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Unlocking Africa’s knowledge potential: Can mobile technology help redefine literacy?

ICT, and mobile connectivity in particular, has long been recognised for promoting and facilitating social inclusion in terms of the participation of individuals and groups in society’s political, economic and societal processes.

Gaming buzz: Players and developers gathered in Cape Town in February for Africa Games Week
Gaming buzz: Players and developers gathered in Cape Town in February for Africa Games Week - Copyright AFP SONNY TUMBELAKA
Gaming buzz: Players and developers gathered in Cape Town in February for Africa Games Week - Copyright AFP SONNY TUMBELAKA

Africa stands out as a continent with a youthful population. According to the World Economic Forum, over 60 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of  25. By 2030, young Africans are projected to make up 42 percent of the global youth population. As other regions experience an ageing and dwindling workforce, Africa has the potential to leverage its demographic advantage.

The continent’s young population offers an opportunity for global corporations to tap into a growing labour force, and it also positions Africa as a hub for innovation and invention.

According to Lea-Anne Moses, Executive Director and Trustee at Fundza Literacy Trust, Africa’s true value lies in its people rather than just the mineral resources that can be extracted from the continent. However, this potential can only be realised if young people possess the skills required to fill these roles, necessitating enhanced literacy at all levels.

Building on gains

Moses explains that with mobile devices: “Africa has a powerful tool for improving literacy rates – particularly among young people.  Before examining how mobile devices can play this role, it’s essential to note the progress that has already been made in Africa’s literacy rates in recent decades.”

According to data from the World Bank, basic adult literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 56 percent in 2000 to 67 percent in 2020. Moses says this is thanks “in part to significant economic growth in the region. However, as significant as that increase has been, it doesn’t tell the full story.”

There are still significant gaps in literacy across the region, Moses observes: “Even in South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy, there are significant gaps when it comes to literacy rates among the youth. According to the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, 82 percent of South African grade 4s cannot read for meaning.”

This leads Moses to ask “How can we reasonably expect the continent’s future workforce, no matter how big it might be, to compete globally if they’re already falling behind at such a young age?”        

This will not be straightforward. Moses considers: “Turning those kinds of situations around will require collective efforts from governments, educators, investors and civil society. But utilizing readily available technologies, such as mobile phones that young people already use extensively, can go a long way to helping.”

Using tech for literacy

For Moses the future is with mobile technology. To some, that might sound counterintuitive, especially if they believe young people spend time on their mobile phones instead of reading. But, as Moses  explains: “ICT, and mobile connectivity in particular, has long been recognised for promoting and facilitating social inclusion in terms of the participation of individuals and groups in society’s political, economic and societal processes. That’s because mobile phones offer the most direct, personal and measurable way to connect with people through content and services that are relevant and impactful.”

Another factor is coverage. Moses states: “They’re also near-ubiquitous in many African countries. The likes of Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, for example, all have mobile penetration rates of more than 100% (meaning that there are more mobile connections than people).”

Fundza has published more than 8,000 original pieces written by young South Africans on its LoveWriting platform. Moses says this shows progress: “Over 3 million youth spend close to 30 minutes a day accessing our platform annually, indicating a desire for great locally relevant content.”

With the benefits, Moses addresses: “It’s also worth noting that 66% of our readers have indicated that their reading has improved “a lot” and that content has not only improved their vocabulary and helped them gain knowledge about new topics but has also given many hope and a sense of purpose in these difficult times.”

There are other possibilities as well, beyond the continent: “That’s just what we’ve managed to achieve in one country. Imagine if the concept was scaled across the continent or if every country had a similar platform tailored to its specific needs. How many more young people would come from the formal education system ready to compete with global talent? How many innovative, world-changing ideas would come out of the continent? Where might those advances lead in 10, 20, or 50 years?”

Investing now to reap future benefits

Moses concludes, explaining: “Those are the questions that we should all be asking ourselves because reading and literacy are at the heart of all education. And if we want Africa’s young people to reach their full potential, it’s something we need to invest in en masse right now. And that means using all the proven tools, including mobile technology.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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