Somalia has lately been hitting the headlines for all the right reasons. Two of the world’s leading broadcasters – the BBC and Reuters – have hailed the country’s efforts to tap into the potential of youth in finding innovative technical solutions to development issues. One of these headlines from October – ‘First ever Mogadishu Tech Summit demonstrates leadership and talent of young Somalis’ – marked a ground-breaking event in the capital.

Attended by over 5,000 people, including young Somali entrepreneurs, innovators and techies, as well as investors, and representatives of government, civil society and development agencies, the 3-day Tech Summit was organised in cooperation with UNDP and focused on youth and the use of technology to build a sustainable future in a global digitalized world.

The popularity of the event and its wide coverage in the media contributed to a major change in the image of Somalia as a country dedicated to sustainable development and the inclusion of youth in shaping a better future. After so many years of turmoil, this change is necessary to signal to the world that Somalia is set on a forward-looking path.

The Tech Summit was supported by UNDP as part of a wider commitment to helping Somalia meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, UNDP Somalia has focussed on encouraging youth and technological innovation in support of fulfilling SDG 9, which covers ‘industry, innovation and infrastructure’ and aims at ‘promoting sustainable industries and investing in scientific research and innovation […] to facilitate sustainable development’.

In line with these priorities, UNDP Somalia launched an Innovation for Development initiative in 2017 to tap into the entrepreneurial talents of Somali youth in order to find new and smart solutions to development challenges. This initiative has already led to a number of projects, events and activities throughout the country, many of which have already produced very promising results.

The focus on youth in UNDP’s support for achieving SDG 9 reflects the remarkable demographic situation in Somalia, where over 70% of the population are under 30 years of age, combined with high levels of youth employment. The country’s future will depend on educating and training these young people for the changing world of work – equipping them with the skills they need to find and create opportunities for employment.

The focus of our efforts on innovation and entrepreneurship is closely related to this need for smart adaptation, especially in terms of helping youth gain the skills demanded in an increasingly digitalised economy.

Experience has shown that innovations in science and technology can be highly effective ways to boost development and help attain the whole range of SDGs. Supporting entrepreneurship, meanwhile, has proven highly successful in creating opportunities for self-employment and the start-up of promising enterprises in line with local needs and markets.

These factors and priorities have informed all of UNDP’s Innovation for Development activities, designed above all to provide young Somalis with opportunities to gain education, training and employment in the fields of science and technology.

Our recently launched Future Ready initiative, for example, gives young Somalis the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in creating new software while developing the critical-thinking and programming skills they need to forge careers in the digital world. This initiative has already inspired hundreds of Somali youths to come up with and share creative and innovative ideas while providing them with technical and business skills to make their way in the industry of the future. Our first two graduate teams – who came up with the amazing ideas of how to make transport safer in Somalia and how to connect blood donors with blood recipients – have already received their first funding from the private sector to bring their ideas to life.

We have also organized several innovation challenges for internally displaced communities, exploring crowdsourcing solutions to four specific development problems: access to education, access to water, safety and security, and childcare. Some great ideas, such as using clay water filters to ensure wider access to healthier water, are already in the process of being incubated.

We helped to host the first ever Africa Science Week across seven Somali cities, giving over a thousand Somali pupils and students the opportunity for hands-on training in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, including computer coding, mechanical engineering and electronics, and robot programming. Now we are in the process of establishing the first ever STEM Centre in Somalia to provide high-school and university students with an experiential education that excites, engages, and enriches through a hands-on, learn-by-doing approach.

We joined forces with the Municipality of Mogadishu to launch the country’s first innovative, integrated and collaborative digital platform that will serve as a space in which to generate ideas and help transform them into viable projects by involving citizens in every step of the way to ensure they have a say in the future they want.

These initiatives all contribute to bringing about a digital transformation in Somalia. We are working closely with the Government on the development of a digital transformation strategy, helping to harness the use of digital technology to build and deliver services and governance that is more responsive to citizens’ needs.

In the long run, this will help build the capacities of a government that puts the citizens first and meets their needs in a modern, efficient way – leaving no one behind.

All of these efforts reflect our belief that innovation not only works – but that it is essential for Somalia to achieve the SDGs over the next 13 years.

By Sandra Ismanovski

Feature Image: From crisis to cutting-edge technology – creating opportunities for Somali in the digital economy

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