As the digital economy continues to generate billions of dollars across the world, Kenya is gambling on its youth to lead the African tech charge.
In a world dominated by trade wars between the US and China, many third world governments have embraced technology to create employment for the youth and lift millions out of poverty. However, training remains a huge challenge, particularly on a continent still grappling with basic needs.
In this vein, Kenya's partnership with the Chinese technology company Huawei offers the youth a chance to acquire skills for the digital economy. On Wednesday, 60 university students were selected for training in emerging technologies such as 5G, Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Computing and Big Data. This will be the seventh cohort of students participating in Huawei's global Seeds for the Future program that kicked off in Nairobi on September 16.
ICT and Youth Affairs Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru challenged the young brains to take advantage of the technology infrastructure at the 'Silicon Savannah' to develop digital products. "The government has made tremendous progress in digitisation efforts. Recently, the first phase of the National Data Centre situated at the Konza Technopolis has gone online. Some government services are already being hosted there," he stated.
He commended Huawei for working non-stop to get the project up and running as the country prepares for the take-off of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The project began in 2008 and has benefitted 200 students in Kenya since 2014.
With 21 of her students in the program, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) Vice Chancellor Prof Victoria Ngumi expressed her delight in seeing young Kenyans acquiring skills needed for the future of work. "JKUAT has worked with Huawei before. We are committed to establishing strategic university industry collaboration, beneficial to our students, staff and the country," she said.
The institution signed an agreement with the 5G market leader in September 2018 to become a Huawei ICT academy and renewed it this year to keep "helping ICT professionals fill the gap between theory and practice and master skills that matter".
The Chinese ambassador to Kenya, Dr Zhou Ping Jian, said Beijing would keep contributing to developing ICT talent in Kenya. "China places high importance on the development of Kenya's digital economy and promotes international cooperation in this area," he said.
Huawei Kenya CEO, Mr Will Meng, underscored the need to support the ICT sector. "It's why we invest so much in supporting Kenyan ICT talent, which will not only drive the tech industry but also power other industries. We hope these students will go on to play a significant role in this country's development," he said.
Seeds for the Future will seek to develop local ICT talent, enhance knowledge transfer, promote a greater understanding of the future of technology and encourage regional participation in Kenya's growing digital community. By sharing ICT expertise and experiences in the global business environment, young people can learn about advanced technologies and boost Africa's stake in the tech industry.
Contrary to previous cohorts, where selected students would visit China, this year's group will undergo a five-day training in Nairobi and get internship opportunities in various firms. Kelvin Esinyen, who joined the program in 2018 and is now an engineer at Huawei Kenya, lauded the company for giving him "an opportunity of a lifetime".
Sylvia Kipkemoi, a student at JKUAT who has been selected from more than 350 applicants to this year's program, expressed her optimism. "I am happy to be here. I am excited to delve deep into the content and increase my expertise and knowledge. I expect to be challenged and fascinated by the coursework ahead," she offers.
As digital transformation takes shape in Africa, Kenya - one of the leading nations in the Industry 4.0 front - has faced numerous hurdles, ranging from lack of awareness to poor government policies that have rendered more than 1.7 million youths jobless during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The weak education system has also left many graduates struggling in the job market, even those holding degrees in IT or Computer Science, as the world moves to specific aspects of technology, such as block chain, AI, cloud computing, Data Science, 5G, Augmented Reality, 3D printing and cyber security, which are not taught in local universities. Needless to say, legacy degree programs have become obsolete.
Across the country's tech ecosystem, an urgent need for reskilling, upskilling and retooling exists, both in the public and private sectors, but that has been maintained as a personal initiative rather than a national agenda.