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‘Platform-Led Upskilling’ in Africa: Can Digital Platforms Help Close the Continent’s Skills Gap?

This article was originally published in the NextBillion series “The (R)evolution of Work” and is authored by Jessica Osborn

Robert, a seller on Jumia.

From his phone repair shop in downtown Nairobi, 28-year-old Robert peruses his seller page on the Kenyan e-commerce platform Jumia. He has just delivered 35 packages of mobile accessories to the Jumia hub, from where the company will deliver them to buyers all over the city.

Since joining the platform, Robert’s sales have experienced a healthy boost – but this isn’t the only benefit he’s realized. As he told Caribou Digital when we were researching how Kenyan microentrepreneurs use digital platforms, the training Jumia provided on digital skills, sales and marketing have helped him become a better businessman. “I went to [Jumia’s] offices and was trained on how to use their website,” he said. “Now I can create content, make sales, track orders, and train other guys on how to do online business.”

Rising mobile and internet penetration have resulted in a profusion of digital marketplace platforms like Jumia, which have injected structure and trust into informal markets, connecting buyers to sellers and workers to jobs. These platforms are expected to play an increasingly important role in the future of work on the continent; insight2impact estimated that 4.8 million adults earned some form of income through platforms in eight key African markets in 2017, and that figure is only set to increase. Much of the narrative around platforms has been cautionary and indeed there is important work being done by Fairwork Foundation and others to advocate that they promote worker dignity, privacy protection, agency, and fairly share value with workers. However, there are potentially positive impacts of platforms even beyond income generation – for instance on skills development – that also should be recognised.

The changing nature of work in Africa

As digital platforms transform economic sectors, both in Africa and globally, the skills people need to access dignified and meaningful work are fundamentally changing. It is not enough for a mobile phone shop owner like Robert to know how to fix any phone and to stock the latest handsets: He also needs to know how to effectively market his products through digital platforms. It is not just digital skills he requires, but skills for a digital age, including vocational, digital, financial and customer service aptitudes.

Education systems in emerging markets have not kept pace with these demands of the digital economy. So online marketplace platforms are increasingly stepping in to bridge this skills gap. Why?

For the most part, platforms provide training to the entrepreneurs using their sites because they have to. Connecting buyers and producers is not enough, if the pool of sellers equipped to succeed on the platform is insufficient to meet demand – or if they provide products and services of a quality that does not meet customer expectations.

The potential impact of 'Platform-Led Upskilling' in Africa: Win-Win-Win

However, the benefits of this training aren’t limited to the platforms themselves – indeed, the training could potentially provide a much-sought “win-win-win” for skills development on the continent.

For platforms: Platforms that invest in upskilling benefit from accelerated sales and increased volume, scope and quality of the goods and services they offer, positively impacting their bottom line. Our research shows that to achieve this impact, platforms are investing in a broad range of proficiencies beyond simply how to use the site, including vocational, digital, financial and soft skills.

For workers: The training has benefits for workers too, enabling them to generate more revenue on the digital platform. But that’s not necessarily where the impact ends: Our research suggests that, by providing skills that are lifelong and transferable, this platform-led upskilling has the potential to improve workers’ livelihoods off-platform, offline and into the future as well.

For example, the Kenyan agriculture platform DigiFarm delivers farming and financial management training through the digital education provider, Arifu. Farmers can use the knowledge they’ve acquired to boost their incomes on DigiFarm, and also to gain better yields and prices elsewhere. Similarly, motorbike taxi drivers trained in customer service and digital literacy by Nigerian ride-hailing company can use these skills to boost their businesses outside the transport sector. And beauticians who have learned about money management and timekeeping from the services marketplace, Lynk, can leverage these skills in other parts of their lives and livelihoods.

For labor markets: Thanks to the benefits described above, digital platforms are becoming a key part of the education landscape in the markets where they operate, with an important role in building the skills of the labor force.

Increasing Platform-Led Upskilling

We suggest several actions which could help platforms to further complement the activities of traditional educational institutions in creating more skilled workers.

Encourage support from the development sector: Upskilling requires a significant investment from platforms operating in emerging markets. But many of these companies already struggle to run profitable businesses, as they grapple with high operating costs, logistical inefficiencies and regulatory uncertainty, among other challenges. New types of partnerships with governments and the development sector could help platforms to maintain and expand their training activities. One example is Flipkart Samarth, in which Indian e-commerce company Flipkart collaborates with the government and NGOs to train rural artisans on how to launch their own e-commerce businesses on the platform. Such partnerships could help extend platform-driven livelihoods beyond digitally savvy early adopters, and enhance these platforms’ role in economic inclusion and development.

  • Build a stronger evidence base for the effectiveness of platform-led upskilling: Gathering evidence about what types of skilling best impact workers and businesses, and how this varies by sector, geography and business model, would help inspire further investment.

  • Nurture a community of practice: Beyond platforms themselves, upskilling will be of interest to specialist training companies, researchers, policymakers, and education and labor ministries. Creating a community of practice around platform-led upskilling would help companies to learn from each other, develop complementary disciplines, distill best practices and create new collaboration opportunities.

  • Build an upskilling ecosystem to amplify the benefits: Certification for trained workers could enhance the portability of their skills, and certification for platforms could help customers, investors, governments and donors quickly evaluate the extent to which these companies are investing in skills development.

There is no doubt that digital platforms are transforming the future of work in emerging markets. By recognising their contribution to upskilling, the development sector can support their potentially crucial role in closing the skills gap. This could be critical for unlocking more inclusive and productive digital economies, and ultimately enhancing workers’ ability to provide for their lives and futures.

Jessica Osborn is an advisor at Caribou Digital, a research firm dedicated to building inclusive and ethical digital economies.


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