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Op-Ed: It is time to create positive disruption in Africa

Africa’s tech entrepreneurs are generating a global buzz with home-grown start-ups now being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of AirBnB and Uber. Some see emerging technologies as a threat but I see the day coming when visionary young African tech-preneurs will also find themselves launching billion dollar unicorn IPOs with the potential not just to create wealth for themselves but transform the lives and livelihoods of their customers, communities, and even nations.

Op-Ed: It is time to create positive disruption in Africa

Last year six African ventures made it onto Time Magazine’s 50 Genius Companies List. They include a Kenyan mobile battery-powered Wi-Fi modem bringing the internet to remote areas, a Ghanaian platform using blockchain to help create land purchase records, and a Nigerian startup providing expectant mothers with pregnancy-related information and contacts.

Exciting tech-enabled innovations like these are springing up across the African continent, spearheaded by a young generation with solution-mindsets, launching edgy start-ups and increasingly using tech skills to tackle some of the continent’s most intractable challenges, such as quality health and education for all.

However, “smart” questions need to be answered – particularly around how countries can bring digital solutions to scale so they reach the poorest and most marginalised, not just the privileged few. Without vision and collaborative development with key stakeholders across different sectors, there is no guarantee, for example, that emerging digital technologies will improve day-to-day life of the people most in need.

It’s a topic of debate in government circles, especially when it comes to the role of digital technologies in transforming education and health as the cornerstones of our human and economic development.

Last month, the World Bank weighed in with a report and human capital plan for Africa, arguing GDP per worker in sub-Saharan Africa could be 2.5 times higher if everyone were healthy and enjoyed a good education from pre-school to secondary school. 

One key question that we and policymakers across the world must increasingly ask is this: What comprises a “good” education in the digital age? What jobs are our education systems preparing young people to do? I have long argued that financial literacy, tech skills, and entrepreneurship classes should be taught before young people graduate from secondary school.

This month, the Oxford University based Pathways for Prosperity Commission, (of which I am a co-chair), releases new research on how countries need to take charge and make positive and deliberate strides to capitalise on the potential of new technologies in education and health to make lives better for everyone.

The report Positive Disruptions: Health and Education in a Digital Age considers examples of tech being used in health and education in Africa and beyond. While it finds many success stories, too often, the research reveals that new technology is introduced (the hardware in a clinic or classroom, for example) without adequate analysis of the problem they’re supposed to solve and the wider management systems they’re supposed to transform.

Systems and processes may not sound exciting but they matter!

An example is Peru’s “One Laptop per Child” programme. In spite of heavy investment, it had little effect on children’s math and reading test scores as it wasn’t supported by necessary changes across the education system; in particular the teachers were not really included in a consultative way.

In Kenya, on the other hand, they’ve had a lot of success with a national literacy programme called Tusome that uses digitised teaching materials and a tablet-enabled teacher feedback system. It’s boosted students’ learning performance by more than a quarter.

In Malawi, a personalised EdTech learning programme delivered via solar powered tablets by onebillion onecourse  (who just won the Elon Musk Xprize for global education) is having a proven impact on math and literacy for children in grades one to three. It has also closed the gap between girls and boys in reading and math in first grade.

In health too, there are measurable impacts. In Uganda, the Mobile Vital Records System, a mobile web-based application has helped raise the proportion of births being registered from 28 to 70 per cent, helping authorities to track – and improve – individuals’ health.

And in Mali, digital monitoring and case-tracking tools used in a program designed by the non-profit Muso have cut child deaths in peri-urban areas where community health workers have used them to seek out the most vulnerable.

These successes are only a brief glimpse of what could be achieved in the near future, given the amazing pace of technological change. Innovations in machine learning, algorithms and communication technologies, for example, will very soon allow us to reimagine the delivery of health and education services, opening digital doors to understanding never possible before.

Used wisely, and scaled successfully, they could help countries across Africa to develop highly responsive, data-driven learning systems with feedback loops at all levels, targeting the most at-risk individuals, to offer personalised – and sometimes virtual – learning and health solutions.

Looking forward, it’s not just about the amount of money spent. Efficiency and sound strategy count for more than dollars. African governments can learn much from this powerful evidence about emerging opportunities in the digital age as well as lessons learned so far.

As the new Pathways report concludes: Data-driven new technologies have huge potential to be positive game changers in service delivery of health and education. But now is a critical moment to reflect on lessons learned to ensure, for example, that technology procurement choice and service delivery is efficient, equitable, appropriate, cost-effective, and genuinely improves lives, especially of the poor and most marginalized. Data privacy and other issues also need to be tackled urgently.

In short, smart choices are required by citizens and policymakers alike, so millions of men, women and children who have been left behind, can have better access to better education, better health and get better jobs, thanks to innovations of the digital age. #PositiveDisruption isn’t just a hashtag. It’s an imperative for future generations across the world.

Strive Masiyiwa is the Founder and Executive Chairman of Econet Group, a pan-African telecommunications, media and technology company with operations and investments in over 20 countries.

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