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Innovators are in a race to plug Africa’s skills gap but they can’t do it all alone

Quartz Africa panel at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa
World Economic Forum / Greg Beadle
Iyin Aboyeji at Quartz Africa panel at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Population growth across Africa will result in 375 million young people reaching working age by 2030, according to the International Labor Organization. With high unemployment rates and rapidly-shifting skills requirements, applicants will start competing for the same jobs, leaving employers to sort through piles of similar-looking CVs.

The challenge then will be how to identify the right candidates who will actually perform on the job and then place them in the right positions.

The impending reality was subject to debate during Quartzs Africa Innovators panel at the 2019 World Economic Forum on Africa today (Sep. 4) in Cape Town. The dialogue was fitting given the event’s key theme is about shaping inclusive growth and dealing with some of the continent’s biggest challenges.

Ominously, as though business and political leaders needed a reminder of the scale of the talent and employment problem, the annual conference is also happening against the backdrop of violent protests and xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa. Immigrants have long borne the blame—and brunt—from locals for the country’s high unemployment levels.

In the long term, figuring out the best and the brightest and unlocking their potential will be key in the coming years, says Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, a serial entrepreneur who helped co-found Andela, the software developer training and outsourcing firm, before becoming an investor . “The magic of the continent is its talent and human capital,” he said.

One model is seen in Andela, a company that’s creating new talent supply by training a new generation of African developers to become globally competitive. With backing from investors like Mark Zuckerberg, Al Gore and Serena Williams, the New York-headquartered firm has trained software engineers across its campuses in four African campuses and has seconded them to global titans like Microsoft and Google. The focus on software engineering is not accidental either: WEF identified software engineering as the role with the highest demand growth in sub-Saharan Africa between 2013 and 2017.

The problem, however, is Andela alone won’t cut it. “We need to create more Andelas for different industries…because a lot of [job-seeking] applicants do not have [required] skill sets. The skill sets were never taught at an educational level,” said panelist Chika Uwazie, founder of Career Queen and former chief executive of human resource firm TalentBase.

Her assertion is backed by evidence that a dearth of adequately trained software engineers is fostering a local talent shortage as Nigeria’s tech ecosystem, for instance, struggles to keep hold of its best engineering talent. For its part, Andela’s model puts its trained developers out of reach of several local startups and businesses. “In order to solve the pipeline issue, more training institutions need to happen,” Uwaize said.

Aboyeji feels much of what companies like Andela have to offer should have been developed as a public good in the first place with young Africans being able to acquire these key skills from local universities—but this is rarely the case.

A central piece to solving the puzzle of maintaining a steady flow of talent, Uwaize suggests, lies in “putting more pressure on governments” to overhaul “outdated” educational curriculum systems. “If we don’t, we’re going to keep having a brain drain…We’re not preparing our youth for the future of work.”

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