How technology can address various inequalities of key sectors like manufacturing
By Veerakumar Natarajan, Kenya Country Manager, Zoho Corp.
Kenya, often referred to as Africa’s “Silicon Savannah,” is among the countries at the forefront of technological innovations in the region. The government has invested heavily in the information, communication, and technology (ICT) sector, recognising it as a key contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Despite these seemingly positive strides, we still live in a world that’s beset by various inequalities, whether they’re related to income, gender, race, or background. One need not look far to find them.
For instance, in Kenya, more than 8.9 million people live in extreme poverty, with the poverty rate peaking in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the country’s economy. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap remains a global problem, and, according to a report from the World Economic Forum, the gap is closing so slowly that it’ll take another century to reach parity.
However, policy-driven solutions have been developed to address these inequalities but, while these solutions are necessary, other strategies are often required to push the equality agenda further. One of them is to encourage the adoption of technology-driven solutions at a time when the fourth industrial revolution is changing the landscape of key sectors like manufacturing.
Impact of the rural divide on remote work
The role of technology in addressing inequality has been strongly highlighted by the events of the past two years since the onset of the pandemic. We saw organisations all over the world forced out of their “comfort zones” to adopt remote working models to support the continuation of their operations, as many workers moved from urban areas to smaller towns. This was primarily due to the loss of jobs and pay cuts at the time, and some could no longer afford the high cost of living in the city.
This shifted the scale. Where we had previously seen young and skilled workers relocating to major cities for better opportunities, those workers were now moving back to the countryside. One way of reducing the urban–rural divide is to retain skilled workers who generate income and create employment opportunities. Earlier this year, many companies began recalling their employees to the office on either a full-time or hybrid basis, with others opting to remain fully remote, preferring to remain in smaller towns. At Zoho, we’re building smaller satellite offices to service workers in these areas, which is also a trend other organisations have adopted.
That’s not to say that remote and hybrid work present a panacea to inequality. In fact, some experts fear that it will exacerbate gender inequality—but that’s as much about mindset shifts as anything else. The positive impact of remote work on smaller towns and villages should, nonetheless, act as a powerful reminder of the potential technology has to drive equality.
Does technology help you access more opportunities?
It’s evident that technology can open up opportunities for people who previously wouldn’t have had access to them. With stable internet connectivity and a capable gadget, a worker or a student from a low-income family can access nearly all of the same online resources as their counterparts from urban areas.
Likewise, people with impaired vision have access to support tools like screen readers that help them access similar online resources, while automated closed captioning helps hearing-impaired individuals participate in online conference calls. Despite the availability of such technologies, basic training still needs to be administered to ensure that these different users know how to effectively use the gadgets.
On the business front, technology also acts as an equality driver. For example, by using low-code tools, small businesses can create the kinds of consumer-facing and internal applications that would’ve previously required enterprise-scale budgets to build, most of which are not available to them. They’re then able to access increasingly sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) tools that they can use to build customer loyalty and drive revenue.
According to the 2017 Economic Survey, an estimated 7.5 million micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) contribute approximately 40% of the Kenyan GDP. SMEs are, therefore, a key driver of Kenya’s economy and a crucial entry point for examining how digitisation will impact the growth of this sector.
A right approach?
While technology isn’t the solution to inequality, it should, however, be embedded in any initiative that’s geared toward addressing this topic. However, this can only be successful if technology is made easily available to as many people as possible who are equipped with the skills they need to make the most of it.