In 2019, Baraka Mafole, then 19, gained admission into the National Institute of Transport (NIT), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to undertake a bachelor’s degree in information technology (IT). He was excited about this. But then, things took a wrong turn. 

After discovering that his fellow students were making money online, Mafole decided to join them; he spent hours learning digital skills. But this distracted him from attending classes. As a result, he failed his first-year university exams and was expelled from the university. He didn’t sulk, though. Instead, he started applying for opportunities at different companies. At first he was rejected by many companies he pitched to because, according to them, he wasn’t skilled enough. 

He pored over online courses on YouTube, Udemy, and other educational technology platforms to learn more about digital marketing and social media management. After upskilling, he resumed his search for jobs. This time around, he was successful; a startup in Dar es Salaam hired him as a social media manager. 

But 4 months into the job, he quit. His confidence in his skills had grown, and he was receiving multiple offers for lucrative digital marketing and design gigs. 

In 2020, he decided to become a full-time freelancer. That same year, he registered on online freelancing platform, Upwork, and since he joined, he has earned at least $4,000 from gigs—over a dozen times more than the country’s upper range TZS 315,000 ($135) for minimum wage. He has been awarded a top-rated badge (for earning more than $1,000 on the platform). 

Shortly after he began making money on Upwork, he began sharing his freelancing journey online, which helped him build a large online following and get invited to speak at events.

In the last decade, the Tanzanian digital ecosystem has evolved as more Tanzanian citizens have access to digital services.  In 2010, just 18.5% of the country’s population had mobile phones. That number has grown 6-fold to reach 82% or 50 million people in 2021. Similarly, mobile internet penetration has grown 5-fold from 2.9% or 3 million people in 2010 to 25% or 15 million people in 2021—with 12 million new mobile internet subscribers added over the decade. Within this period, the East African country has seen significant economic growth—average annual GDP growth of 7%—which has improved the lives of its citizens. This growth and improvement in quality of living can be traced to the use of digital technologies to improve access to key services such as education, agricultural market information, healthcare, financial services and employment, through digital technologies. 

In recent years, Tanzania has seen heavy investments in fibre infrastructure in recent years to connect more Tanzanians to the internet. Back in 2016, the government updated the Tanzanian National ICT Policy of 2003, in what serves as a recognition of the contribution of the ICT sector to promoting socio-economic development in the country. 

Digital technology is poised to help Tanzania in achieving its developmental goals. Already, the mobile industry contributes 5.2% (or $5.2 billion) to Tanzania’s GDP, and employs 2.6 % (or 1.5 million) of its total population.

But despite having an impressive 2.6% unemployment rate, millions of young Tanzanians remain unemployed, and the skills of those that are currently employed risk becoming obsolete in the coming years if they don’t book their place in the digital economy. 

From university withdrawal to helping thousands of unemployed

During his one year away from school, Mafole discovered that a communication degree could improve his chances of getting higher-paying gigs. So in 2021, he returned to the University of Dar es Salaam to study communication.

One day in May 2021, another enterprising Tanzanian, Leyla Mohamed reached out to him, out of the blue, and encouraged him to spread his impact further by training young people on digital skills. This led them to co-found an initiative called Tanzania Digital Trailblazers later that month, a series of virtual events to bring awareness of digital skills to young Tanzanians. 

After 3 months, the co-founders changed the initiative’s name to one in Swahili, Sanuka Kidijitali (roughly meaning, “Get informed fast about the digital world”) to help people easily recall the name better. This time around, they added physical monthly digital skills training events to the mix. This helped Sanuk Kidijitali train over 300 people on digital skills such as writing, digital marketing, and blockchain; guides to get jobs on freelancing on job platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr, and LinkedIn; using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet to speak with clients, and other digital tools such as Canva and Wix for various digital tasks. 

Sanuk Kidijitali has a 3,000-strong community of young people in various Telegram groups that it is training and connecting to opportunities. It has also spread its awareness through its newly developed university outreach programme to university students across Tanzania, starting from the University of Dar es Salaam. 

Sanuka Kidijitali launched a podcast, The Founders Confessions, where its co-founder Mohamed, speaks with startup founders in Tanzania to start and increase conversation about the digital economy in the country. Mafole is the country director of  Social Media Day Tanzania, an event which took place last Saturday, on July 2, at the Nkrumah Hall, University of Dar es Salam. It brought together digital entrepreneurs for networking while offering them upskilling sessions. 

“Our plan at Sanuka Kidijitali is to reach as many youths as we can, as we currently reach 5,000 plus, but one day we will hit our target of 100,000 per year,” Mafole, who is also Sanuka Kidijitali’s chief operating officer (CPO), told TechCabal.  

“We have an employment problem and digital jobs are a solution to this problem, but university students can’t use computers and unemployed graduates do not have digital skills,” he said. 

Mafole said that dozens of Tanzanian youths have connected with his story and have been inspired to upgrade their lives by learning digital skills. After discovering that only 18 Tanzanian freelancers have earned over $1,000 on Upwork as compared to Kenya’s 300, he realised that his country is playing catch-up. “My task is to help people who don’t have digital skills build them and also help those that do identify and navigate freelancing platforms to get jobs,” he explained. 

But it is not all rosy, Mafole warned. Tanzanian freelancers still have to deal with inaccessible payment gateways or cut-throat transaction costs, high data pricing, and bad internet connection. And that’s not all. They also have to deal with societal stereotypes. “Many Tanzanians still see freelancing as an extra job and not as a real job. When you tell people you are a freelancer, they make you feel like you are unemployed,” he said.

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