Coding a must-have skill for graduates and academics
In Southern Africa, coding has been embedded in e-commerce, computer science, statistics, IT and electronic engineering qualifications at university level.
In addition to dozens of universities including coding in a range of qualifications in Nigeria, some institutions in West and East Africa are also inspiring students to refine their skills through vibrant coding communities and innovative events such as hackathons and coding weeks.
Those with the know-how to use a ‘code’ – enabling them to write instructions executed by computers into web pages, software and other online tools – have acquired a critical competency in today’s digital work environment and economy.
A recent report by the International Finance Corporation and Google titled e-Conomy Africa 2020: Africa’s $180 billion internet economy future said that Africa’s internet economy is transforming development on the continent by fostering economic opportunities, creating jobs and providing innovative solutions to complex challenges in healthcare, education and finance.
The report also highlights the growth of Africa’s software development training through the more flexible delivery of coding education and finding that universities were training 33% of Africa’s software developers while online delivery and boot camps were providing 21% of the continent’s developers.
Coding boot camps
In one of the most recent initiatives on the boot camp front, a partnership between the international coding school Le Wagon and the private pan-African higher education network Honoris United Universities is planning to develop institutions in 15 key tech hubs across Africa over the next five years. The first countries to benefit will be Mauritius, Morocco and South Africa.
The Le Wagon programme, which has reached thousands of students in 20 countries, will be available full-time for nine weeks and part-time for 24 weeks, and is set to equip students with skills in behavioural intelligence, coding, data analytics, creativity and design thinking.
This, in turn, could at the end of the programme enhance their employability in the formal economy, but could also help them with their own start-ups or to work as freelancers.
This initiative is strengthening existing efforts, which include African Girls Can Code, a four-year programme launched in 2018 which aims to teach 2,000 teenage girls digital and business skills by 2022 through 18 coding camps.
Through the project, a partnership between the African Union Commission, UN Women Ethiopia and the International Telecommunications Union, about 570 girls have been trained.
The Accra-based Women in Tech Africa and the Nairobi chapter of Women in Machine Learning and Data Science have launched similar programmes, according to a forthcoming report entitled The Race against Time for Smarter Development.
A section of the UNESCO report focusing on women was published on 11 February to mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
Academics need coding skills too
Laura Kakon, the chief growth strategist officer at Honoris United Universities, told University World News that coding had become increasingly relevant as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on business models and workforce skills. As such, the partnership with Le Wagon was a crucial step towards bridging Africa’s digital skills gap.
“The rapidly changing world of work has accelerated the demand for innovative learning methods that emphasise the employability of students with digital skills at the core,” she said.
Kakon noted that, as coding was becoming globally accepted as the new second language for the 21st century, academics in Africa, irrespective of their area of study, were also expected to acquire a basic understanding and keep up with the latest innovations and technologies in order to remain competitive.
Olakanmi Adewara, the director of ICT at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, told University World News that there has been a lot of focus on degrees that offer coding as a result of digital events and the rise of start-ups in the field.
“Coding has enjoyed widespread attention, endorsements and sponsorship in Nigeria in the past three to five years, with students taking up related projects that have benefited them financially. Through skills capacity development, some have even been able to support their institutions with ICT solutions,” Adewara said.
Eunice Mushawatu, a computer science graduate from Zimbabwe now based in the US, is an example of what skills in the field could offer to young people.
“The advantage that studying computer science has had for me is job security, because there are many technology-based opportunities and I can work in almost any company, industry or field,” she said.
She said studying coding at African universities and colleges would enable graduates to create digital solutions best suited for the challenges on the continent and create more jobs.
Velma Namwela, a computer science graduate from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, agreed with Mushawatu.
“African universities offering coding degrees will build a workforce with the know-how on how to provide innovative business solutions. This will ultimately put Africa in a better position to compete globally with their services and products,” she said.
Factors limiting the training of coders
Whereas coding is recognised as a cornerstone of the digital economy and is included in university qualifications, the education of coders is hampered by a range of factors.
These range from the availability of devices or computer laboratories for students to connectivity difficulties and a shortage of skilled educators.
A professor at the Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe, who requested anonymity during an interview with University World News, argued that, despite having coding embedded in degrees within higher education institutions, it was not “fully prioritised” as an elective by learners themselves.
“Code is one of the main driving forces of global industries. However, not every African student can afford a laptop, hence computer labs must be fully equipped to assist students, and universities should also have competitive incentives to get students coding, such as boot camps,” he recommended during the interview.
Brink van der Merwe, a professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, added low subsidies from the government for coding courses as compared to other disciplines and the lack of funding for postgraduate bursaries and research as factors that downplayed the rise in demand for computer science graduates. He also mentioned the availability of skilled tertiary educators.
“It is not uncommon for computer science lecturing staff to move to industry, enticed in part by better salaries ... it is a challenge to attract and keep academic staff,” said Van der Merwe.
Like his peers in the south, Adewara noted that, despite the momentum, more support was needed in access to training facilities, venues for coding events and internet connectivity.
Similarly, Nodumo Dhlamini, the director of ICT and knowledge management at the Association of African Universities (AAU), the pan-African organisation representing 46 higher education institutions across the continent, said that, while coding had become more relevant at African universities, there were still challenges affecting both academics and institutions.
“Academic institutions and students cannot escape the impact of digital technologies because they have been integrated in diverse fields such as distance learning, agriculture and e-marketing,” she said.
She also highlighted the lack of sufficient educators to train students about coding, and constraints related to accessing online courses, especially for under-served communities.
While the AAU provides member universities with various initiatives to support skills in coding, the lack of fully developed infrastructure leading to difficulties with internet connectivity has been a stumbling block for many students across Africa.
Dhlamini called on African governments to prioritise infrastructure development in order to provide access to unconnected communities and allow educational institutions and students to harness the opportunities that are arising from the digital revolution.
This news report was updated on 28 February 2021.