Femi Longe: Talent – The Achilles’ heel of Nigeria’s IT revolution (Y! Policy Hub)

by Femi Longe

Femi Longe (Y! Policy Hub)

In a country with high levels of unemployment, jobs far outnumber skilled developers in the sector. The best hands are either already in a job, have their own start-ups that they are nursing to life or charge a premium beyond what most start-ups can afford.

There wasn’t any of the usual patriotic uproar from Nigerians when Malik Fal, Managing Director of Omidyar Network Africa said in a recent interview with Ventureburn that the race to be Africa’s tech hub in the next 5 years was a two horse race between Nairobi and Cape Town. About Nigeria, he said “I don’t think Nigeria has the depth of IT talent that Kenya and Cape Town have. The ecosystem is still a little bit too chaotic in my view. The country is so big, its people work still too much in isolation”.

There wasn’t any uproar because while we may harbour hope that Nigeria defies the odds and emerges as a dominant player in the tech scene on the continent, his analysis of our limiting factors are undeniably spot on.

Nigeria has a major talent gap in the IT sector that is limiting the number of quality technology products and startups from the country that have potential of becoming world-beaters. The deficit is as much around the technical competencies as the knowledge of the business of IT and what it takes to deliver a successful technology venture.

The uninitiated may mention access to funding as our main challenge but simple observation of our country’s repeated failure to solve basic problems by throwing money at them when good ideas, political will and effective management are actually what is required, will quickly dispel this notion. That is not to acknowledge that we have a problem with the amount and types of funding available for technology startups but solving this will prove easier than solving our human capital problem.

In the last year, at least 8 of the larger technology firms have gotten more than a $1 million USD from international VCs. Schemes like the CcHub-Tony Elumelu Foundation Partnership and the budding Lagos Angel Network are starting to solve the seed funding challenge. The Ministry of Communication Technology’s plans to muster $20million to invest in technology startups will potentially act as a catalyst to encourage other institutional investors to enter the market if they can get assurance of deal flows. The questions of deal flows will however put available funding again at the mercy of our talent crisis.

This issue is at the fore of the mind of our tech entrepreneurs and barely a week goes by without a thread popping up on Silicon Africa, a Facebook group where mostly Nigerian technorati discuss everything tech, on the challenges with hiring and retaining tech talent mostly quality developers.

In a country with high levels of unemployment, jobs far outnumber skilled developers in the sector. The best hands are either already in a job, have their own start-ups that they are nursing to life or charge a premium beyond what most start-ups can afford.

The obvious culprit for this talent crisis is the state of our tertiary education. In January 2012, the Nigerian University Commission had accredited 61 public universities and 38 private universities to deliver courses in IT most of them running Bachelor programmes in Computer Science BSc while a few had courses in Computer Engineering.

Between these universities, a significant number of “IT professionals” are graduated every year into the job market. This is not even counting IT graduated by polytechnics and the many accredited and unaccredited computer training institutes that dot the land. It is also not accounting for the many graduates of other courses who have segued into a career in IT as a means of keeping body and soul together. It’s therefore hard to understand why we have a talent gap.

There are fundamentally problems with the content of the curriculum, mode of delivery and personnel delivering the curriculum that causes that majority of IT fresh graduates in Nigeria are still not prepared for an IT job after 4 or 5 years. In my next piece I will dissect this diagnosis and recommend actions that can be taken to improve.

IT graduates who are considered up to par are often those who have developed a personal passion for the discipline and who have taken effort to expand their knowledge outside the tuition in the classroom. They have often complemented the class work with rigorous private practice, which have honed their skills. In some cases they already have a technology product while at university or they have already begun delivering IT projects for clients as consultant. Unfortunately these individuals are in the minority.

For most, their core purpose in class is to pass so they can leave schools to hustle for any job in the highest paying bank, telco or oil company preferably. This dream unfortunately eludes most who have a Computer Science Bachelor certificate that they cannot defend in the workplace at core technology firms.

The fall back plan for IT companies who are directly impacted by this talent crisis is for them to carry out the task that universities have abdicated to them. The task of training the technology ecosystem on the skills and competencies they require with little or no guarantees of retention after these critical competencies have been acquired. The stress and near futility of this task was referred to by Emeka Afigbo, Develop Outreach Manager for Google in Sub-Saharan Africa as “attempting to boil the ocean”.

Established local software houses like SeamFix, Parkway, C2G and SocketWorks have played strong roles in providing hands on experiential development to a lot of software developers who have been fortunate to pass through their stables but there are only so many they can hire at a time.  Large technology firms like Nokia, Blackberry, Samsung, Google and Microsoft have also invested resources to train Nigerian developers and particularly to encourage building apps for their own platforms but with understanding that the skills they give them are transferable.

Obviously industry is ready to contribute to a solution because it is economically in their best interest, however they are affected by scale and the need to keep going back to bottom-line as it is easy to cut developer-training budgets in the face of other economic considerations.

Waking up to address this talent challenge should be a key priority for the Ministry of Communication Technology because of its effect on their mandate but they will not be able to achieve anything without deep synergy with other ministries particularly Education, National Planning, Labour & Productivity, Tourism and Finance amongst others. Synergy in sense of purpose, policy formulation and implementation is critical if change is to happen.

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Femi Longe is a co-founder and Director at Co-Creation Hub Nigeria (CcHub), an uber-cool social enterprise dedicated to co-creating innovative solutions to social and commercial challenges in Nigeria using technology. He is a learning experience designer, facilitator and social enterprise consultant. Follow him on twitter @femilonge and he blogs at www.femilonge.com

 

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

One comment

  1. I have been an avid reader of interesting stuffs on Y!naija but this article really strikes close to home. The Way IT is treated in Nigeria especially software development is very appalling. We have turned to consumers of IT rather than innovator. Nigeria breeds more system administrators who either have no knack for how to make things better rather they prefer to sit and do the same monotonous things everyday. We practice Asshole driven development (Does it work mentality) rather than How can it perform better or what can we learn from what didn’t.

    How many university are interested in courses about Big data, Malware analysis or Windows internals. These course as stupid as they look gives you the in-depth knowledge of what happens when you use an IT system. We are rather concerned more about Who will maintain it when it is deployed :). In regards to IT we are just toddlers and not innovators.

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