Artificial Intelligence

A job-creation program brings new AI skills to thousands of young South Africans

One of the employees working for MacDonald at YES is Noko Manamela, 29, from Polokwane in the north of South Africa. Even after earning a degree in mathematical sciences, he spent four years unemployed. He says it was very deflating sometimes.

“Every year, there was a cycle, one month whereby I would be struck about how flat this thing is,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do. Apply for jobs to the point where you’re losing hope.” He kept completing online courses, and eventually heard about YES. He won a spot in the program in April of 2022 and was placed in YES’s internal technology team.

On this day, he was writing code in Python, which had taught himself to do, to use machine learning and AI to automate the process of turning data from an MySQL database into easily readable bar charts in PowerPoint. The monthly feedback from thousands of apprentices is used to analyze the efficiency of each company’s program.

Man at a desk with a laptop
Noko Manamela at his desk at Youth Employment Service in Johannesburg. Photo by Chris Welsch for Microsoft.

‘A pipeline for talent’

Normally each report would take about two hours to process manually. With Manamela’s program in place, it will take less than two minutes, leaving time for more important tasks.

While placing young people in jobs is important, the organization also wants them to be “catalysts” for greater change, says Naidoo of YES.

“This is like a pipeline for talent to come in, to build the next generation of managers and in the country,” he says. “And the person is coming from a very disadvantaged background. So there’s a double benefit. You’re getting the person into employment, but the person also brings a perspective about building something for the broader community.”

Phakitso Mohale is thinking along those lines; she says wants to help the people in Soweto. She still lives at home there with her parents. Her sister is another graduate of the YES program with a job, but her oldest sister and two brothers are unemployed.

She said the training at Microsoft prepared her for her current role. “There was a module that introduced us to artificial intelligence, to learn what it is and how it works, and because of that background it made me fit so well into the team.”

That team is developing an app that would help people understand the benefits of different kinds of insurance. “Because we found that average citizens, they just feel overwhelmed when they come across insurance jargon like beneficiaries, coverage premiums, they don’t understand those words,” she says. “We use the AI just to simplify the terms, and also to make it more personalized to give them recommendations based on their financial needs.”

She’d like to add “business owner” to her resume as well. During her year with Microsoft, she went through some training about entrepreneurship.

“That is something that I’m really, really pursuing personally, because I want to own an internet café,” she says, “because where I stay we have to walk about four kilometers to the nearest one. And sometimes I really want to send an email ASAP. So if I were to open one close by, I think it will help a lot of people in my area.”

Top photo: Phakitso Mohale works as an app developer at a startup in Soweto, South Africa. Photo by Chris Welsch for Microsoft.