1 September 2017

Africa: Nigerian Start-Up Devcenter Wants to Build Largest Developer Community in Africa and Get Work for Them

Photo: Olu Eletu/Unsplash
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Until recently, Sub-Saharan Africa lacked developer communities of any scale. Nigerian start-up Devcenter (along with others like Andela) is seeking to change things. Russell Southwood spoke to Devcenter's CEO and Founder Akinola Falomo about progress so far and what he's got planned.

Developers don't come from nowhere. They need to learn their trade and be able to practice it. They need to widen their experience by working on more projects and ideally, get international experience. Until recently there was a shortage of African developers in the key African start-up ecosystems. But with more and more start-ups being launched, things have begun to change.

Akinola Falomo's start-up Devcenter came directly out of the experience of this shortage:"I worked in two start-ups (Giddimint and Frigidi, a music start-up). We tried to work with local developers to build products but ended up using Indian developers and it was a nightmare. Why were there no developers here in Africa? There was no hive or cluster to find developers".

Out of this realization came the earliest version of Devcenter:"We built a community website and launched it in late 2014. It attracted 150 developers and there have been 340,000 conversations since it started. It evolved from what it used to be. We've moved it from being a website to being a Slack channel. There are different channels covering things like machine learning, PHP, design and Android".

Knowing that the quality of the developers in the community will be key, Devcenter tests the developers in its community before they join:"We use the Codility test as a first filter system. We do video interviews by experts from the community. We ask them about how they work and the experts say yes or no to their application. We try to rate developers based on their work".

The grading of developers is important because it seeks to attract those wanting developers for projects to its site. It matches developers in its network to software projects. It hold the hands of the developer from development to completion, using a Project Manager who mentors them to make sure things are going fine.

Half of the work it gets for its developers comes from within Africa and the rest is from international sources. The latter is often from seed stage start-up companies from places like Netherlands and Canada. It also has enterprise companies wanting to extend their products including companies in Fintech, the drinks industry and healthcare:"We often do consumer facing products. For example, we've done a visitor management platform for a start-up and we've also done productivity apps".

Devcenter takes a commission on the contracts it obtains:"We have 20 developers working at any one time. Projects range in size from US$10,000-80,000. Getting money in and out of Nigeria at the moment is a nightmare (because of currency restrictions). So we registered our company in the USA and got a US bank account. This gives global clients a certain level of trust. We're trying to make everything (about our work processes) automated."

Where are the big developer communities? From his own experience, Falomo thinks the biggest developer communities are to be found in Johannesburg and Lagos and after that, some way further back, comes Nairobi. There are also smaller clusters in Accra and Addis Ababa.

What will help these communities to grow?:" Collaboration will do a lot for the community. There is a huge gap in skills between newbies and those who know their stuff. So 20% are experts and 80% less experienced".

"It's a difficult market to work with. Programming is hard and the best developers are self-taught. The programmer has to make more of an effort to learn. We're working on a curriculum for newbies which will take them through different stages".

So what money is being earned by developers?:"There is a six week cycle for projects and the individual developer will get US$3-4,000 per project. We want to give them freedom to make money doing work they love without being tied down".

How does Devcenter acquire the work?:"We do a lot of partnerships with foreign partners in the USA. The Techstars Network has given us access to founders and that's how they hear about us. We've partnered with accelerators in Canada and the USA. That's how we build a pipeline".

Falomo wants to make sure they can generate enough work to pay all of their developers and to build a network with 500+ start developers, up from the current 100+:"We want to build a talent platform that is bigger than just Lagos and plug developers into the global economy."

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