Investing In African Tech Skills Could Help Address Unemployment And Inequality

Investing In African Tech Skills Could Help Address Unemployment And Inequality

“There is a significant digital skills gap worldwide and Africa is no exception. However, that can be solved if we have enough people and organizations investing in African talent.”

Sabrina Roshan, senior director of expansion strategy at Andela.

Slowly this investment is coming to pass. Sabrina Roshan is the senior director of expansion strategy at Andela, the so-called “talent accelerator” that trains African software developers for four years and places them with global firms in need of their services.

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So far, Andela has placed more than 1,000 developers at hundreds of companies and expanded into a host of new markets. Earlier this year it raised a $100 million Series-D funding round to make it one of the best-funded African tech companies. Its major appeal is its huge potential impact.

“As the continent with the youngest population in the world, there is massive potential for African ecosystems to be home to tomorrow’s tech leaders,” Roshan said.

“A growing skills shortage means that a lot of the local challenges that could be solved by tech, could go unrealized. From healthcare to education to infrastructure development, tech is a disruptor that can enable considerable economic development in an increasingly efficacious way. It just needs to be harnessed.”

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co-working space digital skills
Many freelancers and entrepreneurs prefer using co-working spaces. Photo – Andela

Andela is not the only company attempting to harness this potential. Global giants like Google and Microsoft are also running their own skills initiatives on the continent. But the most impactful work is arguably being done by smaller organisations at a grassroots level.

Tackling unemployment

One of these is Kenyan coding school Moringa School, which in the last few years has trained more than 1,300 students in digital skills. The primary issue it is addressing, says co-founder and CEO Audrey Cheng, is unemployment.

“In places such as Kenya, it can take an undergraduate an average of five years after graduating to find paid employment and 1 percent of those who study IT get a job in that sector,” she said.

The issue is not lack of jobs in the tech industry, however, but rather the fact that skills being learned in universities are not aligned with industry needs.

“The teaching methods and curriculum are outdated and most companies don’t offer professional development to help get these employees up to the level they need as there are no companies offering education at this level,” said Cheng.

The private sector is the best fit to fill this gap, as it has the scope to be experimental and take risks on innovative education models, Cheng said.

Facing down inequalities

In South Africa, WeThinkCode offers two-year software development courses but uses untraditional ways of selecting and teaching students.

Head of partnerships Dylan Richts said that companies such as WeThinkCode are coming up with ways of overcoming “vast structural inequalities” faced by many young South Africans.

“It is this group of excluded youth that WeThinkCode is looking to bring into the formal economy, through rapid upskilling at scale, without placing barriers to entry such as prior educational requirements or post-completion pay-back agreements. Our mission is to prepare a generation that might otherwise be lost from the labor market, into a sector which is skills sparse,” he said.

“Our big focus over the next few years is to address the gender disparity within the software engineering space. We are partnering with like minded organizations as part of our newly launched WomenThinkCode initiative, which looks to bring more young women into the program, help them succeed during the program and then find suitable work opportunities within organizations that are structured to help them succeed.”

Increasing civil engagement

Ensuring young Africans are trained in digital skills goes beyond preparing them for the job market, however.

Emma Dicks is the co-founder of the Cape Town-based CodeSpace, a coding course provider founded in 2014. In an increasingly digital society,
she says people without digital skills will not be able to engage fully in economic and civic activity.

“As a social enterprise we take active measures to see that our business operations address the barriers that create a digital divide in society,” she said.

More collaboration is needed between different stakeholders looking to address the skills shortage for maximum impact to be achieved,
Dicks said.

“We see both public and private sector stepping in with attempts to close the divide, although it must be noted that there is still large opportunity for truly successful collaboration between the respective initiatives,” she said.

“We believe that to address the skills shortage long term, we need to have an effective coding curriculum at primary and secondary school level. Ultimately, this relies on the effective roll-out of coding into national curriculum by local government.”

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.