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.
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.