78 En­gi­neer­ing op­por­tu­nity

Tech­nol­ogy star­tups like An­dela are cre­at­ing chances for Africa’s youth to gain new skills that are es­sen­tial to trans­form­ing the con­ti­nent’s fu­ture

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS -

Tolu Ko­mo­lafe has loved video games since she was six years old. Her fas­ci­na­tion spawned an early in­ter­est in com­put­ers that mor­phed into a de­ci­sion to study com­puter science. But on en­rolling at Nige­ria’s Ladoke Ak­in­tola Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, she quickly re­alised that her am­bi­tion to be­come a pro­gram­mer would be tough to re­alise: the course cur­ricu­lum was based on Pas­cal, a pro­gram­ming lan­guage de­signed in the 1960s that is more suit­able for teach­ing good prac­tices than build­ing in­no­va­tive pro­grammes. Dis­ap­pointed, Ko­mo­lafe per­sisted with the course, but spent her per­sonal time try­ing to learn up-to-date pro­gram­ming lan­guages. Upon grad­u­at­ing, she found a pri­vate com­puter-science academy that of­fered lessons in C#, a lan­guage that is part of Mi­crosoft’s .NET frame­work and on which its desk­top and web ap­pli­ca­tions are built and run. Un­able to af­ford the fee, Ko­mo­lafe struck a deal with the owner of the academy to teach lessons in fun­da­men­tals that she had ac­quired through school and per­sonal study in ex­change for en­rolling in the course. At the end of the year, she be­gan look­ing for her dream job in soft­ware devel­op­ment. How­ever, most of the job of­fers she got came from banks and pro­fes­sional ser­vice firms. “At some point I had to sit down and say: ‘I don’t want to do this’. I know noth­ing about au­dit­ing. I know noth­ing about ac­count­ing aside from the lit­tle I learnt in school. I don’t think I have the pas­sion for it,” Ko­mo­lafe re­calls. A few months later, her luck turned when she came across a free pro­gram­ming boot camp of­fered by a com­pany called An­dela. It promised a full-time job in soft­ware devel­op­ment to those who made it through the two-week camp and a six-month in­tern­ship. Ko­mo­lafe en­rolled with a hint of scep­ti­cism and was ac­cepted for an in­tern­ship along with seven oth­ers. That was in 2014. In Au­gust 2017, she was cel­e­brated as the first de­vel­oper to ace An­dela’s most com­plex soft­ware en­gi­neer­ing test in its three-year his­tory. Ko­mo­lafe’s story re­flects the life-chang­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties that tech­nol­ogy and tech-driven star­tups have made pos­si­ble for young peo­ple in Nige­ria and other African coun­tries. Only a few years ago, her ex­pe­ri­ence would have been highly un­likely, as Nige­ria of­fered few op­por­tu­ni­ties for soft­ware en­gi­neers.

SKILLS FOR THE CON­TI­NENT

To­day, the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal change that is sweep­ing through the world and spawn­ing star­tups means that Ko­mo­lafe and many like her across the con­ti­nent are be­ing given fresh op­por­tu­ni­ties to chan­nel their tal­ents into ca­reers that make the best use of their abil­i­ties. Com­pe­tent and poised, this new breed of en­gi­neers is on a mis­sion to help solve some of Africa’s big­gest prob­lems. Africa is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a se­cond mo­bile revo­lu­tion, in which an es­ti­mated half a bil­lion peo­ple will go on­line for the first time.

The en­thu­si­asm gen­er­ated by the first wave of the mo­bile revo­lu­tion about two decades ago gave birth to the phe­nom­e­non known as ‘leapfrog­ging’. When most African countr ies went straight to mo­bile phones with­out first pass­ing through the phase of fixed-line phones this sug­gested that the in­no­va­tive ap­pli­ca­tion of mo­bile tech­nol­ogy could lead African coun­tries to be­come tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced de­spite their in­fras­truc­ture deficits. In his re­cent es­say ‘Leapfrog­ging Progress: The Mis­placed Prom­ise of Africa’s Mo­bile Revo­lu­tion’, the renowned Har­vard pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional devel­op­ment Calestous Juma says the po­ten­tial of leapfrog­ging has been un­ful­filled. Ac­cord­ing to Juma: ‘The mo­bile revo­lu­tion has hardly served as a stim­u­lus for broader in­dus­trial devel­op­ment and ap­pears to have had lit­tle im­pact on African in­no­va­tion pol­icy.’ He ar­gues that since in­fras­truc­ture is in­her­ently tech­no­log­i­cal, the con­ti­nent re­quires sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal ca­pac­ity to de­velop its in­fras­truc­ture, and a pre­req­ui­site for this is a large pool of re­searchers and en­gi­neers. Africa needs soft­ware en­gi­neers, not just civil and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neers. Es­ti­mates from the re­searchers at the an­a­lyt­i­cal firm Visionmobile show that the con­ti­nent con­trib­utes only four out of ev­ery 100 de­vel­op­ers in the world, de­spite hav­ing around 14% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion.

AFRICAN TAL­ENT

This is partly why tech­nol­ogy startup An­dela was founded in 2014. Hav­ing ob­served the short­age of soft­ware en­gi­neers glob­ally, the com­pany’s founders set out to har­ness the tal­ent of Africa’s youth. From its of­fices in La­gos, Nairobi and Kam­pala, An­dela sup­plies com­pa­nies with de­vel­op­ers via an off­shoring model that sees them build and sup­port web plat­forms and smart­phone ap­pli­ca­tions from their bases on the con­ti­nent. An­dela has placed more than 200 de­vel­op­ers with clients since it was founded. Its goal is to train 100,000 de­vel­op­ers, di­rectly and in­di­rectly. With the back­ing of Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg, An­dela raised $40m in Oc­to­ber. Seni Su­ly­man, An­dela’s coun­try di­rec­tor for Nige­ria, says that most of the com­pany’s clients are fa­mil­iar with the chal­lenge of find­ing com­pe­tent soft­ware en­gi­neers or de­vel­op­ers, which is why its ser­vices are com­pelling to them: “By the time they get to us, it’s be­cause they’ve looked around. They’ve prob­a­bly tried poach­ing from Google, Face­book or some of the schools in the area and are just not find­ing peo­ple,” he says. An­dela trains en­gi­neers for a min­i­mum of six months be­fore plac­ing them with com­pa­nies such as Mi­crosoft and IBM, as well as star­tups. How­ever An­dela’s ten­dency to serve clients in the US has raised ques­tions about whether it is con­tribut­ing to Africa’s brain drain. Su­ly­man says that An­dela’s de­vel­op­ers rarely leave the con­ti­nent : “If ev­ery sin­gle An­dela de­vel­oper left Nige­ria, I’d be wor­ried. But I think by de­fault many of them ac­tu­ally want to stay be­cause they have fam­ily, they have friends, this is home. And they want to rep­re­sent Africa”. He says that the train­ing the de­vel­op­ers re­ceive, and the ex­pe­ri­ence they gain from work­ing for com­pa­nies at the cut­ting-edge of in­no­va­tion, en­ables them to build ex­per­tise faster than their peers.

PROMPT­ING ECOSYS­TEMS

The rip­ple ef­fect of de­vel­oper com­mu­ni­ties be­ing spawned in cities where An­dela op­er­ates is another fac­tor that up­ends the brain-drain ar­gu­ment, says Su­ly­man. He cites the ex­am­ple of a former trainer at An­dela’s Nige­ria op­er­a­tion who started the coun­try’s first on­line com­mu­nity for soft­ware de­vel­op­ers to share ideas and best prac­tices. But while com­pa­nies like An­dela of­fer much prom­ise and op­por­tu­nity for Africa’s youth to dis­cover them­selves and ex­press their tal­ents, how healthy is startup cul­ture? Star­tups across the world, in­clud­ing in Kenya, have faced al­le­ga­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion, bul­ly­ing, and sex­ual ha­rass­ment. Some have even faced law­suits about their busi­ness prac­tices. Crit­ics say th­ese are tell-tale signs of a bro­ken in­dus­try cul­ture. In­dus­try play­ers re­spond that while startup pro­mot­ers should be held ac­count­able for the cul­ture they al­low to de­velop within their or­gan­i­sa­tions, the prob­lems they face with re­spect to busi­ness prac­tices are no dif­fer­ent from those of other in­dus­tries. Mak­ing this point, Eghosa Omoigui, founder of Echovc Part­ners, con­cedes that the gid­di­ness that comes with rapid suc­cess and the fast pace of ac­tiv­ity found in most star­tups means it is in­evitable that they will break things. How­ever, he says, this should not de­tract from the fact that star­tups and the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try are ul­ti­mately a force for good. “The bad news is al­ways mag­ni­fied. In the over­all scheme of things it’s prob­a­bly very small.” Charles Idem in La­gos

“This is my first trip to sub-sa­ha­ran Africa. The en­ergy here is amaz­ing and I’m ex­cited to learn as much as I can ” Mark Zucker­berg meet­ing de­vel­op­ers and en­trepreneurs dur­ing his first visit to Nige­ria in Septem­ber 2016.

An­dela trains African soft­ware de­vel­op­ers then finds them clients to work for

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