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Tech & Digitalisation

Bridging the Skills Gap: Strengthening Digital Transformation in Africa


Commentary5th September 2023

New technologies are bringing numerous and exciting opportunities to public service. Data can allow civil servants to make quicker decisions and develop smarter interventions. Agile work methodologies can lead to better collaboration across departments, while the digitalisation of public services will give people unmatched access to state programmes and subsidies. But in order to take advantage of this period of unprecedented digital growth, people working in public service need the right skills and the right mindset. We call this challenge the digital-skills gap.

Earlier this year, the TBI Digital Academy was launched in Ghana, Malawi and Senegal with the aim of bridging this gap by upskilling government staff to lead digital transformation. The programme has now been running in these three countries for several months, with graduation ceremonies planned in the coming weeks.

To date almost 500 public servants across many departments and different seniority levels have taken part in the programme, an initiative from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI). The curriculum features both in-person and virtual training sessions developed and delivered with the support of Panoply Digital.

Participants have been on a learning journey that began with computer basics and internet fundamentals, and moved on to troubleshooting data collection and governance, design thinking and creative use of digital technologies.

Hear from some of our participants on why building digital skills in Africa and beyond is so important:

As demand for digital-skills training increases, here are four things that we’ve learned so far:

1. National digital plans in Ghana, Malawi and Senegal depend heavily on having these skills in country

“It is important to do this work now. We have the 2063 agenda [Malawi’s long-term strategic plan], and in there we have identified digitalisation as a key enabler for us to achieve the vision that we set up in the agenda. And key to it, for us to drive the digitalisation agenda, we need to have people that are well versed with digital transformation, so that they can help us as a ministry to drive the agenda forward.” Patrick Machika, Director of Science, Technology and Information, Malawi

Participants tell us the programme is timely given how quickly the world has become digital and because countries already have digital agendas and ambitions in place.

2. A digital mindset is as much about collaboration as it is about understanding technology

“What I appreciate the most is that this training actually gives us the opportunity between administrative agents to discuss the problems encountered on a daily basis by our users and possible solutions that could be relevant to improve the quality of service offered to users.” Aida Seck, Pensions Management Office, Senegal

National digital agendas span various sectors and departments, meaning that teamwork and project management are more important than ever. Teaching people to use practical tools, including digital project-management tools, allows them to plan work, build pipelines and work with others more easily. It also enables seamless pivoting to new priorities – another aspect of the digital mindset that must be fostered.

3. The combination of practical and theoretical sessions is delivering great results

“I like the blend of theory and practical, because when you just focus on the theory, you learn about these things and you forget. But we are able to say, ‘OK, how do we apply that to everyday work experiences?’” Florida Banda, Director for Secondary Education, Malawi

The programme deliberately uses an activity-based approach to help participants apply what they are learning to their daily work.

4. Learning about artificial intelligence (AI) is a priority for future sessions

“I won’t deny that what I look forward to learning (the most) is quite simply the new techniques of artificial intelligence … it’s extremely important to jump on the bandwagon.” Aminata Maimouna Diagne, Ministry of Communication, Telecommunications and Digital Economy, Senegal

AI, as TBI’s flagship report A New National Purpose laid out earlier this year, represents an enormous opportunity for nations globally. In Africa, AI has the potential to “make public services frictionless” and “enable the targeted recommendation of key services such as health care to citizens, even before they realise their eligibility for them”. These ideas are what inspire African civil servants to take part in digital-skills initiatives like this.

Continuing the Learning Journey

“Preparing your workforce today will generate real value for you in the future.” Emmanuel Frimpong, Ministry of Communications and Digitalisation, Ghana

In the coming months we will build on participants’ digital-skills development with additional topics and a guided research project aimed at helping them put the lessons they have learned into practice. By the end of the programme, they will have expanded their knowledge and skills to become digital-transformation leaders who can play key roles in driving their national digital agendas forward and improving the lives of their citizens through digitalisation.

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