[Column] Zafir Junaid: Bridging the AI skills gap in Africa

[Column] Zafir Junaid: Bridging the AI skills gap in Africa

Published: 04-07-2023 13:57:00 | By: Pie Kamau | hits: 3492 | Tags:

As we navigate the contours of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), it is becoming increasingly evident that Africa, with its unique challenges and untapped potential, has a critical role to play. It is therefore critical for the continent to start bridging the AI skills gap to contribute to creating an inclusive and sustainable digital ecosystem.

As far back as 2017, the World Economic Forum predicted that nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be potentially automated by existing technology. The McKinsey Global Institute reinforced this but shifted the focus to state that more than double this number of new jobs could be created due to AI and automation adoption by 2030. This paints a picture of immense opportunity. However, we cannot ignore the skills gap that needs to be bridged to leverage these opportunities.

Tool for growth

AI presents a powerful tool for Africa to leapfrog development stages and deliver robust solutions to age-old challenges. The key lies in building human capacity and fostering an environment conducive to digital innovation. This calls for an investment not only in AI itself, but in the people who will drive it - the backbone of any digital transformation journey. 

At SAS, we believe that the secret source to harnessing the power of AI is data. However, data without analytics is value that is not yet realised. Africa's digital economy, or iGDP, could account for as much as 10% of total GDP, while producing a leap forward in economic and social development. Data and analytics, therefore, present a golden opportunity to leverage the power of AI to drive economic growth in Africa.

Traditional challenges remain

While the potential is vast, the challenges cannot be underestimated. These range from infrastructural and connectivity gaps to an overwhelmed education system that struggles to keep pace with rapid technological advancement. To address these, a multi-stakeholder approach is necessary, involving governments, academia, the private sector, and global technology players like SAS.

A critical starting point is education. There is a need for updated and flexible curricula that are in sync with global advancements in AI. Programmes need to be introduced that make AI and data analytics exciting and accessible to students from a young age. The onus lies on academic institutions to work in partnership with governments across the continent and private sector organisations. This collaborative approach is one that SAS has pioneered. Globally, we have more than 3,000 education customers in 56 countries, helping institutions to anticipate the future and respond proactively to changing trends by harnessing data and analytics.

Another crucial element is addressing the digital divide. Africa, as a continent, faces a pronounced digital divide that is often compounded by a gender divide. SAS is committed to fostering gender equality in the industry and empowering women and girls with digital skills. The key to realising digital economy job gains is digital fluency. Hence, equal access to digital resources and training is non-negotiable.

Government influence

It all begins with reliable access to high-speed connectivity. Non-urban and remote communities need this connectivity to reduce the existing gap between themselves and those in metropolitan areas with more readily available wireless and fibre access. Policies must also be put in place to create an enabling environment for technology to help overcome the numerous social problems that exists. Only in doing so can an environment be created that fosters innovation.

Private sector involvement is also imperative. More companies need to integrate AI into their operations while boosting existing investments in upskilling their workforce. As AI becomes more mainstream, the demand for skilled professionals is going to surge. Organisations need to acknowledge this and take proactive steps to build their AI talent pipeline.

At SAS, we believe in harnessing the potential of AI to create sustainable social and economic value. We have seen the transformative power of AI, and we are committed to working with stakeholders across Africa to bridge the AI skills gap. This includes initiatives such as the Girls’ Education and Climate Challenges Index and the Teachers4Data Analytics programme, to name a few.

Of course, bridging the AI skills gap in Africa is a formidable challenge that will not happen overnight. However, it is one that can be overcome through collaboration, investment in education, inclusive policies, and corporate responsibility. The opportunity for growth and transformation is immense, and together we can leverage the power of AI to drive a new era of prosperity in Africa.

Zafir Junaid is the Regional Director for Middle East and Africa Growth Markets at SAS


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