When Joseph* graduated from university in 2019, he expected to secure a well paying job but didn’t expect his search to take so long. Two years later, still in his early 20s, he resorted to cab-driving  in Accra, Ghana, while he kept looking. 

“I left Nigeria to study in Ghana and decided to remain here. Things are calmer here, although not necessarily easier,” Joseph, who is originally Nigerian, tells me during a ride in his cab. 

He goes on to speak about the difficulty around getting better accommodation and making ends meet. The car he uses was bought on hire purchase; he’s still paying for it. 

Joseph is one of Ghana’s 15 million underemployed population. 13.4% of Ghana’s population are unemployed, according to data released by the Ghana Statistical Service in December 2021.

On the other end of town, Meghan McCormick, founder of OZÉ, is looking for experienced hires. OZÉ is a Ghana-based fintech company that helps SMEs record transactions and access to financing.

“In the past 6 weeks, we’ve been hiring for 15 roles and have only been able to fill 4. It’s been difficult getting a senior UI/UX designer, data analyst, and product managers,” McCormick says. “It feels like everyone is trying to pivot to product management, but they don’t have enough experience.” 

Founded in 2017, OZÉ, which has over 125,000 users across Ghana and Nigeria, is at a stage where hiring the right-skilled persons is a major challenge. Although keen on hiring Africans, if that’s not possible, McCormick will have to look outside the continent. 

OZÉ isn’t alone: many African startups are in a similar situation. The prevalence of talent scarcity highlights a fascinating irony about Africa: despite having a high rate of unemployed and underemployed persons, businesses on the continent struggle to find the right talent to fill in key roles.  

According to a 2021 Bloomberg report South Africa has the highest unemployment rate (34.4%) on a global list of 82 countries. Closely behind on that list are Namibia (33.4%), and Nigeria (33.3%) coming in second and third respectively.

A popular and widely accepted explanation for this discrepancy is the gap between the skills the unemployed and underemployed Africans possess and the expected skills they need to excel on the job. 

Granted, there aren’t even enough jobs on the continent; only 3 million formal jobs are created annually in Africa, according to a 2015 report by the African Development Bank, while 10 million to 12 million youth enter the workforce in Africa each year. So, many graduates end up doing work outside of what they trained for in school.

But, while the demand for job creation is valid, there’s a need to look into how to solve the current problem of ensuring that the existing vacant jobs are filled in the first place. The answer, it appears, doesn’t reside in one approach.

“Our fight is against hunger”

A typical response to the issue of low/unskilled workers is to train them. A champion of this approach was Andela, which trained African developers for the first few years of its existence before evolving to become a network that hires senior developers from around the world to work for predominantly American companies. 

Building on lessons from Andela and companies like Decagon and Semicolon involved in training African tech talents, Adewale Yusuf decided to co-found TalentQL in 2020. 

TalentQL started out as a recruitment company for international and national companies. But, along the way, the need to train applicants became apparent, as many African engineers were failing the tests.

“The problem is that a lot of people were self-taught; school didn’t prepare them for the roles they were applying for,” Yusuf says.

This led to the creation of a training programme called Pipeline, a 6-month coaching programme focused on technical and soft skills. With the help of African engineers at big tech companies like Twitter, Amazon, and Spotify, the pilot cohort of 14 intermediate software engineers were trained to become world-class engineers.

Despite initial scepticism, the programme turned out successful. Seeing that the Pipeline model worked, Yusuf and the TalentQL team decided to create a similar programme for those with little or no experience, scaling them up to junior level experience. This birthed AltSchool Africa, a virtual year-long training programme at the end of which participants gained a diploma in software engineering, in affiliation with a reputable and accredited university. 

To ease the burden of paying for tuition, AltSchool Africa employs an income-sharing agreement where students only pay for their tuition when they get jobs upon graduation. They’re expected to pay $500, which can be paid in full or in installments—$50 over 10 months, or $100 over 5 months.

AltSchool Africa’s maiden edition has over 9,000 applicants from over 17 countries, with the top countries represented being Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda. 

“Our courses are based on research,” says Yusuf. “We’re looking at what will be relevant in the next 5 years. There are some jobs that don’t exist yet but will soon need developer support. These are the jobs we are training people for.”  

Although TalentQL and AltSchool Africa are related, graduates of AltSchool Africa don’t automatically gain access to Pipeline until they gain some working experience. 

“My goal is to help someone in Akoko, Akure, earn ₦100,000–₦200,000 every month and provide for their family. Our fight is against hunger.”

While AltSchool Africa started off focused on training software engineers, there are plans to add other specialisations such as product design and marketing, blockchain, and data analytics. 

“A country like Ukraine decided to revamp their curriculum to make sure they are churning out engineers. We can’t keep teaching programming languages like COBOL and Fortran in our schools,” Yusuf says. TalentQL is also engaging with the Nigerian government to review its policies and the educational curriculum. 

A nudge in the right direction

Training programmes come and go, but wouldn’t a lifetime mentor and community be better? That’s part of the thinking that spurred the creation of Fuzu, a career platform launched in Kenya in 2015.

“One key thing I’ve learnt from our conversation with Africans is that they need someone to help them along their career journey. Fuzu is trying to fill that gap,” Jussi Hinkkanen, Fuzu’s CEO, says. 

Seven years later, now in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, Fuzu’s major appeal is that it not only connects Africans to job opportunities, it provides them with relevant resources—courses, articles, and CV building—based on their career path and goal. It acts as a virtual mentor and community that looks out for a person all through their career. 

Since inception, Fuzu has supported over 12 million Africans and seen a 57% increase in skills gained by Fuzu career builders who use its Instant Feedback tool. Kadundo Jacob is one of the millions, who secured his first and current job as a medical representative in Kenya. The company also adds that professionals who use its CV creator tool are 46% more likely to get promoted while those who complete at least 1 course within 18 months are 26% more likely to get promoted.

Turning passions into livelihood

In the past few years, the internet has facilitated the rise of the passion economy—a new wave of niche communities of people monetising their skills, whether it’s running online classes, selling digital books, or copywriting. Africans are not left out of this movement and Mylene Flicka’s Irawo, a platform that teaches Africans how to monetise their skills, is there to help.

With as low as $100, individuals can sign up for a training programme on Irawo’s website and end up like Ife Kohossi, who now earns about $2,000 per month from teaching people to eat better and live healthier lives. Kohossi decided to set out on her own after several failed attempts to get a job. 

“When she first came, she didn’t know how to use a Facebook page to create a community. After passing through Irawo’s programme Kohossi learnt how to use online tools and market her business better,” says Flicka. In the case of Irawo, the training is focused on teaching Africans how to use online tools like Social media and eCommerce stores to amplify the reach of their service or product. 

Beyond the training, the participants are connected to mentors and they become part of a large community that continually provides useful tools and education. Irawo started in the Republic of Benin and now caters to Africans in french-speaking countries around the world—proof that there’s a growing interest from African creators. 

Competing for a prize

Over the years, companies have come to see hackathons as an opportunity to crowdsource new product ideas and also recruit talent.

For Foster Akugri, founder of Hacklab Foundation, a Ghana-headquartered not-for-profit organisation focused on preparing young people for future jobs, he realised that hackathons were also helping participants upskill quickly. While the annual hackathons aren’t necessarily a training ground, Akugri explained that Hacklab organises some training for the participants after the theme of the hackathon is introduced. The intending participants are exposed to resource materials about a new trend or technology, this helps the participants upskill to compete for the coveted cash prize of $10,000–$20,000 with additional benefits. 

“This year’s theme is edge computing, so we’ve started engaging edge computing leading technology firms like in Nvidia and Intel,” Akugri says. “What we do is that beyond asking these firms for financial support, we create workshops to teach participants on the fundamentals of the technologies we are focusing on.”

The partner companies also give users free access to paid tools for a short duration to practise.

Since 2015, the different hackathons have covered topics such as artificial intelligence, Blockchain and eCommerce. Over the span of 8 Hackathons there’s been over 300 job placements and 9 companies started, an indication of the program’s impact.

“Some of the partner firms like Stanbic Bank and Vodafone are recruiting not less than 15 people every year from our Hackathons,” Akugri added, emphasising the relevance of the Hackathon in upskilling these talents and getting them jobs.

Globally, the demand for talent outstrips supply and Africa is no exception. There are just 83,000 software developers in Nigeria. Compare that to California, which has 630,000, out of a total population of 39 million. 

Building enough tech talents for the continent will require the combined efforts of different players. African companies can also do their bit by upskilling their staff, enabling them to move departments, championing documentation processes that help new employees to settle seamlessly into their roles, and offering fine working conditions that motivate even people outside tech, who are willing and ambitious, to transition into the industry.

As the cab trip with Joseph comes to an end, he asks if moving to Lagos could offer him a better chance. He still hopes to secure a well paying job. I share a few thoughts, alight and slowly walk away, thinking about how there are others like Joseph out there.

*Name changed to protect source’s identity.

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