When historians look back at our age and reflect on this crucial moment in history, as Africa faces the tantalising but realistic prospect of becoming what the African Union calls a ‘transformed continent,’ in which sustained prosperity takes root and malnutrition and disease are finally eradicated, they may conclude that three factors in particular led to economic success: a determined effort to develop the digital economy, a drive to embrace innovation and a range of measures to support young entrepreneurs starting out in business. Normally, few people, other than senior political leaders, are given the responsibility for developing initiatives and policy in these crucial areas but Côte d’Ivoire’s Linda Nanan Vallée is one of them.
She is the senior adviser in charge of innovation, new ICT jobs and support for start-ups at Côte d’Ivoire’s Ministry of Communication, Digital Economy and the Post. She is also the Executive Director of the ‘Fondation Jeunesse Numérique,’ (the Digital Youth Foundation) which was “created by the ministry to raise awareness” and is funded by both the ministry and a consortium of other stakeholders.
Well travelled and highly educated, Linda had been working in the private sector in the UK, France and the USA before she accepted the job with the ministry.
“I had been working for about a decade in different companies spread over four countries on three continents: telecom equipment manufacturer, consulting firm, mobile operator, banking group. The projects I dealt with aimed at improving the quality of offered services (security solutions for network service providers, software quality assurance, ATM security, better firewall management), as well as developing new interconnection links and value-added services. In 2015, when I came back to Cote d’Ivoire, I started teaching in private and public universities and schools. Then, in 2016, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Post interviewed me, and henceforth, I became the first woman to join the team of Senior Advisers to the Minister, where I am in charge of innovation, training, promoting new ICT jobs and accompanying tech start-ups. I am grateful for the richness of my professional experience.”
The main focus of Linda’s attention in her role at the ministry has been on raising awareness, opening up new opportunities for ICT education for young people and promoting the country’s innovative technology start-ups and engineers internationally. She is already beginning to have an impact. When Paris-based venture capital firm Partech announced the launch last year of a $70 million Africa fund, which will focus on tech start-ups and the digital economy, managing partner Tidjane Deme mentioned Cote d’Ivoire as one of the countries where they were looking to identify ventures for investment. The country is certainly beginning to attract international attention. Last year, the social start-up studio Janngo, which is based in Côte d’Ivoire, raised $1.18 million to launch new digital solutions for SMEs and to open offices in Paris and Abidjan.
Such deals, although important, are a fraction of what Linda believes is possible if young people are exposed to ICT from an early age and also encouraged to believe in entrepreneurship and their potential role as job creators, rather than simply as employees. The Digital Youth Foundation has now become the main focus of the Ivorian Government’s efforts to raise awareness and introduce young people to opportunities in the digital economy.
“The main missions of the Foundation are to raise awareness about digital entrepreneurship, detect and support innovative projects, and improve the tech start-up ecosystem in Cote d’Ivoire,” she says. “Since our creation, we have received more than 1400 applications, incubated 260 projects and accelerated about 50 tech start-ups. The third call for projects was launched in May 2019… Here we are used to saying that the Foundation transforms jobseekers into job creators, which is extremely powerful, in particular within a context of high youth unemployment.”
Among the start-ups, which DYF has identified and supported, most have between three and six employees on average but some now employ dozens of people and one firm took on its one hundredth member of staff last year. Some of the jobs created conform to traditional types – office manager or accountant, for example – but others are much newer and include community managers, data analysts and artificial intelligence experts.
“Those young people are talented and so much deserve to be trained, advised, connected, mentored and assisted with fundraising. Several of our ‘start-uppers’ have won national and international prizes, such as the Cote d’Ivoire National Prize of Excellence and the AfDB Africa Investment Forum Best Young SMEs in Technology.”
The DGF offers a variety of services to young entrepreneurs, including an imaginative ‘incubation and acceleration programme,’ which offers coaching at weekends and even office space. There is even the possibility of introductions to potential partners, clients and investors, including ‘business angels’ and venture capital firms.
“The model of the Foundation itself is innovative and inspiring,” says Linda. “The Digital Youth Foundation has several ongoing initiatives, among which the Digital Youth Caravan (is) going throughout the country. We also train young people in entrepreneurship, financial education, coding and robotics. Within a few months, we have reached about 2500 young people in 7 towns in Cote d’Ivoire and this is excluding the economic capital of Abidjan, where the caravan will arrive towards the end of 2019. As a new initiative, we are also working on a catalogue of products and services from our start-ups, in order to better promote those.”
Linda is convinced that the success of the Digital Youth Foundation can be replicated in other African countries, although she doesn’t believe they can simply be issued with a standard set of instructions.
“Rather than giving lessons, the Foundation is very open to work with all partners and share good practices. Last year, the ICT Minister of Benin spent some time with us, along with the Deputy Director of Cabinet of the Ministry of Digital Economy, the President of the Board of the Foundation who is the CEO of the ‘technopole’ and free trade zone called VITIB, our start-ups and my whole team. This was a wonderful moment of sharing thoughts and planning on collaborative actions for the development of Africa through innovation. The model of the Foundation itself is innovative and inspiring.”
Her experience has made her optimistic about the prospects for both Côte d’Ivoire and Africa as a whole.
“I am realistic but also a believer,” she says. “Things will improve significantly if sufficient investment is made towards the key goals of digital entrepreneurship support and employability improvement through adequate training.”
She has no doubt that investment in the telecommunications sector is crucial for development. It is also vital for ensuring the continuing spread of the benefit of education and training across the continent.
“The telecommunications sector is key for the development of Africa. In
Côte d’Ivoire today, the digital economy counts for about 9% of the GDP, and the mobile penetration rate exceeded 130%. Relatively to education and training, the better the digital infrastructures and services, the better access to worldwide knowledge through MOOCs, websites and relevant applications. In Côte d’Ivoire, much progress has been made regarding the legal framework, development of infrastructures and e-services, training and innovation support. However, accessibility still needs to be significantly improved and more local content must be developed.”
Another factor that will be vital for success in the future is the development of skills that are relevant to the needs of modern employers. This means that African countries must focus on enabling young people to acquire so-called ‘soft skills.’
“Soft skills are crucial for employability, in particular, the ability to communicate, get properly organised, honour deadlines, work as part of a team, ‘auto learn’ and adapt oneself. Furthermore, our labour markets suffer from the lack of ‘adequation’ between some school curricula and expectations from companies. The good news is that some work is being done to address this issue.”
Linda Nanan Vallée will be a keynote speaker at eLearning Africa this year. The conference, which will be accompanied by an exhibition of innovative products, services and courses, will take place in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire from 23 – 25 October 2019. For more information or to book a ticket, please visit www.elearning-africa.com.