Insight 4: Moving forward as an ecosystem to support the next generation of software developers

To meet the tech demands of rapidly growing economies, all stakeholders have a role to play

The digital age has led to enormous opportunities across the world and sub-Saharan Africa, but also significant challenges. This is the fifth, and final, installment of a new DIAL insights series that explores some of these cross-cutting issues and offers practical recommendations for expanding the cadre of software developers across sub-Saharan Africa.

Read the full series here

This series has sought to describe the complex software development human resources landscape in sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrate why it matters to the development sector, and propose recommendations for key stakeholder groups. Our recommendations focus on three key groups we believe could make a significant impact in meeting the challenges at hand: skills-development programs, employers, and development-focused donors and policymakers. 

However, this is not a challenge that can be tackled by any one set of actors. It will require an ecosystem-level approach bolstered by consolidated efforts and coordination along a range of different organizations in order to achieve sustained positive impact. These challenges will only be solved by collaborative approaches that put the software developer at the center of the ecosystem.

There are three areas where we see the greatest opportunities:

1. Improving training programs through better alignment and engagement between employers and training providers. Results from the research were clear: most skills-development programs need to more adequately equip software engineering students for the workplace. There is no single solution to meet this challenge. In fact, engagement needs to come from the programs themselves, employers, and development donors and policymakers.

Programs should be designed around the good practices identified by our research, particularly by giving students real-world experience and a chance to develop project management and soft skills. Including mentoring and apprenticeships is one way to achieve this goal. Employers should look for opportunities to engage with programs and create a pipeline of potential employees. Digital development donors and policymakers can help by supporting skills development that goes beyond technical capacity.  

2. Prioritizing high-quality, on-the-job training in the workplace, with a focus on mentoring and apprenticeship to advance junior employees to mid and senior levels. For employers, addressing the critical dearth of senior developers in sub-Saharan Africa starts with looking inside the walls of their organizations and developing talent from within whenever possible. Many employers are hesitant to invest in their employees, fearing they will leave or be recruited by larger or more global organizations. However, investment in professional development is the only way to ensure a greater number of senior developers.

This approach can begin by partnering with skills-development programs to make mentoring and apprenticeship an integral part of professional development. These programs can also offer a pool of potential employees for employers. For organizations that are fortunate enough to have senior developers on staff, providing incentives to those employees to mentor newer staff members can help create loyalty and provide a quicker path to professional development. NGOs and other development organizations in sub-Saharan Africa can benefit from this approach by pairing junior technical staff with those who have more experience in development-related issues.

3. Investing in developing local technology job markets, particularly through innovative mechanisms such as support for regional and local outsourcing. With the current shortage of senior developers, the need for outsourcing remains a reality for many organizations in sub-Saharan Africa. Even if smaller organizations manage to hire a handful of developers to meet their needs, once the needs and scale of those organizations expands, outsourcing to meet those larger-scale needs becomes more appealing.

However, global outsourcing outside of sub-Saharan Africa, especially by development-sector organizations, does nothing to support industry in the region and actually exacerbates current shortages of senior developers by sending work and incentives outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

Employers, including NGOs, should consider using outsourcing firms based in sub-Saharan Africa that can meet their requirements and deliver work at reasonable prices, even if it’s not as cheap as global firms. Development organizations that set standards and policies for contracting and procurement should consider amending their policies to make it feasible for smaller outsourcing firms to win contracts and conform to ongoing administrative requirements. Digital development donors should consider investments in local or regional outsourcing.    

The challenges of addressing the skills gap for software engineers in sub-Saharan Africa are nuanced, and the solutions are complex. However, the urgency to identify answers to these challenges is now greater than ever. In fact, the future impact of the development sector depends on it.

Fortunately, strategic initiatives from within the education, technology and development sectors already provide models and direction for building the teams and solutions that can meet these needs. We hope that the research and reflections included in this series can help spark dialogue and catalyze creative, sustainable solutions to meet the needs of the tech sector in sub-Saharan Africa—today and into the future.    

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.