The COVID-19 pandemic, without a question, forced the world into the digital realm. It also widened the divide between the haves and the have nots, which was particularly evident in both the workplace and the classroom.
The digital world offers many advantages, the most significant of which is increased access to information. We are depriving citizens of education and job opportunities if we do not ensure universal access and digital literacy, and it is time that we realise that internet access – and the digital skills that come with it – is a basic human right.
As technology continues to advance, South Africa’s youth are being left behind at a rapid speed, contributing to a record low unemployment rate. While the fact that South Africa is a young country with a high mobile penetration rate is a positive, the reality is that a large number of individuals lack access to wi-fi. We all have a role to play in creating a more equal country – the challenge is understanding how to do so effectively.
Collaboration is necessary, with the private and public sectors playing key roles. Neither the government nor the business sector, however, are solely responsible – citizens must play their part in bridging the gap.
How can we begin to close the divide, and who bears responsibility?
Build an ecosystem that invests in learning
We need to look at building a strong startup ecosystem that invests in underutilised community resources, such as institutions of higher learning, says Aisha Pandor, CEO and co-founder of SweepSouth. “This will contribute to job creation, drive future innovation and help bridge the digital divide.”
Pandor believes that business owners big and small should make concerted efforts to retain graduates and local talent. “Too often, tech companies hire skilled workers from elsewhere, which means lower-income communities may not be able to access the on-the-job training that could help them unlock opportunities. And, too often tech companies are not offering on-the-job training to those who want to grow in the tech space, but have not yet received the opportunity to do so,” she says.
To remedy this, fast-growing tech companies could help local graduates secure entry-level jobs. “By tying training to internships, not only will our share in the tech boom increase, but we will ensure that we are giving fair opportunities for all to access the tech and digital space,” explains Pandor.
Make technology more inclusive
Zuko Mdwaba, Area Vice President of Salesforce South Africa, feels that we should not solely rely on the government to provide answers for digital access. Mdwaba says, “While the government has committed to offer South Africans with 50GB of data, we cannot assume that digital access and equality are the government’s only concerns. They won’t be able to do it on their own. Corporates must join in and contribute to the solution. Importantly, businesses must make it a point to ensure that their technology is inclusive in order to play their role.”
Both the public and private sectors have a responsibility to unlock critical upskilling, reskilling, and digital literacy within the current and future workforces in order to prepare individuals for the future of work and create the capabilities to effectively drive innovation and growth. We can make a difference by better understanding the challenges of closing the digital divide and skills gap and shaping our response and support accordingly. However, we need to see a serious coordinated effort to break the cycle.
Platforms such as Salesforce’s Trailhead can play a role in teaching digital skills, making learning fun, easy, and accessible by providing anyone with the opportunity to learn critical skills for free online, anywhere and at any time.
FinTech is critical in bridging the divide.
Not everyone has access to a personal bank or financial advisor who can help with savings and investment decisions. But more than a third – or up to 25 million – of South Africans have access to a smartphone, says Tony Mallam, of upnup, a micro-savings and investment platform. “It’s not surprising that we have seen a proliferation of established players in mobile banking and payments. We expect these mobile solutions to extend to savings options, with an emergence of platforms that will make it easier for anyone with access to a smartphone to explore various investment and saving options.”
Platforms such as upnup have simplified the process. Users are able to automatically save a portion of every transaction they make – either by having their spend rounded up or by setting an add-on amount – in a digital wallet. These savings are then used to invest in bitcoin, one of the most widely known and best performing cryptocurrencies globally. In time, additional investment choices will also be offered.
“In a country where saving is often an afterthought or a nice-to-have, platforms that empower users to automatically invest even just a small amount, are an ideal way to make saving and investment simpler and more accessible,” says Mallam. “South Africa’s fintech industry has the power to bridge the digital divide and create financial inclusion which extends beyond just being able to use online banking, but also allows people to save for their futures, take out loans and invest to accumulate wealth.”
Play your part in creating a more equal society
As a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), our way of life is changing. While there are numerous opportunities that will arise as a result of the 4IR, there is also reason to be concerned that we may end up leaving our citizens behind. It is undeniable that we are all responsible for fulfilling our responsibilities in the pursuit of equality.
Whether we are a government agency, an NGO, a private company, or a citizen, we must identify ways to contribute to the greater good.