In Conversation with Nelson Kwaje

Digital Skills & Youth in Africa

What kind of work do you do? I use three words to describe what I do: People, Technology, and Transformation. My day to day job is very diverse and engaging; most of the time I am on my laptop corresponding with team members and coordinating projects. Aside from that, I am an ICT professional by training and my main skill is in Web development, computer networks, and digital media (social media) strategy.

These are the initiatives and organizations that I am directly involved in:

  1. Founder and Team Leader, WEB4ALL Limited – WEB FOR ALL Ltd (WEB4ALL) is an ICT Enterprise founded in 2015 with the sole aim of utilizing ICT (Web-based solutions) to improve the livelihood of people in Africa.
  2. Cofounder and Tech Lead, Alela Technologies Alela Tech is one of the leading domain and hosting providers in South Sudan. The company was founded in 2015 as a sister company to WEB4ALL with the aim of helping businesses, NGOs and governments establish an online presence. It currently employs one full-time staff in Juba and three more based in Nairobi.
  3. Founder and Team Leader, Design to Transform – The initial idea was to give an online voice to community-based organizations (CBOs). Over time the initiative has grown to sharing ICT skills with young people in the community that help them transform their communities and choose an ideal career. Being a community and people-centered initiative Design to transform aims at achieving more than the development of websites; our aim is to enable people to share their skills, interact and most importantly transform their communities.
  4. Social Media Manager, Defyhatenow – #defyhatenow is an urgent community peace building, training and conflict reconciliation project aiming to strengthen the voices and support the actions of peace and youth-oriented civil society organizations in South Sudan.

What inspires your work? People inspire me. I believe in the power of youth to make the change and create meaningful solutions for the problems we are facing in Africa. I am unapologetically a Pan-Africanist at heart. This comes out through my actions and even dressing at times. The African transformation agenda is what drives me.

Nelson Kwaje

How well versed are young people in digital skills especially in rural Africa? Most of what we call digital skills today is very recent knowledge. Ten years ago the title “Social media manager”was unheard of, but today every serious business has a social media manager. Young Africans, in general, are very savvy and knowledgeable in digital skills. However, there is a huge disparity between urban and rural Africa. When you move within countries and between countries you will realize that what we call digital revolution is not being seen by everyone.

Is there a difference in how young people in rural areas and urban areas use technology? There are two main factors that affect how people use technology in Rural Vs Urban Africa:

  • Infrastructural Limitations. In rural areas you might find it hard to get good infrastructure, constant and reliable power source and internet connection; this limits your ability to use technology and makes it harder to explore more.
  • Limited exposure to opportunities in Rural Africa. Getting exposure is very crucial to understanding the different uses of technology, many of the things I do now I have been either told about by a friend, seen it at an event or on the internet. You tend to have more tech hubs, meet-ups, conferences etc in urban areas.

In which ways do young people use technology in their communities? Instant messaging and sharing of information are the two most common uses of technology among young people;  WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are the platforms used by most young people even in rural areas (most of the folks in my village are on Facebook).

As to what they use it for, I think the currently the possibilities are endless. WhatsApp groups have made it easy for people to form groups and clubs that enable them to share information and communicate easily. Sports teams, fundraising committees, class groups, tech meet-ups, wedding committees, science clubs are some of the ways social media -mostly WhatsApp- is being used for communication.

As far as building solutions is concerned, we see many innovative technologies in use today such as mobile Apps that make service delivery easier, websites for selling goods and services. Many solutions to community challenges are being developed by young Africans on a daily basis; the possibilities are endless.

Design to Transform Team

Is there a difference in access to technology between young men and women? Yes and no. Technology is not biased; in the sense that when you give a computer or any device an instruction it will execute it and give you the desired results irrespective of your gender. The only difference comes in the context of use, technology functions within the social norms and cultural realities of a community. We see a big difference in access to technology and a supporting ecosystem, we find young women are less likely to access technology and find a supporting ecosystem that will encourage them to use tech. A good example is when young students are asked to share devices in a classroom, you find the boys will feel entitled to use the devices first and for most of the time, hence leaving the girls out.

How can we use mobile technology to promote socio-economic development among youth? I think the best use is in the field of education and personal development. Mobile Technology – handled smart devices with internet connection- can make a huge contribution in promoting education. Digital technology makes it possible for people to do things better and faster than most conventional means. Education remains one of the least disrupted fields in the world; this is also very true in Africa. For example, I studied the same way my dad did, apart from the few automation of administrative process and tasks in the universities and some high schools all other things remain the same. Grading, curriculum, assessment and study time have not changed at all. In light of this, I believe mobile technology can play a big role in the provision of education to more youths; especially the underprivileged.

Solar powered tablets can supplement textbooks and with the increasing innovation in battery life. There are batteries that can now last more than 8 hours and can easily help students cover a whole school day without the need to recharge.

As for higher education and personal development, we find many world class universities offering their courses free of charge online, you only need to register and have a good internet connection. This reduces barriers to obtaining a good education, which is arguably the biggest obstacle to socio-economic development.

How can we use technology in promoting civic education especially in rural areas? Handheld devices are very popular today even in rural areas. This provides a huge opportunity for personalized information delivery and civic engagement with the public. The possibilities are many; SMS can be used to get citizens opinions in a participatory budgeting process. For instance, should we build a bridge or buy a boat. These participatory systems make it easier for citizens to know their rights and engage with the government. The same can also be applied to inform citizens on how to apply for government services such as ID cards and health insurance.

Technology driven – citizen journalism is also a good example of reaching people especially in rural areas. A good example is Ureport – a free SMS social monitoring tool for community participation, designed to address issues that people care about.

What are some of the main challenges in getting youth to use digital tools for socio-economic development? The challenge is how to come up with solutions that are relevant to the youth, solve a ‘real’ problem, scale up and become self-sustainable. Over the past few years we have seen many governments and development organization building solutions that aim at addressing the youth agenda, unemployment, access to capital, credit rating, education and youth engagement. Some of these solutions are very successful in achieving the intended goals; case in point, this year the Kenyan government launched Ajira Digital Program. The program is a multi-sectoral government initiative that aims to introduce young people to online work by providing them with tools, training, and mentorship to work and earn an income through online work. The program targets to enable over one million young Kenyans to access online jobs over the next one year. This and many other programs are being funded and developed by governments and the private sector in Africa and around the world.

The continuing challenge, I think, is in building solutions that are appealing to youth and have the potential to scale and become self-sustained. No government or private organization is interested in “babysitting” a youth project for over 15 years; things need to move faster and adapt to market dynamics.

On the other hand, many African youths have found innovative ways to use tech to earn a living and develop their lives.  Online shops for selling shoes, cosmetics, and electronics, social media marketing for companies, professional blogging, mobile App and web development, scholarships and fellowships application are some of the ways tech is being used by youth. However, we need to wait for some few years to see the impacts of some of the governments-led initiatives.

 How can we address these challenges? We need to build and devise good interventions that have the potential to scale up and be self-sustaining in the future; this requires a good understanding of the context and local realities of the intended beneficiaries.

Harness the power of market forces, social awareness and involvement in the youth agenda should be part of the discussions in many boardrooms. The private sector has a big role to play in this. CSR should go beyond planting trees (very important though) and distributing t-shirts (less important, hehe).

We need to support what is working well and help it scale. This implies more partnerships between governments, the private sector, civil society and regional organizations to ensure less duplication of work and more scaling up of initiatives that are proven and have ‘real’ impact.

Supporting tech hubs and local innovation spaces is very vital; I can’t emphasize the importance of such local spaces. Africa has seen a huge increase in the number of innovation hubs in the past 8 years. These hubs are more than just spaces for youth to browse the internet; they play a vital role in creating jobs and the economic development of the local community. In fact, many successful companies have being birthed in these hubs. Check AfriLabs for more info about the number of hubs in Africa and the impact they are making I recommend that governments, private sector, and the development community pay more attention to these spaces and provide them with the needed resources and a friendly regulatory framework that enables innovation and creativity to thrive.

Last remarks: We are living in a very exciting time where everyone can have a voice; the internet, especially social media, makes it easy for us to write our own narratives and talk to people about things that impact us. I urge us (youth) to do more. Having a voice and being able to express your opinion is not an end by itself, we need to move beyond expressions and protest. True change comes when persistence leads to meaningful actions by leaders and policy makers. In short, engage in policy.

Nelson J. Kwaje is the founder of WEB 4 ALL Ltd ; an CT company that provides innovative ICT solution with the aim of bridging the literacy gap in Africa and building sustainable ICT4D Solutions. An avid problem solver, Nelson is a risk taker and enjoys taking new challenges head-on. He spends part of his time leading “ Design 2 Transform “, an  ICT academy that provides ICT training to young people in East Africa and enables community-based organizations to have an online presence(website). Nelson is passionate about youth and transformation, he likes to describe himself with these three words: People, Technology, and transformation.
(All pics courtesy of Nelson Kwaje)

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