Expert Eye: How skills and upskilling will help African businesses thrive post-COVID

With businesses seeking to recover from COVID-19’s disruptive impact, Dan Tesnjak, Vice President EMEA & APAC, Degreed, believes Africa’s digital industry is on the verge of a boom 

Written by: Dan Tesnjak, Vice President EMEA & APAC, Degreed


We’re almost halfway into 2021 and increasingly businesses are looking towards recovery. Africa has done relatively well to shield itself from the worst of the pandemic, however, the economic impact of COVID-19 is becoming painfully evident. Economic activity is expected to fall by more than three percent due to the pandemic, with the region facing its first recession in 25 years. 

Growth ahead
But it isn’t all bad news. Despite COVID-19, Africa is closely watched as the next big growth market. There are many ways that African businesses can speed up their economic recovery and become more resilient against future changes. Especially when it comes to digital technology and skills. It’s predicted that Africa’s internet economy could reach 5.2 percent of the continent’s gross domestic product by 2025, contributing $180 billion to the economy. 

There are calls for African businesses to get ahead of the incoming automation and artificial intelligence (AI) wave. Not least because AI needs African data inputs and perspectives to truly reflect the share of the global population that the continent comprises. 

Yet, this can only be realised if African workers are equipped with the right skills to take advantage of digital technologies. Indeed, digital skills development is ranked as one of the three pillars to drive Africa’s pandemic recovery. 

New skills needed
Indeed, the pandemic and lockdown has drastically accelerated the need for new skills. Six in 10 workers and managers say that the pandemic increased their need to acquire new skills. Digital adoption has been fast-forwarded by five years due to the pandemic. For example, in Kenya, a people-tracking application called Msafari has helped to trace potential COVID-19 infections. In Rwanda, real-time digital mapping is tracking spread, with people updated on the disease through chatbots. 

It’s not just digital skills that are critical to success. The top 10 most-needed skills in 2021 (globally and across all sectors) are:
1. Advanced IT and programming 
2. Leadership and management 
3. Communication and negotiation 
4. Entrepreneurship and initiative-taking 
5. Project management
6. Creativity
7. Advanced data analysis and mathematics
8. Critical thinking and decision making
9. Adaptability and continuous learning
10. Technology design and engineering

Business leaders would do well to consider upskilling their people in a mix of technological, cognitive, and social skills, like the ones listed above. 

Upskilling budgets cut
Still, the unfortunate truth remains that although upskilling the workforce is vital to recovery many business leaders may feel they lack the resources to do this well. Indeed, many organisations have cut upskilling opportunities in the wake of the pandemic. Half of global workers say that their employers have recently cut their learning investment. While this was understandable at the start of the pandemic and global lockdown, the longer that this situation continues, the more people will fall behind and their skills will stagnate. 

Recovery will be hindered if organisations continue to de-prioritise upskilling. 41 percent of workers say that a lack of confidence in their skills leads to them taking longer to complete tasks and 22 percent feel that their work is of a lower quality. 

Many low-cost options
Thankfully, there are many options to upskill today including on-the-job learning, peer-led learning, reading blogs, and watching videos. Today’s learners have many resources at their disposal and a lot of learning content is free or low-cost. The effort, on a business and HR leader’s part, is to ensure this content is accessible, it’s curated into relevant learning pathways, and that learning is tracked (so a worker can showcase what they’ve learned). 

Apart from being cost-effective, considering all forms of learning (formal and informal) also suits today’s learner. People have different learning styles and what works for one individual won’t necessarily work for another. In fact, having a one-size-fits-all approach to learning (by only offering in-person seminars, for example) can quickly disengage workers — and that means your learning investment is being wasted. 

Empowering learners
Africa has some of the youngest populations in the world and it is increasingly digital and mobile-enabled. Offering all kinds of learning content empowers people to access their learning online, on their phone, or offline (through books, in-person learning, or on-the-job stretch assignments) based on their preferences. It can also help them build some of the cognitive and social skills previously mentioned. Communication skills can be built in a peer/community space, for instance. Project management and leadership skills could come through a volunteer project or stretch assignment that a worker chooses to oversee.

It’s worth noting here that all learning strategies and plans need to have workers at their core. Taking a person-centred approach to learning ensures that everyone is involved in their upskilling, it can increase engagement and stops workers feeling like their careers are being dictated to from above. Careers are, after all, deeply personal things. 

Regular reviews are essential
It’s also important to regularly review each worker’s learning and performance related to this. Having regular weekly or monthly check-ins (instead of simply waiting for an annual review) will help them reflect on how their learning is helping them, improving their work, and benefitting the business. It’s also a good space for a worker to discuss their career goals with their employer, to find alignment between their interests and aspirations and the business needs. For example, a common interest in upskilling in project management may be uncovered. With a business needing more project managers due to product or service expansion, and a worker seeing this as the next step in their career. 

Now is the time to succeed
The future is being shaped right now. Today is the time to embrace new ways of doing business, of navigating change, and taking advantage of new opportunities. This is only possible with the right skills available in the workforce. Which means upskilling, in all its forms, will form the backbone to recovery and success.