Disrupting tech education in Uganda

by Ryan Humbert on 19/12/2019 No comments

Like in many other African countries, information technology is just taking off in Uganda. Technology start-ups are attracting more and more funding from investors, and some tech companies have already become famous in Africa. Many of them are riding on mobile money and aiming to provide financial services to the poor. Others are in e-commerce, online services or blockchain. Generally, there is a lot of buzz and the Government and donors are increasingly interested in supporting the tech sector as a way of growing the job market. More and more students choose IT degrees and aspire to careers in the IT sector.

Established software firms and large corporates with needs in their IT departments are struggling to find talent with the right skills. Competition over software developers with some experience is fierce in the market, which pushes up costs and leads to high turn-over rates. It also increases the risk and cost for companies to invest in training their employees, since they easily leave for a new opportunity when they have the skills.

At the same time, the local universities are being slow to adjust to the trends. The curricula taught are still the same as 10 years ago, and many courses are entirely theoretical. At many institutions students can get through an entire IT degree without writing a single line of code. 

Laboremus Uganda Ltd, where both Marius and Lucrezia (part of the Fontes founding family) are involved, experienced this first hand. Being a Norwegian software firm outsourcing work to Uganda, the biggest challenge was finding and retaining the right talent. At the same time, Clarke International University (formerly IHSU), a private university in Kampala, had embarked on designing a course with a closer link to employers in order to make sure the curriculum is relevant. A formal partnership between the two in 2018 led to a successful application to Norad, along with Fontes Foundation.

Now, at the end of 2019, Refactory is already a well-known brand in Kampala. The number of applicants for the three-month “Catalyst” course is increasing by about 20 students each round. 77 students have already gone through the Catalyst in 2019, and up to 120 students will participate in course in 2020. Most of the students finishing the first round of the six-month practical boot camp in December already have job offers or have been invited to interviews. Refactory is getting calls from companies, HR agencies and even foreign companies who are all interested in hiring the graduates.

The feedback from the students is also overwhelming. Many say that they have learned more in three months at Refactory than during their entire three-year IT degree at university. Others simply say that “Refactory has taught them how to learn”. Life-long learning is key, especially in the tech industry where new frameworks and tools come out every month. Others say how Refactory has shown them the importance of understanding the problem they are trying to solve with a tech solution very well, including listening to the users, customers and all stakeholders involved.

In September, Andela, a Silicon-Valley backed firm aiming at setting up outsourcing hubs at a large scale across Africa, announced a change in strategy. Instead of training youth from scratch, they would now only hire developers with experience. This is just one of the companies that realised that the investment for a private firm to train people from the level they have when they leave university, to a level where they can successfully deliver software for international clients, is too large. This makes sense from a commercial point of view, but only increases the demand for relevant IT training in Uganda. Read more about what this means for the tech sector in Uganda here. 

For Refactory, this just confirmed the importance of our project, and how big the gap is that we are trying to fill. We are determined to make this programme a model for tech education in Uganda (and beyond), and we are actively looking for additional funding. The funding is needed to cover our contribution according to our contract with Norad (which only provides 50% of the funding), but also to enable us to expand the programme so it can reach many more students.

Ryan HumbertDisrupting tech education in Uganda