Why America’s Tech Talent Should Reconsider Africa

It’s not been a great year for Silicon Valley’s image when it comes to women in tech. Firms faced a reckoning this year as women (and sometimes men) spoke up about the culture that persists in numerous firms, which continues to make inclusion a pipe-dream for many.

There are also some signs that the start-up boom may be slowing. So, with aspects of the Silicon Valley model coming under question, where can the next generation of young, aspiring and talented data scientists, coders and entrepreneurs look to?

For many, Africa is considered to be the next place for growth. This isn’t as new as it is sometimes made out to be: Kenya, for example, has had mobile money for 10 years now, in perhaps the most famous example of technological leapfrogging. But technology is playing an increasingly significant role in Africa.

For my own part, I have now been working in Kampala, Uganda for two years as a Data Scientist at off-grid solar and financial services company, Fenix International. Making this move, after five years working in tech in the States, felt like a complete leap of faith. Since taking that leap, my experience in recruiting for data science roles in Uganda has shown me that Americans seem to labor under misconceptions about Africa more than other Westerners.

Interviewees from the U.S. commonly don’t have a good sense of what East Africa is like, and are more concerned about safety and career viability than candidates from other countries. So, it’s important that this record is set straight. What is it actually like to be a woman working in tech in Africa?

Diversity and Culture

The diversity and multiculturalism of the technology sector was something I was completely surprised by when I moved to Uganda. At Fenix, we service customers in 30 different languages; my data science team was until recently comprised entirely of women.

Since we’ve been hiring for new positions in the data team, applications have been flooding in from as far as Germany, Nepal and the U.S., as well as from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and across Africa. Many of these have been from women. Now with technology entrepreneurialism at an all-time high in Africa, there is a greater focus than ever on building an inclusive culture from the start.

Among those doing good work are organizations, such as Women in Tech Africa. Their latest project is working in partnership with MTN, Africa’s largest telecom, to train young women in mobile technology applications. This kind of initiative is becoming a driving function for many of the continent’s tech hubs as well.

The number of tech hubs in Africa is changing so fast that the accuracy of estimates needs to be taken with some caution. Between the World Bank’s research in 2015 and GSMA’s analysis in 2016, the figure had boomed from 117 to a total of 314.

Personally, I have found the diversity of young tech professionals in Kampala provide an incredibly supportive and interesting environment. They are working for everyone from NGOs and not-for-profits, to for-profit businesses and social enterprises. The intellectual scene of conferences, talks and knowledge-sharing that exists in cities such as Nairobi and Kampala create hugely exciting conversations and cross-fertilization of ideas.

Philanthropy by Another Name?

Many commentators believe technology in Africa has the potential to create more impact faster than anywhere previously in the world. Perhaps because of this focus on impact, working in Africa often still bears the image of charitable or aid work. The reality is that there is a huge diversity of approach and multiplicity of business models compared to the proliferation of the VC model that dominates in the States.

For-profit social enterprise, for example, is pioneering new ways of delivering impact in Africa, with a rigorous focus on customer service and sales, something that bodies such as NGOs have not as yet focused on.

There are many more tech businesses in Africa than social enterprises, with some estimates putting the figure at 3,500 new tech-related ventures. All of these different organizations together go towards forming the exciting ecosystem of talented individuals who make Africa’s 300+ tech hubs.

Leapfrogging: The Challenge and Opportunity

Kampala’s quality of life — from transportation to nightlife — can take newcomers by surprise, but poverty is still very real. There are 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to electricity, for instance, and the average income in Uganda is less than $2 per day. Infrastructure is often minimal. Yet working in this environment of scarcity has become a powerful stimulus for incredible innovation in the tech sector in Africa. Mobile networks are extending services like mobile money where traditional banks have never ventured.

Solar home systems are extending energy access where the electricity grid is not extending fast enough. Operating at the edge of existing infrastructures, where an ultra-affordable product is still too expensive for many customers, presents a challenge quite unlike anything tech is doing in the U.S.

My experience working in this environment is that disciplined data science can be needle-moving. Finding a model which explains and predicts when a customer will struggle with payments for their solar power — as income ebbs and flows seasonally, for instance — can shape a new business model that ultimately makes energy affordable today — right now — for a huge section of people who had only envisioned a future of candles and kerosene.

East Africa, which I have called my home for the past two years, is the scene of the most diverse, burgeoning and challenging tech work that I could have imagined.

Lead image credit: CC0 Creative Commons | Pixabay

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Erin Boehmer is a Data Scientist, working in Kampala for solar home system company Fenix International. Fenix is a next-generation, end-to-end renewable energy company that does everything from design, manufacturing, sales, financing and customer service. Fenix’s flagship product, ReadyPay Power, is an expandable, lease-to-own home solar system financed through ultra-affordable instalments over Mobile Money. With its acquisition by ENGIE, the multinational utility, Fenix will be the first Solar Home System (SHS) firm to join a major worldwide energy company.

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