In addition to looking at Mifos-specific opportunities in Africa, I’m also trying to get a sense of what is needed to build a vibrant software industry here. That’s a big topic, and encompasses the need for both a strong investor ecosystem (especially more seed/angel investment) and some success stories to show tech entrepreneurs that there is a viable career path in software entrepreneurship.

Ultimately, though, building a strong software industry in Africa requires strong talent – both technical and business oriented – that can found and scale African companies that solve hard problems with great software. My initial glimpses into the software talent pool in Africa have turned up a few things:

  • Senior software talent – architects, senior developers, product managers, and the like – are vanishingly scarce in Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya (the three markets I’ve investigated)
  • There are plenty of young, energetic, and talented developers around but they rarely have deep experience in building and shipping software
  • Many of the most talented and experienced developers go for job security and good pay, and are locked up by banks and telcos (and are very hard to pry out of those jobs)
  • There are lots of incubators around, especially around East Africa, giving entrepreneurs a place to go and find community and in some cases find mentorship, learn at events, etc.

What I’m not seeing – and hearing a need for – is deep, structured mentoring that builds skills and experience through daily contact with people who have built companies and products before and learned some of the tools and methodologies. It looks like some of the incubators – m:lab east africa, for example – are trying out some new approaches to tackle this problem, and I’m looking forward to learning more about how that works.

There are a couple of US-based models that have caught my eye as well:

  • The well-known Y Combinator approach combines seed funding (usually under $20,000 USD) with help that ranges from what to build, how to build it, and making deals with investors and/or acquirers. They help startups get incorporated properly and host investor days, dinners with speakers, and perhaps most importantly have a rich and active alumni community.
  • I’ve just run across MPOWER, and I’m finding their model super interesting. It’s high overhead (I’m guessing – need to talk to them to validate) but seems like a great model to think about replicating in Africa to augment the vibrant incubator community. Basically, MPOWER Ventures is a VC that focuses on empowering underserved populations. Their first portfolio company is MPOWER Labs, a combo of a shared R&D facility, shared company infrastructure, and a bunch of talented people who can work with multiple portfolio companies on both business and technology problems

The thing that I like – a lot – about the MPOWER model is that it brings together deep talent (often expensive) and amortizes that talent across a bunch of companies to reduce the cost profile for any given startup. I could see this working really well in Africa – imagine matching up an experienced CTO who has great architecture chops and a great product manager who knows how to ship software (not the same as writing code!) with 4-5 startups with great local product ideas, coding chops, and energy/passion for what they’re trying to build.

The other idea I’m toying with is creating a single company – probably focused on Mifos – that partners with one or more universities to give CS students exposure to real world software development and software companies. For example, you could imagine an “Applications” course that is a hybrid of coursework and quasi-internship and brings together both CS and business students, pairing them with their counterparts inside the company. Maybe it’s worth the equivalent credits of two courses (to ensure that students have the time/energy to dedicate to the work) and includes academic lectures, studio sessions with team from the company, and real-world work experience. A CS student might pair up with a senior developer to work on a new API; a business student might work on the launch plan for a new version of the software.

The underlying idea is to move toward much deeper mentorship, coaching, training, education in a real world working context, pairing inexperienced but smart talent with deeply experienced people who are working on building a real business and can help show their charges how what they learned in school changes when it gets into the real world. Building a successful company takes much more than just writing code and putting it in customers’ hands – it requires understanding customers, testing hypotheses, driving a release plan, setting up support tools and infrastructure, etc., and a lot of the entrepreneurs I’m coming across in Africa have great ideas but no exposure to what it takes to turn those ideas into successful product companies… and, unfortunately, nowhere to turn to get a leg up on learning those skills and methodologies.

Ben at Kopo Kopo blogged recently that

Africa is rising. The continent’s 1B+ people are largely young, urban, tech savvy, and brand / status conscious. Pockets of the continent – Accra, Cairo, Lagos, Nairobi, etc. – are globally-connected. They read Mashable and New York Times. They demand accountability and transparency. And they are the future.

I think that’s absolutely right… there are massive opportunities for software firms in Africa, and jumpstarting deeper development and nurturing of talent is one of the critical factors to attracting investment and simply to enabling some of the great ideas that African entrepreneurs have to take root and blossom.

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