Here they come, the networked whiz kids ready to dictate new trends and disrupt industries; the generation that found their way with touchscreens even before taking their first steps. Their language is coding, grammar is Instagram, and Google their go-to. They are the Generation Z, game-changing digital natives about to hit the workforce in a continent boasting one of the youngest populations in the world. Could they be the new class of billionaires in Africa?
Africa’s first fully tech-savvy generation, known as Generation Z, is coming of age, bringing to business more innovation and disruption than the millennials (also known as Generation Y, born from the 1980s) before them.
They are the “i-everything generation”, because they are hyper-connected, always plugged-in to devices and daring dreams. These professionals, now entering the workforce, have never known a world without smartphones or social media. As national development plans and Sustainable Development Goals set 2030 as their target for change, the first generation of real ‘digital natives’ that could make that possible, are here.
In South Africa, Generation Z is also the ‘Born Free’ generation, born after the end of apartheid.
These are today’s young adults, born around 1995, who have seen the impact on their parents of the ravages of the global recession and the threats of terrorism.
“It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be born between 1996 and 2000 and have a strong, emotional connection to 9/11. Your brain is simply too young to put the event in a cultural, geographic, or other context. From our research-based vantage point, if you were born in the US and 9/11 has always been history to you — something you literally cannot remember — then you are not a millennial but a member of Generation Z.”
These are the well-articulated words of Jason Dorsey, president, co-founder and a millennials and Gen Z researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics, on the phone with us from Austin, Texas, in the United States (US).
His research has led him to become a specialist in studying millennials and Gen Zers. He has also delivered many TED Talks on the topic.
According to Dorsey’s research, members of Generation Z need to be connected instantly and constantly, to experience stability, and to make an impact on the world. So much so that they have more in common with their friends on social media,who they’ve never met in person before, than with their own grandparents.
“What we find is that an inexpensive mobile device really does begin to connect people to the world and that internet access changes not just how young people see the world, but how they see themselves in relation to the world. That’s what’s so powerful,” says Dorsey.
“It’s pretty shocking when I go to work in some place like India and to see the similarity [to the United States]. The language may be different, but the interaction and the expectation are very similar. The key to this is they’ve got to be younger but old enough to use some sort of mobile device, or have some sort of a mobile experience.”
Not only are Gen Z well-connected, but they show signs of being a generation focused on spending money on experiences; are less accepting of information presented to them; they strive for realistic stability in the job world; are more advanced in searching for information; are curious to experiment on their own.; and demand a personal touch when it comes to buying or selling products.
“[It is a misconception] that Gen Z are big spenders. But the truth is, Gen Z are increasingly savers that are dealing with the aftershocks of the great recession. Many Gen Zers, and this is the quote that they give during our interviews with them, say ‘I don’t want to end up like the millennials’,” says Dorsey.
Linda Ronnie, a Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and People Management, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, in South Africa, says Gen Z are going to be a dominant force in the world to come. With almost five generations of humans now working alongside each other, Gen Z will take up an estimated two billion worldwide. In South Africa, a third of the population is under 21.
Gen Z are authorities on tech trends. They have never known a world where a question wasn’t able to be answered by Google. So what looks like disruption to older generations is a Gen Z norm. Fundamentally this means that they have a completely different view of technology from other generations.
“What we’ve found recently, is that we looked at how millennials and Gen Z go about ordering food for delivery or To-Go, which is a very big trend that we think is going to reshape the restaurant industry. What we’ve found is that millennials will use their mobile app, or restaurant digital website, to go and place an order. They went there because they knew what they order and it was a fast efficient way to order it. When we talked to Gen Z, we found that Gen Z wanted to see what the restaurant offered.
“So one went to order, the other wanted to search around and see what they had. Again not a huge difference in age, but a very different expectation of the digital experience and what drives them to use that channel,” says Ronnie.
Then there is the fourth industrial revolution. As Gen Z is coming of age, it will mean many will have jobs that have not even been created yet and they will be fighting for jobs with non-humans. We are entering the era where machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will impact the workforce.
This does not mean parents should panic and teach their kids to program instead of Mandarin, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“There are three things we focus on in Gen Z in particular. First is, we want to make sure we teach kids problem-solving and critical thinking skills, because that helps them everywhere and anywhere. It’s a core thing that we want to make sure we are doing. The second thing we want to teach them is to work technology very well, because technology is the grand connector and opportunity creator. Then the third thing is the idea of creative and open-mindedness. Because we are going to go through a time of transformational change, rapid incredible change, we want the next generation to not be fearful of that change but embrace it, embrace that newness and the unexpected because that’s what’s going to give them an advantage going forward,” says Dorsey.
For the Gen Zer, topics like equality and diversity will become even more important in the workplace. Major life events, like marriage and parenthood, are being pushed back around the world, even though it looks different in various countries. There is also a different attitude toward entrepreneurship with this generation.
“If you ask people ‘are the millennials the most entrepreneurial generation’, people will guess of course they are always starting their own business. In some case this is true, millennials are very much interested in entrepreneurship, they place it top among career paths and their heroes are increasingly entrepreneurs rather than celebrities and sports stars,” says Dorsey.
“But because of the recessionary aftershocks, Gen Z really does seek out stability right now. They want predictability. They want to know when they are going to work and how much they are going to be paid when. At this stage they seem more risk-averse.
“It is a very pragmatic approach to work and making money. So we think Gen Z will continue to be entrepreneurial but they are really serious about building stability. Being an entrepreneur is not the fastest way for that. What we believe is going to happen is Gen Z will build a business on the side but still keep a predictable income rather than what millennials did and went all in on businesses and it didn’t work and they had the safety net of their parents.”
So what does this mean for African business and emerging markets?
“They are going to be the drivers of consumer growth, they are the drivers of trends and they are increasingly the drivers of the workforce.”
In many cases this will mean developing countries, like many in Africa, will leapfrog and skip generations of infrastructure and move straight to the next big thing, vis-à-vis becoming forerunners of disruption themselves.. Look at the impact of mobile telephony in Africa for example.
“You don’t bring the mindset of a laptop or a desktop or dial up or a landline. You’ve both never had that experience nor been limited by it. So you come in a whole different level without being anchored to something in the past, which we believe is very powerful and can springboard you forward,” says Dorsey.
As the world waits with bated breath, hoping this smartphone-wielding generation will bring fresh ideas and profits, Africa must embrace them too. The disruptors, here they come.
Kiara Nirghin, 17
Johannesburg, South Africa
It’s the forward-thinking game-changing idea scientists spend their lives developing and a teenager from Africa beat them to it.
The source of inspiration – powder, found commonly in babies’ nappies that can soak up and retain large amounts of water like a sponge, and that’s now being used to combat drought.
“It’s a low-cost, biodegradable, super-absorbent polymer made out of orange peels and avocado peels.”
It’s not the conventional way to start a conversation with a teenager. While many adults would be left scratching their heads wondering what this means, Kiara Nirghin, the 17-year old science buff, explains.
“The idea came about was when I was looking through newspapers; any media I came across and everything was about the drought in South Africa and what 67% of the world faces. I realized this is a worldwide epidemic and there isn’t really a solution to the drought, or assisting crop survival, and helping poor communities, which it mostly affects, to combat this problem.”
From her home in Johannesburg, Nirghin, who grew up sharing notes on National Geographic and science magazines with her sister, the solution was simple science.
“I thought if you put [the polymer] into the soil of a plant it can absorb large amounts of water and also act a reservoir. [Super Absorbent Polymers] SAPs are already being used in agriculture. But I realized they were very expensive and not low-cost and, were chemical-based and not biodegradable. Being expensive, it didn’t solve the problem because most of the time, drought is affecting poorer countries,” says Nirghin.
Nirghin’s invention, titled ‘No More Thirsty Crops’, was so cool she was awarded the grand prize as well as the Africa/Middle East regional Google Science Fair Community Impact Award at the Google Science Fair at Google’s headquarters in California. Apart from giving her instant international credibility, it also gave Nirghin a chance to take a selfie with one of her heroes, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google.
“I knew if I didn’t take a selfie with him I would be really upset,” says Nirghin.
To her, the science behind the invention was more cool than the prize. She entered on a whim, having researched months before she even knew about the competition.
“[My research found oranges] have over 60% pectin and also polysaccharide, which if you cross link it in a polarization process become the qualities of a super absorbent polymer. I was very surprised nobody else hadn’t thought about it this way. So I took a lot of orange peels and started to heat them and see what cross linking would come up.”
Once she broke the science down, it was time to begin testing. Nirghin looked at water absorption in a basil plant for three-six months. Like any budding scientist would do, she used controls and other SAPs to compare her mixture. It meant spending months measuring the soil moisture daily, every three hours, for accuracy.
“The thing that surprised me was I didn’t add any water to these crops, this was for a period of 60 days and these crops were still alive. That was the main thing, keep these crops alive without constant water supplements.”
It was all worth it as the data she meticulously recorded brought exciting results.
In November, Nirghin signed a contract with an agriculture company to begin research and development of her invention on a mass level. The research could take two years; by 2020, it might be ready to roll out and start helping people.
Apart from orange peels, which Nirghin admits she’s getting tired of seeing, she is also done a TED Talk.
“When I was 13 I had bacterial meningitis, that’s inflammation of the membrane along the spinal cord. When I was in hospital, I realized if this is the strength of the brain to endure such immense pain, how can the brain’s strength be used for something else. That’s really what got me interested in science.”
She is also a strong advocate for women in science.
“Why shouldn’t girls be doing science? It shouldn’t be something we are talking about because everybody should be doing science and the fact that we aren’t emphasizing that is discouraging girls,” says Nirghin.
Among her many other interests, Nirghin enjoys watching Masterchef Australia, cooking and coming up with ways to prevent rhino poaching – her other pet passion besides orange peels.
“It’s a misconception that just because you are young doesn’t mean you can’t stop something, you don’t have to wait till you are older.”
Having finished matric with eight distinctions and ranking in the top 5% of IEB candidates for six or more subjects, Nirghin has a slew of universities that have offered her a spot including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US.
“My top priority is education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and understanding these fields I am innovating in… That’s the amazing thing about South Africa, it’s untapped. Everything is very saturated in Silicon Valley. To come back with knowledge would present so many opportunities in South Africa.”
A strong message from the Gen Zer inspiring Africans to peel off their layers and experiment; age is no bar.
Tayla Barter, 24
Johannesburg, South Africa
It has to be one of the strangest hobbies to come out of the internet – Cosplay or dressing up as your favorite comic book character.
For Barter, who goes by the name Kinpatsu, it’s not only a way of life but a way of earning a living. This is because Barter is part of a generation of entrepreneurs using the internet to turn their hobbies into a profession making them R50,000 ($4,300) a month.
“It comes from the word costume play and that’s the core of what cosplay is,” offers Barter.
It was a photo posted on the internet in 2013 that changed everything for Barter. A selfie of herself dressed up as character Jinx from the popular game League of Legends went viral. It was the first time people started taking notice.
Back then, Cosplay was just beginning to take off in South Africa. Barter was one of a handful of Cosplayers climbing out of cars and assembling their outfits in a parking lot before entering conventions. It was a fun thing for her to do on the weekends.
“We didn’t even think we would be leaving the country for Cosplay, getting international Cosplayers in over here so it wasn’t something we thought would be a business model in any kind of sense,” says Barter.
Fast forward to 2018 and a quick Google search later, and you will find Barter in hundreds of other cosplays. She now has 177,000 followers and counting on Facebook, 23,000on Twitter, 223,000 on Instagram. It has meant she’s now able to travel as a guest celebrity to geek conventions and compete in international cosplay competitions.
From her home in the leafy suburb of Northriding in Johannesburg, Barter has a whole business dedicated to the profession. In 2017, she finished 36 cosplays with an armory of drills; shelves of foam armor and a photo studio in her garage.
Key to her success has been selling her cosplay designs on crowdfunded Patreon, the hobbyist version of Kickstarter. Supporters pledge money and based on the money you put in and the tier, you are given a reward.
Barter found a demand to show how you could turn the characters from screen grabs into cosplays and teach others to do it. Cosplayers spend thousands building each outfit from EVA foam and PVC piping. Even more reason for hobbyists who need direction on tight budgets.
“I thought I’d give it a whole year and see where it’s taking me. By the end of 2017, I was almost completely booked for 2018. Conventions and Patreon picked up and now I can do it full-time,” says Barter.
As businesses migrate toward more online profiles, channels like Facebook have become smarter about making their own money from them. One way is to shape posts, or limit posts to your audience unless you pay to have the reach extended.
In Barter’s case, with thousands of followers, she is only getting 1,000 to 2,000 likes on each post, whereas a few years ago she could hit numbers in the tens of thousands. Another issue is what they call being ‘soft-blocked’. This is when a channel, like Youtube or Instagram, uses algorithms and machine-based filters to identify keywords and block your account.
Shaping and being soft-blocked can severely hurt a social media-based business, especially when those businesses make money from the hits on the internet.
Barter is a hero in her own right among the South Africans who dress as superheroes.
Lethabo Motsoaledi, 24 & Matthew Westaway, 26
Cape Town, South Africa
It was an unlikely partnership that brought two engineering students, who grew up worlds apart, together. Lethabo Motsoaledi grew up idolizing scientists wanting to be one, even though she was afraid of breaking computers. Matthew Westaway grew up in Rondebosch, programming computers and doing little else.
“My whole family was doctors, I wanted to figure out what can I not do that’s the same. It was something that needed maths and science, and then I chose engineering. I didn’t choose it because I wanted to program, I hated computers. On reflection it’s because I didn’t want to break them and have to fix them again,” says Motsoaledi.
“I was an internet person. I would always know how to fix any problem on a computer, going deep into the registry. That’s what I would spend a lot of time doing, finding viruses and where the files are. From a young age I was able to fix computers and know what you could do from the internet, solving challenges,” says Westaway.
They saw opportunity where other entrepreneurs see the internet and disruption technologies like 3D printing and machine learning as treacherous rocks rising from stormy waters. They also both want to be the next Elon Musk.
It led them to open their business, Motsoaledi & West (M&W), a Design Thinking consultancy that launched in January 2017. In just one year, they made R1 million ($86,000).
Now, the two graduates work through the night until 4AM to build their ideas. From their offices at the innovation hub, Rise, in Woodstock in Cape Town, they are infamously known as the post-it kids, leaving reams of the sticky squared blocks of paper in their wake as they bounce their ideas off the glass walls.
“Innovation comes exactly in a pack of post-its,” says Motsoaledi.
In their words, they help companies fast-track innovation through applying accelerated design thinking methodology. In an environment that’s so volatile a 17-year-old teen can make your business irrelevant, organizations need to equip themselves.
This is because those companies that are best able to adapt and embrace uncertainty and find creative solutions are growing faster and have higher profit margins than their competitors.
“People tend to think you buy the new technology and then you become innovative, but that’s not the case. The mistake is thinking that you just need to apply a whole lot of technology and algorithms in order to fix the problem. The first thing is solving the problem – what do the people need? Then you can start with using technology to improve the challenge,” says Motsoaledi.
Design thinking is the latest strategy for driving innovation in business. What they do is get companies to understand their customers’ actual needs and desires rather than focus on bottom-line profits. The duo believe that in order for businesses to thrive they need to transition toward customer-centricity.
This is where their self-designed machine learning can help. Using algorithms, the duo can analyze and automate transcribed text and pick up on the keywords from interviewees. It brings the data to life and can aggregate insights in minutes, saving companies thousands of hours.
“When you are using this kind of software and programs, sometimes you don’t know what it is you are looking for, or you didn’t know if it would have meant anything. You have to analyze it and let the data tell you what it is it is finding,” says Motsoaledi.
They can tell you firsthand how powerful this data can be. Using their own design thinking the duo established their 3D printing business in 2014, from which successful projects emerged; Printing a 3D ultrasound scan called Hello Baby 3D Prints; and The Hourglass Project, an interactive design piece that helps corporates encourage and track participation in Employee Volunteerism Programs.
“You pick up on a new technology and you figure out what it is that you can do to leverage it. When we were running 3D power we picked up a much more pertinent need that we needed to focus on the – design thinking,” says Motsoaledi.
And should we be teaching our kids to program?
“Girls have a lot of unlearning to do…Where I grew up, girls didn’t program. The way we think about maths and science, we should start thinking about programming…Thinking about all these innovators and inventors, as a kid, I always loved them. Back then, scientists were the celebrities. What I don’t like about society today is that a celebrity is not considered a thought leader or a celebrity is someone who only does acting. I like that Elon Musk changed that. I hope that in South Africa, people become ingrained in the culture of making entrepreneurs our heroes,” says Motsoaledi.
At the age of 14, Maud Chifamba, unable to afford high school and having taught herself at home, became the youngest student to enrol at the University of Zimbabwe. Four years later, she became the University’s youngest graduate walking away with an honors degree in accountancy.
There were signs of her proficiency from early on. Chifamba was pushed up a grade when she accidentally was given a Grade 4 exam and scored 100%. That same year, she requested a Grade 5 test paper and was pushed up even further.
When she was seven years old, her father passed away and she fell under the care of her step-brother living on a plot in between Kwekwe and Gweru, Zimbabwe. Having been unable to afford high school, Chifamba home-schooled herself, where her work and innovation earned her a scholarship of $9,993 to go to university. Online searches show her as “Africa’s youngest university student”.
Currently, she is completing both a Zimbabwe Certificate in Theory of Accounting at Chartered Accountants Academy, and a Masters in Accountancy at the University of Zimbabwe.
At 16, schoolgirl Abelwe Ndiki, noticed many of her peers were overwhelmed with their future career choices. She saw that many young people, especially those that grew up in underprivileged communities, were unaware of the entry requirements for universities. So Ndiki built the Guide Me app to help them find their way.
“I noticed that there was no application that was currently catering to the students’ needs. My app is different from other programs that try to tackle this problem because as a student I am able to efficiently communicate information in a language high school students understand,” says Ndiki.
“My inspiration moment came earlier in 2017 when I noticed a trend of senior students not having a clear idea of what they are going to do in universities or how wide the options are for those seeking financial assistance.”
Along with courses, the app lists bursaries and their requirements. A move which Ndiki hopes will improve the quality of life for students by opening them up to financial assistance options.
“It is also beneficial to students who cannot afford to regularly commute to town to access internet cafés, the fact that they can access the information from their phones was my main focus,” she says.
In matric this year, Ndiki took the app down off the GooglePlay Store while she focuses on her own education. She is on the lookout for a mentor who can help guide her career and business.
With just $15, this team of four young women from Madagascar started GasGasy, a bio-compost and bio-gas company. They wanted to tackle the rising issue of deforestation in the region of Itasy in central Madagascar, devastated by charcoal makers cutting down tapia forests.
“What is sad about it is that eight trees have to be cut out in order to have one bag of charcoal,” says Rebecca Andrianarisandy, one of GasGasy’s founders.
Taught by foreign volunteers who specialized in biotechnology, the friends thought this would be a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution for people instead.
“Now, I am 21 and the business has been running for two years now. Up to now, we have sold 27,000 liters of bio-compost considering that one liter equals $0.5.”
The bio-compost becomes a fertilizer combined with an insecticide. Andrianarisandy claims compost not only stops farmers using chemical fertilizers but also stops the soil from becoming infertile for years after, compared with chemical fertilizers.
“FamBIOlena is already proven to have improved 38 farmers’ lives by increasing their harvest from 10% to 65%. As a result, the product will create food security for the farmers and their community as well. ”
While the bio-compost is already being sold to agripreneurs, the team isn’t going to stop there. By 2019, they plan to sell bio-gas as well, having tested their cooking fuel in three households.
A true green innovation first for Madagascar from a young team of teenagers who believe they can change a nation’s ecological destiny.
Imagine a job that pays you to play computer games. Well Sharon Wiason, is doing just that. Fresh off a plane from a tournament where she competed alongside South African all-girl team Leetpro in China, Waison is part of a growing industry that plays computer games as a profession, known as esports.
“I started playing competitively at around the age of 14-15, I am now 26, so yeah, you do the maths,” she says with a smile.
“I think esports helps innovate my community as it provides job opportunities. I have made a fair amount of money, not enough to live off but a decent amount. I remember in matric it’s how I had money to go out with my friends… just won little tournaments here and there was great.”
These days, ShazZ, as she is more commonly known, has been kicking ass even against men. She is part of the Pulse-Gaming’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) team and is a brand ambassador of ASUS South Africa.
“It was very hard in the beginning for me, because you are a girl in a very male-dominated industry. I had to prove myself for a few years. I got a lucky break where someone took a risk and it kind of paid off,” says ShazZ.
At the age of 10, ShazZ was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus. She was unable to play sport outside, so she took up computer games instead.
“Games make me forget about everything. You go into another world, you focus on that game and you become the character in that sense,” says ShazZ.
After seeing floods sweep away mud houses in his country Tanzania, Edgar Edmund, then 15, wanted to make a change. He not only wanted to provide an alternative solution to the problem of expensive cement materials, which many people could not afford, but also solve the matter of pollution that was causing a wide range of diseases due to poor waste management.
“Tanzania is a developing country, hence most of the people here are low income earners, hence there is a high demand for affordable products which could at least enable many people to own their own houses regardless of their low incomes,” says Edmund.
The answer hit like a ton of bricks: make building blocks from the very waste causing the problem.
In 2015, during school holidays, he experimented by melting plastic waste in a homemade gas cooker. By mixing the molten plastic with sand he was able to mould durable long-lasting bricks, paving blocks and roof tiles. Edmund also came up with a way of filtering out the toxic chemicals, produced in the process, by engineering a dioxin filter using cooking oil.
The business is still young like Edmund, but he has high hopes for the future. By 2017, GreenVenture Recycles is a full operation with five employees. With more than 15,000 bricks made from more than 1.2 million plastic bags that would have otherwise gone into the environment, Edmund celebrated a turnover of $1,500 in December. The company is putting its profits toward expanding. He says his business has created 100 indirect jobs.
“Plastics are regarded as unwanted materials, that means we get them at a low price and that makes our products affordable but also on the other hand plastics binding sand makes a strong mix and this gives it a long life since plastic takes a long time to decompose,” says Edmund.
In 2017, Edmund was awarded the winner of the Children’s Climate Prize, sponsored by Swedish renewable energy company Telge Energi.