Africa’s youth population is expected to double to a staggering 830 million by 2050, such rapid growth has led to questions about how the continent will keep up in terms of resources and jobs.
A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) into World Employment paints a dire picture of the state of youth unemployment and working poverty on the continent.
According to the 2016 report, North Africa has the second highest rate of youth unemployment in the world, while sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of working poverty.
So how do you tackle a rapidly growing population burdened with high rates of unemployment?
For Google Brand and Reputation manager Bunmi Banjo it’s teaching millions of Africans digital skills, for free.
How to train a million
After a career in banking, Banjo said she saw a need to create economic opportunities for Africans, which led her to Google.
She joined the team in 2012 and under her leadership, the company has trained a million youths in sub-Saharan African in just eleven months.
“We have trained hundreds over the years but we decided that in Africa we really needed skill,” Banjo told CNN.
“A lot of them [youth] coming online only know about social and are using the web primarily as a communication tool which is great, but [they are] not realizing that there is a lot more they can do with it especially in Africa where the jobs are not there.”
Soon after the Digital Skills for Africa program launched in April last year Banjo found it necessary to raise the bar higher, and the company decided to train one million people.
“You can connect with people, grow your skills and potentially get jobs from across the world,” she explained. “This is what we want to make sure large numbers of young people are aware of.”
‘ Not a quick fix’
The training, a free crash course in digital marketing, was delivered in classrooms, online and offline for areas with limited Internet access. Training happens in over 27 countries According to Banjo, the course will give participants a 70% chance of becoming more employable.
“We know people across the region are ingenious, with a little they do a lot and they are thirsty for knowledge,” she said.
“All our classes are oversubscribed because they are eager to learn. If they had the right tools and information they will be able to.”
While she acknowledges this training is no ‘quick fix’ for the continent’s high unemployment numbers, she stressed the importance of teaching African youth about less traditional paths to job creation.
“A lot of young people will have to figure out how to create income and opportunities for themselves and we feel very strongly that the web is a way to do that.”
Getting value out of the web
According to Banjo the program is already yielding positive results.
” 67% of the people we have trained have said they have either gotten a job or they feel better prepared for jobs because of the training,” Banjo shared. “If only a few million people are impacted by 67% that is significant.”
But Banjo is not stopping there.
“I know a million on its own sounds big but we are talking about a continent that has 500 million people that have the potential to contribute to the economy,” she said. “A million doesn’t look so big anymore.”
Google plan to train at least another million by the end of 2017 and to offer courses in local languages including Hausa and Swahili and Banjo has no plans of slowing down.
“Every aspect of my job is about helping people get value out of the web…” she said.
“Young people [in Africa] are ingenious and all they need is a little support to connect to the tools they need to improve their future.”
“It’s not every time you get to do something where you get to meet the beneficiaries of the work you do. It’s the most rewarding feeling to point at the work you do and the impact it’s having at the level of the individual.
Opera, the Norwegian browser-maker that was sold to a Chinese consortium last year, is doubling down on the African market after it announced plans to invest $100 million to grow its business in the emerging region.
The company is well known for its reach in emerging markets, and Africa in particular where it recently reached 100 million users. This $100 million budget is principally for the business in its three strongest African markets — South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya — where it plans to strengthen its product, grow its ecosystem of partners and bring more users aboard. Further down the line, it could apply the same approach to other countries in the region.
“We are definitely interested in more markets,” Jan Standal, head of global marketing and communications, told TechCrunch in an interview. “There’s nothing preventing us from initiating an extension at any time.”
Standal, who said the budget is expected to last for “the next couple of years,” explained that Opera’s marketshare in the three chosen countries is between 40 and 60 percent and, with that base, it is looking to make a major push into content.
“We’re stepping up [because] the purpose of the browser is evolving,” he said. “Particularly around news publishing, the browser is one of the main gateways to consumption. If you want to reach people [in African countries] you have to work with web browsers… and we’re changing our role from being a browser to content aggregator.”
Opera has long put a focus on media with its web browsers — both mobile and desktop — but earlier this year it revealed that Chinese parent company Kunlun Tech had developed a team to bring AI to the core of its services. News and content distribution is high on the order for its AI tech, which will be increase the personalization of news that the company’s browser surfaces for users. In Africa, the company said it wants deliver “personalized and localized content” to users.
Beyond working with content producers — Standal stressed a focus on “premium content” — Opera plans to ramp up its work with OEMs and operators to bring more users on to its platform, and double down on its data optimization technology to help offset the comparatively expensive cost of data in Africa. It also began running TV ads in Africa to raise awareness of the service, and what users can do besides just browsing the web.
Beyond those established gatekeepers, Opera has its eye on startups that fit with its mission of growing digital audiences in Africa. Standal hinted that technology around payments is one area of interest, but he declined to provide specific details around plans for investments or acquisitions.
“This is the direction we’re interested in but we don’t have any announcements at this point,” he added.
Opera is already working on widening its content reach in Africa — it initially began on general news and sports — and it has adopted a similar approach in other parts of the world. In India, for instance, it introduced Cricket alerts earlier this year.
While Opera has given any targets for its $100 million investment in Africa, Standal said the company “expects to see good growth.”
“We’re going after this investment plan because we have a very strong position in Africa,” he explained. “We want to continue to grow the internet base.”
Operationally, it has an office in South Africa already and is in the process of opening similar bases in both Kenya and Nigeria in line with this push. The company said it plans to hire 100 people across its workforce in all three countries.
If you’ve ever tried to watch Netflix or scroll through Facebook outside of a major town in Africa, you’re having the typically poor online experience most Africans are familiar with. Internet connectivity is notoriously bad on this continent with 1.1-billion people, but even worse when your try access content that sits on a server somewhere in the United States or Europe.
And forget about streaming video, which last year accounted for 60% of all mobile traffic globally, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index report, and is expected to rise to 78% by 2021.
Until now, a ground-breaking new internet device holds the potential to give Africans as first-class an internet and content experience as anywhere in the developed world. Kenyan start-up BRCK today unveiled its latest innovation that can revolutionize how people access the internet’s rich repository, even in the most distant, unconnected areas.
Called SupaBRCK, it is an industrial-strength upgrade of the original BRCK launched in June 2014 that aimed to solve the thorny problem of poor internet access in Kenya. Episodic power failures meant modems were often destroyed by power surges when electricity returned, and regular WiFi-emitting dongles (called MiFi) couldn’t support enough devices and ran out of battery life before power resumed.
But SupaBRCK is more than just a hardware router, it is also part of what the internet industry calls a content delivery network (CDN). These networks of servers host content (often called a cache) for Facebook, Netflix, YouTube and others. When you click on a Facebook or YouTube video, that triggers a request to the server and the video starts playing. If you’re on a fast connection in a major city such as Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg, that tends to be quite quick. But the further out of urban areas you travel, towards what the industry calls “the edge,” the slower – and more expensive – it gets. If that server is located in countries like Germany or the US, the connection is even slower.
SupaBRCK provides both the wireless signal and hard drive space to cache content on the actual device. That means a cellphone users connected to a SupaBRCK is watching videos stored on it, reducing the cost for cellular networks to stream it from a CDN somewhere else, and reducing the time it takes for the video to begin playing.
The impact of this is huge for Africa, most of whose inhabitants have mobile-only access to the internet. The cost saving is passed onto these consumers, who are using the WiFi signal emitted by the SupaBRCK and not much more expensive cellular data to browse the internet and social media.
‘SupaBRCK was born out of the need to solve the problems, not just of connectivity and power issues in Africa, but of edge computing and off-grid data storage,’ BRCK CEO Erik Hersman told me. ‘We started to realize how big of an issue this was shortly after we shipped our first products, so began thinking through a solution, both hardware and software, that would allow organizations to manage connectivity, power, computing and storage in an all-in-one device, designed for frontier markets, such as Africa.’
Encased in a weather and shockproof aluminium enclosure, SupaBRCK has 10-hours of battery life for power failures, has a 500GB hard disk that can be upgraded to 5TB and have several high-speed LTE/4G/3G GSM modems.
‘More than just a WiFi router, the SupaBRCK is effectively a rugged data centre in a single, solar-powered, all-weather box. The SupaBRCK board was designed in partnership with Intel and the same board has already been used as part of the Kio Kit product,’ says Hersman. The Kio Kit is part of the remarkable BRCK Education initiative that used a BRCK and 40 rugged tablets to provide school children with a multimedia-rich internet education.
Hersman – who is also the co-founder of real-time reporting software Ushahidi and Nairobi’s first and most successful co-working space and incubator iHub – understands just how hard it is to get good internet connectivity in Kenya and East Africa, where he has lived most of his life.
‘Internet access is really about two things; transmission of the internet connecting us with the rest of the world, and distribution of that connection to your phone or computer. We’re excited about what mobile operators, satellite companies, and even what the big internet giants like Facebook, Microsoft and Google are doing in Africa around this. However, they’re all transmission and it doesn’t solve our “last meter” problem of distribution to African internet users.
‘BRCK set out to solve this problem by first providing the hardware that works in low infrastructure environments, where we can’t rely on the power and where the internet connectivity might range between different inputs (SIM card, Ethernet, satellite, etc). We wanted to make a more reliable distribution point for the internet. We’ve also worked on the software side, creating cloud-based tools for device management as well as content syncing, all of this helps create a lower cost, more reliable and faster internet.’
Underlying the hardware is an operating system that was custom built for SupaBRCK that gives it the flexibility to control its own destiny, the amount of devices that can connect it, enabling larger drives, and add services. ‘Moja is key to it, and it’s where BRCK becomes a platform company, not just a hardware company any longer,’ says Hersman. ‘With Moja WiFi, we’ve created a way to provide real, free public WiFi and at the same time have created a system that businesses and content companies can use to access these same markets through Moja CDN.’
SupaBRCK, with its Moja CDN, will solve arguably the biggest headache for content distribution in Africa. ‘Most internet companies think of “the edge” as a data center, or content caching service, in a large city like Nairobi,’ Hersman told me. ‘They’re correct to an extent, but where they go wrong is thinking that the internet infrastructure for Africa is modelled like what you would find in the US or Europe. In Africa, as in most emerging markets, the issue is that your internet cables come into a country, do a fast local loop in the big city, where the CDN is also located, and the internet works fast there. 45 minutes away from the city you’re out of luck, the internet is slow, unreliable and more expensive.’
Key to solving this, BRCK has worked out, is thinking differently about hosting the content on the actual device. ‘If we want to solve the problem of internet in emerging markets, we need to think about the infrastructure of the internet itself differently – or, maybe we need to think of it as it was originally designed – truly distributed,’ Hersman told me. ‘To that end, BRCK started building a remotely-managed software platform that sits on top of the SupaBRCK, which turns each of these devices into a standalone microCDN – we call this platform Moja CDN. Where BRCK rolls these units out across towns and villages, public transportation and off-grid areas, then makes the Moja CDN service available to companies to purchase, just like you would do with Amazon’s AWS or Rackspace.
‘The idea of Moja CDN is to rethink Cloud infrastructure from the African context and locate small data centers off-grid, at the edge of the network. This Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), distributed network of servers and access points provides for an optimization of resource intensive media and mobile applications through a local Cloud.’
These could include ‘on-demand video services to public health applications like OpenMRS, the demand for responsive server infrastructure at the very edges of the network is significant and growing. Unfortunately existing data centre hardware could never survive in these environments and the business models for engaging with local communities are non-existent. BRCK solves both of these challenges through our ongoing efforts to rollout Moja and Moja CDN.’
SupaBRCK is the evolution of the very remarkable BRCK, including all the lessons learnt from providing quality education using BRCK Education. There is also the equally clever PicoBRCK, which is a smaller version aimed at providing Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity.
Kenya has long been known as the most innovative country for mobile – with its M-Pesa mobile money system that still accounts for the largest share of mobile transactions in the world – and SupaBRCK adds to that rich tradition.