Africa must develop own programmers to reverse digital poverty

24th May 2013 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Contributing Editor

Software development and knowledge will be critical to the success of engineering, manufacturing, business and other key areas of economic competitiveness of coun-tries. Africa must focus strongly on developing young software programmers and coders to enable its own development, says agile software development company ThoughtWorks founder and CEO Roy Singham.

“Initially, countries used software packages and services, but these do not promote the development of hard-core software engineering skills. “This has been a mistake in Africa and in many developing countries for 50 years. Soft- ware engineering is critical for areas of economic competitiveness in advanced economic societies, if African businesses are to be globally successful,” he emphasises.

Software engineering needs fundamental support at company and societal level, which will also require much stronger government support in all countries, says Singham.

The continent must develop a produced-in-Africa software strategy and it can gain insight and valuable experience from other developing economies across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans that have become software development hubs.

“A potential solution is to actively pursue open-source software development. This will reduce the costs to businesses, increase capacity on the continent and result in more relevant solutions, in contrast to solutions designed in other countries, as there are different constraints on companies in Africa than on those in developed markets.”

Africa has the opportunity to redefine the next generation of software engineers and innovation and business on the continent. However, current indications are that there is neither business nor government support needed to create an industry that will enable long-term sustainability and innovation, emphasises Singham.

“The disciplines associated with software engineering, specifically collaboration and teamwork, are well suited to boosting frugal innovation on the continent where there are many constraints on research, development, manufacturing and services,” says Singham.

Companies should also pursue agile development, which entails quickly developing and deploying partial solutions based on initial ideas from a spectrum of business units and internal expertise. This broad approach also ensures a framework for effective collaboration in a company to create iterations of the solution to arrive at a sustainable solution more cheaply and at a lower cost than developing and deploying a complete solution untested, he adds.

“Software engineering requires disciplines that are underemphasised in classical engineering and business careers, but are necessary for any business to be quick and self-reliant enough to compete in a global arena,” Singham highlights.

Cloud provisioning is a significant remaining infrastructure element that must be built and managed by Africans. It can easily be started using open-source software to establish a solution relatively quickly, while growing engineering skills, he avers.

Critical National Skills
Developing indigenous software engineering skills cannot be regarded as protectionist in global economic terms, owing to the necessity of these skills for businesses in all industries. Africa should, therefore, aggressively pursue the development of these skills within its borders and with external support, Singham argues.

He advocates a strong focus on primary and secondary education levels, as they constitute a more significant source of high-level software experts than tertiary education courses alone.

The lack of software skills undermines the ability to create indigenous manufacturing in all African countries and to establish information-intelligent workforces, Singham avers.

“Children and young adults need role models to inspire the next generation of engineers. For this reason, ThoughtWorks supports an initiative where young women in South Africa get together and learn to code together in a social setting on a Saturday.