Building the Next Generation of Software Developers in Sub-Saharan Africa

The digital age has led to enormous opportunities across the world and sub-Saharan Africa, but also significant challenges. This is the first installment of a new DIAL insights series that explores technology-related human resource issues and offers practical recommendations for expanding the cadre of software developers across the region.

Read the full series here

The technology skills gap threatens Africa’s digital economy

In 2016, the global digital economy, which includes digital skills, jobs and capital, represented an estimated 22.5% of the world’s economy, and this share continues to grow. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where internet access and connectivity have lagged compared to other parts of the world, technology has rapidly emerged as a billion-dollar industry, with 3,500 new tech-related ventures, US $1 billion in venture capital, and increased funding to a pan-African movement of start-ups.

The rapid emergence of programs and organizations devoted to e-government, e-health and other digital development initiatives has created opportunities to reach more people across sub-Saharan Africa with services and programs. The proliferation of applications and software used by public agencies and NGOs has the potential to increase equity and access to services for vulnerable communities. This growth brings with it increasing demand for technology skills, including the ability to manage complex network systems, customize software packages, and design apps to support development programs and end users.

However, the region is dealing with a critical technology skills gap, making it difficult to meet the rapidly increasing demand for software developers, technical specialists and platform engineers who are responsible for ensuring that companies, governments and organizations can continue to take advantage of new technologies and systems.

This shortage of technology talent has the potential to restrict business growth and job creation, stifle locally led innovation, and reduce the impact of spending on aid and development. Without adequate human resource capacity in software development and other key technology areas, organizations and companies risk their growth being hampered.

DIAL and Dalberg Advisors explore the human resources capacity challenge

In 2017-2018, DIAL began examining the human resource landscape for technology skills across sub-Saharan Africa to understand how tech capacity might impact development outcomes. As an organization committed to identifying effective digital solutions to speed the delivery of development services and position countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of our key areas of interest is digital capacity, which includes the human resources to choose, use and build technology.

DIAL commissioned Dalberg Advisors, a strategic advisory firm that combines private-sector strategy skills and analytical capabilities with knowledge and networks across emerging and frontier markets, to engage with a range of employers and skills-development programs across the continent to better understand the technology capacity challenge.

Dalberg Advisors’ research included a review of existing literature, more than 35 interviews with high-growth small and medium-sized technology employers and their employees, an analysis of 44 training programs, and a review of existing skills development programs.

The lack of senior developers is a key blocker

In response to the rapid spread of technology, a host of programs have quickly emerged to develop the skills of aspiring junior engineers. But these young developers often struggle in their search for hands-on, real-world experience because they can’t find the right employment environment or mentorship opportunities. Adding to the problem, employers outsource their more sophisticated technology needs to contractors or firms outside of sub-Saharan Africa because they can’t find qualified senior staff.

The end result is a catch-22, wherein the growing cadre of junior engineers and developers lack access to senior-level staff and mentors who can nurture and guide them, leaving them constrained to lower-level work positions without the hope of advancing into senior-level positions. This then further perpetuates a shortfall of senior staff.

Recommendations to combat the shortage of senior developers

Dalberg Advisors’ research indicates there are hopeful signs that the technology skills gap in sub-Saharan Africa can be closed. Across the region, innovative programs and companies are pioneering novel ways of training students, new approaches to mentoring and skills development within the workplace, and local talent pooling to meet local needs.

In this series, we present action-oriented recommendations and potential models for those looking to address the current challenges, including skills-development programs, employers, and development donors and policymakers. By working together as one ecosystem, we can support the next generation of software engineers and help harness the power of technology to deliver services to more people who need them.

DIAL has combined Dalberg Advisors’ research with our own work and experience to create this four-part series, offering recommendations from different perspectives on a complex set of challenges: 

  • Insight 1: How skills-development programs can bridge the gap between classroom and workplace 
  • Insight 2: What employers can do to advance employees and build strong workplace tech teams 
  • Insight 3: How regional outsourcing can build the teams to meet local demand
  • Insight 4: Moving forward as an ecosystem to support the next generation of software developers

We have also provided a summary of the research, including an overview of the organizations interviewed and literature analyzed.