Capital is here, what do we do about talent and skills?

There are more emerging market opportunities and entrepreneurs across the continent are rising to meet the challenge. [iStockphoto]

As more and more people in Africa come online, there are more emerging market opportunities and entrepreneurs across the continent are rising to meet the challenge.

This growth is at the heart of the promise of a digital world; that the digital space makes complex problems easier to solve in scale, access, and many other things. These include informational problems such as government services, but there are also many other emerging opportunities in trade, healthcare, financial services, e-commerce, education, and especially now, remote working systems and enterprise solutions.

For the longest time, our biggest problem as entrepreneurs was mainly capital with which to scale our digital enterprises. But now, from where I sit, both global and indigenous capital is showing all the signs of opening their floodgates to digital enterprises in the continent. More and more of it is flowing into startups and existing companies that are solving everything from information flow problems to redefining brick and mortar industries such as logistics, as well as those serving unique niche markets.

As these opportunities increase, capital flows, and the markets respond positively to entrepreneurs and investors willing to take the plunge, I’ve been thinking about a fundamental problem that we have not been focused on enough: Do we have the right talent density in the areas that are critical to running a digital enterprise today, whether in strategic operations, product development, data analysis, and others?

If we don’t, then what should we, as a broad array of digital entrepreneurs and other interested parties, be doing about it?

Personally, I don’t think we have the sufficient talent density to take on the kind of existing and emerging opportunities we have in the digital economy. Its limitations will most likely become clearer over the next decade, as companies scale up in markets, and try to push the frontiers further to keep up with or beat the competition. Add on to this the fact that traditional enterprises are also investing heavily in their digital units, further increasing the competition for what is a limited talent pool.

We have four broad options, none easier than the others.

The first is to rethink higher education to make it better suited to nurturing and producing the kind of talent firms need today and will need as the digital economy grows further. While it might seem like this is already being done, the truth is that most higher education curriculums evolve too slowly to keep up with market needs. That ends up forcing students to acquire the skills and training they need outside the higher education structures.

This situation makes it hard for firms to headhunt young talent in training, and also increases training costs to give people the skills they need to fit into the organisation's needs. Rethinking higher education would solve this problem both for students and employers, but it might take too much time for our immediate needs.

The second option would be to recruit Africans with the right talent and skills who are currently employed in other markets. There are many, qualified, and highly skilled people from the continent working in Sillicon Valley and other places that attract top digital talent. Not only do they have the right talent, but they have also been in the thick of efforts to build, sustain, and grow the digital economy. An obvious downside to this option would be the high costs of attracting such highly trained, and highly paid, talent back home. It would place a disproportionate financial burden on small and growing digital enterprises because they would be competing with digital giants for whom capital has been flowing for decades.

The third option we have, I think, is to just go for talent wherever we can find it globally, the origin notwithstanding. This is already happening at some level, and bears some of the same challenges as the idea of attracting Africans to the global digital economy back home. It also has the additional complication of a more pronounced cultural divide, which is already somewhat of a problem as it tends to attract more capital in some markets than indigenous digital enterprises.

Another option might be for enterprises themselves to build their own curriculums and training programmes to churn the kind of talent they seek. Creating business schools within successful digital enterprises, sometimes as arms of higher education institutions, is not a new idea globally, but it hasn’t been implemented at any significant scale to meet Africa’s talent needs. Perhaps that would be a good place to start, although it would take much-needed capital from short-term needs, and its results, like rethinking higher education, might not be clear for the first few years.

The truth is, there are probably many other ways we could go about it. But from where I sit, it will be the most interesting challenge for digital entrepreneurs as capital flows to and from within the continent. Attracting and maintaining the right digital talent is already a major hurdle for existing enterprises, but it is likely to get worse as the gaps become clearer with time.

It is never too early to begin asking this question then, what can we do to make sure we have the right talent density for the digital economy in Africa?

Mesh Alloys.

The writer is the Founder and CEO of Sendy.