Africa’s Race to the Future
Our last Talking Talent goes beyond borders, into a discussion regarding the rising tech ecosystem in the continent, Africa. We touched upon the different initiatives taken to accelerate talent, and our route to get there. Our speakers all drove different perspectives, highlighting how investment in talent with global alignment will benefit tech hubs worldwide.
Chika has been an entrepreneur for over two decades and is currently an investor and founder of Decagon, a company that scales software developers. He came to the conclusion that the most scalable way to grow the tech ecosystem, is to support exceptional talent in fulfilling its potential. Taking the bold stance to directly invest in talent rather than the startup directly.
'If you invest in a startup, the chance of it being successful is 1 in 20. This is different for people. When taking into account the global trend and global demand for software talent, combined with the surplus of exceptional talent that is employed: investing in 10 really brilliant people, will make all 10 of them get a job/start a company. Through talent, we can have a more scalable impact.'
For that reason, Chika started Decogan, a company that is fuelled by the mission to help Nigeria reach its potential as the top engineering country in the world. Looking at the global value chain of talent, you find the USA and Europe at the other end. Taking a deeper look into this chain, we notice a few things:
- Engineers are the key players in building the products. If the code is not there, the product does not work.
- The unemployment rate in Germany is 3% and this relates to the scarcity of engineering talent.
- The unemployment rate in Nigeria is 50%.
There is a huge opportunity to fill the gap of the scarcity of talent, by bridging the gap between countries, or even better, continents.
A second problem arises as supply chains are in a state of scarcity, people work in a frenzied state of emergency, resulting in short-term hiring. Bigger companies like Dell, have figured this out and innovated by optimising that chain and using information flows to make predictions. Ideally, there should be a connection between the production of engineering talent in Africa and, conversely, the demand that companies have at the end of this chain.
'Is there a way to design this value chain, for everybody to get what they want out of it?'
How can we design this chain to overcome the challenge of scarcity and emergency hiring? We must find several players in the chain. Firstly, great engineering talent in Nigeria that wants to relocate or work for global companies. At Decogan, they train the engineering talent specifically on the tools and the skills that a company, like Contentful, needs. Secondly, Africans that are currently based in Germany. They can serve as the formal engine of integration and the ambassadors that bridge the knowledge gap on both sides. Thirdly, the companies that want to hire the best engineering talent in the world, or simply put, that want to have great engineering output, should educate themselves upon what is needed to seamlessly fit African talent into their businesses.
Here you can think about creating inclusive cultures in order to relocate people or build efficient remote setups. When you zoom out, there is a fourth and fifth player on a nationwide level, the nation of Germany and the nation of Nigeria. Nigeria’s’ goal is to keep talent in its country and avoid skilled talent moving away. To do that, we need to figure out how the work environment can be designed in such a way to increase productivity. It’s here we should take into account the desire to connect different cultures, and which collaboration is needed. For this, we must hold dialogue, innovate that dialogue and keep on developing this notion. If we follow this structure, we have a very good chance of designing the African talent ecosystem to fit the global engineering ecosystem, and vice versa.
Kave, currently Talent Acquisition Expert at Pitch and founder of MyCareerPath, which was born from the struggle in finding the right role in the German startup ecosystem. She maintains a global mindset whilst supporting and encouraging the mindset of local perspectives and initiatives.
We want to hire talent globally and delve in and out of Africa, to source talent. In order to connect both worlds, we must find local groups, which there are in abundance, to understand the opportunities prevalent in Africa right now, as well as understanding the talent. An example of such groups is ‘Black in Tech’, a group committed to connecting information and talent.
We often forget that so many talents already reside in Europe, looking for opportunities. We are trying to fill roles that have been open for 5+ months, although so much great talent is keen to start. Kave talks about these common misperceptions throughout her talk. First of all, in startups, Africa is never part of any sourcing strategy. This is due to the historical context that Europe has with Africa, as Africa is still not seen as a tech hub. Luckily, this is changing and African talent based in Berlin is challenging teams to look beyond what they know.
We need to have a relationship-focused strategy, where we try to understand the work environment in other countries and connect them to ours. For example, training the team against unconscious bias. Although, Kave states that she too possesses bias whilst hiring from unknown countries: 'They don’t have the mindset, to move fast', or, 'their English is not good enough'. As a recruiter, you have the responsibility to understand the context. If somebody did not have experience interviewing across borders before, they would naturally feel nervous, preventing them from bringing their A-Game in their first interview. Heightening the importance of a recruitment manager fighting that much harder, to convince and educate the team.
One way to do so is to foster more collaborations among engineers. That is what Berlin offers so generously by nature, and finding ways to have those Berlin-based developers interact with developers on the African continent. They should talk about the differences, and embrace the tension, in order to bring them closer. Let’s push beyond borders, find common ground and walk a mile in each other's shoes.
On the other hand, we need to understand what German companies want and meet those demands while shaping them to be inclusive. It should be a joint effort from both sides. We live in a talent-driven time, where the best talent is not actively looking for jobs. It is the same in Africa, the best are working for Google, Microsoft and Facebook. So if a German company is looking for great engineers in Africa, you need to work hard to find the right talent. If you don't work hard, you get the ones that don’t meet your demands, and that is how ideas around the quality of talent are currently formed. We live in an unbalanced system, as talent in Africa needs to adapt too much to the side of Germany. We should encourage young applicants to get into the tech industry, to continue building themself and pursue opportunities that are good for them.
One solution is building out a remote culture as Pitch has. Another is to actively create jobs, instead of waiting around. One thing is sure, we personally need to keep on learning and keep on growing, in order to reach our full potential.
'We can be great, no matter where we are from. My call for tonight is to have a global perspective, and make use of local initiatives with experience sharing and see the value in young talent rising on the African continent. The time is now.'
Our third speaker, Makinwa, recently relocated from Nigeria to Berlin, to join Contentful as a Software Engineer, previously working as an Engineering Manager at Andela.
She felt that what you learn in school provides you with insight and depth, but does not necessarily prepare you for the job market. Andela fills that gap. Their mission is to invest in talent to solve the tech talent shortage in the world.
How do they do this? In order to meet the expectations of companies outside of the continent, one must adapt to different ways of thinking. Consequently, Andela focuses on levelling-up the technical skills and soft skills of developers. They started out with simulated projects, where a case was given and you worked with a team, to build out the projects and processes, whilst learning how to collaborate. Alongside learning the hard, technical skills, it prepared developers by diving deep into soft skills, such as communication with stakeholders, building cross-functional relationships, public speaking and active listening. Later they shifted from simulations to real-life projects, controlled with feedback and observation.
During her time at Andela, her need changed. Her role as an Engineering Manager focused on training and establishing processes and shifted away from being hands-on. She made the move to focus on her new learned skills in a new environment, working on a great product that users love. Contentful ticked all her boxes and validated all her skills. It has an amazing product, with an amazing culture with inclusive values.
'And then moving over from Africa to here, you feel that you are actually black. That was the first time in my life that I realised I had colour. But that is normal, yes. But at Contentful I did not feel that at all, because of the processes and culture, and just the way the culture was.'
She vowed to keep on talking about African talent beyond this event.
Q1: How can we design the value chain without causing a brain-drain?
Chika: There are enough people and the most talented people should give themselves the best opportunity in the largest market for their skills and not be afraid of brain drain Africans in the EU should strive to grow in the companies because they are the ambassadors of Africa and will affect the perception of Africa.
Kave: There is now space where you can actually source talent. The future of Africa is the young generation that is willing to go out in the world. Social-political situations are holding talent back and we need to find a balance on both ends.
Makinwa: Remote work is an opportunity and chance, to keep talent in the African continent, whilst tapping into the global ecosystem.
Q2: Do you have any advice for people in Africa that want to come to Europe?
Kave: My advice for candidates: stay at the top of the game, differentiate yourself and highlight what unique value you are adding that someone else is not. And for recruiters, be inclusive in your search.
Makinwa: There are more eyes now on the continent than ever before. If you are smart enough, you can find opportunities all over the world. Find the right startups and go in there early. You can build up a body of work. Be exposed to founders and VC’s.
Open Q: How many women do you accept into your program?
Chika: 20% applications but only 10% accepted. Software Engineering is a new field without a lot of the biases and barriers of the past. We are trying to get those numbers up to 50%.
Open Q: How do we deal with Government policies? Nigeria takes 1 year to give you a VISA to come to Germany and then you just have the appointment.
Chika: Going back to the different players in the value chain. Here the customer is the engineer and also Nigeria. So I invested quite some time in lobbying with the government and other players. We, for instance, got the Nigerian banking industry to create Software Engineering student loans. We need to build a good work and life infrastructure. We were not doing something that has not been done before, which takes time and effort. India has done it, Nigeria is next.
Open Q: Too bad that we have to prove ourselves in the corporate world before we can start doing what we trained to do, meaning my skills were so much better than what I had to do now. Why is Europe that goal and why are we not training people to go back to Africa and build up the continent?
Chika: Let’s talk about the numbers in the African landscape. 2019 Africa received $1B of VC investment. The first time they reached that. That is only 0.5% of what America received. If you think about it, what are most of the investments in? Writing code. They are writing code that we can write, but the wealth of the world is in the west. Meaning, we should use that investment and wealth to grow investment in Nigeria. By investing in talent, we are producing more engineers than what we know what to do with.
Kave: Nigeria is special in Africa. It is massive. Investors in Africa have not seen tech as an investment, they invest in manufacturing, architecture etc. We need to keep pushing the discussion in the direction of tech and show what opportunity lies in tech. Keep hope up. Maybe things will change in the next 5 years.
Q: Why do we focus these talks solely on engineering?Chika: There is a scarcity for engineers worldwide and the opportunity lies in engineering. Engineering is a great start also, for other fields UX, Design, Data, etc.