July 31

Becky Santora

Heads in the Cloud: Leveraging Cloud Computing to Tackle Poverty and Youth Unemployment

“I used to sneak into neighboring schools to check out the computer labs. At the time, I was so excited to see those ‘glowing boxes,’ which I now know are computers!” confesses Maureen Chebet, recalling her high school years. Now a 23-year-old cloud computing engineer at Digital Divide Data in Nairobi, Maureen grew up in a rural village about six hours from the Kenyan capital. As a school chef, Maureen’s mother cooked for the students – but she wasn’t able to feed her own family. Family salaries went to pay for Maureen and her siblings to attend school. By the time Maureen was 18, she was working in retail to pay for her and her siblings’ school fees, but college was just too expensive.


High Costs of Getting Ahead in the Informal Economy

Unfortunately, Maureen’s story is not unique. According to the World Bank, an estimated 11 million young people will enter Africa’s labor market each year for the next decade. Most will find themselves employed in the informal sector, deprived of benefits, employment stability, decent working conditions and social protection.

The International Labour Office estimates that more than 60 percent of the world’s employed population earn their livelihoods in the informal economy – that translates to 2 billion women and men. Specifically, almost 96 percent of youth aged 15 to 24 in Sub-Saharan Africa are employed in the informal sector. Evidence shows that the majority of these workers enter the informal economy not by choice, but as a result of the formal economy’s lack of opportunities. Interestingly, studies also show that the level of education is closely linked to employment type: 73 percent of Sub-Saharan youth with tertiary education are employed formally. The more education one has, the higher the rate of formal employment.

But education is only half of the solution. There is a lack of skilled workforce even among college graduates – 30 percent of firms in Kenya say the inadequately skilled workforce is a major constraint to business. Meanwhile, the level of digital technology and skills required for jobs is intensifying, especially in new sectors such as cloud computing. An estimated 45 percent of employers around the world are unable to find the talent they need to fill relevant roles.

In an effort to address this mismatch, intensive tech training programs and boot camps have become more popular. But in Kenya, these programs cost between US $1,500-3,000 and last 6-18 months. This is often too expensive for low-income students, and education loans offer little help, as most loans have short repayment periods and consume a high percentage of students’ salaries, especially in the first years of employment. As a result, these programs are often accessible only to those with access to capital, support from families, and a basic background in computers or tech. What’s more, the majority of these programs involve rigorous 9-5 classes and self-study modules. But lower-income students generally don’t have access to laptops, and with part-time jobs and family commitments, few have time for hours of additional study.


Putting Advancement Within Reach

Let’s recap: The majority of youth in Sub-Saharan Africa are informally employed due to lack of access to education and technical skills training, and at the same time, the demand for IT skills is increasing – yet existing training options aren’t effectively serving the students with the greatest need.

At Digital Divide Data (DDD), we see this as an opportunity to provide underserved and economically marginalized youth populations with training and jobs in next generation technologies such as cloud computing, data analytics, machine learning, coding and cyber security. Our mission is to enable youth from economically excluded backgrounds – known as associates – to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty that keeps their families trapped in a subsistence existence. Through our proven work-study program, associates are trained and employed in digital jobs. At the same time, they are provided with scholarships and loans to attend local universities. The combination of training, work experience and higher education empowers DDD graduates to attain economic security. To date, DDD has provided formal employment for over 3,000 youth in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya.

In an effort to keep up with the changing IT landscape, we are constantly assessing the market for new technologies to add to our trainings and services, to create more impact for youth at DDD and pave their way to further IT opportunities. To take one prominent example, in early 2017, DDD partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to launch the first-of-its-kind AWS Cloud Academy in Kenya to train, certify and employ underserved youth in cloud computing as a stepping stone to more advanced IT careers.

Attending to the greatest need, the first Cloud Academy cohort was comprised of 30 high school graduates from the Kibera slums. The training program is free to participants, as the cost is covered by DDD’s earned revenue and donors. Our intensive, in-person courses are tailored to students with little or no tech background. As a result, one hundred percent of the participants in the program passed the certification test on their first attempt. DDD has employed the graduates to support AWS-based cloud computing projects for DDD’s global clients – thereby gaining work experience. Maureen was part of the first AWS cohort. “It was eye-opening… but challenging,” she recalls. “Getting certified really opened doors for me.” Today Maureen is a certified AWS SysOps Administrator supporting DDD’s clients such as Enquizit and Rean Cloud with cloud solutions.

In 2018, DDD launched the second cohort with 30 additional associates, 70 percent of whom are women. They will be taking the certification exam next month. DDD is planning on training five cohorts annually, for a total of 150 cloud engineers each year. After graduation, these engineers will either work for DDD in various cloud computing jobs, or will pursue cloud opportunities in the growing tech sector.


Accessible Education = Improved Economic Security

The real impact of this work can be seen when comparing salaries: Informal workers in Kenya earn an average minimum wage of US $135 per month, while AWS graduates earn an average of about US $575 – 650 per month – a figure almost five times higher. These results are in line with the impact assessment of our programs worldwide, in which we estimate that DDD graduates will earn $175,000 more than their peers over their careers.

The combination of training and work experience propels DDD graduates of humble origins to lasting higher incomes, greater economic security and better futures. Their success will ripple across multiple emerging markets, helping to meet the demands of employers, while reducing the number of informally employed people – and growing their local economies in the process.  


Becky Santora is the marketing manager at Digital Divide Data.


Photo provided by Digital Divide Data.




employment, youth