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Over the last decade, our continent has taken commendable steps towards creating ICT-driven economies. From sensitization by all people of influence at various summits, conferences and all sorts of public gatherings, to direct interventions like ICT Innovation Hubs and hackathons.

And of course the helping hand of governments and other investors that have seen to it that the cost of bandwidth has generally gone down significantly across the continent.

Innovation Hubs have been the leading drivers of ICT innovation, helping young coders and enthusiasts develop and exploit their entrepreneurial potential. A report published by iHub Research indicated that there were at least 95 hubs across the continent in May 2014. These spaces have developers working every day. Some times even at night. Building projects most of them believe will change the world; or at least steer Africa’s future into a certain direction.

Fittingly, a number of competitions have been set up to recognize the outstanding innovators and help create a platform through which such the vast majority can (hopefully) meet people that can support them take off. Pivot East, Demo Africa, Garage48, just to mention but a few. Some competitions just offer monetary rewards.

Yet our lives have not yet been significantly changed by the work of our youth.

As part of my work for the ICT Association of Uganda, we’ve set up a donor-funded project that’s aiming to increase the volume of ICT exports from Uganda and Kenya. And given our manufacturing potential as a region, it’d be fairly clear that our best chance at exports is through services and solutions.

So as part of one of the brainstorming sessions, a consultant from the International Trade Center asked me why Ugandans don’t utilize platforms like oDesk or eLance.

It’s a question I hadn’t thought about and frankly didn’t have an answer to. To think that there’s probably no Ugandan WordPress theme among the multitudes on sale on Themeforest.

It made me reflect on my own career: I left University as a budding, energetic developer with web development skills good enough to get me hired at Makerere University Business School. But while there, I was introduced to tools that meant my development skills wouldn’t be required that much. The tools were free and open source, and were enough to do pretty much anything we wanted.

I didn’t know it then, but I started growing into a customizer.

And that’s one problem I see with many of our developers today.

“We have those who call themselves developers but can’t build anything from [the] ground-up [on their own]. They are just masters at combining a couple of hand-picked modules to get a product,” said Ronald Kasendwa, the Ugandan developer that built PC Tech Magazine’s Android app.

The tools that are meant to make our work easy end up thwarting our development into world-class developers.

Kenyan Digital and Innovation Strategist Simeon Oriko had a different perspective.

“From where I stand, a lot of developers see their skillset as something that can be monetized and not something that can add value. Stick and carrot situation. Money dictates their actions and consequently compromises their value,” he said.

Oriko, popularly known as the boy who changed the world is passionate about using digital technology to respond to real world challenges and opportunities, and has founded a number of initiatives in education and digital literacy.

“If more developers would take pride in their skills and understand the cultural value they add to the ecosystem (and possibly build a brand around that), we would create an uncontested market for our people and cultivate innovation at the same time,” added Oriko.

The question of pride in one’s work has a lot to do with the reward the work offers in return. If there’s no clear path to better opportunities in the long run, then, in most African mindsets, there has to be money in the short-term: which is where the developers objectives come into play. How many of our developers actually want to code through out their careers? Do we need more sensitization? Are they discouraged by inadequacy of skills? Can they compete internationally? Are we developing for the right platforms, putting into consideration our economies?

“Too many people, in very many industries – not just tech – are selling themselves short by using money as a yardstick for their performance,” Simeon Oriko went on to tell me, before I asked why, on most of the outsourcing platforms, and even stores for various scripts, there’s hardly any African work. “Asia will always beat us price-wise. But what if we had the best mobile developers? That’s not something you cultivate with money and its not something Asia can compete on based on a price point.” Africa, of course, has very great potential in the line of mobile innovations, considering the penetration.

Unlike Kasendwa, though, Oriko doesn’t quite believe the inadequacy of skills is a significant problem.

“If there is, it’s because we let it happen. We’ve mostly focused our attention to startups and making money. That’s fine and its warranted. But who’s paying attention to the quality of our work? Few.”

He drew comparisons with California’s Silicon Valley, highlighting a sharp contrast between the two approaches to ICT innovation: “Silicon Valley still values hackathons and has developer schools left right and center designed to help build the best hackers. Quite the opposite in East Africa. Little emphasis on quality. So Asia, with its quality and low prices, will always be first pick for a business that needs a product shipped as soon as possible.” He also doesn’t think we’re competitive enough.

In more common circumstances, across Africa, techies aren’t the highest paid people in the department. So we’re often too busy chasing promotions at work that enable us to – as Cedric Anil put it – manage teams of people, not machines, develop and execute strategies [rather than lines of code]. Mostly, it comes with a salary bump!

Meaning most of the ‘serious’ developers are people who are at or near the beginning of their careers!

The reality, though, is these challenges have to be addressed. We need to build an environment that lets our developers create and be happy to do so. Because it will change our countries’ fortunes. Kenya’s technology services sector grew from £11m in 2002 to more than £300 million in 2013.

  • Stephen S. Musoke

    If you log into Odesk or Elance you will find lots of Ugandans, individuals and companies, and I used to work for one which was in the top 300 service providers on Elance.

    • What do we need to do to change the mindsets of the customers? Do we build a catalogue of indigenous products and showcase them somewhere as proof that we can actually do good work?

      I think some of the unwelcoming tendencies are brought about by previous disappointment.

      • Stephen S. Musoke

        Policies are the first step in the process, look at China which requires every foreign corporation to have Chinese shareholding (not just on paper but in practice), government “forces” use of local products over imports, and has a policy of encouraging local talent.

        That forms the foundation of sustainable future growth and development

      • Stephen S. Musoke

        Encouraging local talent growth is not a one-off and 1 year process, its a concerted effort with successes, failures, ups and downs in the short-to-medium term.

        However the long term benefit of a local technology base are immense as software is now a core competitive advantage to any nation or business.

  • Cedric Anil

    Well put on techies in companies being the normally “least” paid.

    I have always said and I will say it again. Coders/ Developers in Uganda have no platform to express themselves. The passion of a true developer does not normally stem from how much he can earn but from the passion of seeing something work.

    2. Developers in Africa or Uganda are not positioned to develop solutions that solve problems in their entirety. Half problem solving. A developer in the beginning of his career will probably be just fresh from campus and will sit to develop and app he thinks solves the problem or addresses a business need. My point here is that developers are not fused into the community, they sit as loners in front on a PC to code their head out.
    For example At my undergraduate course no one told me that a social worker can be part of a software development team. Yet a person who brings the social aspect of an app makes the real craft of the application and may largely guarantee acceptability of the app into society.

    • Cedric, so it seems to me as if we also need to do more sensitization, especially in schools!

  • Thanks for the article. I like what Oriko said ““From where I stand, a lot of developers see their skillset as something that can be monetized and not something that can add value. Stick and carrot situation. Money dictates their actions and consequently compromises their value,” and he’s absolutely right.

    At the end of the day, the market dictates everything. If you took the same developer here in Uganda to say the US, his utilization of his skills would be entirely different.

    Here it’s about survival. Yes, I mean it’s about the money. That’s because that’s what every other profession out there is about. Doctors must be paid so do accountants for their services. A doctor is as passionate about saving lives as he is earning a living to support his family.

    So it’s not about just code. It’s also about how that code can put food on the table. And if the market dictates that the only way out is building customer websites by bundling together a couple of themes, then so be it.

    Therefore don’t blame developers, blame the market. Blame our private and public sector that prides in shipping off-the-shelf solutions from global vendors like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle or outsourcing to Asia instead of developing and utilizing their in-house software developers.

    By the way, here am speaking purely from a biz perspective, as a geek, this trend is totally absurd.

  • Peter

    Here are my views from years in the field:-
    1. Honestly most of us survive “hand to mouth”. Development from 1st principles or ground breaking apps requires time and resources. How many of us can afford to spend months coding in garages without a salary?
    2. Most of the ground breaking apps or systems are as a result of R & D funded by Universities or big companies in Europe. How many institutions in Uganda are willing to invest in such?
    3. Government policies don’t favor us at all. We can build the solutions, but because we don’t have the money to “invest” in the system, local companies always lose out.
    4. How many local-based companies or Ugandans are willing to buy Ugandan products? Mobile Money’s 1st demos to the telcos were by local co. Guess who is in charge now? Ericksson and so other non-local entities.
    5. Most of the local companies don’t have the capital to take on big projects. A telecom will not give you a multi-million project if your company’s or financier’s dollar account has never held millions of dollars.

    But let’s face it also, our reputation as development houses/developers is not good. We know how to disappoint.

    My 2 cents.

  • Daniel

    I think this is similar to the Real Programmers (serious) Vs the Non Real programmers. I think not just in Africa, the number of people who develop the frameworks upon which everyone expounds is less than those that expound it. Think people who develop OSes < write compilers < people who write IDEs < People who write C < Java etc etc. Unless there is a real advantage to Africans/Ugandans writing the base framework, I don't see why people will/should do it. I also suspect we don't have any (many perhaps?) local companies that are big enough (in terms of users) to require micro optimisations, that'd develop low level skills. I think we should encourage local developers to actually solve local problems, as opposed to encouraging them to be more scientific about their programming. I'm sure none of you can hand crank start a car, sometimes it's just time to simplify the engineering, and spend more time on the problem. Reminds me of this XKCD: https://xkcd.com/378/

    PS: I agree with Stephen on government policy. And most of the other commenters. I just differ as regards what we encourage local developers to do. I think a country with many "serious" developers will fare worse than one with local problem solving ones — even if they're only using excel, word and powerpoint.
    Just my quick thoughts