Empowering South Africa’s youth economy: insights from 2023’s Young CIO of the Year


The youth of South Africa are our hope and the legacy we would leave behind. Our youth is a reflection on us as leadership, writes Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, CIO at the Council for Medical Schemes, and the 2023 Young CIO of the Year Award recipient.

Our youth currently find themselves in a challenging situation, with youth unemployment levels at a record high. They need guidance now more than ever and they have a deep hunger to break boundaries and barriers, and to participate in the ‘4IR’, where information has become so readily available and accessible.

Against the backdrop of all these challenges, lies opportunity. South Africa has several gaps that need to be closed with speed. Within speed and finding solutions, lies technology. And against the backdrop of technology, lie technological leaders.

As the Young CIO of the year in South Africa for 2023, I challenge all leaders in the South African technological environment to upskill our youth through a much more consolidated, consistent and continuous approach, avoiding ‘siloed’ measures to bring only ‘trickles’ in homegrown IT skills. We have become largely reliant on overseas ICT vendors, while our own young people, being very capable, linger in the streets without the prospect of job opportunities. Youth further carry the anxiety of pursuing studies, with no employment to go to when they have finished.

I invite all CIOs to engage on a consolidated platform, on what skills our IT environments are lacking, with our tertiary institutions and business schools in South Africa. In putting our heads together, we will be building a much needed quality, sustainable and voluminous pipeline that can furthermore also contribute to our country’s ESG goals. Broadly, I also have committed myself to serve as a catalyst to bring these worlds together, i.e., education, corporate and our youth; empowering our youth to do better than we have done for the evolving future that lies ahead.

When I was a youth, I also had nothing but hope. I had no education, no means to get an education, no support for an education, and was stuck in a cycle of poverty. But hope is what ignited a fire inside me that was unstoppable, no matter what the surroundings and situations deemed possible. I defied all odds. Today I stand as a group CIO, adjunct (associate) professor in some of our best tertiary institutions, a member of the board of directors in many organisations and a mentor to many.

This is the time that I urge all our youth to now ‘dig deep’, connect to their hope and ignite their fires, taking responsibility for their future. Youth must take charge to also help us as leaders to close these huge gaps that Africa and South Africa are experiencing in the technological environment.

We sit with a gap that widens every day, and if we do not act together, both as technology leaders in our country and as youth, we will be left behind. Evidence in other developed and mature countries has shown that when leaders and youth work hand in hand with technology, the trajectory is upwards, and can only bring economic development and progression.

President Nelson Mandela once rightly once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” For me, that could be realised when the tools to educate are in the right place at the right time, and made available by us as leaders for our youth to learn and grow.

As young ICT leaders, let us co-create a consolidated platform and make tools available that our youth can tap into and embrace, and become the new generation of ICT leaders for the future of South Africa and the continent at large. That is my hope that I wish to ignite on this Youth Day 2024!

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