Tech Talent Born in Africa Will Play a Transformational Role in IT

By Gary Beach as published in CIO Journal of The Wall Street JournalBy 2025 I guarantee every chief information officer reading this column will employ staff in Africa in some capacity.My unorthodox prediction is based on data culled from “The Skills Gap Almanac,” a project I manage on Twitter at #skillsgapalmanac. Content for the almanac is extracted each day from returns I have set to 55 Google alerts about the skills gap in IT jobs.When I started the project eight months ago, I included a “Skills Gap Africa” alert, but with little hope the returns would yield insight. In all my previous years spent viewing vendor presentations, often the only time Africa appeared at all was as the continental appendage to the “EMEA” region – Europe, Middle East, Africa.But returns today from the “Skills Gap Africa” alert are among the most frequent and meaningful ones I receive each morning. There are stories about how companies like SAP SESAP.XE +0.80% are sponsoring Africa Code Week. Other stories describe how startups, like New York-based startup Andela Inc., are in the region offering software development training and sourcing work to Fortune 500 firms. After reading this kind of material daily, I have grown into a big believer in the current, and future, potential of millions of young Africans to contribute to the global tech community.Here’s a brief refresher on Africa’s tech talent potential. Over one billion people live on the continent. It is also the world’s “youngest” continent with more 16 to 24 year olds than anywhere else on earth. By 2035, Africa’s projected workforce growth of 910 million 16 to 64-year-olds will be more than that of China, India, Europe and the United States combined! “The large increase in population is good news for Africa,” claims Jill Huntley, managing director for Global Corporate Citizenship at AccentureACN -3.24% plc, a firm whose “Skills To Succeed” initiative nurtures tech talent in Tanzania, Zambia and Rwanda and partners with groups like The Rockefeller Foundation’s “Digital Jobs Africa” initiative. “But the glass is half-full” given the unpredictability of “the nature and future of work, the pace of change and infrastructure challenges” in the future.To fill that glass, network infrastructure and energy grids must be built. Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, supports a global network of low-earth-orbiting satellites to connect Africa’s talent to the Internet at broadband speeds. AT&T Inc.T -0.23%, a firm that has invested in Africa’s telecom infrastructure grid since the last 1970’s, prefers the approach of a global network of undersea cables with multiple drop-off points surrounding Africa. Facebook Inc.FB +0.06% and Alphabet Inc.GOOGL +0.07%’s Google also are exploring technology aimed at connecting more of Africa to the digital economy.This is one debate where there are no losers. Whether it is satellites or cables, Roman Pacewicz, senior vice president at AT&T Inc. responsible for global marketing and strategy, claims “when combined with mobility adoption rates that are growing faster than any other part of the globe, the continent of Africa is poised to realize remarkable advances in resource efficiency and productivity.”Network infrastructure and energy grid investments are costly. But there is encouraging news out of Africa on those fronts too. The Brookings Institute reports foreign direct investment flows into Africa increased 500% to $133 billion from 2001 to 2012. And just several months ago, The Blackstone GroupBX +0.84% and the Carlyle GroupCG -0.06%, two of the world’s biggest private equity firms, made a joint $5 billion investment in Africa’s Sub-Saharan energy grid. China also is an active investor on the continent.So what’s in it for chief information officers?Tiffany Nash, an executive with the Computer Science Teachers Association, summarizes the talent potential of Africa. “Africa is India 2.0,” she says. The talent potential of Africa 2015 is similar to the talent potential of India in 1995. In fact, in the World Economic Forum’s 2015-2016 “Global Competitiveness Report” Kenya ranks higher than India in areas like “business usage of technology”, “individual usage of technology”, “quality of education system” and “capacity for innovation.”But comparative rankings of African countries are not the most important issue for chief information officers. Affordable human talent is. Andela Co-Founder Jeremy Johnson says “if you believe brilliance is evenly distributed but opportunity is not, then you have to conclude that there are places where there are staggering numbers of extraordinarily bright people who just don’t have a path to the global economy.”Africa is one of those “places” and in talent assessment tests administered in Nigeria, Andela routinely finds skilled tech talent that Plum, a global technology talent testing firm, ranks about the top two percent of skilled software developers worldwide.The World Bank cautions that growth in the near term will remain “uneven,” because of civil unrest, corruption, governmental bureaucracy and other regional challenges. So where can a chief information officer find these “extraordinarily bright people” right now?I recommend you start, or expand, your African journey in any one of these seven countries: South Africa, Mauritius, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and Nigeria.Rob Enslin, President of SAP SE and a native of South Africa, writing about Africa says, “there is so much more to do but through intense collaboration and selfless partnerships, we can seize this opportunity of a lifetime” to connect what Nicholas Negroponte calls “the last billion people on the planet” to tech employment opportunities in the 21st century. Beach is the publisher emeritus of CIO magazine.

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