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Online marketplaces can help close Africa's skills gap

Full-throttle development … the premises of bike-taxi platform Gokada in Lagos, Nigeria.

Image: REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

• The 'skills gap' in Africa represents a threat to the continent's digitization.

• Online marketplaces are increasingly investing in training that goes beyond basic platform know-how.

• Such initiatives should complement government and NGO efforts on upskilling.

African labour markets are at a crossroads. They are set to receive an influx of 15 to 20 million young Africans each year between now and 2030 – but is this workforce ready for the new types of jobs on offer?

Mechanization, automation and even artificial intelligence are changing the type of jobs that are in demand and require new skills from job-seekers. As such, a “skills gap” in Africa threatens progress that could be made with such young talent.

While this potent mix of changing demographics and technological advances is well known, the search continues for successful, inclusive ways to navigate the “future of work”. To identify new approaches to skills acquisition, it is helpful to look to the new technologies and organizations that are transforming labour markets around the world.

To this end, our recent study on upskilling in Africa profiled 15 online marketplace platforms that connect workers to “gigs” and buyers to sellers. We spoke to start-ups like Kenyan courier service Sendy and Nigerian ride-hailing apps Max.NG and Gokada, as well as well-known international players like Uber and Flipkart on their approach to training.

Why? Insight to Impact has identified over 270 active platforms in Africa right now. While they are new to the African economy, their influence is growing. The role they are playing in upskilling workers is growing, too.

We found that online marketplaces have grasped just how much every labour market and economic sector is being transformed by digitization. It's obvious that coders, designers and scientists need digital skills and literacies, but our discussions with platforms highlighted that now farmers, taxi drivers, caregivers and casual labourers need new skills, too. That is why many platforms have chosen to develop and offer training that extends well beyond simple technical know-how on using the platform.

Digital platforms are exploding across Africa, and offering many different types of training

Image: Insight2Impact

We found platforms to be investing in lifelong, flexible, portable skills such as financial literacy. Uber in South Africa has hosted training sessions on how to save and do book-keeping. Other platforms offer training on vocational skills, like safe driving and advanced carpentry. Many offer training on soft skills, like customer service and communication.

Each of these is an example of a platform investing in a broader approach to skill acquisition – they aren’t just teaching digital skills, they are teaching skills for a digital age.

We call this “platform-led upskilling”, and have found that this type of training extends beyond the boundaries of a traditional employer-employee relationship.

Some platforms use traditional “FAQ” and tutorial content online. Others, like Jumia, use advanced user-experience prompts to offer their sellers coaching in real time, on how to create better adverts, take better photos, and ultimately sell more. And, almost every one offers face-to-face onboarding and ongoing training.

They are doing this, they told us, not only because it makes the platforms themselves more successful. Many see themselves as a stepping stone in the career development of their users. DigiFarm, a digital platform that delivers educational information for Kenyan farmers via SMS, gives those that have completed their training branded certificates. Farmers are now taking these to potential employers when searching for new sources of livelihoods.

This tapestry of investments in training may challenge the idea that all platforms are “hands-off” matchers of buyers and sellers.

The growing role of platforms in labour markets opens many issues that still need addressing: How can we protect workers? Should algorithms be more transparent? How can we ensure minimum wages and promote competitive marketplaces? Nevertheless, our study shows that platforms are a promising and underutilized new partner that may help upskill a generation.

Platforms are still an overall small part of the employment puzzle, and will not (and should not) replace schools, training academics and NGOs as the primary sources for skills. But they can play a part in creating a virtuous cycle of upskilling in Africa.

To do this, they need the confidence to invest in training, even if the training means the workers become more independent and marketable. They need the evidence that this training is a good return on investment, and a framework to see how they are contributing to closing the skills gap in Africa and beyond. They need a community of practice to help create that confidence and evidence, to help platforms learn from each other.

By finding partners in government and the development community to do this, online marketplaces can move past being seen as only market disruptors and become responsible stewards for the markets they operate in.


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