent.

"IBM sees effective, high-quality IT education as a key driver of economic vitality in Africa. Through access to open standards, best practices, IBM tools and course materials, the broad scope of this initiative will enable vital skills development," says Hamilton Ratshefola, country general manager for IBM SA.

"In order to find solutions to Africa's challenges, industries across the spectrum need to enable the existing and future workforce to perform at the forefront of technologies such as cognitive and cloud computing. This will be the key to spurring economic growth."

IBM sees effective, high-quality IT education as a key driver of economic vitality in Africa.

Hamilton Ratshefola, country GM, IBM SA

The initiative will be supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has a special focus on fostering market-driven ICT skills in Africa and the Middle East. IBM will collaborate with UNDP on opportunities for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills delivery, certification and accreditation. UNDP will work with its network of existing government partnerships to extend the programme throughout Africa.

UNDP's 2015 Human Development Report highlighted that technology is affecting the nature of work by introducing new ways of communicating, new products and new demands for skills. New technologies are also reinforcing and deepening previous trends in economic globalisation, bringing workers and businesses into a global network through outsourcing and global value chains.

"These processes are reshaping work and testing national and international policies. In an attempt to address this global challenge here in SA, as well as in other priority countries in Africa, UNDP is pleased to leverage its global presence, development knowledge and long-standing partnerships to provide context, traction and scale to this collaboration with IBM," says Walid Badawi, UNDP country director in SA.

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