South African municipal districts must all have Silicon Valley skills hubs

To get in gear with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and in order to transfer digital skills and foster tech enterprise development, South Africa should introduce ‘hubs’ in all the 44 municipal districts, through public-private sector partnerships.

“Silicon Valley” has become an expression synonymous with the digital economy and technological innovation. Silicon Valley is a region located in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay area in Northern California. It serves as global headquarters for many notable technology, innovation and social media companies, including Alphabet (Google), Apple, eBay, Facebook and Intel – which are bigger than some nations’ economies.

As world economies reshape to the influence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, South Africa will need to adopt unorthodox ways of transferring digital skills and fostering tech enterprise development.

The Department of Basic Education in South Africa already has plans to introduce robotics and coding in the Grades R to 9 curricula, as from 2020. Coding is a digital skill that will enable pupils to create applications, computer software and websites. Robotics is defined by as an “interdisciplinary branch of engineering and science that includes mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, information engineering, computer science, and others”. It focuses on the conceptualisation, design and construction and use of robots, as well their controlling computer systems, artificial intelligence, and information processing. Private-sector education groups, on the other hand, are already far ahead in implementing these tech-focused schooling models, in basic education.

These efforts, both in the public and private sector, will no doubt go a long way in preparing South Africa for a global future dominated by technology. But what about the South African youth population outside of basic education and those also not in higher education and training, today? And once we successfully roll out these, and many other, skills programmes of the future, where will these young people go to work?

The 2nd Quarterly Labour Force Survey of 2019 reveals that of the 10.3 million young people between the ages of 15-24, at least 32.3% (3.3 million) of them were not in employment, education or training (NEET). Further, young people between the ages of 15-34 were estimated to be around 20.4 million, and at least 40.3% (8.2 million) of them were unemployed. When labour force statics send shockwaves of reality every quarter, often entrepreneurship is touted as the panacea for South Africa’s unemployment pandemic. While it is trite that fostering a national culture of entrepreneurship and creating an economic environment conducive for enterprises to thrive will create jobs, we will have to be more intentional and innovative in making it happen – particularly with enterprises in the digital, information and communication technology sector.

Communication and information technology is the fastest-growing sector in South Africa. Interestingly, the ICT sector in South Africa is even larger, in terms of contribution to the GDP, than the agriculture industry, which includes a very wide range of activities, from farming to meat production. The ICT sector though is a trade deficit sector, meaning that its imports supersede its exports. This signals the domestic economic value potential of the sector. The ICT sector is, of course, just one of the facets of the fourth industrial revolution digital economy. The digital economy is a broad one that has cross-sector impact and economic value creation. For instance, South Africa’s biggest economic sector, the finance and financial services sector, is being impacted upon immensely by technological innovation, often characterised as FinTech. This, once again, also signals great potential for digital technology enterprise in our country.

But for South Africa to harness this potential, it will have to introduce innovative ways of ensuring the transfer of tech skills and tech enterprise development, including ways that fall outside our traditional basic and tertiary education systems.

One of the ways which we can do this is by introducing Tech Skills, Innovation and Enterprise Development Hubs (we can call them TSIEDHs – pronounced “seeds”, for now), in all the 44 municipal districts in South Africa. This can be done through public-private sector partnerships, including with the Department of Communications, Department of Higher Education and Training, Department of Small Business Development, district municipalities, Media Information Communication Technology SETA, and private sector skills training service providers. In practice, it may well be difficult to implement such an initiative in some districts, particularly rural district municipalities, but the glaring inequality reality in accessing technological infrastructure is, even more, the reason to make this work in rural areas.

Ideally, these hubs must first and foremost be places of technological skills transfer. Today, there are a wide variety of digital skills programmes that are available through online learning platforms from all over the world, at significantly low fees and in some instances even at no cost. These programmes include skills such as coding and programming. Often the enrolment to these courses does not require prior education nor high levels of language proficiency, as they are mainly programmes of logic and reasoning. Onerous academic prerequisites are often barriers to accessing education and training. There are also various South African companies that already offer flexible and almost informal digital skills training programmes; these would be the ideal private sector partners.

Second, the hubs should serve as technological research and innovation centres for knowledge production and idea generation for technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, particularly for their respective municipal districts. Technological innovation can happen almost anywhere in the world where there are people, and in fostering this innovation, research is critical. The localities of geographical areas often require homegrown and researched ideas. Whether this be in the use of technological products in an area’s agricultural value chain or the development of mobile applications to advance a community’s safety, all of it requires organic homegrown and researched technological innovations.

Last, they would serve as enterprise development and funding centres for up and coming techpreneurs. For the hubs to make a meaningful impact in economic terms, the skills and innovation will have to be commercialised and introduced into the economic value chain. The hubs must be places where technological ideas and innovations can come to commercial life. To this end, there will have to be tech-specific enterprise development and support.

South Africa already has many state entities and organisations that focus on enterprise development and financing, but are they working? And will they work in a future that will be characterised by disruption and rapid technological innovation?

Part of the challenge is that it is very rare, at the initial contact phases, to have enterprise development and support that has expertise in the specific sector in which an applying entrepreneur wishes to trade. Tech Skills, Innovation and Enterprise Development Hubs can offer a fresh approach to enterprise development in this regard, by offering enterprise development and support that is digital economy specific.

Naspers, South Africa and Africa’s largest technology investor, is already investing more than R1.4-billionover the next couple of years, to fund and develop technology enterprises. The SA SME Fund, lauded by President Ramaphosa, is also purposed to do the same. But the distinction of these initiatives from TSIEDHs is that the latter would provide skills training, research and innovation, enterprise development and funding, all in one hub, and would be accessible in every municipal district.

These private-sector efforts are lauded, but such an important task, of harnessing the digital economy in the rise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, cannot be left to the sole devices of capital, lest we rebreed South Africa’s gross economic inequality patterns, which are not only racially skewed but gender problematic as well.

The state must, therefore, be at the forefront of tech skills training and tech enterprise development, with the political intent of ensuring just and equitable access, and radical economic transformation. In fact, it would be a brilliant idea to have a state-owned enterprise, which could raise its capital through the Public Investment Corporation, that will drive and implement initiatives such as TSIEDHs and competitively fund tech enterprises. South Africa must explore far and wide in sourcing inspiration for developing initiatives to foster tech enterprise development – including places such as Israel and Silicon Valley.

Perhaps even more aptly than Israel and Silicon Valley, South Africa should draw its inspiration from Africa’s own, Rwanda. In 2016, Rwanda launched the Kigali Digital Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab). Rwanda’s FabLab was the first of its kind in central Africa. It is a hub that is a collaboration product of the Rwanda Development Board, Rwanda Ministry of Education, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and other international partners. The hub fosters technological innovation and helps Rwanda techpreneurs bring their tech ideas to commercial life.

More recently, and even more ambitious and progressive, Africa50 committed $400-million to support Rwanda in building Kigali Innovation City (KIC). This major hub will host Rwanda’s Digital Innovation Precinct, the KIC tech development segment.

Symbolically, Rwanda and South Africa share a watershed history year. In April 1994, Rwanda ended its ethnic genocide that killed more than 800,000 of its people – in merciless bloodshed over 100 days. South Africa, in that same month and year, transitioned into political freedom, from many years of a gruesome colonial and, subsequently, apartheid rule. South Africa and Rwanda are countries that cannot be fairly compared. Their historic, political, economic and geographic variables are too different. But what can certainly be said, however, is that Rwanda is becoming a symbolic jewel of an African nation that has risen from a very dark era to become one of the most technologically ambitious African states, with a growing economy and booming potential. How much more, South Africa, a nation alive with so many possibilities? DM1

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Thanduxolo Nkala is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, a social-justice activist and a social entrepreneur.

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