Deep dive into the minds of Tech OGs in Africa

BY Mifa Adejumo · 3 MIN READ

There are Gangsters, and then there are Original Gangsters fondly referred to as “OGs”. An OG ideally doesn’t imply old or ancient as one may be wont to think. Instead, when you think of OGs, you often think in terms of their invaluable experience in whatever field they have found themselves in. Nevertheless, one very common quality of OGs, especially in the African tech space is their reluctance to be considered as such.

Tunga's head of community Esther Ninsiima with African software developers at an event

Uganda: Abdu Ssekalala

Before Google Playstore and iOS App Store ever became a thing, there was the Nokia Ovi store and this was the playground of Abdu Ssekalala way back in 2011 in Uganda. He would go on to build a lot of Nokia apps from 2011-2013 and even get famous for it within Uganda.

“I was among the first people that really got some notoriety and fame for building apps back then. I also wrote windows phone apps, taught bootcamps on it as well.”

Abdu is 32 years old and for someone who ideally can be referred to as an OG in the Ugandan tech space, he is reluctant to see himself as such.

“I am still young though.” he says with a chuckle, “And I am learning everyday with the new changes in tech. Trying to also ensure I am staying abreast of how things are.”

He is a C# lover [Pronounced C-Sharp for tech newbies] and he says he had always loved the language. His introduction to tech was while he was a young boy in highschool having a cousin who was doing his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. He was about 14 years old then and somehow convinced his parents to buy a home computer.

“Convincing them was easy. They saw the value in it and got one.”

From what began out of curiosity, having read a Logic Building textbook owned by his cousin, he also got to learn PHP on his own before he decided after highschool to go into something similar along the tech path. He ended up studying towards an Information Technology degree in Makerere University in Uganda and graduated in 2013.

Ugandan software developer Abdu Ssekalala

Motivations and Changes to tech currently

On how he feels about the motivations for the current influx of people into tech these days as compared to his days, he had this to say.

“I got into tech back in the days out of curiosity. I was intrigued by it and saw the value in the problems it could solve. But I think these days learning to code is more a thing for survival. People have discovered that they can earn so much from it that as opposed to wanting to create value, more people, due to their circumstances, are learning to code for survival.”

The idea of coding for survival might not be far-fetched. No thanks to the influx of cash that has been pushed into the tech ecosystem in Africa in the last few years. In an article by techcrunch, “it is estimated up to $2 billion went into African tech startups in 2019.” A few paragraphs down the line, in this same article, the figure doubled to about $4 billion thanks to some unicorns within the fintech space: Flutterwave, Opay, Wave, and Chipper cash.

A lot of Venture Capital (VC) firms from outside Africa have taken the initiative towards putting their resources in these unicorns and the dividends are paying off. It is no surprise that with all of these happening in this social media age, when companies like Flutterwave informed their followers in early February of 2022 that they had tripled their valuation to over $3 billion dollars after raising $250 million in Series D, the average African youth’s interest would be piqued. And in that moment, it is easy to see why the next young man or woman would think to themselves, “Maybe I should start learning to code too.”


Certifications hoarding with experiential deficits

Well, maybe you should.

Abdu is happy for the new wave that the African tech space has hit. On whether he feels nostalgic about his days, he claims he doesn’t, but would very much like more developers to appreciate that old methods are still just as valuable as newer ones.

He fondly remembers when getting wallpapers online was almost a herculean task.

“Downloading jpegs was a big deal. In fact, part of my Nokia portfolio was selling wallpapers in the Nokia Ovi store.” he says with a chuckle.

“But things have changed. Now, you can stream Youtube videos of courses when back then you had to learn from the scratch and from those with some knowledge. Resources are now readily available and principles like Agile, Scrum, Sprints now exist to make work much more fluid and easier.”

While it may sound like he is in awe of the new way things are, Abdu does mention that he feels like more developers are chasing after learning and certifications without actually having any of the backing experience.

“I hear people say I have this certification – AWS or something – and yet when you ask them to put their learning into practice you can almost tell they don’t really have that experience. This generation is more about learning how to do it and half the time their coding experience is stack overflow.”

Abdu started with mobile development when he first got into tech but then switched towards backend, learning Python-Django, DevOps and the likes. He is adamant that the new wave of developers and coders, while they have all the resources available and at their fingertips, might be lacking in the depth that he and his peers had to learn when they started.

“I usually say this as a thought experiment, if you lock a couple of coders in a room and switch off the internet and ask that they code something from scratch, how many would be able to do it?”

He believes a lot wouldn’t. And he may be right. Coming from an era where the internet wasn’t as readily accessible, Abdu and his peers learned to grind the hard way. He quipped that back then you had to buy 2gigabites of data to watch a YouTube video, which was a lot then but barely enough to stream a Netflix movie now. With more access to resources, he hopes that more developers hone their skills by mastering one thing than being a jack of all trades and being mediocre in everything.

Africa as the new tech frontier – predictions

“I don’t think this new wave of African tech is a fad,” Abdu says in response to a question about how Africa is establishing itself as the new tech frontier.

“I think it is not going to pass because I have seen the previous wave. There was a time when Google had a Ugandan office, Andela too. But they packed up and even at that the developer community in Africa never let up. I think we have begun to establish ourselves as not being a joke. African talents have risen to the occasion. In the next decade, African tech talents will be the guys building more unicorns.”

His conviction rings true. In the past two years alone, the African tech ecosystem has grown in leaps and bounds. There are more people pushing towards starting their tech careers in Africa than in any other continent in the world; and companies like Tunga are helping make that dream a reality.

“Africa has a lot more young people than in all the continents. So, this means there are a lot more untapped talents here than anywhere else.”, Abdelmoneim Mohamed says.

Egypt: Abdelmoneim Mohamed

Abdelmoneim who prefers to be referred to as just “Menem” is an Egyptian Software Developer and also a very reluctant OG. In fact during our conversation, he flat out dismissed that notion, saying his introduction into tech was more coincidental than anything.

“I usually posted on facebook saying I was going to go into tech but never followed through. Until one day I saw a post about learning front-end development and I jumped in.”

Jumping in meant starting from the scratch for Menem. But he was resilient. Learning on his own and taking advantage of online courses. He learned and got his first job after 7 months but according to him he never really made any money from tech in his first two years in the field. His motivations, just like Abdu’s, were purely about learning and building a career path.

“I think my salary when I got into tech was very low. And this was mostly due to the fact that I had no insight on what tech salary wages were and most companies exploited that.”

Sad as that might seem to be exploited, he believes the new crop of tech talent have more leverage in this field. The availability of researched information about salary wages ensures that most tech talents know their value and can ensure they get compensated for it.

He ascribes this development to the rise in remote work.

“I sometimes speak with friends from Uganda and the local salaries for devs there are low but when you work remotely, you get paid more.”

In one of the famous Tunga Dev Hour conversations, the CEO of Tunga, Ernesto Spruyt, details tons of tips on how as an African tech talent, you can advance your remote coding career. The push for more remote work was amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic but has slowly become a main-stay in the African tech ecosystem, for the right reasons.

“Remote opportunities have given more developers in Africa better lives, opportunities to meet and interact with new people across the globe and improve their living conditions.” Menem says.

He also fondly remembers when he first joined Tunga in 2017 and was paid in bitcoin.

“In Egypt, bitcoin wasn’t legal but it was sort of not illegal too.” he says laughing. “I was scared because I wasn’t sure about how I would receive it. Only recently did mining bitcoin become legal in Egypt. But it was a fun experience.”


Limitations within the ecosystem

Fun as the experience of working remotely and getting paid in bitcoin a while back was for Menem, he was also worried about some other factors as well. As an Egyptian, getting funds from outside of Egypt was dangerous. Due to the country’s fight against terrorism, payment made from outside Egypt were usually put under the microscope.

“That was one of my biggest worries. I thought for sure my payments would be flagged but thankfully the banks understood where the payments were coming from and no issues were raised.”

His case might be an exception, nonetheless. Down south of the equator from where he resides, a lot of developers are facing challenges getting access to their funds in Nigeria despite the wave of advancement in the fintech industry. PayPal is still not recognized in Nigeria and restrictions on banks on foreign exchange transactions by the Central Bank of Nigeria, still plays a vital role in stifling some of the positives that should come from working and earning remotely.

Menem channels a similar reservation in what he believes might be a hindrance to more advancement in the African tech space. On where he sees African tech in the next decade with it being considered the new frontier, he says he’s not sure.

“I am not certain but I am worried about politics getting into it and disrupting the flow. Things usually get corrupted in Africa and without credible institutions that would hold people accountable, even the best of technological advancement can be lost.”

However, all does not feel too dreary for Menem. He believes in the years to come with more support from big corporations, Africa can improve its internet services and create more avenues for employment for people not just in tech. He reckons that when there are more established powerhouses like Google and Facebook, having their headquarters here, more infrastructural advancement will occur.

Abdelmoneim Mohamed aka Menem

Partnership, Mastery and Mentorship

“Africans need to be more proactive and share insights with each other.” Menem says, speaking further with respect to technological advancement.

“European countries boast of more technological advancement than Africa because there are available resources and a sense of collaboration there. We need something similar here.”

The idea of partnership and collaboration is not new. In fact, a lot of the innovations and changes that have graced the African tech ecosystem have come on the back of viable partnerships. However, like a McKinsey study notes, partnerships should not be rushed but approached deliberately and methodologically.

Now, while the above study speaks more towards Joint Ventures in the tech and business world, the sentiment still resonates even in terms of talents. As established, a lot of young talents are joining the tech ecosystem and ideally when speaking of the next decade, these are the minds that are likely to shape the tech world. However, it is paramount that these new crop of talented developers and coders ensure they are not rushing into tech just because it feels like the next goldmine. And to those who are on the verge of creating the next unicorn, it also means understanding what sort of partnership works and is likely to yield the fruits of innovation that Africa as a continent needs.

Abdu, when asked for his advice for the new crop of tech talents says, “The first advice would be: pick a hustle. Be clear what you want and that would be driven by your passion. I sucked at art and even though I know CSS I won’t be able to create a frontend design that would rival someone who has a passion for UI/UX. So, pick a hustle. Be patient and practice and practice and practice. Tech is rewarded based on skill.”

In one of Tunga’s recent articles, this author writes about the value of proficiency in building a tech career. Abdu’s statement buttresses that point and although not mentioned in the article, another valid point that Menem considers towards ensuring that Africa continues to establish itself as the next tech frontier is mentorship.

“There is a lack of mentorship in Africa for African talents,” he states. “Lack of mentorship has been one of the reasons why there have been a lot of migration of African talents abroad for better opportunities and what we have is that our biggest talents are leaving and those coming up are not necessarily having the right guidance.”

The wave of migrating African talent is documented in a March 2022 article on Tech Economy. Written by Emmanuel Otori, the tagline for this article basically sums up Menem’s point: In the quest of developing a region, the impact of human capital cannot be overlooked as it suffices to make the whole process work.

Emmanuel Otori hints at a few solutions to curb the mass migration of tech talents and while not specifically mentioning “Mentorship”, the culmination of his solutions hits close to the idea, nonetheless.


Web 3, Mental Health and The Future

Briefly, I spoke with Abdu on the new phase of Web3 and blockchain technologies. When asked if he foresees African talents also being a reckoning force in this movement, he was somewhat skeptical.

“Majority still do not understand what web3 is. I do know that there would be some talents from Africa that would go on to make great strides in web3, but for now, I think it is not necessary to jump into every wave that comes. There’s still a lot that African talents can leverage from web2. However, if as a developer, you believe that is where your passion lies, then by all means pursue it.”

Menem on the other hand was not keen on speaking about Web3, rather he pivoted our conversation to something he feels has been hugely ignored in the African tech space: mental health.

“I think people fail to realize how tough it is to be a software developer, sitting in front of your screen for hours, especially when working remotely. This can take a toll on mental health and I feel developers need to find more ways to unplug.”

Prior to my conversation with him, Menem had told me he would be offline for about four days as a bid to unplug and focus on his mental health. I suggested he champion this discussion on mental health in the tech space, especially in Africa and he assures me he is doing his bit.

“When I get an opportunity to speak to young tech talents I make sure to mention this. I make sure to advise that they build more human interactions that ensures they can step away from their computers. It is very important.”

In an article on Iqmetrix published in 2020, Kirsten Barkved writes about the growing mental health crisis in tech. She states that according to OSMI data, 51% of tech professionals have been diagnosed with a mental health condition; with founders 2x more likely to suffer from depression and 10x more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder.

No doubt these numbers have risen over time but this speaks to an important factor that should be keenly addressed if the African tech ecosystem is to maintain a lead position as the new tech frontier. If more discussions on mental health are championed then we are certain that the new crop of tech talents are provided with the sort of information and resources that were not readily available for folks like Abdu and Menem when their tech journey’s began.

Creating value is the way forward

The consensus gathered from speaking to these two reluctant OGs in the African tech space, point to one thing: as the new tech frontier, the only way forward for Africa is up. Nevertheless, this also means we need to ensure we are working more towards creating value and less towards seeking financial survival. Technology that aids in human advancement and improving lives should be the focus.

And should you choose to want to kick off your tech career today, fully aware of what your passions are and the value you hope to bring to the world, then Tunga is here to offer you the platform to do just that. Then maybe in a few short years from now, you too might be considered an OG, albeit a reluctant one.

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