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Why Nigeria’s Tech Ecosystem is Struggling to Keep Hold of Its Best Software engineers

Nigeria’s latest brain drain is happening in its tech industry.

It follows a decade of triumphs for the ecosystem which has recorded several startup and tech hub launches and attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. The promise of the ecosystem has also proven a significant enough pull for global tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg. But many of the software engineers who have been central to that steady growth are increasingly looking outward.

Like most economic migrants, much of the growing departure by software engineers is linked to quality of life and earning power. A 2017 Startup Genome report showed that while Lagos is the most valuable of Africa’s biggest tech ecosystems, it is also the least lucrative for software engineers.

“There is a limit to the problems you get to tackle here so for skill and career advancement sometimes leaving Nigeria is the only choice.”

Indeed, compared to their counterparts in Johannesburg and Cape Town, software engineers in Lagos earn around $5,000 less annually. That shortfall is likely causing many to seek higher-paying opportunities elsewhere. While there’s no solid data on the outward trend of software engineers in Nigeria, industry insiders suggest it’s significant. Prosper Otemuyiwa, a former technical trainer at Andela, the Mark Zuckerberg-backed startup that trains and pairs software developers with global tech firms, says he’s seen more software engineers leave in the past year than ever before. And Obinna Ukwuani, founder of NESA by Makers, a skills accelerator that offers software engineering training programs, says the “constant churn out” of local talent is happening at “at an alarming rate.” Ukwuani says the accelerator has lost three of its best training staff in recent months.

Earning potential aside, leaving Nigeria is also down to professional growth for the best software engineers. Wale Oyediran, an engineer now working at an Internet-only bank in Berlin, made the “tough decision” to leave Nigeria back in February and pins his exit on having “less opportunities” for growth in Nigeria. Staying, he claims, would have continued to “limit” his technical abilities.

Ismaila Sanusi, founder of CoLab, a tech hub in northern Nigeria, says it’s a broadly shared sentiment among the top brass of software engineers. “There is a limit to the range of problems you get to tackle here,” he tells Quartz. “So for skill and career advancement, sometimes, it’s [leaving Nigeria] the only choice.”

The software engineer exodus is not happening in isolation though. As Nigeria’s economy has slowed over the past three years and its political class consistently failing to deliver a better quality of life for citizens, middle-class Nigerians across various professions are increasingly looking to migrate, especially to Canada, in search of economic opportunities. It’s a repeat of the brain drain in the 1980s and 1990s when scores of Nigerians moved abroad to seek greener pastures amid brutal military dictatorships.

Talent shortage

The obvious drawback of the developer exodus is the resulting shortage of high-end talent in a tech ecosystem that’s relatively still in its early days. “There’s already a dearth of talent, [yet] the best guys are leaving,” Ukwuani says. With the promise of professional growth and higher salaries—industry insiders say Nigerian developers in Europe and North America can earn ten times more—proving a big draw, local startups in Nigeria simply cannot compete.

As such, “many startups are left with the junior software developers that are available and just a few elite engineers that are not willing to relocate yet,” Otemuyiwa says. But, as part of the seemingly never-ending cycle, “at some point, junior developers will get skilled enough to look for a new challenge,” he adds.

“If you can compete in any part of the world, why limit yourself to Nigeria?”

One example that illustrates that imbalance between high-end developers and local startups is Andela. The company’s mantra is that while talent is evenly distributed to Africa, opportunity is not. To level the playing ground, Andela offers cutting-edge training for local software engineers and hires them out to global tech firms in need of their services. But, as Andela mostly pairs its software engineers with foreign companies, they will probably be out of the reach of local startups’ budgets.

“We have a love-hate relationship with Andela,” said veteran tech entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, at this year’s Business Forum for Africa in Egypt. “They’ve been great for showing startups in African can raise money but no African startup can afford Andela.”

The option of working remotely for foreign companies also means even among software engineers who remain in Nigeria, the pool of talent available to local startups is limited. Indeed, Nigeria represents the fourth fastest growing developer community on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned software engineer marketplace, with 60% more contributors this year than in 2017. Otemuyiwa is a prominent example: while he’s regarded as one of Nigeria’s best software engineers and largely works for foreign global firms, he does so remotely.

The several exits by software engineers could yet yield some benefits for the local ecosystem however. For starters, it’s a validation of the quality of Nigeria’s engineering talent. That quality has already seen tech companies like Google and Facebook set up tech hubs, developer communities and meets locally. “The expats become ambassadors for the level of skill that is possible here,” Sanusi says. A big picture best-case scenario, Otemuyiwa speculates, could see foreign companies set up remote engineering offices in Nigeria provided challenges around internet connectivity are resolved.

The success of Nigerians abroad could also stir wider local interest in software engineering as ”a career path,” Sanusi tells Quartz. “This means a broader pipeline of talent is created that can be highly useful. They’ll work here as they hone their skills and not all of them would leave eventually.”

There’s also the potential for skills transfer with software engineers abroad mentoring peers in Nigeria and having software engineers increasingly visible in foreign firms also serves to boost Nigeria’s brain trust in the diaspora where they can advocate for the local ecosystem. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg’s choice of Lagos as the destination of his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa has been partly credited to the prominence of Nigerian staffers in high-level management roles at Facebook.

Long-term, it’s unlikely the outward trend will be slow down as working remotely and abroad will help Nigerian software engineers see how qualified they are and how important the value they have to offer could be elsewhere, says Otemuyiwa. “If you can compete in any part of the world, why limit yourself to Nigeria?”

Credit: qz

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