Why Mark Zuckerberg is paying for young Africans to learn code

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative plans to make its first major investment in a startup that links young Africans with American tech companies.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco this spring. Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan will invest in software development training in Africa through the start-up Andela.

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, made news last December when they announced that they would put 99 percent of their Facebook shares over the course of their lives into a for-profit, but for-good, foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC.

In an open letter, the couple said that they will use the foundation to invest in “personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.” Now, with the company set up and those shares valued at $48 billion, the big question was: Where to begin?

Apparently, in Africa.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan are reportedly making the foundation’s first investment of $24 million in a company that trains software developers in Africa.

The two-year-old company, Andela, based in New York with offices in Lagos and Nairobi, is a talent accelerator built on a pairing of two facts about today’s world, according to chief executive officer Jeremy Johnson.

The first is that there is a huge American demand for software developers and a shortage of Americans trained in the programming languages necessary to fill those jobs. The second is that Africa has the youngest, fastest-growing population of any continent. Andela aims to train the best African minds to fill this void, according to its website.

Mr. Johnson and co-founder Iyinoluwa Aboyeji wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last December in which they posed the question: What if Mark Zuckerberg “had been born into a working-class family in Nigeria or Kenya? Would Facebook exist?

Zuckerberg, it appears, took notice of that question. In a statement about his and Dr. Chan’s investment he said: ”We live in a world where talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. Andela’s mission is to close that gap. Companies get access to great developers, and developers in Africa get the opportunity to use their skills and support their communities.”

Andela’s operating premise is simple: Applicants apply and take an aptitude test. If they are part of the 0.7 percent selected they will join on for a six-month training period followed by a 3-and-a-half year paid “apprenticeship” with American tech companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, which they do from the Andela campuses in Lagos and Nairobi, Business Insider reports. The program has trained about 200 engineers since it launched, writes Forbes.

“The goal is to cultivate a next generation of founders and CTOs of great companies across Africa,” CEO Jeremy Johnson told Forbes. Johnson says that the company is not profitable at this time, but instead is focusing on building partnerships with tech companies and thinking about how they can maintain quality while scaling up.

He says they plan to expand to another country after this round of investment, which also includes funding from Google parent company Alphabet Inc. and returning first-round investors, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The company is not alone in working to foster developing and programming knowhow in Africa. For example, the Nigerian tech industry is growing and the government, through its tech-related ministries, has been promoting the use of domestically developed software and investing in software development. The government announced an initiative to expand job opportunities for Nigerians educated in software development, Nigeria's Technology Times reported today.

A 2011 article in The New York Times focusing on the addition of a computer science college to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, noted that the hub of computer science education on the continent is in South Africa.

With its apprenticeship component, Andela is working specifically to link a select group of Africans outside the continent to Western business and tech.

Johnson says this makes them part of a workplace revolution in which employees don’t need to be based in an office to be an integral member of a team. The Andela website underlines this, writing that the company “seamlessly integrates our developers into your team.” US tech companies pay Andela, who then pays their students, known as fellows, above average wages for local developers, says Business Insider.

After the four years of training and work, the graduating fellows can use those skills in myriad ways.

Or as current Nigerian fellow, Chibuzor Obiora tells Business Insider, "Software development is a tool, but it's up to you what you do with it.”

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