“Many of the most important innovations will come from Africa”
Today, the second largest continent after Asia is also the world’s poorest. More than 430 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank. But a young, open-minded population offers African countries the potential to grow their economies through technological innovation, argues Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership Group. In our Q&A, Fred – a speaker at DLD 2019 in Munich – explains the importance of education for Africa’s future and why it’s crucial to the entire world that the effort succeeds.
How can technology improve education and bring positive change to society?
First, accessibility is key. With a proper Internet connection, a young person sitting in the most remote village in Africa can attend a class at Stanford on their mobile phone, thanks to the wealth of information available online today. This has the potential to empower entire segments of humanity that previously did not have access to quality education. Also, thanks to falling costs of bandwidth and smartphones around the world, it is getting cheaper and cheaper to deliver learning to the whole world. Crucially, digital learning can be personalized and individual progress more accurately measured, facilitating continuous improvement. However, let me be clear that the best improvements in quality won’t depend on technology alone. We need to rethink pedagogical systems to be more in line with the modern era. The best learning experiences are still social, interactive, applied and include the intervention of experts every now and then. Technology needs to be combined with in-person experiences (e.g. peer-to-peer learning) to deliver outstanding results.
What can other parts of the world learn from Africa?
I believe that many of the most important innovations of the 21st Century will come from Africa. This will happen for three reasons: First, the most radical innovations arise when there are constraints. Africa has a lot of challenges such as rapid urbanization, climate change, lack of healthcare, education, and infrastructure. Massive pressures to overcome these challenges will drive unconventional solutions, and the entire world will benefit as a result. For example, if we figure out how to deliver world-class healthcare at five percent of what it costs in the West today, why should that innovation not benefit the rest of the world? Africa also has the youngest and fastest-growing population in the world, with an average age of 19.5 years (compared to 46 in Germany or Japan), and the continent will be home to 40 percent of the world’s population by 2100. Young people tend to be open-minded, imagining new possibilities. For example, one of the graduates from the African Leadership Academy has developed a speculum-free technology to screen women for cervical cancer. Another is building airships to transport cargo across Africa. These are global innovations, not just African innovations, and this is why my team and I are on a quest to educate three million entrepreneurs for Africa by 2035. Just imagine the innovations that will come out of Africa if we take a deliberate approach to unlocking this hidden treasure trove of talent.
Which issue deserves more of our attention in 2019?
One of the greatest challenges of this century is going largely unnoticed. By 2035 – fewer than 6,000 days from now – Africa will have the largest workforce in the world, larger than that of China or India. This is either going to be one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time – just imagine one billion youth roaming the streets of Africa looking for jobs – or it could be one of the greatest opportunities for global innovation and entrepreneurship in the 21st Century. Therefore, the world’s greatest minds need to pay more attention to how we can turn this potential crisis into a great opportunity. It requires bold action and not empty talk because the clock is ticking. And it should happen not because of “pity for Africa”, but because many of the challenges we’re struggling with in the world could be unlocked by a bright young person in Africa who simply needs an opportunity to apply their brilliance.