The relevance of digital skills in the COVID-19 era

The COVID-19 global pandemic has changed how the world functions, illustrating the limitations of many existing systems and highlighting the need to reimagine the role of information technology as a lever for economic productivity and growth. In attempting to contain the virus, countries have established mobility restrictions and, in some cases, lockdowns, which have fundamentally disrupted the functioning of society and the economy. This disruption has transformed the ways in which communities, businesses and individuals operate, communicate and transfer knowledge.

The emergence of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is being accelerated by the measures and solutions governments and organisations are adopting in their efforts to maintain business and operational continuity. The opportunities 4IR presents are far-reaching. Post-pandemic, organizations, businesses, and individuals that hope to take advantage of  4IR will need to rethink their strategic approach to leveraging technology and digitalization. In preparing for 4IR, they will have to reposition technology as a critical component for each sphere of specialization and learn the relevant digital skills to become creators and users of these tools.

It is imperative that businesses and governments digitize their operations and coordinate their activities to enable business continuity and build resilience to future crises. Industries such as telecoms and media have been less affected by this pandemic than for instance aviation and tourism which have been squeezed by anti-pandemic measures. Companies in lesser impacted industries are better placed to continue with business as usual particularly if they leverage embedded digital channels and tech solutions as part of customer service and other business operations. In fact, many may claim greater market share once the business climate improves in the post COVID-19 world.

The steep rise in virtual working platforms enables organizations to ensure that workforces can continue to be productive. This trend has the potential to reduce operating expenses and point toward  the future of work. Microsoft Teams, a virtual collaboration tool which enables communication and interaction within organisations and work teams, has seen a 775% increase in use in countries where social distancing and other confinement measures  are in place. So too have Zoom and WebEx Meetings. Post-pandemic, organizations and governments will be compelled to consider incorporating technology into their operations if they have not already.

Technology is helping to ease global disruptions across many if not all sectors of the economy. In the fintech sector, for instance, mobile money solution Mpesa has ensured that most financial transactions in east Africa are processed even as other financial institutions have curtailed services in their physical branches. Mobile money technology has helped to reduce the need for physical cash transactions, thereby minimising the spread of the coronavirus. In the health sector, telemedicine platform Mobihealth, which provides 24-hour access to doctors across all specialties in several countries, has maintained medical services, thus reducing the burden on overstretched health centres. E-commerce platforms, including Jumia, Kilimall, Konga and LIB Delivery have provided   channels for consumers to buy basic essentials by leveraging their existing technology-enabled logistics systems.

In education, more than a billion students worldwide are now sequestered at home as schools have closed, and roughly three in four students have experienced disruptions in their learning processes due to the pandemic. Governments and school administrations have adopted e-learning technologies for home-bound students. For instance, Kenyan, Egyptian and Nigerian educational systems now facilitate access to materials and programs through cloud services, radio, television, and social media platforms.

The development of digital skills is an important part of building resilience to economic and social shocks like those presented by the COVID-19 outbreak. This is already being recognised in Africa, where the acquisition of digital skills can serve as a hedge against unemployment risks. This reality has begun to drive African youth to focus on developing these skills, which are available on globally accessible virtual learning platforms, including the African Development Bank’s Coding for Employment platform (CfE) e-learning platform. The Bank’s flagship digital skills program equips African youth with demand-driven ICT skills and connects them to opportunities in the technology sector to develop solutions and create innovative products to solve day-to-day problems.

While not all forms of learning can occur online, the sharp increase in online learning shows the transformative potential of such platforms. Since the pandemic began, for instance, CfE has seen the number of users rise by 38.5% to 9,000 within one week. This upsurge illustrates that e-learning offers cost savings, including travel and accommodation, over traditional learning.

The transformation of global business and public administration systems is already accelerating because of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as businesses and even NGOs struggle to survive. Those that survive the shakeout will be those that are best prepared for the coming 4IR.

Co-Authors: Tochukwu Mbanugo & Uyoyo Edosio