When Jessica Ford’s Spokane-based marketing company Zipline Interactive needed to update one of its apps, she knew she’d need some outside help. So she turned to KWG Softworks, a Boston-based outsourcing startup, which found exactly the kind of software talent that Zipline needed, 9,000 miles from Spokane. Not in China or India, but in the east African nation of Kenya.
KWG, co-founded by Kenyan immigrant Stephen Wahome, wants to establish Kenya and other African nations as major sources of high-tech talent. Despite the region’s reputation for poverty and political instability, African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana have thousands of capable software developers, said Wahome, a Bridgewater State University business graduate with an MBA from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“There is a vast amount of undiscovered tech talent in Africa,” said Wahome. “Most are very well versed in agile development, the gig economy, and best practices in tech.”
But, despite a surge in African tech startups, these nations still don’t generate enough jobs to employ all their technically skilled citizens. “There’s more talent than there are opportunities,” Wahome said.
So he and partners Anthony Gentles and brothers Ayoub and Ibraheem Khadar are trying to put some of them to work remotely writing code and building mobile apps for American businesses.
It worked out fine for Zipline, Ford said. When she reached out to KWG through the freelancing site Upwork, “Steve’s response was very specific, professional. ... It seemed like he knew exactly what we needed.”
Ford didn’t know the work would be done in Africa; it never came up. And now she doesn’t care. “At the end of the project I told Stephen I’m going to actively look for projects where we can work together again,” she said.
Twenty years ago, outsourcing technology work to most African countries was unthinkable. In those days, South Africa was the only nation in the region with an undersea cable connection to the outside world, and even that cable had very little carrying capacity. That began to change in 2001, when the first high-capacity fiber cable was laid along the west coast of the continent, providing reliable phone and data connections to Europe and Asia. Today, several such cables are in place, with still more under construction.
Getting decent Internet to most Africans remains a massive problem. But in major cities, there’s enough bandwidth to support offshoring on a large scale.
That’s led to a boom in call centers for large businesses. Such calls from the United States are often routed to centers in India and the Philippines. But now South Africa has become a major player, with call centers that employ about a quarter-million people.
In recent years, African outsourcing suppliers have been moving up the food chain, by selling the skills of trained African workers to foreign companies. Already, several well-funded firms have entered the market. The best-known of them, Andela, has raised $181 million in venture funding from investors that include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and former US vice president Al Gore.
“Many of the major markets in Africa (South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya) have developed significant software development skills in recent years,” Hendrik Malan, a partner at business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, said in an e-mail. “This is being supplemented with some of the smaller, more innovate markets like Ghana.”
But he added, “the talent pools are however quite small in comparison with the likes of India or China.” That means it will be some time before African tech workers become major competitors in global outsourcing markets.
In addition, market leader Andela has stumbled in recent months. The company laid off 400 workers last September and another 135 in May.
Still, Wahome and his partners think there’s plenty of potential for KWG. Since its founding last year, the company has found work for 20 software developers in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
Chibuokem Ebuka signed on with KWG in April and has already completed a website development job. Ebuka lives in Enugu, a city of about 700,000 in southeastern Nigeria, and is completing a degree in electronics engineering at the University of Nigeria. To get a job in the country’s technology sector, he’d have to move to a big city such as Abuja or Lagos, which are expensive.
“You could almost think of it as life in Silicon Valley if you think of the cost of living,” he said. Besides, a full-time job would interfere with his schooling. “I like the idea of freelancing at least for now,” Ebuka said. “It allows me to manage my schedule better.”
Wahome hopes to recruit hundreds more like Ebuka and to complete at least 200 software development projects for overseas clients over the next decade.