Coding all the way from Cape Town to Casablanca

Africa is widely recognized as the world's fastest-growing IT market. Its explosive growth is signalled in numerous areas, for example: McKinsey predicts that there will be 360 million smartphone users in Africa by 2025, six times as many as there were in 2013. At the end of 2014, Facebook had 100 million active users per month in Africa. And SAP estimates that 40% of enterprises are planning Big Data projects to adapt their businesses to the rapidly morphing market conditions in Africa.

Yet, despite all these changes, only about one percent of Africa's younger generation leaves school with relevant coding skills. That's not anywhere near enough to satisfy the demand for skilled personnel in this booming digital economy. Nor is it enough to give Africa's burgeoning working-age population an opportunity to become actors in their continent’s economic development. And let’s face it, the potential is immense: According to the World Economic Forum, Africa's working-age population is set to double to one billion by 2050, surpassing both China and India.

Broad alliance

"Digital literacy has the power to put millions of young Africans on the path to successful careers," said Morocco's Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, Rachid Benmokhtar Benabdellah, at the start of this year’s Africa Code Week. The educational initiative of which Africa Code Week is part and which began in October involves a host of businesses, NGOs, educational institutions, and government agencies. Its objectives are ambitious. After a promising start this year, the alliance aims to give children and young people in 30 African nations an introduction to software development in 2016. This will be achieved primarily by equipping local trainers to teach the basics of coding to the younger generation.

They've certainly made an auspicious start. During this October’s inaugural Africa Code Week, the initiative reached a whopping 89,000 participants in 17 countries with a range of free online courses and workshops. These were held by parents, teachers, sports coaches, and government workers – 1,500 of whom were trained by IT experts from SAP offering their services voluntarily and with technical support from their employer. These trainers included Kevin Morrissey, whose regular job is leading the SAP NetWeaver team at the Global Support Center in Dublin. "I've been working with children and young people in Ireland for a long time. When I heard about Africa Code Week this summer, I knew straight away that I wanted to be part of it," recalls Mr. Morrissey.

Mobile workshops on test

But the 35-year-old Irishman was not content to limit his contribution to providing preparatory training for trainers. In August, he learned that the Code Week organizers were looking for additional volunteers to accompany a five-day bus tour to take code workshops to communities whose IT infrastructure was not sufficiently developed to run the online courses. Significantly, although one in three Africans lives within 15 miles of an optical-fiber node, two-thirds of the population still has sub-optimal Internet access. Africa Code Week wanted to test the use of mobile workshops as a way of reaching out to children and young people in these areas.

This involved converting standard buses into mobile computer labs. Together with NPO Ampion and Cape Town Science Center, SAP technicians fitted buses out with simple, easy-to-handle equipment and removed the front rows of seats to make space for a trainer and a large screen. Each double seat was fitted with a table and a laptop, making a total of 30 computer desktops with space for two children at each. Power for the equipment comes from the bus itself, which generates enough electricity for one workshop during half a day's journey.

"This meant that we were able to visit two communities every day," says Mr. Morrissey, who accompanied a bus in the Western Cape region of South Africa at the beginning of October. And although the number of knowledge-hungry youngsters exceeded expectations at almost every destination, no one went home disappointed. Wherever necessary, the trainers placed the children three to a desk or worked in a shift system. This made it all the more important to identify the degree of support that each child needed. "Learning speeds differed quite significantly within groups," says Mr. Morrissey, adding, "That teaches you, as a trainer, a great deal about the extent to which your own ability to empathize and improvise affects the success of a workshop."

Further expansion

With the inaugural phase of Africa Code Week behind them, the organizers are currently assessing the relative impact of the stationary, mobile, and web-based offerings so that they can direct their resources at the measures with the greatest potential for development. It is already clear that future activities will focus largely on training local trainers and on expanding the current online offering.

At the same time, the number of educational institutions, NGOs, and IT companies joining the initiative is growing. Recent additions to the list include Atos and Google, and Africa Code Week is calling on other enterprises and organizations to lend their support and give young Africans the digital expertise they need to carve out a career in their home countries. "IT skills are the job currency of the future," says Alicia Lenze, Head of Global Corporate Social Responsibility, Global Corporate Affairs at SAP SE. "Africa Code Week is a powerful way to spread digital literacy across the African continent and to build the skilled, homegrown workforce needed for Africa’s emerging IT sector."

(Manuel Göpelt is a freelance journalist in Cologne, Germany.)

Africa Code Week in a nutshell:

Africa Code Week, which ran for the first time in October 2015, offers children and young people an opportunity to learn coding skills. The pan-African initiative trains trainers and provides them with free teaching materials for three different age groups. Workshops for the 8-11 and 12-17 age groups focus on the Scratch coding language developed by MIT Media Lab. For the 18-24 age group, there are courses in the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Meteor Web technologies. Free online courses are available in English and French for teachers and teenagers to continue using after the October workshops. Africa Code Week was devised by SAP in association with social enterprise, IT startup service provider AMPION, Galway Education Centre, Cape Town Science Centre, and King Baudouin Foundation. Government agencies and educational establishments in the following 17 countries have already signed up to the initiative: Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, and Uganda.

 Online offerings …

… for youngsters

 … for teachers


By Manuel Göpelt

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