20 September 2018

South Africa’s future will be shaped by the youth of today, and as a young woman coming from a low-income community – I am particularly passionate about education, advocating for internet access and providing our youth – specifically our young girls – with the tools they need to become the leaders of tomorrow.

As the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan (who sadly died last month) said: “Education is the premise of progress, in every society and in every family.”

It should be up to all of us in the community to encourage families to keep their children in school.

However, to unlock the potential of our youth and to ensure they become leaders who are fit for the future, they must firstly have the opportunity to go to school and secondly our education system must adapt quick enough for our youth to – and especially our girls – to have access to digital education.

Having access to e-learning (or digital education) – ensures having access to information that is not only local, but global – and it ensures the youth can learn the necessary skills they will require when entering their future place of work.

However, we must address the two elephants in the room:   The high unemployment rate in our country and the fact that South Africa has a massive internet access issue.  These two are very interwoven and we are not paying close attention to that fact.

According to Stats SA; South Africa’s unemployment rate is high for both youth and adults; additionally, the unemployment rate among young people aged 15-34 was 38,2%. This means that more than one in every three-young people in the labor force did not have a job in the first quarter of 2018.

Who is to blame for this? or rather a more optimistic question: How do we close the gap, and empower our youth?

The cost of data in our country is so exorbitant that it makes it impossible for people in low income communities – many of who earn a monthly salary of only R1600 or less per household – to access the internet and all its benefits at the comfort of their own home.

Combine this knowledge with the fact that only 53% of the population has access to the internet, and we know we are facing a massive problem.

Unfortunately, this lack of connectivity has impacted on the lives of thousands of learners and it will affect them later in life when they are expected to apply for university or search for jobs – most of which has moved online.

Many young adults from low-income communities experience a sense of vulnerability and shame when they do not know how to operate a computer or how to maneuver their way around the internet.

We need to change this.

We can gather and speak about leadership, youth empowerment and the future, but if we do not actively endeavor to change the status quo – we will not be able to bridge the gender, digital and other socio-economic barriers being experienced in South Africa.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion for CodeJika – which was hosted by Code-4-Change and which undertakes to offer our youth, and especially young girls – the opportunity to learn not just how to use a computer and how to find their way on their internet, but to learn the essence of it all as well, which is coding.

True, not every job in the future will involve coding, but with 41% of South African jobs being threatened by automation and taking into consideration that 39% of core skills required in the work-place will be different by 2020, knowing how to code has become an essential skill for our children to know and understand.

With that in mind, there is a much greater need for partnership between the corporate sector and the higher education institutions to offer curriculum that is based on the 4th industrial revolution thinking and a curriculum that not only theoretically prepares one for the work place but is geared to assisting one identify issues within their respective communities and innovatively resolve them through entrepreneurial ventures. This isn’t just going to assist to close the unemployment rate I mentioned earlier; this is imperative for growing and preserving local economy.

Through our work at Project Isizwe, we are actively trying to change this narrative and we are work tirelessly to change the way businesses think of entrepreneurship and jobs.

Our projects are subsidized by either a private of public sponsor and we then act as the project managers of the initiative and sub-contract local internet service providers (ISPs), because we believe in supporting small businesses and empowering the businesses from the communities in which we work.

One of our projects, a partnership with an organization called The Social Collective – has allowed us for launch a Free WiFi Ambassador’s Programme in Bushbuckridge (Mpumalanga) and Botshabelo (The Free State) where we teach 5 unemployed youth basic business skills and leverage their power to share, activate and educate WiFi users about this important service and creating micro-jobbing opportunities in the process.

As it is exceptionally expensive to fund a free WiFi project over the long term, we are also looking at sustainable revenue models.

The data we have collected from our WiFi Ambassadors and the communities using our WiFi hotspots, indicates that although there is a need to use the internet to connect with peers on social media platforms, many of our users are youth who are actively seeking access to the tertiary education and jobs.

A recent study we conducted in the Northern Cape gives credence to these figures. We surveyed 8 schools and their surrounding communities on what they deem their socio-economic development needs to be – and the results indicated that more than 50% of the school principals and more than 50% of community members in the province understands the need for internet access and is actively seeking to connect.

Our youth is our future leaders, but for them to be leaders that are fit for the future, they need to be taught the necessary skills that will equip them to thrive in the daunting world that awaits them.

This future world of theirs will be even more enveloped in the world of tech than the one we live in now, and it is up to us to ensure we provide the youth – many of whom live in low-income communities – with access to the internet and teach them how to use the internet as a tool for learning and skills development.

Providing access to free WiFi is one of the ways we can bring about this change.

We all have a role to play to ensure having internet access across South Africa becomes the norm, not the exception, because access to the internet is becoming synonymous with economic development.

By: Dudu Mkhwanazi, CEO