Understanding the developer ecosystem in West Africa Part I

Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to give scientific result based on accurate polling or any kind of scientific method (outside of observation). This is just a summary of my observations so treat it as what it is meant to, an opinion based on my interactions and experience. Furthermore as my experience extends to Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire so I’d scope my remarks to these two countries even though the title says West Africa.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work remotely this summer in both Dakar and Abidjan and it was great to be able to experience my daily developer routine within the slower pace and context of these cities. I was also able to network with local developers and the companies that hire them and get feedback from both parties. It was mind opening and I’ve walked away with a new insight and passion for bettering certain aspects of the current situation I will dwell on shortly.

The Good

Well, I’ll start with the easiest: being home.

On top of my family, being able to see my aging parents on a daily basis was invaluable. Being able to trod the same roads and alleys I’ve been on as a teenager with a new set of eyes and different experiences was great. Seeing old faces, catching up on common acquaintances, shortly, the whole experience of being back after a long time away is good. it’s like finding an old part of yourself that you thought was gone for good.

Getting past the nostalgic personal part, what was really good about banging out code locally?

  • Internet connection: I opened an Orange 4G mobile prepaid account as most people do, and to resume my experience in Dakar, i never felt like I was lacking and that the connection was unusable. That experience also extended to the home DSL connection where i was able to Netflix to my leisure without a noticeable drop in quality. So pushing to Github was definitely not an issue. It was not all rosy though but I’ll expand on that as part of the Bad.
  • Co-Working Spaces: Outside of the Coders4Africa offices, I worked most of the time from Jokkolabs and I enjoyed the space and the professionalism of the staff. Whether it was the Internet connection or finding a private room for calls, everything was handled with the professionalism of a well run operation. Outside of local startup working out the space, I could pick out expats and other nomads working out of the space just like me.
  • The Developer Ecosystem: The constant with the majority of the developers I met was how much more they wanted to know how to get better, asking for tips and feedback. There are actors making things happen in order to elevate the skill level (Noting Leger Djiba and his A2DG initiative ) with meetups and coding events being pretty frequent.

The Bad

For every head there needs to be a tail so I also have to talk about the negatives I either experienced or were brought up during discussions with local actors.

  • Bandwidth: As mentioned earlier, bandwidth was pretty good in Dakar but Abidjan was a different story with a slower bandwidth in general, and areas where I would just lose the connection. This was with an Orange SIM card as well. When it worked it was decent, and I was able to get my work done properly. Your mileage might vary depending on the country.
  • Internet cost: If I am not mistaken decent Internet Access was declared a human right but operators are still treating it as a privilege. The prepaid model is the de-facto operation mode for Internet access in most West African countries but it can run pretty expensive. If i remember correctly, 24 hours of 4G access (2GB max) was billed at about 2 dollars in Dakar, which can run expensive if you don’t pay attention. Home plans for 10MB of ADSL Unlimited Data will run you about $65 a month.
  • Skills Gap: I mentioned earlier that there is a young and eager local workforce and what surfaced through my interactions, and I am talking here from my background and experience as a front end developer, for the most part, they are developing with “antiquated” toolsets , frameworks and processes. I want to clarify that this is not a case of me being a “let’s play with the latest industry toy” fanboy but when you have developers sharing code using email instead of a repository, you know you have a serious problem. This whole discussion in itself deserves an article of its own to get into the other symptoms, causes and solutions but there is an undeniable skills gap in general when it comes to software development as it is done by the best. This is one of the reasons why we originally started Coders4Africa in 2009, to create a pan-african community of developers while at the same time providing the training needed to eliminate that skills gap. This has evolved into Gebeya, launched last month in Ethiopia and first in what we hope will be a network of professional training institutions focused on producing polished and skilled techies for the local markets.

The Ugly

Seriously, there is nothing I would qualify as ugly so I would just use this section to summarize an issue that was brought up quite often, both in Dakar and Abidjan, in an attempt to start a discussion. It goes like this:

You will hear complaints from local developers that they are not valued enough by local companies with major projects (enterprise) being sent out to Northern Africa (Tunisia or Morocco) or France to be coded at a premium therefore robbing local companies of much needed revenue and developers of much needed opportunities to build and scale major projects. On the flip side, you will hear horror stories from companies that tried local talent and ended being burned bad with awkward solutions that were badly implemented if implemented at all and are a maintenance nightmare making them resolute in exporting the coding work on the next implementation to make sure they end up with a quality product.

Now before going any further I am not implying that ALL local developers suck, or/and that ALL companies have had bad experiences using local talent to get software built. Based on my limited set of interactions this was a recurring comment which makes me think that the issue is widespread enough to be noticeable by all parties. As i mentioned earlier, this deserves an article of its own that I will hopefully get to later, there are many moving parts to it and I want to give it justice. As they say, where others see problems an entrepreneur sees opportunities and I am working with others to bring a credible solution

I would summarize this first post by saying that it was an eye opening experience for me and I hope to be soon one of the forces with Gebeya, Coders4Africa and others I can’t yet talk about that are working locally (and internationally) to improve the ecosystem so that African software development becomes a force to reckon with.

Read Part 2