In a world where innovation is driving rapid and profound technological change, one of the biggest challenges we face is to ensure that technology is an equalising force in the world.
With five million jobs set to be lost to automation by 2020 and the global youth unemployment rate expected to reach 12.8 per cent by 2018, this has never been more important than it is today.
This could only be countered if everyone is empowered with the benefits of technology, along with the skills to use and create it.
Considering that 60 per cent of the population in the Middle East and Africa is under 25 years, our broad focus needs to be on ensuring all young people in particular have the opportunity to build the digital skills that help them to be future ready.
The best place to start is by expanding access to computer science education. This is because a lack of access to computer science education threatens to widen the income gap between those who have the skills to succeed in the 21st century and those who don’t.
Computer science education involves the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including their principles, hardware and software designs, applications and impact on society. A significant part of it relates to coding.
However, while our technologically-driven world will call for more and more technical professions, computer science education is also essential in developing students’ computational and critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
The applications of this stretch far beyond writing software — these are important skills for fields as diverse as engineering, biology, archaeology, music and even the business world.
Computer science education also gives youth a sense of independence, which encourages innovation and entrepreneurship.
Aya Yassen is an Egyptian graduate who had dreams of entrepreneurship but lacked the skills and confidence to get her own business off the ground. That’s when she decided to join the Microsoft Social Innovation Hub in Egypt.
With the right skills, Aya has developed the confidence to succeed as an entrepreneur in the traditionally male-dominated field of technology. Her app, Saydality, which connects customers and pharmacies, is now in the marketing phase and will soon be available for download.
Similarly, Peter Njenga was struggling to find a job in Kenya despite his education, and was working as a coffee hawker.
Peter got the opportunity to participate in Microsoft sponsored course where he learned coding and developed his leadership skills. He is now the chief executive of his own web design company.
We need to enable all youth to learn the principles of information technology and computing, how digital systems work, and how to put this knowledge to use through programming to create the change they want to see in the world.
Nigerian student Canice Ngumah believes the main purpose of apps should be to solve real-life problems. He took part in the #Code2Earn programme at Imo State University and now plans to build an app to help solve Nigeria’s electricity issues.
Martina Kalyana is another example of a marginalised young person who is using technology to empower herself and her community. She is an Iraqi refugee who was displaced to Lebanon, and in the process saw her dreams of becoming a teacher fading away.
Through the Microsoft Dignity programme, Martina attended IT literacy and digital skills trainings. She was able to reignite her dream by volunteering at a local organisation to train other refugees.
This is a small step toward empowering refugees to improve their lives and gain access to opportunities available to the others.
We need to encourage others like these young people to develop computer science skills because this is the single most important step they can take to prepare themselves to participate in and benefit from the digital economy.
A big part of this will be addressing the barriers standing in the way.
These include outdated public policy; misunderstanding about what the subject teaches; a lack of people able to teach it; and a misperception about the type of people who should be studying the subject. It is up to organisations in the technology field like Microsoft to help equip educational institutions and non-profits and break down these misperceptions.
It’s an economic and moral imperative to ensure our youth are equipped with computer science skills. When they use technology to create something of their own design by coding for example, it builds technical skill, innovation, confidence and motivation – all of which are critical for their future success and that of their communities.
Alex Nyingi is the Philanthropies Lead at Microsoft.