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Saturday January 28, 2023

Digital inclusion

January 25, 2023

The early years of the coronavirus pandemic brought so many changes to our lifestyle, including the way we conduct businesses. During the first two tumultuous years of this natural catastrophe, people’s movement was greatly restricted, forcing them to adopt alternative lifestyles.

This shift led to a phenomenal surge in ecommerce which still seems to be on the rise, prompting many countries to promote digital skills that may enable their young people to find multiple sources of employment.

A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) concludes: “as lockdowns became the new normal, businesses and consumers increasingly ‘went digital’, providing and purchasing more goods and services online, raising e-commerce’s share of global retail trade from 14 per cent in 2019 to about 17 per cent in 2020.”

This surge was witnessed in almost every continent and region. The UNCTAD report noted that an online marketplace in Latin America “sold twice as many items per day in the second quarter of 2020 compared with the same period the previous year.” And an African e-commerce platform “reported a 50 per cent jump in transactions during the first six months of 2020. China’s online share of retail sales rose from 19.4 per cent to 24.6 per cent between August 2019 and August 2020. In Kazakhstan, the online share of retail sales increased from 5 per cent in 2019 to 9.4 per cent in 2020. Thailand saw downloads of shopping apps jump 60 per cent in just one week during March 2020.”

Many governments tried to take advantage of the situation by promoting digital skills and drafting plans to ensure the growth of e-commerce. The report said: “Costa Rica’s government initiated a platform for businesses without an online presence, and a smartphone app and texting service to facilitate trade among producers of agricultural, meat and fish products. In Africa, Senegal ran an information, education and awareness campaign on the benefits of e-commerce across all segments of the population. In Asia, Indonesia launched a capacity-building programme to expedite digitization and digitalization among micro, small, and medium enterprises.”

The e-commerce sector saw a ‘dramatic’ rise in its share of all retail sales, from 16 per cent to 19 per cent in 2020. Estimates suggest that the digital retail economy experienced the most growth in South Korea, where internet sales increased from around one in five transactions in 2019, to more than one in four last year.

According to the UN website, the UK “saw a spike in online transactions over the same period, from 15.8 to 23.3 per cent; so too did China (from 20.7 to 24.9 per cent), the US (11 to 14 per cent), Australia (6.3 to 9.4 per cent), Singapore (5.9 to 11.7 per cent) and Canada (3.6 to 6.2 per cent). Online business-to-consumer (B2C) sales for the world’s top 13 companies stood at $2.9 trillion in 2020. Overall, global e-commerce sales jumped to $26.7 trillion in 2019, up four per cent from a year earlier.”

It seems that Pakistan has been slow in responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Only a few government institutions have launched programmes to equip young people with digital skills so that they can take advantage of this rising trend of e-commerce and online shopping.

In 2020, the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) in collaboration with the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) launched the Revitalizing Youth Enterprise (RYE) project. It trained young people aged between 16 and 24 in high-demand digital skills. Around 75 per cent of the participants were in the 18-24 age bracket, and the remaining 25 per cent were in the age bracket of 16-18.

Around 200 poor students from Karachi, Sukkur, Multan and Bahawalpur were selected for the training programme. The students were offered short courses on digital marketing, social media management, e-commerce and graphic design. Girls and women also participated in this online project that helped them earn income in a conservative society where going out and working in offices and factories is difficult for most women.

This training was useful for students of religious seminaries as well. One madrassah student who got enrolled in the social media and digital marketing course managed to get a client who paid him Rs28,000 for marketing his products.

Pakistan’s unemployment rate for 2021 was 4.35 per cent, a 0.05 per cent increase from 2020. Unemployment is one of the reasons forcing our young people to leave the country. A recent survey by an Islamabad-based institution shows that an overwhelming majority of the youth want to leave Pakistan where employment opportunities are shrinking. The future seems even bleak. Around six million people in the textile sector have already been laid off because of the rising cost of doing business.

From graduates of high-end colleges and universities to an overwhelming majority of students from religious seminaries, most people fail to find work. Pakistan has over 36,000 registered seminaries. Over two million students study there. Most of them do not have modern skills required to find a place in the country’s job market. Such digital skills projects could be a way for them to find decent sources of income.

The Ministry of Information Technology also claims that it has launched several projects that will train over 3.5 million young people in digital skills. It is planning to launch another digital skills project; over 800,000 students have already registered. The ministry claims that it is also working with the Punjab government to launch a project for freelancers.

But many experts believe that these training programmes are not enough. The PPF, the NRSP and other institutions should establish digital hubs which should coordinate with manufacturing units, factories, industrial concerns and service industries and learn about their needs. They should prepare the youth in a way that they could be accommodated there. These hubs should be a bridge between these trainees and businesses.

Many young people, especially from rural areas and less-developed regions, do not know enough about employment and skill opportunities. Proper guidance and training programmes will help them acquire the required skills. Also, digital skills training should be mandatory at the school level. If students of Grade 7 and 8 start learning basic courses of the digital world at the school level, they will be in a better position to hone their skills at the college and university levels.

The government should set up dedicated colleges to promote practical education instead of forcing students to study thick books of theory that are less important in professional life. The digital world is constantly expanding, and we need to take timely measures to get our share in this rising trend of e-commerce and digital work.

The writer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at: egalitarianism444@gmail.com

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