Talent Wars in Africa – How to Win It

Africa's Talent Momentum

Since launching our revamped Gebeya Marketplace platform, we have confirmed a rampant problem with talent matching in Africa. Seniority is scarce in several verticals. 

Senior talents are quickly grabbed by well-funded startups and tech multinationals settling more and more in Africa. The reason why this is not happening at a more accelerated rate is because of the lack of certain types of talents. Organizations are finding it too expensive or unsustainable to constantly import expats to solve problems specific to African countries. 

Our very own platform has seen tech positions posted 3 to 4 weeks ago that are still waiting to be filled. For fast-growing not-yet funded startups or those who’ve raised pre-SEED and SEED funding—who are in the majority, by the way—a long hiring timeline can be quite frustrating. 

As for African SMEs and not well-funded startups who want to prove out their models, senior talent costs more than they can afford. Due to the scarcity of talent, a good experienced senior full-stack developer and an experienced digital marketing manager will cost anywhere from $2000 to $5000 USD monthly depending on what country they are in.

The continent is faced with a big dilemma. On one side, we have an increase of African startups being funded: $6 billion+ since 2019 raised to date; and more than $2.9 billion since the start of this year, including $817 million in September 2021 alone, according to Africa: The Big Deal. VC investment in Africa is predicted to exceed $10 billion by 2025, according to the annual Partech Africa Report

And on the other side a serious shortage of a certain level of experienced talent across the continent is pervasive. It takes an average of 3 years to turn an intermediate talent into a senior with enough experience. Given that the majority of the tech talent in the continent are between Juniors and Intermediates based on our research and own onboarded talent, something drastic and exponential needs to be done to moonshot the number of experienced talent who can be classified at the level of senior or expert. There’s no reason why SMEs, startups, large companies and multinationals can’t all have their fair share of resources. As it stands at the moment the ecosystem is unbalanced. There is also a perceived poaching problem. 

How do we solve this problem? Via a concerted ecosystem-wide effort

By creating a system that galvanizes the existing elements of companies, startups, and SMEs, investors, incubators & accelerators, universities, African Diaspora, and talents to then produce equipped talents within a two-year span. Separately, they each can identify the role and resources to be contributed in making this happen. We all need to plan better. Hiring in Africa cannot be done ad hoc. We need to all have a two-year projection of our hiring needs and start to groom the talent early. Now, understanding the urgency in solidifying such a system is key. If we fail to build a healthy and sustainable ecosystem of its kind within the next few years, we ultimately run the risk of its collapse.

Startups and SMEs have to be willing to hire more junior and intermediate talents. There has to be a desire to educate and nurture these talents, invest in their development, and groom them to become seniors. This can include working with external talent, forging longstanding partnerships with Africa-based talent companies. 

The industry needs to accept that someone having 5+ years of working experience does not necessarily equal the seniority needed to a specific position with a specific tech stack. Furthermore, talents with specific skills (i.e. ReactJS) are often needed to work on a specific product. One thing we realized is a very focused intermediate React Developer with 3 to 4 products or projects under his or her belt is senior enough in his or her craft even though he or she might not have had 6+ years of experience working. 

The world of tech has changed faster than any other industry. We have seen the big tech giants deciding that a degree is no longer a criteria to hire talent. They are instead looking for specialized technical skills, emotional intelligence, and soft skills. Hence we need to revisit what “seniority” means in this context where hiring based on seniority seems mission impossible. We need to be more practical in our hiring needs without compromising too much on quality and company targets. 

We have seen startups hire a few core senior talents and surround them with well-curated intermediate and junior talents with the right mindset and attitude to learn and grow within the culture of the hiring companies that hired them. 

Diaspora talent to the rescue

The African diaspora scattered around the world and doing well for themselves by working for marquee employers the like of Google and Apple must consider lesser-paying jobs with African startups which can generate greater gratification. The diaspora is listening and watching the booming startup ecosystem in Africa. They are reading about the exits, the unicorns, the raises and journeys of the exciting startups across the continent. They believe if they can get in early with some good stock option, they may be rewarded handsomely in a short period of time. African startups must figure out a way to attract more of the diaspora. By providing compensation package more interesting than just a paycheck. 

Pan-African talent

Local country-specific talent might not be the only solution anymore. Most Africans I encounter in my life time are limiting their experience based on their country of origin. Two African countries can be neighbors and share borders, but their citizens may not have a clue about each other economic opportunities and cultures. 

Case in point: ask an average Kenyan where Ethiopia is—and vice versa—their answers may be surprisingly ignorant. It gets worse when you ask entrepreneurs about their views on other African talents. There is just so much lack of information about talents across the continent. But yet the same entrepreneurs are very well-informed about the capacity and capability of talents in the U.S., EU, and Asia. 

There are a good number of success stories among African startups leveraging talent in other countries on the continent. Some startups prefer this arrangement for reasons like the opportunity to expand into new markets or to protect their IP from competitors closer to home. By working with talents located in other countries founders also get to experience new cultures, economic insights, and opportunities. 

Poaching 

Poaching is going to be the norm for a while in Africa, which is not sustainable for a healthy, vibrant, and rapidly growing ecosystem. Both multinationals and well-funded startups have been culprits and the little early stage startups have been the victims. We can’t blame the talents, this is really a basic economy of supply and demand. No matter how strong your company culture is, if a talent feels that they are cruelly under-compensated, they will simply leave for better opportunities. 

This reality of aggressive poaching is obviously not unique to Africa. It seems like history is repeating itself with what happened in Silicon Valley in the early days of the startups ecosystem there. It got so bad that giant companies had to make mutual agreements not to poach talents from each other. 

But the actions were taken very early in the US to produce as many engineers as quickly as possible in order to cope with the growth of their own ecosystem. The US went even further to create special immigration laws to attract talents from all over the world. Asians and Indians in particular were the greatest beneficiaries of this momentum. It is not a coincidence that the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Cisco etc. are all Indians.  

Investors

Know firsthand how critical it is to hire the right resources for a venture. Adequate and qualified talent can help a startup scale or stagnate. African-focused VCs are wary these days about the current state of the talent ecosystem in Africa. To the point that some VCs are building their own talent acquisition initiatives for their portfolio companies. Some of them are even partnering with upcoming talent companies who can provide perks and discounts to their portfolio companies. The struggle is real. 

As part of their investment strategy more and more VCs need to invest into African talent producing companies that will accompany the growth rate of their portfolio companies. This will be cheaper for the startups to find talent locally in-country, at a neighborhooding country or across the continent. 

Incubators & Accelerators & Universities

Just like investors, hubs understand the African talent problem quite well. Some hubs have gone and built their own talent producing and grooming model through talent internal training and mentorship programs. Then upon graduation, the talents are fed back to their startup cohorts. Hence, creating a self-sustaining talent acquisition model. African hubs have also partnered with universities across the continent to influence currila and shape what students should study at an early stage rather than waiting until graduation. 

The biggest effort though should be from tech universities and colleges. Across the universities in Africa, too many students graduate with degrees that most of the time are useless and outdated, but also with no practical knowledge they cannot apply at a job right away. Because of the critical seniority problem we are trying to solve faster, students that come out of tech schools in Africa should be equipped with more critical skills than any other part of the world. There are several ways to do that. But it will require a strong will from high education leaders, aggressive EdTech programs, on-job training as early as freshman year, and an effective mentorship program. I have several ideas that can be explored. Feel free to contact me if you are interested to discuss these ideas.

Finally, more diversified and creative EdTech companies are needed. These need to be in tune with the specific African market demand. We can’t just copy and paste what other EdTech companies are doing outside of Africa and think it will help fuel the ecosystem with good talent. Our problem is twofold; build seniority and do it as fast as possible.  The past couple of years, this has been a fundamental issue I have been trying to see how to solve. I even allied myself with other industry experts on how to go about it. All ideas are welcomed. Any ambitious EdTech companies targeting Africa  need to fundamentally understand this problem and try their best to create a viable long lasting solution for it.

Talents have to want to diversify and expand their skill set. It is not enough to be good at just one thing. There has to be an eagerness to learn, grow and execute tech skills that are within reach and of high demand. Talents also have to realistically map out what the road to upskilling can and must look like in a rapid and ever-evolving tech climate. This means, obtaining the skills and validations, through informal and formal training, that can advance one from junior to intermediate level in 18 months, or intermediate to senior within 2 years.

Gebeya’s pledge

Gebeya is pledging to be an integral solution to this ramping talent “seniority” problem. We understand the problem very well from both being a startup that needs talents for itself but also by interacting on a daily basis with hundreds of companies (startup, SMEs and large enterprises) on the continent. Every company, entrepreneur that we work with, we essentially become partners. We have seen ourselves educating companies about smart hiring. Which pretty much takes into account a blend of different categories of talents from: freelancers, permanent staffing, seniority, multilingual, local and distributed. 

After seeing it all, we believe every company or entrepreneur in Africa would need both a team of a smaller core permanent team member which is smaller in size for better control, with freelancers supporting the core team. The workforce is rapidly changing. As people embrace the opportunity to freelance and work remotely, businesses can adapt their hiring practices to the demand of the market. Hiring freelance talent takes your company and product to new heights. By making small, smart hiring changes, your business can see a big impact that contributes to its economic health, longevity, and success in any product market. 

As a startup, if you hire talent from us, we have a program to build long term relationships with startups and SMEs to grow with you as your talent needs grow.

If you have issues with hiring the right talent you need in Africa, feel free to reach out to me and my team. We will give free consultation on how to do it right. Also look out for my upcoming podcast on navigating the talent issues in Africa.