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Growth of tech hubs masks Africa’s IT skills dilemma

Access to digital training provides only a partial solution to boosting job opportunities

When OpenClassrooms, a Paris-based online education company, began offering technical courses to students globally, it soon identified an intriguing pattern of demand from Africa.

Alongside more basic courses, there was high uptake for training in Python, JavaScript and other programming languages — notably in north Africa.

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In Tunisia alone, 80,000 students — nearly a third of all those enrolled in higher education — are viewing its materials every month. That suggested high potential, but also limitations with domestic training capacity.

“Despite the usual belief that there is less capacity or literacy in Africa, there is a talent pool that is comparable to Europe and the US,” says Stéphan-Eloïse Gras, the company’s director of strategic partnerships for Africa.

Many Africans have unprecedented opportunities today beyond their own national borders in the tech sector. They can benefit from trends in remote working, the global search for cheaper labour and the power of the internet.

In theory, this should allow skilled people in less industrialised countries to “leapfrog” workers in more developed economies in attracting work and boosting employment at home.

Vibrant tech hubs have emerged in countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, helping support international businesses such as Cellulant, a pan-African digital payments platform, and fellow fintech start-up Flutterwave. Yet behind the success stories, substantial mismatches remain between the pool of potential talent, the capacity of local education systems to provide training, and the likely scale in demand from employers.

The World Economic Forum estimates 15m-20m will join the African workforce every year for the next two decades.

Read also: Africa’s mixed blessings in 2019

By 2030, the continent will be home to more than a quarter of the world’s population under 25 and 15 per cent of its total working-age population.

The imbalance is already frustrating business. PwC’s latest Global CEO Survey showed 87 per cent of African chief executives were concerned about the availability of key skills, including 45 per cent who were “extremely concerned”.

The first difficulty is the poor provision of basic schooling. A report by Unesco this year highlighted low levels of investment, with a substantial and growing gap between the number of teachers needed and those actually employed.

Data released by the OECD, a club of mostly rich nations, showed just 5 per cent of children aged 15 in Zambia and 9 per cent in Senegal achieved basic reading levels. For rudimentary maths skills, the shares were 2 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively.

Adamon Mukasa, a senior researcher at the African Development Bank, estimates that under-skilled youth comprises nearly 30 per cent of Africa’s population, compared with 13 per cent in other developing regions. Just 8 per cent of young people had tertiary education compared with 21 per cent elsewhere.

Like other analysts, he highlights the need for both enhanced science technology engineering and maths (Stem) and improved soft skills such as the teamwork required in the workplace.

Post-school education is also often lacking. Patrick Dunne, chair of Education Sub Saharan Africa, a charity seeking to improve teaching across the continent, says: “The population is growing more quickly than the skills to respond. We need to do something urgently about the capacity of colleges and other learning institutions.”

A final problem, even for those who do emerge better trained by the education system, lies in the recruitment market itself. Many African entrepreneurs complain about political and infrastructure barriers to expanding their businesses. There are also signs that the scope for arbitrage by western employers seeking to tap into the continent’s lower-cost talent pools is being squeezed.

Andela, a company backed by US philanthropists, aimed at training and creating programming jobs in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria to supply US businesses, announced brutal cutbacks. Jeremy Johnson, the chief executive, said the business would refocus on supplying higher-level programming staff while cutting hundreds of jobs. “We now have significantly more junior talent than we are able to place,” he said.

Some, such as Mr Dunne, question how long the current excitement around coding will last. “It’s helpful but what’s the half-life?” he asks. “More important is how do you sustain training and shift to life-long learning?”

Ms Gras of OpenClassrooms concedes that her business model remains difficult to operate in Africa, despite strong demand across the continent for online training to supplement traditional learning. It has not been able to charge students. Instead, it offers courses for free, backed by some funding from companies, donors and governments.

That reflects a more fundamental problem for the students themselves: poor local opportunities for well-paid jobs means many still feel forced to emigrate in order to find work.

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