How do we bridge the digital divide in Africa?

This is a question that has been asked ad nauseam. The solution that we’ve heard time and time again is education. The follow up to that answer is – where does one start on a continent that is often seen as lagging behind the rest of the world?

IBM has this week announced its investment in an initiative that it thinks can reach as many as 25 million Africans and equip them with skills that are needed in the workplace of the future.

The IBM Digital – Nation Africa initiative is a free platform powered by IBM’s Watson that will give Africans a way to learn everything from basic IT skills to developing cybersecurity applications, all in the cloud and all freely available.

“In order to find solutions to Africa’s challenges, industries across the spectrum need to enable the existing and future workforce to perform at the forefront of technologies such as cognitive and cloud computing. This will be the key to spurring economic growth,” says general manager for IBM South Africa Hamilton Ratshefola.

Everything and the kitchen sink

IBM has made a sizeable investment of $70 million (~R945 million) into this initiative and is providing these free resources to Africans using a variety of platforms and formats.

Apps, web guides, video lessons and self-assessment tests are all freely available online for students to draw from. The assessments also feature “Open Badges” – these allow prospective employers to ascertain what skills an individual possesses.

The initiative also features an App Marketplace where those that create apps can sell them on or make them freely available.

For the time being these resources are only available in English but IBM Skills Academy Leader, Juan Pablo Napoli tells us that the firm is working to ensure that language does not become a barrier.

“We don’t want language to become a barrier. We want to convert our content to different languages,” Napoli tells us.

The leader explains that Digital – Nation Africa is not a product that is being brought over from the US that must be adopted as is.

“This is a live program that will be incubated in communities and be enriched by volunteers. Different communities will also help by telling us their priorities and how we can change content to really enrich people’s lives,” says Napoli.

Connecting those that can’t

Given that much of Africa is still unconnected, having an online platform to upskill people is of little help if they can’t get online. IBM is working on that as well.

“In order to reach the unconnected in Africa our strategy is to work with different agencies, companies and NGOs that are currently making that effort today. There are various agencies that are working to connect high schools, universities and homes to the internet,” says Napoli.

The firm has partnered with over 20 organisations that are bringing fibre connectivity to the region to help those that want to learn get online and make use of the Digital – Nation Africa platform.

The IBM Digital – Nation Africa initiative is live on the official website though some sections are still under development.