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According to International Monetary Fund projections, Africa’s economy will grow faster than any other continent’s over the next five years. Hannah Hudson explains why flexible working is a huge part of that future
The African workforce is mushrooming, and by 2035, its numbers will have increased by more than the rest of the world’s regions combined(1). According to World Bank analysts, this expanded working-age population could lead to a growth in GDP of up to 15 per cent – equivalent to doubling the current rate of growth in the region(2).
The World Economic Forum is bullish on the economic possibilities. “This could dramatically raise labor productivity and per capita incomes, diversify [the] economy, and become an engine for stable economic growth, high-skilled talent and job creation for decades to come,” say Richard Samans and Saadia Zahidi, authors of The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa(3).
But of course, it’s not quite that simple. Only recently the International Labour Organization warned that both sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa are facing challenges in terms of job creation, quality and sustainability.
Despite the creation of 37 million new and stable wage-paying jobs over the past decade, only 28 per cent of Africa’s labor force hold such positions, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report(4). Instead, some 63 per cent engage in some form of self-employment or ‘vulnerable employment’, such as subsistence farming or urban street hawking.
Add to this the logistical difficulties for the stable wage-paying workers in actually getting to Africa’s urban centers. Millions in the continent’s congested cities endure long, difficult commutes. Kenya, Algeria and Central African Republic hold three of the top four slots for longest commute times in the world, while recent data shows that poor transport could cost South Africa’s economy a huge $104bn a year(5)(6).
The result is stagnation and emigration. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest emigration rate globally (1.5 per cent, against a global average of around 1 per cent, according to UN population statistics), due to a lack of decent work opportunities.
On the cusp of change
Yet change is coming. According to the World Economic Forum, Africa stands to benefit in a big way from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While the First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production, the Second used electric power to create mass production, and the third used electronics and IT to automate production – the Fourth fuses technologies such as AI, robotics, the Internet of Things, biotechnology and quantum computing.
Africa has already seen significant technological investment in its major cities, including increased access to mobile broadband, fiber-optic cable connections to households, and power-supply expansion. This, combined with the rapid spread of low-cost smartphones and tablets, has enabled millions of Africans to connect for the first time(7).
And as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, Africa is poised to develop new patterns of working. In the same way that mobile phones have allowed some regions to bypass landline development and personal computers altogether, Africa may be uniquely positioned to jump straight past the adopted working model in other countries to a more liberated future of remote and flexible working.
The rapid spread of low-cost smartphones and tablets has enabled millions of Africans to connect for the first time
A new way of working
In many ways, flexible working is the perfect fit for a continent with a geographically diverse, work-ready population and a strong mobile communications network, which lacks the infrastructure to support urban working patterns. Why insist on big hub offices and long commutes when there’s a way to harness talent from across the continent? Instead, the solution could be a distributed, virtual workforce, with companies that integrate virtual freelance workers.
It’s already starting to happen. A report on trending professions in Africa in the last five years shows that the number of entrepreneurs has grown by 20 per cent. And online platform work is on the rise, allowing many of these entrepreneurs to launch innovative startups that solve real-world problems and create jobs.
One example is Gawana, a Rwanda-based ride-sharing company co-founded by African entrepreneur Agnes Nyambura. The new company solves a problem – long-distance transport that gets people from A to B affordably – and provides job opportunities for East Africans. Travelers making their usual journeys are able to advertise any spare seats in their car using the Gawana app, and earn money for the trip by ‘working remotely’ from their car – in other words, simply driving to their destination.
Another example is Lynk, a Kenya-based startup app that connects users to their desired service providers – be it an accountant, a graphic designer or a personal assistant. With one in six people unemployed in Kenya, previously these skilled individuals might have struggled to find formal employment. Now they’re able to open the app, accept a job, and often work remotely to complete their assigned tasks. This system is also better for the worker, who’s able to track his or her hours and obtain references that help to secure further work.
A growing demand for African coders
Big global businesses are already starting to recognise the untapped potential of Africa for their tech needs, in the same way that companies did with India 25 years ago. In the new world of work, remote employees don’t even have to be on the same continent – let alone the same office as their employers.
For example, Moringa, a Nairobi-based coding school that develops African tech talent, trains more than 250 new students a year. Its graduates go on to work remotely for the likes of global bank Barclays, which has offices in countries including Kenya, Ghana, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia, and Safaricom, an East African telecommunications company.
As African cities such as Nairobi, Lagos and Kigali become major tech hubs with a wealth of well-trained tech experts at hand, global job opportunities abound. And, because of technology, individuals can work from their home countries rather than move to the countries where big multinationals reside, thus contributing to local economic growth.
An office away from the office
Flexible workspaces are becoming an essential part of a modern country’s business infrastructure. “For us, a high degree of interest has come from local and international businesses willing to establish a footprint in Angola, as well as from companies that need to rationalize and downsize unused resources, namely office space,” says Rui Duque, Regus Country Manager for Angola.
Two major brands that have used Regus to grow in Africa are Google and P&G. Google has 50 employees with Regus in Kenya, and P&G has 100 employees in the country. Though they have the finances and resources to build their own offices, startup costs can be expensive in developing countries, and getting an office up to spec with high-speed broadband, usable meeting rooms and desk space can take up valuable time. Plus, using flexible office space reduces the commitment for these big organisations, many of whom are still testing the water in new African cities.
African businesses are using flexible working as a way to attract talent. In a 2017 survey by Regus, by Regus, senior executives and business owners confirmed that flexible working could be used to avoid employee turnover (and the consequent expense of recruitment agencies), with 71 per cent of respondents pointing to flexible working as a perk that attracts top talent.
Flexible workspace is also a preferred option for workers. Seventy-seven per cent of African workers said they’d choose one job over another similar one if it offered flexible working, while 56 per cent would actually turn down a job that ruled out flexible working.
An exciting future
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the most competitive countries in the world are those that nurture innovation and talent in ways that align with the changing nature of work. If the trends of the past decade continue, Africa will have created 54 million new, stable wage-paying jobs by 2022(8). It seems clear that remote and flexible working will be a huge part of this growth.
Hannah Hudson is the editor of Regus magazine
Additional reporting by Harriet Constable, a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg
(5) The World Bank’s World Development Indicators, 2005: http://www.worldmapper.org/posters/worldmapper_map141_ver5.pdf