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Software: Engineering opportunity

By Charles Idem in Lagos
Posted on Monday, 20 November 2017 15:04

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 countries 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.”

From the November 2017 print edition

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

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