Africa’s IT Talent Pool

December 2, 2019

By Alison Buckholtz

Back in 2016, Meetesh Karia needed software engineers—fast. As chief technology officer at The Zebra, the top car insurance search site in the United States, he knew his company couldn’t achieve its ambitious goals without them.

But Karia couldn’t find suitable candidates near the Austin, Texas, headquarters, due in part to a nationwide shortage of software engineers. So he looked abroad—and discovered the IT professionals at Andela, a Nigeria-based company that prepares young Africans to become software developers. The Zebra now employs 15 “Andelans,” as graduates are called, and they work remotely from Andela campuses in Kampala, Lagos, and Nairobi.

The match has exceeded Karia’s expectations. “Andela tapped into a hotbed of talent and [connects] that talent with opportunities across the world,” he said. Its professionals have “helped The Zebra become more competitive. Once we saw the success we were having with Andela, we focused all of our non-Austin growth there.”

Andela, founded in 2014, is one of several companies across Africa that are training young people to meet the huge demand for IT talent globally and within Africa. Another is Gebeya, founded in 2016 in Ethiopia. Gebeya teaches young Africans to become technology specialists—and after training is completed, they become part of a pipeline of technology talent for hire. Unlike Andela, which places most of its graduates with employers based in the United States, Gebeya (which means “marketplace” in Amharic) matches its trainees only with companies in Africa.

Andela has over 1,000 developers and almost 500 of them work as employees with partner organizations. © Dominic Chavez/IFC

Two other examples are Moringa, a privately owned school that trains young Kenyans in different coding languages, and the South African initiative codeX, a one-year coding program in Cape Town that trains and places young, talented software developers with employers looking for those skills.

New Options for African Employment

Edutech companies like these can potentially offer part of a solution to Africa’s continent-wide crisis of youth unemployment and underemployment. This challenge is rooted in demographics: half of Africa’s population is under 25 years old. Each year until 2035, there will be half a million more 15-year-olds than the year before, predicts the World Bank report Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa. “At best only one in four of sub-Saharan Africa’s youth will find a wage job, and only a small fraction of those jobs will be ‘formal’ jobs in modern enterprises,” the study concludes.

The new tech training enterprises are pushing their fellow citizens toward a different future. Graduates are writing code, developing software, and earning paychecks from places that they would have had no access to just a few years ago.

Andela, an IFC investee, now has over 1,000 developers and almost 500 of them are working as full-time employees with partner organizations. Andela’s strategy calls for 100,000 developers in Africa by 2024.  Acha Leke, the chair of McKinsey & Company’s Africa practice, and Tawana Sibanda, a partner at McKinsey & Company and leader of the firm’s digital services work across Africa, have written that Andela’s innovative approach to supplying the market with tech talent is one reason it is “headed for unicorn status.”

Edutech companies can potentially offer part of a solution to Africa’s employment crisis. © Dominic Chavez/IFC

Gebeya’s impact is also significant. During its trainees’ four-to-six-month program, seasoned industry professionals instruct them through the process of building a product with a particular industry in mind. After graduation, they are employable immediately. As of mid-2019, Gebeya had trained 400 market-ready developers who were working in a vetted network of companies, according to African Business magazine.

Companies like these, that “work with firms to make sure the training is appropriate,” have the potential to be transformative, said Louise Fox, a senior fellow in the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“When technology is transferred and learned and applied, especially if it’s in an area where the skills are in short supply, that is an element of how to increase productivity in Africa,” Fox said in an interview.

Engineering Social Change

Africa’s new IT training and placement companies are also creating initiatives to overcome cultural and educational barriers that often prevent women from joining the workforce—and tech fields specifically. This is critical to development: Accelerating progress toward gender parity in employment could boost African economies by the equivalent of 10 percent of their collective GDP by 2025, according to research from the McKinsey Global Institute.

Both Gebeya and Andela cultivate women technologists and tech entrepreneurs in an effort to target the gender disparity in tech fields. In addition to its for-fee training, Gebeya’s Digital Gender-Ethiopia Program and Digital Gender Entrepreneurship Program provide scholarships to train 250 female software developers and offer seed funding to 20 female entrepreneurs. The project is backed by IFC’s Creating Markets Advisory Window and IFC’s Disruptive Technologies & Funds Gender Program, funded through the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi).

Sixty women in the first cohort of a Gebeya gender-related program in Ethiopia received their diplomas in November. © Gebeya

Such initiatives are long overdue, said Daffe, Gebeya’s CEO: “We can no longer stand back and watch as intelligent, capable African women are pushed to the sidelines. We have to do our part to close the gender gap in technology where females are highly underrepresented.”

Andela’s Women Tech Leadership program launched in Uganda in 2018, grounded in the company’s motto that “brilliance is evenly distributed and gender neutral.” An IFC summary notes that Andela is committed to ensuring a strong representation of women and aims to have around 30 percent women in each of its regions. It has set up all-female recruitment cycles to encourage women to apply, and when a lack of female applicants becomes apparent, the company organizes “level-up” programs and workshops.

These comprehensive efforts to cultivate tech talent have made Andela developers appealing for companies like The Zebra—not just to corporate management, but to its Austin-based staff, too.

When employees in The Zebra’s Texas headquarters wanted even more facetime with their Andela teammates, The Zebra started a new corporate tradition: as a perk, it now offers five of its Austin employees a trip to Lagos every summer. The cross-cultural bonding may have come as a surprise to the chief technology officer, but achieving peak professional teamwork isn’t: “Success has always been contingent on the quality of the people we've been working with and not where they were located,” Karia said.

Published in December 2019