Botswana gross domestic product grew by 6.5 percent in 2017 and forecasts point to sustained growth this year and 2018. However despite the prospects looking brighter, the economic growth has not translated into employment growth. Official figures put unemployment rate at 17 percent but indications are the number could be actually higher than the official figures. The most affected has been the youth who have been battling to find decent work, this includes the more than 87 000 unemployed graduates.
The diamond led economy still has a long way to go to heal fully from years of poor planning. The financial crisis of 2008 exposed the country’s vulnerability to global economic downturn as the country’s main export diamonds suffered from falling demand. In turn the economy slumped, and the government turned to tough austerity measures: a freeze on new recruits for the civil service, kept wages low with periodic inflationary salary adjustments, and reduced expenditure on investments. On the other hand the private sector equally bled as companies downsized on investments, scrapped expansion plans, with some companies going into massive retrenchments and others completely shutting down. All these contributed to any economic free fall that has made finding job akin to looking for a needle in a hay stack.
After one of the longest and deepest economic depressions of the last decade, some Batswana are taking matters in their own hands and chartering a new path for an economy that has failed to diversify from mining. In the new economic revolution, the labour market is undergoing transformation, and it is being driven by tech-savvy young people. In fact, the real driving force has been the rise in of technology as an enabler of work.
It has become obvious that Botswana’s economy needs new sources of jobs and for the young people the answer may lie with embracing new ways of doing things. With the rise of the digital economy made possible by internet giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber and other online platforms, the labour market is benefiting from the gig economy that has enabled unemployed people to find new opportunities to share their skills without compromising on their time and mobility.
While they are yet to reach mainstream status, tech start-ups in Botswana are beginning to shake up an economy dominated by the bureaucratic state and foreign owned multinationals. My Foodness, the food delivery company, launched earlier this year is one of the many start-ups that are cropping up in the country, providing convenience and employment to most people. Other local apps include Kgolagano an instagram like platform for showcasing the beauty of Botswana, Modisa app for those with interests in livestock farming, language apps for those who want to learn native languages, and a whole raft of apps available across major operating systems.
The story is echoed across the ecommerce sector. Moreki app, a version of Amazon, connects sellers with buyers across the country. Other start-ups disrupting the traditional model includes ICE100 an online radio station available via an app. The developers of these apps and the entrepreneurs behind them see an untapped market which arguably offers the best chance of private sector employment growth.
Still, there are concerns over the state of the economy which is proving to be a challenge to the gig economy. Despite the country having the highest number of mobile penetration, adoption rates of these apps have been disappointing owing to several factors. Kesego Tumisang, who participates in the gig economy as a software developer says there is lack of trust that exists, largely from potential clients who remain sceptical.
“Batswana don’t trust what we make. They’d rather contract an outsider with equal or sub-par abilities to do the job,” he added. “Lack of up to international standard infrastructure to facilitate the market we’re trying to penetrate (while simultaneously creating). We don’t have a good quality network around the country which makes connecting with faraway places difficult.”
While acknowledging government support, Kesego hinted that there is disconnect between drivers of the gig economy and the government. The developer says some of the funding opportunities availed by government are announced nearer to their closing date, leaving little time to meet the compliance terms stated. Government bureaucracy is also a thorn in the flesh of the gig economy that relies on speed and efficiency.
“To get anything of note done, many offices need to be visited. Target departments aren’t given their own individual mandate to innovate as required by them. If it don’t fall within the greater scope of the organisation at that time, they make no time for it.”
Even with the challenges the gig economy faces, its advocates are seeing a silver lining. Bonnie Dintwa, a media specialist and also founder of ICE100, says they are encouraged to forge ahead. “The reception from the public for ICE100 has been really good, at times surprisingly so. We knew there was a readiness in the market for new digital media players and we’re very happy with what people have to say about our product.”
The radio veteran, like the developer, added that the greatest challenge has been doing business, from potential clients not quite “getting” how their online start-up is different from terrestrial radio to them just not believing in the future being “now”.
“Very few individuals in the business community have embraced the new reality of having an app be the source of one’s radio, thus advertising and partnerships have come from forward thinking busineses such as Mascom, Cene Media, Dwine wines, FNB, Kwese tv, BTC and Dstv just to name a few of the very first to get on board, Mascom being the first. Other businesses will eventually catch up.”
Dintwa is grateful for the government support to expand internet accessibility, with the mobile networks regulator BOCRA pushing for cheap data packages.
“Once the private sector decides to embrace new ideas and businesses, we’ll not just be doing ok, we’ll be thriving and thus create much needed gainful employment and another notch Botswana’s business belt.”