[Interview] Michelle Matthews, Director, Viridian, South Africa
An estimated 45% of young people aged 34 years in South Africa were not in employment, education or training last year according to data released by Statistics South Africa in Q4 of 2021.
In 2022, predictions for the South African youth unemployment rate are projected to be as high as 64%.
Following the rising levels of unemployment among young South Africans, the UK-South Africa Tech Hub Launch League initiative undertook a research project dubbed ‘Skills and Training offered by South Africa’s Hub Network: How can South African hubs train and support young South Africans to earn an income in the New Economy?’ to survey over 40 South African hubs, skills and entrepreneurial training organisations to understand how they are equipping young South Africans to become economically active.
What are the most outstanding take aways from the report that government, private sector, investors and entrepreneurs can adopt?
Probably the biggest outake is that entrepreneurial skills and competancies are not just for those people who are going to build fast-growing businesses. All young people hoping to make an income should be encouraged to develop self-efficacy, and should be taught financial and digital skills in order to manage their careers.
What, in your opinion, is the place of gig economy in South Africa now and in the future?
The gig economy is a global reality. With it, comes massive problems of income insecurity, but also opportunities. In South Africa, there are not enough formal jobs for young people to get experience in working, let alone build a career. If young people are properly supported, job opportunities in the gig economy can give them work experience, build out a portfolio or even help them realise that they are entrepreneurial and should start a small business.
What is needed to boost the gig work environment in South Africa and Africa in general?
We’d like to see more South Africans and Africans being able to tap into high-quality, high-margin gig work opportunities, like the digital and design skills sourced through platforms like Upwork. We are seeing more and more African-based platforms offering similar services, where local suppliers can be competitive (particularly as they understand the context), which is promising.
At the same time, like the financial services industry has been tasked with taking some responsibility for financial literacy, there needs to be a responsibility placed on job marketplaces to offer more support to their workers in self-efficacy, personal wellness and entrepreneurial skills.
As platform-based work becomes more of a reality, workers who’d like to stay on as one-person suppliers to these job marketplaces (rather than setting up small studios of their own) will need to organise and lobby for better conditions, as we’ve started to see happening at Amazon.
To what extent has digital technologies been embraced by the youth to earn a living in South Africa? What is missing?
Sadly, we are still trying to teach people “digital literacy” in South Africa: access to the tools and connectivity in the home necessary to make basic digital skills second nature has been slow to arrive here (though has accelerated through the pandemic). As the Launch League report, How can hubs support young South Africans to earn an income in the New Economy?, points out, even for those who are digitally skilled, there is little support on how to use these skills to “find a pathway to income” when formal jobs are scarce.
The report also suggests that we need to get more creative about which digital skills we’re offering: most organisations offering more advanced skills are focussed on coding, but some of the most in-demand skills on gig platforms are ones like data analysis, video editing and digital design.
How is the policy and regulatory framework helping or defeating the use of digital tools to advance the new economy? What more would you recommend?
As with entrepreneurship, ideas – or policies – are cheap. It all comes down to execution: if people do not have access to tools and the knowledge to use them, South Africans will not get to participate in the new economy. Movements like #datamustfall must come together with government initiatives like regulations and infratructure planning to put even more pressure on gatekeepers and actors in the connectivity sector. Broader connectivity makes the pie bigger for everyone.
What is the potential of technology in addressing South Africa and Africa’s unemployment?
Thankfully it’s not a term used very often anymore, but a few years ago I was dealing with a government department that kept referring to “the digital economy”. That’s an oxymoron; it’s just the economy. While there are locally and globally important labour-absorbing sectors such as agriculture and distributed green energy that can be built out, all the people in those sectors are going to have to integrate technology for sustainability and scale.
Are there plans to do similar research in other African markets?
The Launch League programme is funded by the British High Commission’s UK-South Africa Tech Hub, so is currently very focussed on the South African ecosystem. However, we have started piloting some of the open license tools available on www.launchleague.co.za in other southern African countries and would be keen to back these activities up with research too.
Tell us more about the Launch League initiative and any latest news from the organization?
The UK-South Africa Tech Hub Launch League is an initiative of the British High Commission, delivered by Viridian. Launch League is a community of practice, training centre and open license content creator for entrepreneur support and digital skills training organisations.
We will be launching our new and improved content repository at the end of June 2022: entrepreneurial programme facilitators can go to www.launchleague.co.za to download open license resources on business model-building, financing, mentorhip and cybersecurity, among other topics.