5 ways innovators are shaping the future of work in Sub-Saharan Africa - RSA

5 ways innovators are shaping the future of work in Sub-Saharan Africa


  • Work and employment

Context matters to the future of work. In Sub-Saharan Africa, workers face challenges that are distinct from the rest of the world, and innovators are working to develop unique, context-relevant pathways to good work.

Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing quick growth in population and a demographic ‘youth bulge’, which means that the labour market will need to absorb great numbers of young workers. Many people are currently employed in agriculture and informal services, which are characterised by relatively lower productivity and little social protection for workers.

To meet these and other challenges, countries in the region will need to decide on a path to the future of work in their national strategies for economic and sector growth. This might rely on, for example, supporting industrial development. Countries could also decide to focus on the potential to ‘leapfrog’ to a more service-based economy, by taking advantage of technological advancements to bypass certain stages of economic and technological development.

In addition to the pathways set out at a national level, the future of work in Sub-Saharan Africa is also being shaped by grassroots innovators. To better understand innovations emerging in the region, we carried out innovation mapping research and discussions with relevant stakeholders, including innovators and experts.

Our findings, detailed in our new report, show the breadth and richness of initiatives that are clustering around solutions to certain challenges that are impacting the region. The following five innovations, ranging from government-backed initiatives to private entrepreneurs, give an insight into the pioneering solutions that are being developed.

5 innovations shaping the future of work

Ajira: digital skills provision, Kenya

The widespread provision of skills, including digital skills, is essential for individuals to reap the benefits of new jobs, especially tech enabled ones. Ajira Digital Programme is an initiative supported by the Kenyan government to give young people better access to digital job opportunities. An essential component is the provision of skills and training, including data entry, content writing, digital marketing and e-commerce. Ajira also offers access to computers in its Ajira Centers and Kazi Connect Centers across the country.

Harambee: employment pathways, South Africa

A theme that emerged from our stakeholder interviews was the need to couple skills provision with the building of effective employment pathways, both in tech and in other sectors. As one innovator told us, ‘the education systems have not caught up yet with the new reality’ and there is a need to create alternative pathways that are ‘a viable way for people to earn and gain their livelihoods and be recognised by society’. In this context, Harambee, a youth employment accelerator based in South Africa, is working to connect people to jobs through its tailored matching tools and provide shorter, more skills-based pathways to work. It operates in partnership with 500 African businesses, skills providers and public services.

Perks: social protection, Kenya and Nigeria

Amolo Ng’weno and David Porteous of the Center for Global Development predict that the path countries in Africa are on is one that centres on informal and gig work. While the gig economy can provide informal workers a degree of formalisation, it does not currently offer social protection, so innovators are stepping in to approach the complex system. In this context, Perks started as a benefit aggregator for freelancers and self-employed people. It is now carrying out user research on the needs of gig workers at different stages of their journey. Perks has found that workers often see themselves as micro business owners, so the benefits they find most useful are those that can aid and grow their business.

Farmerline: leapfrogging in agriculture, Ghana

High-productivity agriculture has the potential to contribute positively in terms of economic growth and employment opportunities to countries in the region. In this context, innovators are using technological advancements to support the shift from subsistence-oriented farming. Farmerline, in Ghana, is supporting farmers by providing information on weather conditions and market prices, among other things. They also offer a platform called Mergdata that allows users to access credit and digitise their transactions, which is important for building a digital transaction history. It also allows supply chain owners to manage and map farms, trace food sources and perform audits.

Mtabe: overcoming unequal access to infrastructure, Tanzania

Access to infrastructure, including digital infrastructure and access to the internet, is highly unequal along geographical, urban/rural and demographic lines. Innovators in various fields are trying to overcome these challenges by, for example, providing offline services, including in digital skills provision. Mtabe, an e-learning platform in Tanzania, approaches the issue in a creative way. Mtabe works by asking users five questions every day and allowing them in turn to ask the same number of questions. This is all done through SMS, which means that the service can reach students who do not have access to smartphones or the internet.

Leveraging innovation

Innovators across the region are coming up with ways to tap into the potential of technological advancements to solve challenges. However, as we have found in other areas of our work on this project, we cannot risk falling into the trap of solutionism when considering the role of grassroots innovations. For these innovations to have a lasting impact on people’s working lives, they will need to be complemented by other measures, including government policy and physical infrastructure.

Additionally, innovators benefit from the sharing of resources and ideas, and the building of ecosystems in their field. For this reason, we are setting up a Good Work Guild, which aims to bring together a global community of practice that can amplify good work principles, including by supporting relationships between innovators and institutional actors. To highlight the richness of innovations happening on the ground, we’ve also built an online directory which we hope can serve policy makers, funders, and other innovators to start scaling and building the ecosystems that are needed for innovations to thrive. 

The future of work in Sub-Saharan Africa depends greatly on both national and regional contextual factors, and innovations on the ground. Innovators have a vital role in responding in creative ways to challenges, including those relating to skills and employment pathways, social protection and access to infrastructure. With the right support, sharing of resources, and ecosystem building, innovators can scale their reach and make a real impact.

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