With African developers building for the world, what’s the fate of African startups?

by | Feb 28, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 caused many employers to rethink the concept of work, and remote work promptly became a thing. However, it didn’t take long before individuals, companies, and governments alike began decrying the work-from-home (WFH) concept, given the psychological toll it took on people due to seclusion. 

It was only a matter of time before people began cherishing, once again, human interaction, with calls for a hybrid work model appearing to be the best solution. A solution that Microsoft, Google, and other global tech companies have since adopted.

The article isn’t concerned with the call for balance but the long-term implication of what remote work may be enabling.

The reality

“African developers are building for the world” was Google’s summary of a study it carried out on African software developers in 2020 in partnership with Accenture. And indeed, a new report from 2021 echoes the same claim. 

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The Africa Developer Ecosystem Report 2021 suggests that 8% of African developers work for at least one company outside the continent, even as the estimated number of developers on the continent increased from 700,000 in 2020 to 716,000 in 2021.

To a large extent, this increasing number is serving the local ecosystem, as revealed in the report, a situation contingent on the significant amount startups received in investment in 2021 — over $4 billion, 2.5x the value recorded in 2020. 

Fair enough, countries with the highest amount of VC funding — South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya — have a larger percentage of this developer stream.

In the report, a C-level executive at a South African talent pipeline company posited that international companies are the biggest competitors for African talents.

According to the stats, 38% of the 1,600 developers surveyed work for at least one company headquartered outside Africa. Some developers revealed that they learned to code solely to get international prospects. However, most of those working with international companies have an average of six years of experience, while those with fewer years get into local companies.

Possible implications

I suspect — which was also inferred in the report — that the trend would be local startups hiring most of the junior to mid-level developers — despite the high risks — while the senior developers move to international companies somewhat on the account that the local startups can’t compete based on compensation.

My conversation with several startup founders finding it difficult to get the right talents also reflects this. In hindsight, it isn’t exactly a problem of unavailability of talents, but competing with international companies for the available ones.

It almost seems like working as a developer for a local startup is only to get immediate employment while building enough capacity to move to a foreign company. Interestingly, remote work further fuels this, mildly cloaking the talent exodus argument since no one has to leave the continent.

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Additionally, a cursory look at some developer training institutes and talent outsourcing startups in Africa shows a pretty reasonable representation of international hirers on their clientele network.

One can argue that developers’ attraction to international opportunities paints a dreary image for the local market in the long term. The major concern is not having enough talents to go around eventually. 

According to the report, the numbers are still tilting in favour of the local ecosystem. But what happens when the attractiveness of the gig economy and wanting to raise purchasing power on the part of the developer thins out this advantage?

This is the situation North America’s tech ecosystem is currently in. 

Research done by Rest of World to compile salary data of tech workers in Latin America revealed the exodus of tech workers to American tech companies. The article cumulated in a compilation of founders’ experiences having to live with this challenge. Even though the proximity of these two locations appears to make it worse, remote work has fuelled it to a worrisome level.

Is the African situation one that can be nipped in the bud earlier, or does the ecosystem have to wait till it spirals out of control?

The need to make a hyperlocal effort in creating a unique work culture and environment for developers and tech workers to retain them is an enduring one, but isn’t there so little that local startups can do?

As a Nigerian founder looking to hire a developer recently said following unsuccessful attempts, it appears “talents are fast becoming more unaffordable than they are scarce.”

Oluwanifemi Kolawole
Oluwanifemi Kolawole

Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster.


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