What Africa’s youths need to succeed in the IT industry

Today, among corporations, governments, and individuals alike, there is much optimism regarding Africa’s future. One of the main reasons for this is the continent’s enviably youthful population, whose median age is only twenty years old.

Mark Dean

Mark Dean

Africa’s 54 nations are also currently home to more than 500 million people of working age, or 15 to 64 years old. By 2040, that figure is expected to exceed 1.1 billion, which will make Africa’s workforce the largest of any region on the planet.

But the next generation of African employees offers their communities – and the world – more than just an exciting set of statistics. To help them achieve their remarkable potential, it is crucial for leaders in technology and business around the globe to collaborate with young Africans to address their specific technical-education needs and provide them with regionally-specific and globally-aware career mentoring.

Despite the rosy demographic data on Africa’s growing economy and its growing legions of work-age individuals, there is a stunning shortage of skilled workers in the information and communication technology (ICT) field. Universities are not producing sufficient numbers of graduates with the right level of technical skills to enable, grow and competitively position businesses in the African markets. South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, for instance, has issued a detailed list of open technical jobs in the nation.

This list points to a need for nearly 3,000 software and application programmers, nearly 3,000 project and other managers, and 1,600 information and communications technology support technicians.

Considering that market researcher IDC predicts that information-technology spending in sub-Saharan Africa will rise 9.9% in 2011 (year-on-year growth from 2010) to cross the $23 billion mark, there will be an even larger hunger for IT-trained workers in the very near future.

There is another educational challenge that Africa faces that is less obvious. Although the continent’s young citizens are ambitious and aspire to economic empowerment, they are often not exposed to many real-life examples of business leaders with “soft” skills necessary to succeed in today’s global working environment. These abilities range from giving an effective presentation and time management to teaming and leadership skills.

At this moment in Africa’s business history, there is a lack of mentors who can offer direct advice to students eager to find role models. Dennis Muchiri, a young technology executive who attended the School of Computing and Informatics at the University of Nairobi, says “Kenya, or rather Africa…doesn’t have formal systems for mentorships. It is a question of individual efforts; we don’t have [the] formal structure. It’s not a concept so to speak.”

But there are training models that exist today that can be replicated throughout Africa, which can reach not only educated young Africans such as Dennis Muchiri, but also those who aren’t in the university system. One is offering certification for software development and other needed technical skills. Creating such programmes in Africa doesn’t require a huge capital investment in physical spaces or even training staff.

Another model is that of corporate partnerships with African educational institutions. Leading companies have the resources to provide materials that can be worked efficiently into curricula. Last year IBM, for instance, has donated 22,000 IT reference books to the University of Dodoma and 15,000 volumes to the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT), both in Tanzania, to help achieve such a goal.

While providing technical training in classrooms and out is necessary to fill IT positions today and in the future, it is also necessary to encourage local African universities and other organisations to foster region-relevant research. Doing so will likely result in a culture of innovation that can spread beyond college campuses throughout Africa. This is imperative for the creation of new products and services that are appropriate and optimised for African society, enabling them to be successful because they are developed “in Africa by Africans for Africa”.

This concept of creating awards to spark competitive innovation doesn’t need to be limited only to universities, either. One pioneering example is a new United Nations-sponsored African Innovation Prize that will be awarded for the first time in 2012. Yes, these incentives will offer the funding to turn intelligent ideas into reality. But they also fuel the aspirations of future generations of African inventors and researchers by providing possible heroes and mentors – the recipients of such awards – too.

Whether via an online certification programme, university courses, awards programmes, or corporate initiatives, guiding Africa’s future workers toward gaining a potent combination of technical and communication skills is a smart strategy – and an urgent necessity. Yes, by fact of their sheer numbers and the economic potential of their region, Africa’s young people show great promise. But companies, educational institutions, governments, and individuals alike must promise to work with them immediately and effectively, via formal and informal training to address their educational needs. This is the only way that Africa – and the world – will best benefit from their youthful advantages.

Dr. Mark Dean is chief technology officer of the Middle East and Africa for IBM.