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.

Better Data for Decision Making

The insights and recommendations in this series are derived from research conducted by Dalberg Advisors, complemented by DIAL’s digital development experience. They provide an important starting point for addressing the software development capacity challenges across sub-Saharan Africa. However, during our research efforts, we identified a lack of data bout many of the elements we set out to investigate, including information collected by skills-development programs, as well as broader gaps around jobs, vacancies, hiring, and retention.

Implementing the recommendations in these insights and understanding their impact will require additional research, more data, and higher-quality data. Like our other recommendations, better collection of data rests in the hands of all stakeholders.

Here are three areas where better data and research would help:

  1. Skills-development programs need better tracking data to maximize their impact and profits. All skills-development programs should collect data, which is not currently happening across the board. Ensuring the capture of basic data such as recruitment, learning outcomes, placement rates, and customer satisfaction validated and comparable across providers, would enable more robust analysis of results and successes.
  2. Better market data on new/existing jobs and unfilled vacancies would help everyone. Without jobs data for the sector, it is impossible to assess the success of programs aimed aimed at reducing skills gaps, let alone assess their impact on important factors such as the progression of women (World Economic Forum 2017). In addition, the job descriptions and requirements for software development jobs need to be standardized to provide clarity for employees and employers alike.
  3. Better understanding of hiring practices/models will enable integration between employers and skills development programs. The ways in which companies obtain employees varies. Some hire permanent teams, others contract developers, and others outsource their needs. It’s not clear how much of this happens within the continent of the size of the teams that are needed. In addition, the levels of software development skills required varies dramatically by task, with some employers saying that the quality of talent they require cannot be found in sub-Saharan Africa.