Soccer team in a huddle

Rising to the Digital Challenge

August 5, 2015 by Rob Enslin 1

My visit to South Africa during National Science Week has sparked quite the feeling of nostalgia in me. From driving through the streets of my childhood in Cape Town, to the customer meetings that fill my schedule, I can’t help but see the immense acceleration of this beautiful nation at every turn.

In some respects, South African businesses are similar to those of other emerging economies, taking full advantage of the opportunity to leapfrog developed nations and empower a whole new workforce generation thanks in part to technology. Not burdened by legacy systems and a ‘we’ve always done it that way’ attitude, smart businesses squarely focus on the latest and greatest of innovations to propel them into the future. A modern twist to William Shakespeare’s 17th century line, “the world is your oyster.”

If the past 25 years are any indication, these next 25 hold incredible growth prospects for emerging economies like South Africa. By 2040, it’s estimated that Africa’s working-age population will double to one billion, exceeding that of China and India. Another staggering estimate? Less than one percent of African children leave school with basic coding skills, all the while government, the private sector and non-profit companies are struggling to fill positions for people holding this very skill set.

What’s the answer? I suggest that there is no answer without collaboration. With collaboration and partnership between the public and private sectors, aided by governments and supported by today’s available technology innovations, there is great potential to dramatically impact education to underserved children worldwide. In many countries around the world, this evolution into the digital age has been embraced and schools have made technology fundamental to how they teach and to how children learn. However, in many nations, digital education and technology-fueled learning isn’t accessible for all.

This cavernous gap between the education that South African children are receiving and the employment the market needs could be viewed as a problem. Instead, I believe it is an opportunity. Outside the classroom, Africa as a whole has embraced technology at a staggering rate. A few eye-opening facts:

  • 360 million smart phone users in Africa by 2025
  • 100 million active users on Facebook in Africa each month
  • 40% of African businesses are in the planning stages of a big data project
  • 31% of all Africans live in 25kms of fiber node

There is no doubt that Africa has embraced the digital economy, giving it the distinction of being the fastest growing digital consumer market on the planet — supported by the youngest and largest population – with 122 million people to be added to the workforce by 2020.

I am proud to work for a company that views this gap as the opportunity of the century! An opportunity to build skills that sets today’s youth on a career journey of a lifetime – one full of promise and challenge. Careers that can be void of geographic borders and allow this burgeoning generation to impact the country and the world around them. It begins with collaboration to bring about change:

Vodafone has developed a digital school in a box enabling 15,000 young people (ages 7-20) in the Kakuma refugee settlement in Kenya. Each instant classroom contains a laptop and 25 tablets pre-loaded with educational software.

Africa Code Week allows an estimated 20,000 children across the continent from 8 to 24 years old, to participate in software coding workshops, empowering power youth, teachers and parents with the language of software programming using a freely available “Scratch” system.

South African National Science Week celebrates science and showcases innovation in science and technology in all nine provinces. All activities are designed with one end goal – to encourage students to consider Science, Engineering and technology as a career option.

SAP is investing in corporate social responsibility related activities here in Africa that focus on growing STEM and Digital Economy skills such as building Skills for Africa chapters across the continent and launching the inaugural Simplon laboratory in Johannesburg to encourage web-based application development amongst the previously disadvantaged communities.

I know there is so much more to do.

I often tell the early talents in SAP’s own Graduate Academy program that they need to push for what they want and be passionate about what they do at work. If our efforts to close this gap can ignite a passion for technology in students today and springboard them into an exciting career – I say “mission accomplished.” Though the task is daunting, I’m reminded of the words of Madiba, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Together, through intense collaboration and selfless partnerships, we can seize the opportunity in front of us to unlock the future for the next generation and make it possible for students to excel.

Robert Enslin is president of Global Customer Operations and is a member of the Executive Board and the Global Managing Board of SAP SE.

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