In a rapidly changing technology world, it’s not only important that one understands how to do your current job/technology well but also be exposed to new ones, particularly in open source and cloud computing and mobile development technologies that may not have originated from the enterprise segment or the 10 year old technology used by your bank. – Mbwana Alliy

In a previous article looking at doing tech business in Africa, we found that Africa’s youthful population is where it’s at. Majority of the African population is under 30 years of age with two thirds being under 25 according to the Africa Commission. We saw that presented an unprecedented potential market for those who can understand this demography and provide what they are demanding.

On the other hand, this youthful population also presents a massive potential labor force. According to the Africa Commission, by 2015 youth will account for up to almost 30% of the total African labor force. If appropriately skilled and exposed, this youthful population can easily provide the brains and smarts to power Africa’s renaissance particularly as far as technology and innovation go.

Africa Youth Population

Douglas Cohen, in an article titled “The IT Skills Gap is Everyones Business“, explains the ICT skills gap in South Africa:

There is a shortage of ICT skills in the South African market. That is a fact. There is however a difference of opinion on the scale of shortage. The National Department of Labour last issued a National Master Scarce Skills list in April 2008, indicating the ICT sector needed a minimum of 37,565 IT professionals to ensure adequate skills in this sector. However, the results of a more recent ICT survey, conducted by IT Web and the Joburg Centre for Software has found the department underestimated, by almost half, how many ICT skills are needed in SA. The suggestion therefore is that the ‘real’ skills shortage can be as high as 70,000 practitioners – more than 25% of the current workforce.

The Right Education

The World Bank Knowledge Economy Indicator comprises innovation, education and ICT scores and measures a region’s innovativeness relative to these. As the diagram above shows, Africa lags behind other regions as far as this measurement. But even more important is the relation between education and innovation. Regions with better scores on education tend to be more innovative.

Crippling Tech Curricula

A few years back I had the opportunity to work briefly at Microsoft East Africa as what they call an Academic Developer Evangelist. The point of the role was to influence college and university tech-related academic programmes so that they adopt and teach the latest Microsoft developer tools and technologies such as .NET. The job gave me an opportunity to gain some insight into the state of technology education across the East African region.

What I quickly realised was just how static tech curricula were relative to the dynamism of the real world of technology. Most students were stuck at the level of outdated, obsolete  concepts (across the open source and proprietary spectrum) that put them at a disadvantage upon graduation. Many tech firms have to re-train fresh graduates upon hiring them so that they can come up to speed with the realities of technology in the real world.

Industry – Business Gap

The tech curricula problem is aggravated the more by the gap between industry and the academic world. The problem is simple, ICT-related businesses operate in the ‘real world’ of technology that is highly dynamic. To be competitive, they have to be constantly on the look out for what’s new, and adapt rapidly when things change – when new technologies come up, when the major tech companies such as Google and Microsoft take strategic routes that set the pace for what direction technology will develop in future… The most successful ICT companies have to be agile.

On the other hand, the academic world is sort of closed up in a cocoon of relative stability. The same things are taught year in year out, with little or no change to reflect the reality of the world of technology. Unless a student is exposed elsewhere, or they happen to be really curious, they’re stuck. To make matters worse, the education system often trains students to not be inquisitive and explorative.

In Kenya, many have complained against the 8-4-4 curriculum saying that it’s basically a system that encourages cramming and regurgitating. The fact of the matter is that even before they get to university, students have already been accustomed to receiving without question what the teacher gives them, then getting an exam where all they have to do is give back to the teacher exactly what the teacher gave them in exactly the same way, or else they fail.

Mr. Macharia, CEO of Seven Seas Technologies in Kenya notes:

“ … there’ s an urgent need to incorporate industry needs in university curricula across all our universities to ensure industry relevance.

Time has come for all the stakeholders in the higher education sector to join hands and tackle the skills deficiency problem to avoid sending out to the job market graduates trained under IT environments not aligned to the dynamic ICT Industry. It is costly to have fresh graduates, hired as engineers on the bench and not billable for several months before we can actively deploy them to customer environments, a practice quite the opposite in the accounting industry.”

Solutions

What are possible solutions to the skills gap dilemma? Altering university curricula is a long process, you can’t just wake up tomorrow and say, “hey, lets drop this and start teaching that.” and just do it. Are there other alternatives? Is there anything that’s currently providing a solution?

1. Tech hubs

Tech hubs across Africa are providing brilliant spaces for learning to take place outside the confines of strict curricula. Before tech hubs it was difficult for students to get direct access to and interact with industry practitioners. Meetups and tech talks in these community environments provide great opportunities for the exposure of students. With the right exposure, at least the student can then take the initiative to go out and learn for themselves.

2. Industry Steps In

It may not be the core business of industry practitioners to provide training to young students but it is to their advantage to have the necessary skills readily available. This is what must have led the likes of Seven Seas Technologies to invest in training freshly graduated university students.The alternative, importing the necessary skills, is a costly affair. Perhaps more companies should step in to fill this gap in like manner, at the end of the day, it is to the benefit of the organization.

3. Third party initiatives

One of the best examples is Coders4Africa:

Coders4Africa was created in 2010 through the efforts of five friends who collectively have over 40 years of experience in the software engineering and development field. We are a not-for-profit organization with an initiative that focuses on providing professional training and certification on a variety of platforms to 1,000 African software and application developers by the year 2016. After years of interaction with technologist in Africa we decided to focus on software development as a way of giving back to the communities we originated from. Being born and raised in Africa although educated in the United States, gave us an advantage in regards to bridging the gap between Africans and the diaspora. - Kwame Andah (Co-Founder, Coders4Africa)

At the end of the day however, innovation is not just a matter of having raw skills. It’s about applying those raw skills innovatively. It’s about thinking outside the box and applying the necessary skills to create.

The beauty about tech skills particularly when it comes to programming, is that these skills can be easily acquired by the individual. The World Wide Web harbours a wealth of great learning material that is free to use, plus the necessary tools are also available for free download. Several great influencers and innovators in technology were not even schooled in tech but were self-taught.

As we noted, Africa’s youth are tech-savvy, eager to learn, agile and have a great desire to carve out for themselves a better future free of the stain of mis-conceptions of the continent. Rightly skilled, this young population can be the engine to drive Africa forward into its future. Jon Kalan, writing for the Huffington Post notes regarding Nairobi’s youth:

The country’s slowly improving education system is churning out a new generation of university graduates who are aggressive, ambitious, and hungry for a better future. They are fiercely proud of Nairobi, and feel they hold the responsibility for its economic future and its emergence in the global spotlight in their hands. They no longer graduate university with hopes of ending up at the once best paying jobs in town — UN agencies and the scores of other well financed NGOs. Instead they dream of starting their own business, or finding work in an increasingly robust private sector full of entrepreneurial ideas. The same cannot be said in most of Kenya’s neighboring countries.

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