The Place Where Coders Work 5 Jobs at Once
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because for Africans to compete in the global tech market, they’ll need top-notch skills.
By Jacob Kushner
A good coder is hard to find, as Kenyan entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu knows. Nairobi is chock-full of mediocre ones, while those with real skills are in such high demand they work “five jobs at the same time,” says Ndungu, whose startup, Kytabu, aims to bring digital textbooks to African schoolkids. Ndungu searched far and wide, from Kazakhstan to India, and nearly sputtered for lack of talent.
Then he learned of Moringa School, a for-profit startup that aims to turn tech-savvy Kenyans into employable programmers and developers, coders and designers in a matter of months. After visiting Moringa’s classrooms this spring, Ngundu offered two students 14-day internships — and hired them almost immediately afterward. The pair are working so quickly, Ngundu says, that he has moved up Kytabu’s launch date by three months.
As cities like Nairobi, Lagos and Kigali become major tech investment hubs, the promise of smart new jobs has rightly generated a lot of hope. Picture far-away armies of bright young developers, coders and UX specialists quietly building the infrastructure of the global digital economy while boosting their own prospects. It’s a fine picture, indeed. But an important question remains, and it has become a quandary for entrepreneurs, aspiring techies and governments alike: Who will train the young Africans to fill the jobs?
Moringa is part of the answer. Similar initiatives on the continent include Codex in South Africa; eMobilis, which is training Kenyans to create mobile-phone apps; and AkiraChix, which works only with women in the hopes of nipping the digital gender divide in the bud. Meanwhile, tech training has gotten a boost from big companies — IBM, Microsoft and GE are all investing in better tech training in Africa’s universities — and major foundations like Rockefeller that are investing heavily in trainings programs for business-process outsourcing jobs, a $150 billion market. Proponents say such initiatives try to fill the gap that universities, bookbound and theory infatuated, have not been able to broach — which is to say, provide students real-life tech skills that can get them jobs.
“The professors are into academia — they don’t venture too much into programming,” says Ian Munene, a 23-year-old Moringa alum. Despite a degree in computer sciences from Jomo Kenyatta University, one of the country’s best, Munene couldn’t find a job after graduation. But as soon as he completed a three-month course at Moringa, a local IT consulting firm offered him a position. (He turned it down to become a hacker-in-residence at Moringa, where he’s training students and working on coding projects contracted to the school by North American and European companies as part of Moringa’s development lab.)
Worth noting: Both of Moringa’s co-founders have yet to earn a college degree. Texas native Audrey Cheng, who is 22, says she has one pesky credit to go at Northwestern University in Chicago — in the up-and-coming field of journalism. She first came to Kenya in March 2014 to work with the tech accelerator Savannah Fund, where she’d hear pitches from entrepreneurs looking for capital. Inevitably, she says, she’d notice their lack of tech prowess, their plans to outsource development to India. “I was like, ‘If you try to scale a business and your whole team is in India, that doesn’t help,’” she says.
To remedy that, Cheng left Savannah to start Moringa: For four months, students attend class five days a week, up to 11 hours a day, to learn programming languages and create applications from scratch while collaborating with their classmates and under the instruction of top Kenyan and American coding instructors. Upon graduation they’re funneled immediately into jobs with local, vetted partner companies. Cheng says all of the school’s recent graduates are employed, and most are earning between $600 and $1,000 a month. That, in a country where per capita income is just $232 a month, according to the World Bank.
At $2,300 per student, Moringa’s tuition isn’t something to brush off entirely. And yet, Cheng says, Moringa is already turning a profit despite keeping classes selective: They admitted only five students to their first cohort and later kicked one of them out. For its most recent term, Moringa received 400 applications for just 27 slots (a 7 percent acceptance rate — by comparison, MIT’s admittance rate last year was 8 percent). Cheng plans to expand Moringa, slowly, into other African cities, and says the company is closing on a $100,000 investment that will move it out of the incubator and into its own office space.
To be sure, some believe that tech job outsourcing, and training workers for it, is just the next iteration of call centers — a “race to the bottom” in the making, in the words of Rahul Brown, a Berkeley, California-based serial entrepreneur who has started companies in Silicon Valley as well as in the developing world. He adds that African nations like Kenya often don’t even come up in conversations in places like Berkeley when it comes to tech outsourcing.
But then, 25 years ago, neither did India.