Is Senegal the new El Dorado for African developers?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Top 50 tech champions

By Kévin Poireault
Posted on Friday, 29 April 2022 18:23, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 13:07

The number of developers is growing faster in Senegal than anywhere else on the continent. But due to a lack of opportunities at home, some of them are forced to look overseas.

This is part 6 of an 11-part series.

According to the JobsNowAfrica Campaign, the continent needs to create 15 million decent jobs a year by 2025 in order to address urgent unemployment issues made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. The African NGOs, think tanks and industry experts that this working group brings together have called on governments to focus on the development of the digital economy.

For more and more young Africans, computer programming looks to be a job of the future, and the statistics back that up. According to the consulting firm Accenture, whose study was published by Google in March, there were 716,000 developers on the continent in 2021, an increase of 3.8% in just one year.

Investors are also banking on this niche, as shown by the various fundraisings for the Andela platform, which became a unicorn in 2021, and whose first business model was based on providing companies with developers.

Emerging power

Not surprisingly, the largest pools of developers are to be found in South Africa (121,000), Egypt, Nigeria (89,000 each), Kenya (60,000) and Morocco (50,000). But Senegal is where the developer pool is growing fastest: the study identified 10,000 professional coders there in 2021, a jump of 7.5% from 2020, compared to 6% in Nigeria, Morocco or Ethiopia. An increase significant enough to warrant the West African country being labelled by Accenture as an “emerging” coding power in Africa.

This designation comes as no surprise to Léger Djiba, initiator of “Coding night” organised in Dakar every year since 2011 and coordinator of the Africa Dotnet Developers Group (A2DG), a pan-African community of Microsoft technologies training. “Senegal has always had the best of the best in higher education in Africa,” he says. “Cheikh-Anta-Diop University or the École supérieure polytechnique (ESP) attract all of French-speaking Africa.”

Another helpful addition to the country’s top-notch higher education has been the presence of ultra-dynamic digital communities that came about in the 2010s, “such as A2DG or the Linux User Group (LUG), led by the free software influencer Genova, or groups dedicated to software such as Drupal or to programming languages like Java,” says Djiba.

Despite this dynamism, the demand for professional developers began to outstrip supply in the middle of the last decade. The grumbling of Senegalese companies over this shortage reached its peak in December 2015, at Sipen, an international trade fair for digital economy professionals in Dakar, where business leaders pounded their fists on the table, complaining that they could not attract enough computer programming specialists – an essential condition to remaining competitive.

Private initiatives

The government seemed to get the message. It launched its Digital Senegal 2025 (SN2025) plan in 2016, promising to spend nearly €1.7 billion. One of its axes is to create “training courses on emerging technologies (Big Data, cloud, AI, IoT)”.

Senegal is said to be the fourth African country in terms of software spending

Since then, several large-scale private initiatives have appeared to strengthen the country’s training offer. In 2017, Sonatel, a subsidiary of Orange and the country’s leading telecom operator, first launched Sonatel Academy, a free code school in partnership with the French organisation Simplon “to support the Senegalese government’s policy of integrating young people through digital technology,” says Baye Niass, its manager.

In 2020, in the wake of his entry into the capital of the Senegalese operator Tigo (now Free), French billionaire Xavier Niel established a branch of École 42 in Dakar, based on the model launched in Paris in 2013 – a free computer campus open to all.

This was followed a year later by the opening of the ICT Academy, sponsored by the Chinese equipment manufacturer Huawei, which had already created the Huawei ICT Competition in 2018, an annual competition for Senegalese computer science students. Finally, last April, Nicolas Poussielgue, a former scientific attaché at the French ministry of foreign affairs, inaugurated the Dakar Institute of Technology, a school that trains students in artificial intelligence technologies. Even business schools are getting involved. In March, l’Institut africain de management (African Institute of Management) inaugurated its innovation centre, which will soon offer introductory courses in coding.

‘Innovation is in Senegalese DNA’

This virtuous dynamic has encouraged a large number of international technology companies – Orange, Free, Huawei, Atos, Google and Microsoft – to invest locally, and has also contributed to the arrival of new jewels such as the American start-up Wave. Several start-ups have also benefited from this training, such as Digital Nisa, Sendawal, Yoon bi or EDMG, all of whose founders went through the Sonatel Academy.

According to a study by the pan-African developer platform Tunga, Senegal is the fourth African country in terms of software spending. “Innovation is in Senegalese DNA and the development of coding training is much better in Dakar than in Abidjan,” says Léger Djiba, one of Microsoft’s four ambassadors in West Africa.

Hard to break into the local market

Nevertheless, young talent is still finding it difficult to break into the local market. Amadou Daffe, the initiator of Senegal’s Coders for Africa, moved to Ethiopia to launch Gebeya, a competitor to Andela. And if Tunga’s figures are to be believed, Senegal is the African country that exports the most developers.

The wide gap between salaries and the cost of living is to blame for this brain drain, which is also due to a lack of post-training support, says Bouna Kane, president of Simplon Afrique. “The young people we train all have concrete projects. But who steps in to incubate them? To finance them? I can show you at least a dozen projects, abandoned simply because they didn’t find funding.”

Holding on to its developers and helping them bring their ideas to fruition is a new challenge for Senegal and will have a great influence on the success of the Start-up Act, launched in late 2019.

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