ICT as Fair Trade 2.0: personnel shortage solved with help from Africa. The Dutch newspaper Het Parool recently opened a great article about Tunga with that heading. Tunga-founder Ernesto Spruyt and technical director David Semakula are interviewed here. They talk about pioneering the development of outsourcing to Africa.
Working conditions evolving rapidly
Het Parool is located and published in Amsterdam, the place where start-up Tunga also has its European office. One of the first questions to Ernesto is what the working conditions are like for computer programmers in Uganda. He explains they are not very different from the work conditions at the Wibaut street office in Amsterdam. In the capital, Kampala, there is a ‘co-working space’ that looks virtually the same. “The internet works there as well.”
Outsourcing to Africa taking off
Ernesto reveals that from the pool of about 250 ICT technicians in Egypt, Nigeria and Uganda, generally about fifty people at a time are working for companies in the Netherlands. From Africa, so they work remotely. The start-up, which has been in existence for two years now, has had about a hundred clients in 12 countries.
And the African reinforcements could not have come at a better time. Ernesto knows that in Europe, the shortage of ICT technicians has increased to 900,000. It is basically a win-win situation. The African ICT talents in turn also benefit from the Tunga set-up. “The pay is good, especially when you think of the fact that there is not a lot of work available for young people in countries like Uganda.”
From Kampala, David Semakula describes in the article how things went for him after his computer science training. “It was like the wild west. Every man for himself.” After a four-year study, the only job he could get was as a systems manager. At Tunga he got the opportunity to do work that was much more challenging. And he learned more from it. Now David is working as a technical director.
Tunga is building onto the pioneer work done by Butterfly Works, which has provided free ICT training to ten-thousand youth in Africa through a development program.
Research paper on outsourcing to Africa
In the article, the paper refers to the whitepaper Tunga recently presented. It states that Africa has great potential. This is supported by the number of users of the coding platform Github in various African countries; just in Uganda there are over 1700.
“We have all the major programming languages and frameworks,” Ernesto tells the paper when they ask him. And this is in countries where English is the main language, and that are within the same time zones as Europe. That is an advantage Africa has over, for example, India, a country that was discovered for ICT services years ago by the West.
From startup to scaleup
The start-up problems Tunga had were also discussed in the interview. Cultural differences were not easy to put aside. The plan to set up an online marketplace for ICT jobs turned out not be feasible. Supervision was required. “Whenever something went wrong, the first reaction was to flee. Out of shame. They would suddenly be unreachable.” Spruyt also dealt with a fraud case in Nigeria, where someone presented himself as an intermediary who had to be paid in exchange for jobs.
Ernesto talks about how he had to overcome the clients’ scepticism. “We always have to do things better than anyone. If anything goes wrong, it’s easy to blame it on the Africans. But most of the clients stay.”
Tunga is used particularly by companies that want a new prototype for a website or app fast. Even just finding ICT technicians in the Netherlands is a time-consuming task. “It is very expensive, especially for a test phase. We work for about 25 Euros an hour, which is three times less [than the going rate in the Netherlands].” In Amsterdam, ICT technicians are well aware that they are scarce and can make demands. That is another advantage for African ICT technicians, Ernesto says: “No prima donna behaviour.”
Preventing brain drain when outsourcing to Africa
But is it fair to outsource the work to much cheaper African ICT technicians, the newspaper wonders. The brain drain is a lot less than when they relocate to Europe, but the fruits of their work end up abroad.
“I think it is a step in the right direction,” David says. “You could say the ICT technicians here earn a lot less than they would be able to in Amsterdam. But it is still four or five times more than what you can make in Uganda doing other work. What’s more important: the work is more educational and more challenging.” Ernesto, who previously worked for Solidaridad, even sees it as ‘Fair Trade 2.0’.