I’ve been preoccupied by a story that should be far better publicized in the freelance literature. It’s the important role that freelancing can play in creating a larger, broader and deeper middle class in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Two reports, in particular, caught my attention. First was a recent report on young African employment from the ILO, the UN agency.
“The young people in Africa are confronted with multiple challenges .. Africa is the only region where the youth bulge will continue to grow in the foreseeable future, presenting both an opportunity to reap the demographic dividend and an imminent time bomb and threat to social cohesion as well as massive migration in search of opportunities … Just over one in five youth were not in employment, education or training (NEET) in 2019; this state of joblessness has been steadily growing since 2012 mirroring the trends in the global rate … Young women are particularly more affected.”
The second report, interestingly, described an innovation in Mexican digital skills development. But the relevance of the story of Wizeline Academy to African young and those in other developing economies was obvious and unmistakable:
“We knew that it wasn’t a lack of aptitude or ability but a lack of exposure to the methodologies, frameworks and tools needed to design “Silicon Valley-grade” products. We launched Wizeline Academy in 2017 to provide free tech education that picks up where traditional education ends. Today, more than 30,000 students from around the world have taken a Wizeline Academy course in person or online, and I am optimistic that with distance learning, we will reach 100,000 students by 2022.”
I found this background helpful both in defining the problem and showing how freelancing can play a significant role both the short and longer term: Short-term, by providing young African professionals with opportunity beyond both national and continental African borders, and longer term by supporting the digital economy of Africa. This is important because, as the WEF points out:
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“Africa faces a huge digital skills gap, which is diluting economic opportunities and development. Some 230 million jobs across the continent will require some level of digital skills by 2030, according to a study by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group and the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets. That translates to a potential for 650 million training opportunities and an estimated $130 billion market. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many businesses to go digital to survive, the need for these skills has only become more apparent in recent months.”
The WEF figure below shows the African digital skill gap by country. However, Yasmin Kumi, CEO of the African Foresight Group, an important African freelance management consulting network, wisely points out that African innovative and tech capability is developing more quickly than the western world assumes: “I wonder if this only shows the gaps. I think it looks much better than many people would expect when they consider Africa.”
Since 2018 we’ve seen a rapid expansion of freelance platforms in Africa. I’ve profiled or mentioned a number of African platforms in the past couple of years, platforms like – Linkedpro, theTechguys, Gebeya, OneCircleHR, Agencemood, Pengoinsights, Sapient and Hourspent– and NS.work, a Dutch based platform that connects South African tech professionals with European clients. But, I’m continuing to learn, and recently had the opportunity to speak with Jeremy Johnson and Sachin Bhagwata, the CEO and EVP Enterprise of Andela respectively, one of the largest and best-known African tech professional freelance platforms.
Similar to the Wizeline story, Andela was created by Johnson and partners to drive economic opportunity through software skills. As he built his first company, an Edtech working with major US universities, he bemoaned the relative lack of engagement between Africa and the US, and saw an opportunity to increase engagement between tech professionals in Africa and US based tech companies in need of software talent. Together with two African partners, the trio has built a team that has become Africa’s largest freelance network, including 80,000 African software and tech professionals, as well as members of the Andela learning community, making the network Africa’s largest. More impressive is the length of contracts that Andela has created for its professionals: a large percentage of professionals are on long term contracts, providing economic security to these freelancers.
Johnson put the vision of Andela this way: “Brilliance is widely distributed, but opportunity isn’t.” In starting Andela, he understand that the challenge was larger than many platforms face in more developed economies: it was essential to build an ecosystem to support the growth of tech expertise. The ecosystem began with a deep understanding of the tech needs of fast growing global companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – and included a significant early investment by the Zuckerberg-Chan philanthropy – and led to Andela’s decision to build not only a freelance project platform but also a training platform offering tech and soft skills, as well as an accelerator now operating out of Rwanda.
Industries depending on Andela software engineers now run the gamut from financial services to manufacturing, and increasingly retail, media, manufacturing, and life sciences. And, with continuing partnerships including the African Development Bank and top global tech companies like Alphabet, Google, Apple, and Facebook, Andela is now branching out in some interesting ways. For example, through the Andela Learning Community, over 100,000 professionals have either earned basic skills in software design and development, or advanced applications like React Native. And, Andela is also being increasingly asked to provide pre-formed teams in high demand areas like digital transformation, in addition to individual freelancers incorporated into blended teams.
Like most freelance platforms, it’s challenging to provide good paying, interesting, work for a large percentage of Andela’s freelancers. I asked whether race issues and biases had an impact on Andela (and other African platform) placements and was pleased to learn that the platform has had a 60% increase in placement. Johnson points out that US and European corporates have increasingly identified diversity and inclusion as staffing priorities, and combined with a greater openness to remotely performed work, this has been a significant help to the Andela freelance community. As he pointed out, “We help clients build more diverse tech teams.” Sachin adds, “Getting in the door can sometimes be challenging, but we have the data to demonstrate the expertise of our platform members.” And, in line with Sachin’s comments, Andela internal surveying reports that Andela is, in fact, making a difference for freelancers and learning community members:
- Top line impact result – 74% of all Andela engineers had a quality of life improvement.
- 85% have improved self-confidence
- 67% have more peace of mind regarding their careers
- 65% are better able to save
- 81% of Andela engineers with >1yr tenure report increased take-home pay
What are the growing areas of opportunity for Andela? International expansion is a key part of the plan. Andela is now open for business globally and freelance interest is strong. The company is welcoming applications from 168 countries worldwide, has seen applications from 90 countries already, and have engineers located in nearly forty countries. Overall, Andela reports a 7.5X increase in applications outside of Africa in the past six months, as well as a 5X increase in African applications within the past six months.
Although the expansion demonstrates, Andela sees its model as replicable at global scale. Johnson and his partners are working with Apple and other companies to create greater opportunity for Andela African talent globally, and to expand opportunity for new Andela software engineers in Asia and Latam. As Johnson puts it, “We are eager to double down in the regions where we have the strongest early interest and create the infrastructure needed to grow ‘pod’ by ‘pod’. We want to earn freelance and client loyalty through performance, education, and support. We’ve worked hard to retain 90% of our freelancers in Africa, and believe our approach and support for talented engineers and programmers will work just as well elsewhere, as long as we respect cultural differences.”
Viva la mabadiliko!