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I believe we will come out of this pandemic stronger on the other side

By Alexander Tsado

With shared empathy, indigenous problem-solving and an openness to sharing, I believe we will come out of this pandemic stronger on the other side.

COVID-19 has come to be a great equalizer. A new developing world is emerging where foreign intervention is at its minimum, and the elite have much slimmer opportunities to escape local infrastructure cracks. I predict we will finally get to see increased attention to solving local problems, especially with locally designed, sourced and accessible solutions. We should see a sizable swap of imported solutions for indigenous problem-solving that will have implications for education, business, policy and investments going forward.

During the last two years at Alliance for Africa’s Intelligence (Alliance4ai), we have prioritized designing accessible and pragmatic solutions that address the rising socioeconomic gaps across the world. We especially target the gaps Black and African communities face in getting exposed and activated to drive productivity with new technologies. We strive to put pieces of the puzzle in place so AI innovators in our markets can build competitive solutions that work for their people, and offer them better life choices.

So in a way, one development from the COVID-19 pandemic that we define as progressive is that there is greater opportunity for broad-based empathy. We are having a near universal experience of under-served needs, forcing bigger discussions about greater levels of community focus on basic needs that are typically challenging only for routinely marginalized groups.

I will explore how this is manifesting in the education sphere. There has been an unprecedented halt in the development of human capacity across the world, with the shutdown of schools everywhere. This halt is affecting kids and adults across all layers of the economic ladder, with long-term implications to social development we currently don’t know how to estimate. The World Bank approximates that $10T will be lost by the level of education being lost due to the pandemic. From past shutdowns like during the times of Ebola, we know that the most vulnerable left behind are very unlikely to catch up again.

When a smaller version of this education challenge started to pop up a decade ago in the West, the common solution was e-learning. This was the answer to the challenge – how do you extend education to everyone, when you can’t build enough physical infrastructure to support all who are interested and capable of paying to learn? The challenge with this e-learning solution that also gets imposed on developing markets like Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia is that it requires the internet to run, a “utility” that billions of people don’t have access to.

From our early research, watching a standard 40-hour course can cost $30, putting it out of the reach of a great majority. For example, the average Ethiopian earns $66 a month, and the average African American earns $110 a day — neither will be inclined to pay for one 40h course. This has always begged for pragmatic and perhaps indigenous solutions for distributing learning content, ones that include ways the people have consumed content for decades. Radio and television are some simple options.

Last week, I listened to Vicky Colbert speak from Colombia, and Madhav Chavan speak from India on how they are ramping up to offer regular school lectures through these traditional channels, to potentially reach millions more than can afford e-learning today. I see a future where there is greater adoption of a blended learning model, where people combine the physical schooling with courses they take online and those they listen to on the radio. I hope employers find ways to update their recruiting processes to accept these new modes of learning, and hire for capabilities they can test, not degree names from physical institutions.

I am happy to see this take off in Latin America and Asia, and I continue to seek out funders with interests in supporting learners in Africa as well. At Alliance4ai, we have had our focus on augmenting formal education practices of teaching information with our practice of teaching concepts (critical reasoning, problem-solving, collaboration), activating our learners to build competitive solutions with future technologies like AI, and delivering our program in ways the common African can access it.

Other key innovative and indigenous African solutions I recommend are uLesson by Sim Shagaya, 8B Education Investments by Lydiah Kemunto Bosire, and Qiesto by Femi Longe. They too are addressing age-old structural gaps in Africa’s education setup, like teaching about capabilities not just knowledge-cramming, providing African financing options and connecting learners to work opportunities.

We encourage private and public investors to shift from importing packaged solutions that don’t solve local problems, but to open their minds to radical indigenous innovations like those I described in the African education space. These solutions are designed with deep context of local challenges today, and are thus better positioned to serve their people in the unfolding tomorrow that is now being accelerated by COVID-19.

I am greatly encouraged and hopeful, as I see brilliant minds across the world stepping forward during humanity’s greatest time of need. With shared empathy, indigenous problem-solving and an openness to sharing, I believe we will come out of this pandemic stronger on the other side.

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