“We are experiencing a digital revolution. Every single company requires tech skills,” says Arlene Mulder.
That Africa has a serious shortage of these skills is what is keeping Mulder, along with fellow WeThinkCode co-founders Justinus Adriaanse, Yossi Hasson and Camille Agon extremely busy.
Together they are working to make sure Africa is able to meet its tech skills gap. Last year they launched Johannesburg-based WeThinkCode, a peer-to-peer and not-for-profit university training young people to become world-class software engineers.
The ultimate goal, says Mulder is to create an ecosystem of new talent that will not only drive innovation but also aid in job creation in South Africa as well as other markets in Africa.
Most of the founders have tech or digital experience. Adriaanse is the former CEO of Private Property. Under his leadership the publication grew to become the most visited property site in Africa. He also has experience raising multiple successful rounds of funding and acquiring businesses in east and west Africa.
Hasson is managing director at Cape Town-based Techstars, a fintech accelerator program. Hasson is also the co-founder of Synaq, a cloud-based email and infrastructure services provider and one of SA’s fastest growing companies and was recently ranked as one of Forbes’s top 20 African tech firms.
WeThinkCode students at the academy in
Johannesburg’s city center.
Camille Agon’s experience includes program manager at Breteau Foundation which provides school children in developing countries with digital education tools in an effort to transform the way they learn. Mulder is a former investment banker at Rand Merchant Bank.
Unlocking Africa’s tech potential
That technology has the power to unlock Africa’s potential is nothing new. In an article published recently in The Wall Street Journal Jeremy Johnson and Iyinoluwa Aboyeji co-founders of Nigeria-based software skills training firm, Andela, write that Africa is home to the world’s largest pool of untapped brainpower and talent.
“In the past, there was no scalable, cost-effective way to leverage and empower this human capital. But technology is quickly upending this paradigm, especially when it comes to identifying technical and quantitative aptitude,” they state.
However, a lack of highly skilled software engineers and developers threatens to derail this.
According to the EY 2014 Sub-Saharan Africa Talent Trends and Practices study the demand for skills on the continent continues with the companies surveyed saying they expected their need for technical and professional skills to increase.
And this month the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE), commissioned its 2016 ICT Skills Survey to look at current skills priorities and gaps in the South African ICT sector. With Adrian Schofield, applied research unit manager saying South Africa is falling behind its peers in Africa (such as Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt) who are putting greater emphasis on the contribution that technology plays in economic growth.
SME South Africa chats to Arlene Mulder about how they are democratising education and what the digital revolution means for the continent.
‘Tech will save us’
We are experiencing a digital revolution, and every single company requires tech skills. We believe that combining technical skills with the innovation and creativity of our people, we can drive and stimulate the software engineering industry in South Africa to be a force to be reckoned with globally.
We are not only about churning out lines of code, but more about empowering digital problem solvers in Africa.
We believe the first step is to drive awareness and to show how exciting and creative software engineering industry is. It is not sitting in a basement fixing a printer, but it rather empowers you with the tools to solve problems creatively and enables you to code and design the future.
Innovation is not only in tech, there is innovation in culture and people. In Africa, we have an incredible generation of coders and entrepreneurs that are rising to solve our continent’s most pressing challenges.
Doing well AND doing good
WeThinkCode is a non-profit company with a very strong social mission, but at the same time we need to run the business like a lean startup and ensure we create a sustainable business model. We decided to get corporate partners onboard that needed to invest in skills development due to the extreme shortage of quality developers. It is a completely new and revolutionary way to approach education and skills development, and we were extremely fortunate to get incredible partners onboard such as FNB, BBD and Derivco.
Closing the gap
We are excited about having young people from all different socio-economic backgrounds and previous education working and studying together. Our education model is based on peer-to-peer learning and students therefore learn so much more if they come from different backgrounds and viewpoints.
One of the most prominent challenges have been to recruit female students. Worldwide this is an issue, but in South Africa it is quite acute. In a recent study by Stack Overflow, only 5.8% of developers surveyed being women. We are really passionate to inspire more women to pursue a career in software engineering.
A radical approach to education
Our students learn various different languages and in essence learn how to solve problems, using coding as the tool. We do not aim to teach students how to churn our lines of code, but rather to empower them to become the digital problem solvers of tomorrow.
We have no teachers, no classes and students will learn by way of peer-to-peer learning. Our curriculum is adapted to industry needs and can be updated continuously in order to remain relevant. Students will qualify as software engineers at the end of two years, but more importantly they will learn how to learn and how to solve problems using coding as the tool.
We are also aiming to democratise education by making it open and accessible to all talented young individuals. Our institution is completely tuition-free to students. Our business model involves corporates investing in skills development, not only from a financial point of view, but they also provide internships as well as access to the workplace and a clear path to employment. We also work with our corporate partners to ensure that our curriculum remains relevant.
Stepping across Africa
African countries are extremely diverse, they include some of the world’s fastest growing economies, and also some of the poorest. Each country represents its own challenges and cultural differences. We are piloting the French-based Ecole 42 model in Johannesburg, and will leverage our learnings and experience here to scale into other countries on the continent.