Empowering South African youth with job-ready tech skills

In partnership with the Lindamahle Innovation Center, Cisco Networking Academy brings new hope to an impoverished, rural community.
Empowering South African youth with job-ready tech skills

Rural South Africa is known for its stunning natural beauty and warm, spirited people. But like many underrepresented areas around the world, opportunity is scarce, and unemployment is high.

Cisco is helping to change all that on multiple fronts, including an impactful partnership with the Lindamahle Innovation Center, outside the town of Mthatha. The center recently showcased its first Cisco Networking Academy graduates in a ceremony brimming with talent and optimism.

“This certificate will open doors for me to reach out to people and share my knowledge and expertise,” Phumza Khalibaba said of her newly minted Networking Academy certification. “And it will also give me an opportunity to support my family.”

Networking Academy is one of the largest skills-training platforms in the world. And Khalibaba is among more than 20 million people in 190 countries it has empowered since 1997, with gold-standard education and certifications in networking, cybersecurity, AI, and more.

A particular focus for Networking Academy is reaching people for whom opportunities in tech have been previously unavailable.

“A lack of access to educational opportunities and resources is a problem, especially in underrepresented communities,” said Laura Quintana, Cisco’s vice president of corporate affairs and general manager of Networking Academy. “We’re committed to giving more people the pathway and opportunity to pursue new opportunities and careers."

Walking miles in blistering heat for a chance at a better life

In rural South Africa, Networking Academy complements Cisco’s efforts to help expand broadband coverage in rural communities. And its presence in libraries, schools, and Edge Centers — which are powered by Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration (CDA) program — is helping to bring the region’s human potential to full fruition.

“It’s not that we don’t have skills or talent in rural South Africa,” said Ndileka Stuurman, Cisco’s business development manager for the Networking Academy in South Africa, “it’s that we don’t have the right skills for the modern workplace. And therefore, Networking Academy courses are offering youth an opportunity to reskill themselves and be more marketable in the current and future economy.”

Networking Academy’s partnership with Lindamahle, offering free classes to local students, is a prime example. And the recent graduation ceremony brought tears of joy to Zine Nkukwana, founder and CEO of Lindemahle Management Services, which runs the innovation center.

“I could see the hunger in their eyes,” she said of her students. “And with some people it was not just the hunger for knowledge but also literal hunger. Because the poverty, you can touch it; you can feel it. Some students would be walking long distances in the blistering sun or cold, crossing rivers, going through forests to get to the center hungry. I would spend my own money to buy them food, and that might be the only meal they would have that day.”

Many students did not know how to open a laptop when they started, but Nkukwana was amazed by their determination and focus.

“The people in the rural areas are not mentally challenged,” she stressed. “They just lack resources and information. If you bring those resources to them, they prove to us that they can do it.”

Rural women stepping past stereotypes

Successful graduates like Khalibaba highlight a shared Networking Academy and Lindamahle commitment: reaching out to women, especially in areas where they traditionally may not have had opportunities or encouragement.

“The field of IT is still male dominated,” said Stuurman. “But with the generation of women that are coming now, there’s a change. Even the children are more ambitious; they want to be educated and do things differently. Having more women that are educated, it also helps because now they become role models, and girls aspire to be like them.”

Nkukwana remembers her own struggles to enter technology and business, so empowering young women is a key focus.

“There are still biases and stereotypes,” she said. “How many times have we heard that girls are not good in math?  But with the graduation we just had, 32 percent of the kids who passed cum laude were female. I’m proud of that, but we still need to bridge the gap.”

Networking Academy in South Africa as a whole is also making progress on the gender front.

“The number of female students is going up every year,” said Stuurman, “as well as the number of female instructors. Even though it's not where we need to be, we are slowly bridging that gap.”

One of those success stories belongs to Sibabalwe Quinga, another young Lindamahle graduate, who summed up her own journey as she stands poised for a career in IT.

“I knew nothing about IT. And I knew nothing about a laptop aside from what it looked like,” she recalled. “Because programs like this end up in cities and suburbs; they never come to the rural areas. So, I am very happy that IT is now made accessible to people like us. And it is free, so everyone now has an opportunity to go and learn. I am grateful to Cisco and Lindamahle. Thank you!”