Online marketplaces can help close Africa’s skills gap


(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jonathan Donner, Senior Director, Caribou Digital

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 knowhow on using the platform.

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


What is the World Economic Forum on Africa?

With elections taking place in more than 20 African countries in 2019, the world’s youngest continent is facing a new era.

Held under the theme ‘Shaping Inclusive Growth and Shared Futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ the 28th World Economic Forum on Africa will convene more than 1,000 regional and global leaders from government, business, civil society and academia.

The event (held 4-6 September 2019) will explore new regional partnerships and entrepreneurial and agile leadership to create pathways for shared prosperity and drive a sustainable future.

Participants will discuss ways to accelerate progress on five transformative pan-African agendas in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, addressing the African Union’s Agenda 2063 priorities.

Read more about the Forum’s Impact in Africa and our launch of a new Africa Growth Platform to scale the region’s start-ups for success.

Read our guide to how to follow #af19 across our digital channels. We encourage followers to post, share, and retweet by tagging our accounts and by using our official hashtag.

Become a Member or Partner to participate in the Forum’s year-round annual and regional events. Contact us now.

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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