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Black youth must be brought into digital economy

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A vibrant and inclusive digital entrepreneurship ecosystem is a critical pillar of a strong digital economy, writes Lucky Masilela.

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By Lucky Masilela

WHILE the digital economy has the potential to be a catalyst for South Africa’s economic recovery, it cannot do so without drastic transformation in the digital space.

One way to achieve this is by training and upskilling our youth, particularly the black youth and women. While South Africa’s ICT and Digital Economy Masterplan states that digital empowerment needs to be the country’s next national policy, the reality on the ground cannot be ignored. The country has a massive inequality gap and all components of the digital economy must invigorate collective prosperity.

Currently, a look at the economy shows that white male-owned companies still largely dominate. There are numerous reasons for this state of affairs, such as the slow uptake of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, and an education system that is not geared towards economic growth such as helping equip learners and students to build a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

These circumstances are highlighted in a 2019 World Bank South Africa Digital Economy Diagnostic report. It says that while there is growing participation of previously disadvantaged individuals, and more businesses are targeting disadvantaged communities, which has a positive social impact, the digital entrepreneurship sector remains overwhelmingly white, male and middle class.

A vibrant and inclusive digital entrepreneurship ecosystem is a critical pillar of a strong digital economy. It not only results in new products and services, business models and markets, but also it boosts growth and creates much needed jobs.

A deeper dive into the lack of transformation shows that it is even prevalent in what I believe is the heartbeat of the digital economy – the Domain Name System (DNS) ecosystem. Many people do not know this, but DNS is one of the foundations of the Internet. It is essentially a phone book that translates human readable domain names to machine readable IP addresses so that you can perform tasks such as checking your e-mail or working online.

In South Africa, around 95% of the market is controlled by white Afrikaans men. At ZA Central Registry NPC we manage over 1.3 million ZA second level domains such as co.za, org.za, net.za and web.za and easily over 700,000 of these names are controlled by no more than 10 of these companies, which is about half of the market. The inverse of this is that this sector has a large SME market which is promoting domain name uptake. ZACR represents 95% of the total number of registrations in .ZA.

While it must be accepted that this picture will not change overnight, everyone operating in this sector can and must do their bit to transform the market and help boost economic development.

We are doing our bit this year by running a programme, which has been given the green light by the Media, Information and Communication Technologies Sector (MICT) to train 15 interns who are mostly from TVET colleges. By the time they finish their theoretical training of the DNS Practitioner Learnership Programme at the end of July, they will already start to onboard, meaning that they can operate as accredited resellers and/or registrars of domain names.

Between six and 12 months, we anticipate that each of these students will upskill to become a domain name Registrar, which is a company that manages the reservation of internet domain names as well as the assignment of IP addresses for those domain names including hosting.

It may be a small drop in the ocean, but it is a step in the right direction to not only transform the market, but also provide a tool kit to create jobs to the country’s unemployed youth and help eradicate poverty.

These kinds of programmes are critical in enabling growth. I always tell people that we are not entering the digital space, but we are already living there. Unfortunately, most of our citizens are on the periphery and not actively participating in the economy. These kinds of initiatives are intended to bring people en masse into the mainstream economy. And as a sector, we can all set up programmes to contribute to the bigger picture.

But it does not start and end with us. Helping South African learners participate in the digital and mainstream economies involves a number of factors, with education at the core. At the next level, learners must have the right tools and there must be a diversity of skills. And from the government we need an enabling environment such as ensuring decent connectivity across the country and a reliable power supply, while the private sector focuses on job creation.

The SETAs need to continuously analyse what gaps there are in critical and scarce skills, and then corporates and institutions of higher learning must be mobilised to fill those gaps. Let’s never forget that the absence of knowledge results in the absence of players in any sector.

* Lucky Masilela is CEO of ZA Central Registry.

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