Solving Africa’s tech talent conundrum: a wicked problem, quality, and quantity
January 16, 2024
Ray Mwareya

At first, it was that there were too few developers available in Africa, but now the rise of remote work has made the pool of tech skills on the continent even more scarce. However, is Africa’s so-called shortage of tech skills and the fierce competition for available talent an issue of quantity or quality?

The complex problem of talent

“The issue of tech skills talent shortages in Africa is a complex one,” says Francis Dufay, chief executive of e-commerce giant, Jumia.

Dufay is the ultimate insider when it comes to getting to grips with what tech talent competition and shortages mean in Africa. Jumia is an online retail behemoth that employs numerous software developers, database designers, front-end architects, and call centre staff to run its expansive warehouses and logistics chains. “It is important to differentiate between specific software engineering skills and general tech skills, such as call centre agents. At Jumia, we have found that there is indeed a shortage of specific software engineering skills in the African talent pool, particularly in areas such as data science, machine learning, and software development,” says Dufay.

According to the Africa Developer Ecosystem, the demand for African software developers reached new heights in 2021 due to the booming startup ecosystem. COVID-19 also played a role as it accelerated the shift to remote work, which resulted in more international companies recruiting African developers at record rates. This shortage of specialized skills can make it difficult to find qualified candidates for certain positions and can slow down the pace of innovation, explains Dufay.

There is a large shortage of developers across the continent

In 2020, the International Finance Corporation and Google released a report that estimated only 700,000 developers were available across the entire continent, with the majority located in five countries: Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Morrocco. The state of California in the United States is home to around 228,000 developers alone. “The conversation should be less about shortage but more about extending opportunities to the emerging talent that will help bring balance in the labour market,” says Allan Ong’ang’a, Director of Business Development & Outcomes at Moringa School. Based in Nairobi, the Moringa School is one of Africa’s largest non-traditional tech academies. With 4000-plus students and 3000-plus graduates, Moringa School is Africa’s version of Code Academy.

“Tech talent is readily available,” argues Ong’ang’a, who breaks down the conversation of Africa’s tech talent to the sub-continent. For instance, the Kenya market accounts for about 87,000 software engineers, representing about 12% of the available software engineers in sub–Saharan Africa. Because the Kenya labour market produces about 8,000–12,000 tech jobs each year, the available talent pool is more than capable of filling this gap. “However, my feeling is that companies are not willing to upskill new talent and bring them to par with their requirements. The shortage is therefore more about companies looking for unicorn talent at below-market rates, and this cannot work in a demand-driven sector that is tech,” says Ong’ang’aI think the conversation should be less about shortage but more about extending opportunities to the emerging talent that will help bring balance in the labour market”.

Africa’s universities and the talent production line

As competition for Africa’s specialist tech talent hots up against the reality of limited availability, concerns have emerged that tech talent coming out of Africa’s universities might not be of satisfactory quality. Some of Africa’s big tech leaders have publicly wondered if the software/hardware engineering talent graduating from Africa’s universities is as good as that graduating from Chinese, French, or Indian universities. “The quality of tech talent coming out of Africa’s universities has improved in recent years, but there is still room for growth,” Dufay says.. He says Jumia has been employing ‘some promising graduates’ with strong technical skills and a willingness to learn and adapt.

“In terms of how the talent from African universities compares to that from other countries like China, France, or India, it is difficult to make a direct comparison as there are many factors at play, such as the quality of education, resources, and infrastructure,” notes Dufay. Heaping the spotlight on the talent produced by Africa’s universities is the “wrong premise” to examine the issue, argues Ong’ang’a. In recent times across Africa, corporations have placed huge pressure on learning institutions to produce ready talent for the market. When it comes to tech, job readiness is not something that can be taught in schools but should be the focus of corporations and employers, to refine.

A multi-pronged approach to solve a complex problem

Whatever specialist developer talent exists in Africa is being hollowed out by emigration to wealthy Western countries, attractive offshore salaries, and remote work opportunities offered by US, European, and Canadian firms. This leaves African governments and tech firms playing second fiddle in retaining tech talent. Is focusing on quantity by continuously increasing Africa’s tech talent to replace whatever is parried away a credible solution? “There is not a single silver bullet that can help address this,” says Ong’ang’a.

The most likely long-term route to success is a multi-pronged approach — more training companies that actively increase the size of the talent pool entering the labour market and employers adjusting base compensation rates to match global market trends. “Today, the biggest threat to (Africa’s) employers — from a talent perspective — is no other local companies but global corporations that can tap into the local talent pool at a fraction of the cost they’d pay in Europe or America,” Ong’ang’a says.

Another part of the solution is to improve the quality of education and training in technology across Africa and governments, creating an enabling environment that fosters domestic access to funding, mentorship, and networking opportunities, Dufay suggests. He adds that “reducing bureaucratic obstacles” across the continent should also be a priority, with red tape increasing the cost of doing business.

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