Continent on cusp of a new era, and it will be defined not by mineral wealth but by its talent and innovation

Africa’s immense wealth in mineral and natural resources has powered its economy for generations. But the world is moving rapidly to a more sustainable, less resource-intense future.

As we celebrate Africa Month the question is: can African economies adapt to ensure the continent can thrive and prosper well into the next century?

Africa’s mineral wealth is unmatched. UN data suggests Africa is home to 30% of global mineral deposits, 12% of all oil reserves and 8% of the gas reserves. As much as 40% of global gold deposits — and 90% of platinum and chromium — can be found under African soil.

Africa produced more than half the world’s diamonds in 2020, with countries such as Botswana and SA continuing their leading role in the global diamond market. In the 1970s SA alone produced two-thirds of the world’s gold, a legacy that continues, though the country has been overtaken by China, Australia and, closer to home, Ghana.

The continent isn’t endowed only with abundant legacy resources such as diamonds and gold. Many of the minerals needed to power next-generation technologies are also abundant in Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo alone accounted for nearly two-thirds (63%) of the world’s cobalt in 2019. Its production of lithium — a crucial manufacturing component of smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles — is expected to grow from 40,000 tonnes in 2023 to nearly half a million tonnes by the end of the decade. However, Africa’s resources are finite. African countries will eventually have to move away from their reliance on resource extraction to power their economies.

Some experts already suggest the world has reached peak gold production and that the volume of gold produced per year will decline from now. This is bad news for a continent that heavily relies on the revenue generated by its natural resources. A UN report says Africa’s mining sector contributed nearly 7% of the continent’s GDP in 2017. Minerals represented 62% of exports in 2019.

But what if Africa was already endowed with a natural resource to beat all others, one that can end the continent’s reliance on digging for wealth and power its economy through innovation, ingenuity and productivity?

What if the continent’s abundance of youthful talent could be mobilised? Africa’s population will grow with astonishing speed throughout this century. While populations in more developed regions stagnate and decline, Africa’s youthful population thrives. From 2020 and 2050 1.2-billion people are expected to be added to Africa’s population. By 2100, UN data predicts that the continent’s population will reach 4.3-billion, more than three times more than now.

Most of this growth will be in younger age groups. Africa’s working-age population is set to rise by two-thirds, reaching more than 600-million by 2030. As millions of increasingly well-educated young Africans join the workforce every year, global organisations are likely to rely on African talent to fill critical skills shortages. In fact, the World Economic Forum estimates that up to 85-million jobs will remain unfilled by 2030, creating an $8.5-trillion gap between possible and actual revenues.

Bear in mind that the revenue gap is not due to technical limitations on realising the effect of the next wave of technological innovation — artificial intelligence, connected devices, intelligent enterprises — but rather a lack of skilled talent to implement and manage these technologies. It’s therefore not a stretch to say Africa’s greatest natural resource is its talented, youthful workforce. A study by Gallup found that digital skills generate $18.5-trillion in annual economic value, or 12% of global GDP. The same study found that advanced digital workers have higher rates of job satisfaction and feel more secure in their jobs than less digitally-able workers.

Mobilising the youthful workforce through rapid and extensive digital skills development holds the key to unlocking the continent’s vast economic potential. African countries should invest some of the revenue generated from their natural resources in building digital skills capacity. Infrastructure such as 5G internet and extensive mobile coverage is essential, especially in countries where legacy fixed-line infrastructure is lacking.

A government-led national digital skills strategy should be a priority for every education department all over the continent. Public-private partnerships that enable collaboration between governments and the corporate sector can help focus efforts, ensuring that any digital skills development initiatives meet real-world business needs and produce talent that can easily be absorbed into the formal economy.

Private sector organisations can partner with social enterprises and non-profit organisations that build or enhance digital skills. SAP’s partnership with the Siyafunda Community Technology Centres, for example, has benefited 30-million youth and adults through digital programmes at 240 centres.

Organisations should also champion their own digital skills development efforts to ensure they have access to work-ready digital skills. The SAP Skills for Africa training programme delivered nearly 2,000 work-ready graduates in 22 African countries, with a 95% employment rate post-graduation.

Efforts at expanding access to digital learning opportunities should also continue. For example, Africa Code Week has provided basic coding training to 14.6-million African youth in 48 countries. And with a girl participation rate of 47%, the initiative has also made great strides in enabling digital learning opportunities for all who can benefit.

The African continent stands on the cusp of a new era, one not defined by its mineral wealth but by its extraordinary talent and innovation. Preparing and mobilising the continent’s youthful workforce should be a top priority for every public and private sector organisation in every African country. Smart investments in digital skills now will pay dividends for generations to come, and help the continent build a prosperous life for all.

This article first appeared on BusinessLive.