Do Virtual Worlds Offer Employment Hope for Africa’s Young Working Class?

A few months ago we reported on how East Africa's first reliable broadband Internet connection could revolutionize the employment landscape by allowing seamless virtual workspaces and long-distance employment.

Now popular newspaper Business Daily Africa reports on the benefits virtual worlds are bringing to the pan-African scene, and guess what – they include the myriad benefits virtual workplaces provide to a growing underemployed youth population!

Pixels and Policy takes a closer look.

Africa, Virtually

In our November article on Kenya's new broadband internet connection, we made the following point:

Employment is meaningful when
many Kenyans die of preventable diseases and illnesses of poverty.
Expect to see Kenyans ready to jump at any opportunity to do work that
supplements their often subsistence rural income.

For a nation with a work force of only 17 million, the internet and access
to virtual worlds means a lot more than a chance to play World of Warcraft.

Quite a few readers wrote us skeptical e-mails asking various permutations of the same question: On a continent that houses some of the poorest countries in the world, how will young Africans afford broadband access and the computers necessary to power virtual worlds? It's a fair question, and one Business Daily Africa approaches head-on.

In short: The rise of Internet cafés and shared computers, coupled with low-processor virtual worlds that can run in browsers (for exampel, IBM's business-based browser world through Web.Alive) means Africans have more access to the Internet than ever. Given advances in virtual conferencing technology, developing work-focused virtual worlds that can operate on lower-end systems should be a snap. Projects like Web.Alive are already filling the niche market with much-touted software.

Quick-loading virtual worlds operated through Internet cafés could provide a starting point for expanding employment and education in Africa. That's because in-demand positions like entry-level tech support, customer service and call-center representatives transition well to the outsourcing power of virtual worlds.

An employee needn't be in the same town or country as the company they work for, so long as they can speak the language and satisfactorily pass training sessions. Even language may not pose the obstacle it once did. As Business Daily Africa says in their article, "The Benefits of a Virtual World," translation services like those already present in Second Life provide even greater accessibility:

Translation devices let people surmount language barriers. Data
files can be shared instantly. Movement is controlled in real time by
the person behind each avatar, and also through scripted animations
that allow for increasingly realistic movements — instead of looking
stiff and motionless, avatars can shift in their seats, for example, or
follow the script cues for other smooth-flowing gestures.

As a cost-saving method of doing business, virtual worlds are proven. Just consider IBM's latest figures as mentioned in the above article: Not only did IBM save over $250,000 in travel and conferencing costs thanks to an $80,000 virtual worlds investment – they also added over $100,000 in employee productivity. That money means more potential jobs, and with it the uplifting forces of increased wage earning in developing countries.

That's real development, not just dead aid.

2 thoughts on “Do Virtual Worlds Offer Employment Hope for Africa’s Young Working Class?”

  1. Those are some pretty big assumptions. IF there are Internet cafes they can afford and IF they can get translation software and IF giant companies come and take an interest in them.
    I definitely see the educational possibility – access to knowledge and communities around the world. I don’t see the job opportunities for poor. Not yet. I think there’s a lot of infrastructure growth, both on Africa’s end and with companies who want to hire these folks, before this will be an affordable alternative to countries already with the infrastructure who already do it on the cheap – like India and China.
    Virtual worlds are a cost-saving measure, indeed, for fully industrialized countries – where people already buy plane tickets to meet, have big conventions in real spaces, already have computers and high-speed internet.

  2. Hiro —
    For an example of how this could work, check out rural China. The Internet cafes are present everywhere. They are the new bars, clubs and social centers. Young guys hang out here, smoking. They play video games, they watch movies, they send email messages and IMs. In doing so, they learn how to use the technology, communicate with their peers in other cities (say, to find out where the jobs are), and for learning. I personally know young Chinese guys who practiced their English by playing role playing games or watching Friends.
    The next step beyond that is gold mining. This is the lowest-level entry job for a young unemployed guy with basic gaming skills. As the gaming industry continues to grow, these jobs — while menial and unfilling for those in developed countries — are great for the youths with the lowest level of educations.
    They learn to work in virtual teams, in distributed work forces. Some are promoted to management, and learn how to manage these virtual teams.
    China’s domestic gaming market is now at $378 million after just ten years of existence.
    The majority of this is due to locally-developed games (putting to rest the myth that the Chinese are not creative!). The online gaming world gives young guys a clear and visible and fun career path — learn English, learn basic programming skills, get a low-level job with a gaming company, and work your way up to where you’re designing your own games.
    Contrast this to the blue collar career path: get a factory job, die young from an on-the job accident, and, if you live long enough, get promoted to floor manager.
    In fact, these kids are skipping over the blue-collar generation altogether, going straight from farming to technology work.
    But it’s more than that. Having access to the Internet isn’t just about language learning opportunities that might not be available locally. There are also free online tutorials in pretty much any technical area. MIT puts its lectures and textbooks online, as do some other universities, for free.
    The Internet Cafe is a path for anyone to pull himself (or herself — but when I’ve visited these cafes it was mostly guys) up by his bootstraps.
    — Maria Korolov
    Editor, Hypergrid Business

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