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Google Africa has ramped up its skills programme and aims to train 1,000,000 Africans in digital skills over the next
year. Luke Mckend, Google SA Country Director, talks about why it is important for Africans to be not just digitally literate, but digitally proficient.

Google estimates that there will be half-a-billion internet users in Africa by 2020. This presents an opportunity for African entrepreneurs to expand their reach. At the same time, digital growth may spell job opportunities for Africa’s high numbers of unemployed youth. But education in digital skills is lacking, so a skills shortage exists in digital technology.

First, the bad news

The formal employment environment for young, unqualified South Africans looks quite bleak. According to a study by Derek Yu, Atoko Kasongo and Mariana Moses (all lecturers in economics at the University of the Western Cape), “the high unemployment rate for job seekers under the age of 35 is extremely high. A staggering 58.4% of 18–29 year-olds have never worked before.”

The study also found that, for job-seekers, having a matric certificate offers only a marginal advantage over an early school-leaver, but employers are far less likely to hire someone without a tertiary qualification than they were 10 years ago (in 1996), when the unemployment rate among matriculants stood at some 17.2%.

The report also found that the demand for unskilled workers is decreasing. Added to urbanisation and population growth, there is ever more pressure on the youth job market.

An opportunity knocking

Research published in 2012 by Arthur Goldstuck demonstrated that companies with websites [and that engage with their customers through the web] are more successful, and employ more people. Mckend says that this continues to be true.

“Entrepreneurship is almost more important in SA, and the rest of Africa, than elsewhere in the world,” he says, adding that Google will over-index on small businesses because they are seen as disproportionately more important.

In the World Wide Worx survey, the importance of the internet for both small businesses and employment in SA was revealed. 410 000, or 43%, of active, formal SMEs have a website. But more telling was the fact that 150 000 SMEs in SA would go out of business without a web presence. “Since SMEs account for some 7.8m jobs, this means that 1.56m jobs would in jeopardy, were it not for the internet,” says Goldstuck.

So, on the one hand, SA has a vast pool of unemployed, unskilled workers and potential entrepreneurs; on the other hand, the digital tech environment is exploding… The question is can these young entrepreneurs be upskilled for the ICT sector, despite their poor educational grounding?

With the Digital Skills programme, the idea is to train a million people with a base level of digital skills, who can then work with creatives who are developing and creating businesses and new content, Mckend explains. “We will have different tiers of engagement to help create the future we want,” he says.

“Managing a company’s digital footprint could be an important first step into the workplace for a young person looking for a job. Digital skills cover so much of what we do in a business or personal sphere — having skills to manage that is critical,” he adds.

The fourth industrial revolution is a term often used to describe the technological advances that are expected to change society in the near future —it has already started to happen. Robotics, nanotech, biotech, and materials science are just a few of the new technologies that are impacting our lives. But, for Africa to be part of this, to ‘leapfrog’ the revolution, Mckend says we have to be proactive. “Without this, the future is not going to happen,” he declares.

What is required

In practice, this takes infrastructure — electricity and internet connectivity. Mckend says that Google, together with other organisations, has been involved in trialling SA’s TV white space for distributed internet connectivity. White space is the bandwidth that’s available between TV channels — unused frequencies that can be used for WiFi connectivity. In the Western Cape, the case has been proven, so everyone is waiting for the regulators to unlock the space. “Distributing the infrastructure that we normally rely on — physical cables — can be expensive and take time; they require municipal regulations to be complied with, there are right of way negotiations, etc. So this would be a more feasible way of connecting people,” says Mckend.

Google has invested heavily in Uganda to provide a metro fibre infrastructure for the city of Kampala, which integrates with the existing ISPs, rather than competing with them. Known as Project Link, further deployments are in the pipeline for the Ghanaian cities of Accra, Tema and Kumasi. He says, “You unlock new business models, consumers reach content that they could never in the past; consumption goes up, video content becomes more prevalent, distribution capacity is increased, so there is now a new business model — it literally changes the game where this infrastructure is deployed.”

When asked about Google’s speculative projects such as Loon, the proposed WiFi access system that would provide connectivity for remote areas via a network of high-altitude balloons, Mckend is upbeat. Many people assumed this project had lost impetus, but Mckend insists it is still being trialled, and, given the correct commercial models, still has the potential to make a difference.

Support and development

Mckend arcs back to people development, and says that, aside from the digital skills programme, Google has supported developers throughout Africa since it set up shop here. This is why the search giant launched Google Developer Groups, to create and support communities of developers to share skills, upskill and support in terms of the ability to create new businesses. He says that these are “developers who create businesses in a very practical way — it’s important to have that depth.”

The creative sphere presents opportunities as well, as evidenced (for example) by the success of the creators of Suzelle DIY. What started as a short web series is now being broadcast on TV, and the sponsors have been lining up. There has even been a spinoff book. “Previously, video content was largely created well beyond our shores. Commercially, for the first time in Africa, we have crossovers from digital to traditional media; stars are being created on digital first, and then crossing over to a variety of other media,” says Mckend.

In the sphere of music, ‘unknown’ African artists are reaching hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, fulfilling a thirst for local content.

So much more

There was a time, not so long ago, that Google easily mirrored the moniker used so often to describe it, namely: “search giant”. The truth is that, nowadays, Google is so much more. As Mckend puts it, “Search was all about bringing information closer to people in a more efficient way. This goes to Google’s original mission — to make the world’s information universally accessible to everyone. This lives close to the hearts of the founders, and to those people who consider Google’s future.

“Google can only thrive when people have access, so we need an ecosystem that is built around digital technology to the benefit of business, consumers and government — a virtuous circle where Google is part of an environment that is constantly growing.”

About Luke Mckend

Luke Mckend is the country director of Google South Africa.
Follow him on Twitter: @lmckend