That the coronavirus has accelerated the uptake of skills needed for a digital economy is now common knowledge. Many businesses and workers are trooping to class to sharpen their skills to remain relevant in an era where every sector is being upended and dramatically transformed.
Mukundi Mukundamago is one of the people who are learning new ways of doing things. In the past three months, he has been learning data science every Saturday, virtually through video conferencing.
The South African, who is a PhD fellow at International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), has been in academia where he taught and supervised students, but realised that it was difficult imparting critical digital skills and knowledge he lacked.
“This learning lifestyle that I have adapted for myself demands that I challenge myself to learn something new. When the 3rd Deep Learning Indaba was hosted in Nairobi at Kenyatta University in August 2019, I had little to no knowledge about the movement for African Machine Learning community,” says the resident of Kasarani in Nairobi.
He narrates that the workshop exposed his glaring gaps in data science skills, prompting him to start looking for training on Artificial Intelligence, but to do that he had to study data science.
He would later register with Predictive Analytics Lab, a Nairobi-based data science training firm, where he recently completed the Introduction to Python Data Science course.
He says it is shameful when you find yourself unable to provide answers to an assignment that seems so simple to the facilitator who gave it to you.
Firms such as Predictive Analytics Lab and other institutions providing cutting edge digital skills are reaping big as more people in virtually every field seek to align their training with modern trends in the market place. Predictive Analytics for instance is attracting students from across Africa who are keen to acquire critical technology skills.
Leila Ojuka, a fashion designer in Nairobi who recently acquired data skills told Digital Business that in the digital era, such skills will be crucial to better comprehend the ever changing face of careers.
“Data science cuts across every profession and even helps you get a better understanding in your area of work,” says the Lavington resident.
When she enrolled for the course, many of her friends laughed her off, wondering how data connects with fashion design, but she knew the immense benefits that lie with proper data analysis skills, now that businesses have moved online.
“Most people think it (data science) is too complicated but that is not the case since it deals with facts. It doesn’t involve things that are beyond human understanding. Anyone can do it, the young and the old, small business owners and also heads of large corporates,” she explains.
Luqman Mugerwa, an analyst in Uganda, says going through the Predictive Analytics course was fun though it takes a great deal of concentration.
“I learned data analysis with Python using libraries like Pandas, NumPy, and visualisation using Seaborn that is based on Matplotlib and also Machine Learning. I hope to apply this knowledge in my job, Python being a more powerful data analysis tool than Excel, which I have for long been using,” says the 33-year-old analyst at NSSF Uganda.
Bridget Nabirye, a computer scientist in Kampala says data science skills are critical especially for all careers, since solutions in the Fourth Industrial Revolution rely on data.
“I learned how to sort and align data in a visual way. I work with an organisation that uses a lot of data, so I will use these skills to solve analytical problems,” says the 30-year-old data integrity officer, who obtained training at Predictive Analytics.
Regional head of strategy and research at Dlight Solar Limited in Nairobi Douglas Gavala says even as market needs drift, organisations have a lot of data but are unable to build up insights from that data.
“This got me thinking, why not get this skill? Artificial Intelligence is the in-thing, beyond 60 percent of activities in the world are automated, therefore more careers will become obsolete,” remarks the PhD student.
He says through the course he is now able to do data coding, scripting, analysis, interpretation, presentation, data cleaning and visualisation.
“It gives me an edge in the market. It has boosted my career growth,” Mr Galava says.
Introductory digital course at Predictive Analytics costs Sh20,000 per month. The intermediary course costs Sh10,000 more while the advanced level where you design data algorithms from scratch costs Sh40,000 per month. All run for three months.
But while there has been a couple of free online data science courses especially during the pandemic period, chief executive of Predictive Analytics Lab Timothy Oriedo says Africans need to be cautious and avoid jumping on any available course.
“Free is expensive and here is why. Just like any professional discipline, data science has many sub fields with varying levels of learning curves and industry applications. Jumping into a course without an appreciation of level of complexity and suitability to your professional background is detrimental as it might lead to abandonment of the course half way,” he says.
There is also the risk of transfer of the wrong knowledge and applications as online courses pick data sets from developed economies, yet the skills are needed for a developing Africa.
“The data sets used in free online courses are synthetically generated or with less relevance in business applications. One commonly used data set is the Titanic ship wreck passenger that's used to predict survival rate. The relevance of such use case in practical business application is very narrow. There are many more others,” he asserts.
Another challenge is that online courses even ones offered by credible academic institutions do not offer certified credentials. When they do, learners are asked to pay extra and it is expensive.
“One needs to show evidence and proof that they have a skill and the industry standard for this is a professional certificate.”
His firm, registered under the Kenya Industrial Training Authority, has so far seen over 2,000 professionals from various careers in Africa get equipped with Data Science skills.