Nigeria’s tech sector needs recruits. Young people need jobs. And yet…
Why are young Nigerians struggling to get jobs in its booming tech sector?
Over the past decade, Lagos, Nigeria’s swarming economic capital, has seen an explosion of startups. In financial technology services alone, there are more than 200 registered startups. In 2019, this sector raised $122 million, according to the International Finance Corporation. Like insects to light, investors are flocking to the scene, eager to tap into this pool. Microsoft and Google both have regional hubs in the country. And Stripe, a global payments solution company, recently acquired Lagos’ Paystack for over $200 million in one of the continent’s biggest ever startup acquisitions.
Because of these trends, the tech sector is often hailed as a source of hope and employment, a reflection of Nigeria’s talented young people who make up most of the country’s population.
But that is not the case.
More than 40% of 15-34 year-olds in Nigeria are unemployed, a higher rate than any other age demographic. 5 million in this age group have a degree or diploma, but even when graduates find work, many are mismatched with low-earning gigs or jobs outside their studied discipline.
Lois Oluyomi, a 22-year-old English Literature graduate, has been searching for a job since she finished the compulsory national service scheme in early-2021.
“It has been tough,” she says. “I’m just looking for something that can help me meet my needs and help me save.”
The low employment levels have created hordes of job seekers. In 2014, when the country’s immigration service opened applications for about 5,000 jobs, more than 100,000 hopefuls turned up for the exam, filling an entire stadium. Stampedes ensued, leading to at least 16 deaths.
There are two theories that can explain Nigeria’s low employment rate. One is that the country is a big consumption market but with an equally big manufacturing deficit. In other words, there aren’t enough jobs. There is a shortage of industries looking to hire workers in a situation not helped by the erratic power supply, persistent insecurity, a hostile business environment, and, more recently, COVID-19.
The second theory – one increasingly urgent to the tech scene – is that the education system isn’t producing employees ready for today’s workplace. In other words, there aren’t enough suitable workers. Recruiters say that Nigerian graduates may have good grades, but largely lack the skills crucial for progress in a technology-driven world: taking initiative with little guidance; speaking and writing clearly; problem-solving; and even experience with new technologies or programmes like Zoom.
According to one startup founder, young recruits often “wait to be told what to do”, a serious limitation in a fast-paced self-driven industry.
“Not many are building employable skills”
Nigeria’s public university system has several shortcomings in creating employees fit for today’s world. To begin with, syllabuses are often outdated.
“Our curriculum can’t measure up to global standards and we still focus on the way things were done many years ago,” says Odunayo Aliu, an education analyst who’s building Bramble Network, an alternative learning space for children in rural and marginalised areas.
Additionally, teaching methods – from primary school up to university – focus on learning by rote, discouraging expression and stifling innovation.
“We have university lecturers telling students ‘if you don’t write down the exam answers the way they appear in the notes I gave you, you’re going to fail’,” adds Aliu. “At the end of the day, students read and pass, even getting a first-class grade. But their thinking capacity is not well developed.”
Compounding these challenges, universities are underfunded. Infrastructure is inadequate, and it is not uncommon to see students peering through windows to follow lessons because a classroom is packed and there are no more seats. Digital systems for sharing and receiving learning material are mostly unavailable.
Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi, a microbiologist and visiting lecturer at Ekiti State University (EKSU), says there wasn’t even any laboratory equipment at EKSU when he was studying and that he had to learn to use scientific apparatus through Youtube videos after graduating.
“If the education system doesn’t change, employment levels won’t change either,” he says.
A recruiter at Microsoft Lagos who asked not to be named said: “A lot of these talents, when they come out of school, their expectations are high but they’ve built nothing in terms of internships or volunteer work. Not many of them are building employable skills. It’s one thing for you to pass and graduate with a 5.0 GPA, it’s another for you to develop skills employers want.”
Only self-starters will survive
Like Igbalajobi, many graduates in Nigeria have found that they have to do further training to make themselves appealing to employers after completing university. Coding courses on self-learning sites like FreeCodeCamp have become popular and there are now about 83,000 developers in Nigeria. In a 2016 survey, 93% of developers in the country said they were fully self-taught.
At the same time, there has been an emergence of platforms like Enye, which upskills budding engineers and helps match them with companies looking for remote talent. This, however, has not been easy. Enye’s ambition had been to find a placement for every single one of its trainees, yet of its first cohort of ten students, just three found jobs.
“Complete disaster,” quips Uche Nnadi, Enye’s co-founder, before explaining that it took several iterations of the boot camp to understand “that the problem was a lack of quality talent”.
Now in its fifth season, Enye only accepts graduates who already have some coding skills and demonstrate the personal qualities necessary to succeed in the industry: an almost obsessive thirst for personal growth, clear communication, and the ability to take initiative. Of the 2,000 applicants this year, just 20 were selected. Since changing its criteria, all 89 of Enye’s graduates have found employment.
Asides Enye, a handful of similar train-and-place programmes have emerged, including Decagon, TalentQL, HNG Internship and Semicolon. Together, these platforms hope to make Nigeria a global pool for developers, akin to what India is to the telemarketing sector.
“Government is the key stakeholder”
The Nigerian government has a complicated relationship with the tech sector. On the one hand, it has, partly successfully, lobbied tech giants like Huawei to invest in the country’s youth by establishing hubs and training students. In May 2021, Abuja announced a partnership with Microsoft to train 5 million people in digital skills and provide 27,000 jobs. Lagos State has set aside a $600,000 fund for startups and expressed ambitions to build a tech campus in Yaba that will host startups for free and be fit with thousands of yards of fibre optic cables. Neighbouring Ekiti and Ogun states are similarly racing to build tech hubs to attract developers.
On the other hand, however, the government has also acted against the tech sector in various ways. The Lagos State government, for instance, recently dealt a blow to ride-hailing startups, some with millions of dollars in seed funding, by imposing a ban on commercial motorcycles. A spat with Twitter in 2021 led to an eight-month ban of the social media website, costing the economy an estimated $700,000 a day as many online businesses were unable to reach their customers. And it has tried hard to clamp down on the trade in cryptocurrency.
These actions have left Enye founder Nnadi with little confidence in authorities. “Our government is incompetent,” he says. “The onus is up to private tech companies to provide jobs and help those who need income and gainful employment.”
Given the sheer scale of the problem, however, some believe that some government input will ultimately be necessary. Rotimi Yemita, a former staffer at the training firm Andela, suggests the government could cooperate with big tech companies to emulate what firms like Enye are doing but with thousands of young developers.
To address issues in the longer term, Aliu of Bramble Network says change needs to happen from the ground up, starting with updated curriculums and better funding for education. Along with other analysts, she says the government should replace outdated high school subjects, such as a required Typewriting course, in favour of coding classes.
“These graduates have been in the system since primary school and they’ve been conditioned to think in a certain way,” she says. “Organisations are trying to close the gap, but the government is the key stakeholder.”