By Lynsey Chutel for Quartz
South Africa wants to be a digital economy, but someone has to build it. In recent years, South Africa has tried to build its version of Silicon Valley at the tip of Africa, creating hubs in Cape Town and Johannesburg for startups and tech innovators. But, like Silicon Valley itself and more advanced economies, South Africa has a chronic shortage of developers, the would-be architects of this digital economy.
The shortage of tech talent in Africa is closely linked to the continent’s infrastructure, or lack thereof. As Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa already has a solid foundation in industries such as financial technology, banking services and industrial-scale manufacturing, so the country should be best placed on the continent to train the next generation of programmers for the digital epoch. Yet, despite being a relatively new industry, South Africa’s tech environment has not escaped the country’s historical handicaps.
“Even if you’re smart in South Africa and want to be a software developer you’re not guaranteed to have an easy time of it.”
“It is a struggle,” said Malan Joubert, founder of the technology incubator FireID. “Even if you’re smart in South Africa and you want to be a software developer and you want to work hard you’re not guaranteed to have an easy time of it. The opportunity isn’t equally spread unfortunately.” The 30-year-old, who splits his time between San Francisco and Cape Town, recalls watching South African developers “battle” to get the necessary skills, working “obscure” jobs to save money to pay for training and equipment.
With one in four South Africans unemployed—most of them black and living in low-income areas on the outskirts of major cities—the dreams of a digital economy should help create much needed new jobs. Many coding training initiatives in South Africa are expressly created with the aim of having their coders gainfully employed soon after they get their diplomas.
South Africa is not alone on the continent in struggling with a shortage of developers. Nigeria and Kenya for example have seen the rise of coder training hubs, some with lower entry rates than elite Ivy League schools in the US. Andela, which started in Lagos and has expanded to Nairobi, is the highest profile example, especially after it raised $24 million in funding led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation.
Just last week, global computer system giant SAP teamed up with the City of Cape Town to create Skills for Africa, a 12-week program that will train 44 students in business skills and Scratch, MITs software programming language. The program guarantees jobs for 15 graduates and the students will act as trainers during Africa Code Week, a series of coding workshops across 30 African countries.
“Many education and skills development initiatives have been introduced across Africa over the years, but it is key to link skills development to job creation through internships, resulting in jobs for these talented individuals,” said Lawrence Kandaswami, managing director of SAP South Africa. “In a developing economy such as ours, a digital education isn’t accessible for all. What we see is a cavernous gap between the education that young people are receiving and what the employment market needs.”
“We see a cavernous gap between the education that young people are receiving and what the employment market needs.”
Despite an increasing number of initiatives, training the next generation of developers remains difficult. While many talented programmers are trained by South Africa’s globally competitive universities, the gaps in South Africa’s public education system means so many potential geniuses may never get to code a single line.
When CodeX began two years ago, it’s syllabus looked like any other coding schools in the world with short, intense courses. During their pilot, CodeX’s founders quickly realized the impact of South Africa’s digital and economic divide, said Andre Vermeulen, a mentor at the Cape-Town based school. CodeX adjusted to its environment, creating a year-long course and matching classes of between 15 and 30 young people with a mentor who uses a language these young South Africans will understand, creating projects that fit into their known environment, like a stock-taking program for the ubiquitous home-based corner stores known as spaza shops.
“When you’re a software developer, you’re solving problems for the real world,” said Vermeulen.
The classes, with nearly as many women students as there are men, focus on teaching a narrative that developers can understand, and one they can use to engage with their potential clients, giving them the soft skills necessary to enter the working world.
In Cape Town, the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi) has just launched a hub that will create a pipeline for developers, training unemployed youth and placing them within South Africa’s largest digital media platform, Media24, owned by Naspers. Run as a bursary program, the Hub@Media24 trains young people from impoverished neighborhoods and will help them find jobs in Media24’s online clothing shop Spree and 24.com. CiTi already has a course that has trained unemployed young graduates for the past six years through their CapaCiti project.
“We recognize that there are not many organizations who successfully bridge tech training with successful job placements for learners who complete these programs, so we are planning to expand our reach to other parts of the country through e-learning and setting up placement support services in other key metro-poles,” Alethea Hagemann, head of CapaCiTi, told Quartz.
While some industries recognize the need to cultivate new developers, South Africa is still missing an opportunity diversify its economy by not training new developers.