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Michael Niyitegeka on Bridging the Tech Skills Gap in Uganda

Our latest episode features Michael Niyitegeka, the Program Director, Refactory at Clarke International University in Uganda and the ICDL Africa Country Manager for Uganda. He has over 20 years’ experience in the ICT sector and has worked with several government, private, regional and international institutions. Michael is passionate and devoted to human capital development for the ICT sector in Uganda. Under Refactory, his flagship project, he has trained over 250 junior developers with an 80% placement rate in the ecosystem in the last three years. He is also a Franklin Covey Certified Facilitator and a proud Rotarian. 

In this episode, Michael speaks about what can be done to bridge the tech skills gap in Uganda and the continent at large, including suggestions on how to reform curricula and what more can be done on the continent to grow and retain tech talent. Michael also speaks about his passion for Rotary International. 

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**The transcript below has been generated through software, and may contain errors. Viewpoints with Brenda is designed to be heard. We strongly recommend that you listen to the episode for context and speech emphasis before quoting the text below in print.

BN (00:04):. Michael, welcome to the podcast. It’s such an honour to have you.

MN (01:29): Pleasure is all mine, Brenda, looking forward to this conversation.

BN (01:33): Yeah, I’ve been counting down as well. Every time there are conversations about the future of work, the conversation is always negative, or what the downside will be, people are focusing on loss of jobs, as opposed to what the technology advantages would be. I want to reframe this conversation and focus more on skilling, and what sort of skilling we need to do as the workforce on the continent for the future of work. What has been your experience in terms of what employers now need in relation to digital skills?

MN (02:09): It depends on function. Brenda. Every job you’re going to work with or in requires a certain level of digital competence, and I’m pretty sure even in your practice. I have met lawyers who are asking me, “How can I use PowerPoint professionally?” “How can I use Excel or spreadsheets professionally?” Even “Microsoft Word, how can I use it professionally?” and yet, these are things that we’re not taught at university. If we are, 80% of it is theory and about 20% is practice.

There is that category of entry level workforce related digital skills that everybody ought to have. And we call those productivity skills. Your typical Office applications, ability to work with the internet, ability to collaborate, ability to navigate the different tools for social media and different learning platforms. Those are productivity skills, and everybody ought to have those. I mean, if you graduate out of university, if you’re going to find a job, and you can’t ably use, let’s say, the Office Suite, or even Google very well, you’re not ready for the world of work. And then of course, the advanced skills, which would be your typical software engineering, ability to use data. Those are advanced and as we go along, we all need to be able to understand some of these tools and skills.

BN (03:46): Mike, you’re very passionate about skilling, especially in the tech sector. Would you say that our curriculum in traditional African schools and tertiary institutions has had a hand in the tech skills gap on the continent?

MN (04:01): Largely, yes, Brenda. One of the challenges we’ve had is we’ve not contextualized our skill requirements. I’ll give an example. If you look at the computing framework that the National Council of Higher Education uses, it mirrors closely the American framework which is from the Association of Computing Machinery. Now, when I was still at Makerere we developed the different programs; IT, information systems, computer science, computer engineering, and software engineering off that framework, which was really out of the US or the developed world. And to a large extent, you’d say about 80% of that framework was replicated in how we are teaching stuff here or the content that we are teaching.

But we’re dealing with a very unique environment, Brenda. Let me give an example. In the US or Europe, each of the five computing disciplines and the five competing disciplines, information systems, information technology, computer science, computer engineering, software engineering. Each of these are standalone industries. They have their well-structured industry, you know what you will get to when you graduate. If you’re a computer scientist, you will get into this role as a computer scientist. Here at home, when everybody graduates from all these disciplines, they are all converging in a small place called some web applications, doing some bit of software engineering. You will get very limited, and especially now with a lot of Cloud, you’re getting minimal information tech heavy stuff, because the technology is not significant. Then information systems are changing significantly, especially since most of the applications are now running off the Cloud.

Back to your question, where is the gap? The gap is that we have not understood our industries, and therefore realign our curricula to respond to those gaps. And I guess that’s one of the things we try to respond to within, let’s say, Refactory.

The last thing I’ll tell you, Brenda, and really, I have no grudges to create here, is that one of the challenges that we have, is because we’re dealing with a very young industry. Majority of the people that are teaching in universities have limited to a large extent, or no working experience. You find somebody who’s teaching a program, say software engineering principles, and the person has never worked in industry anywhere. But they passed with a first class degree, went on and did a master’s degree, probably went on and did a PhD. But most of the stuff they’re teaching is stuff that has come from a textbook. But what that means is when you’re teaching this content, you can’t contextualize it for somebody to get to understand. For example, that if you’re building a website for a church, which is a small organization in this ecosystem, it wouldn’t be the same like the way you’d be building a website for a company in the US. And most of these textbooks are really hinged off the experiences in the US or Europe.

BN (07:16): That was going to be my next question. I was going to ask you about what sort of policy changes we need to see in relation to curriculum. Because, as you said, we don’t seem to understand the gap, or no offence to anybody, the people teaching sometimes do not have the experience. From a policy perspective, what can we do?

MN (07:37): I’ll share an experience I had. At Clark International University, after realizing that we have five different disciplines of computing, but then the industry is not that structured, I said, “can we design our own computing degree”? And it doesn’t have to fall in the structure of information systems, computer science, can we define our own. I submitted this program to National Council of Higher Education. The first name was the Bachelor of Applied Computing, we had a few issues, we changed them to a Bachelor of Applied Computing Technologies. When we submitted it, one of the reviewers returned a comment that included what needs to be taught like an introductory programming language. The comment they gave was that I should include this. Now that specific programming language had ceased to be that time— industry had stopped using it about seven years ago. Now, this was in 2016. But someone sends a comment and says this program, you should include the following. And I’m like, “but why should I include it if industry has stopped using it?” 

One of the things that I hope we can achieve is at curriculum review. And I think there’s been steps in that direction. To get industry to have an opinion, either industry defined helps you define a framework and whoever is submitting curricula should subject themselves to that particular framework, or industry comes in to review the content. Industry should be part of the reviewing team for those curricula, before National Council of Education clears it for certification. And that way, we’ll probably might get a little bit more proactive and begin to see where the industry is going.

I mean, this thing bothers me, Brenda. Let me give an example. I think one time on Twitter, I asked a question. I said, with the years we’ve had mobile money in our ecosystem, how come we don’t have a module in most of the programs, if any, that is teaching mobile money – be it in business, be it in computing, and yet 80 percent of the applications that are coming in our ecosystem will tend to be mobile money dependent or will integrate with mobile money. So, there are things that are happening within our context that we need to pay attention to and we’re not using them to teach our students.

BN (10:18): I totally see what you’re saying. You spoke briefly about Refactory and I want to talk a little bit more about that. Could you tell me more about what you’re doing with Refactory?

MN (10:28): So Refactory for me was, was a response to a gap that I had seen well as teaching at Makerere. We were training and doing exceptionally well, from a numbers perspective. Guys were coming out or getting degrees, first class degrees, and we were doing well. But for me, what used to bother me, Brenda, was that I felt kind of a withdrawal. When I would meet students would say, “Man, I haven’t found work”. And yet, I’d meet people in industry, and they would say, “We are looking for people to hire, but we can’t find them”.  There must be something fundamentally wrong. We can’t be training these guys and yet industry is complaining on the other end because we had prided ourselves as the university that is graduating, our faculty had close to 5000 students. I mean, all the numbers seem to be going well. And companies were coming into setup in Uganda with a hope that talent won’t be an issue. To the contrary – it was a big issue. But then the people that we were working with at university, were not responsive to a large extent to the circumstances within the industry. That gap for me, became a pain point, I kept on asking myself, what can we do? 

In 2013, I leave university and decide to go out and try to see what is happening. My leaving university was more of saying, look, I’ve come to the realization I’m not cut for academics. I appreciated that I was not cut for academics, and decided to go and try my talents elsewhere.

Now one of the things that became apparent Brenda was that industry was looking for people that are ready to work. However, one industry one company told me, that was Laboremus. Laboremus told me they say it takes them one and a half years to pick a graduate from university, prepare them to start work and get them ready to become productive. One and a half years. Now, what that means is that you’re paying this person a salary, you’re giving them all the entitlements, in terms of medical and all that kind of stuff. But in terms of their contribution to your bottom line, minimal. So companies were like it doesn’t make sense and that they would rather go to India or pick talent elsewhere. But they also knew that there was a possibility.

I remember I called about four companies. I said – if you are to hire a software engineer, what are the three things you’d look out for? You’ll be surprised, top of the list was not technical skills. Top of the list was ability to learn. Why? Because technology changes extremely fast. You can’t say I’m just going to become an expert in this. The second thing they were looking for was soft, their life skills, communication, teamwork. And number three were technical skills. Then I decided, to design a short program that addresses these things. Companies kept on giving us feedback, pay attention to this change this, and in 2018, were able to get Refactory launched. And in 2019, that’s when we hit the road running with Refactory after we had done a significant amount of investment in trying to understand what employers are looking for. And the results speak for themselves. In the intro you said we have about 80, it’s now about close to 90% placement, we cannot meet the requirement, which the good thing. If we look at the requests that are coming in and what we are graduating, yeah, the demand seems to be surpassing our supply. We need to style up we need to get more people enrolling into the programs and sitting going through. It’s a good place to be Brenda.

BN (14:27): That’s incredible. I mean, I’ve been following this journey for so long, you know that. What you’ve told me is very important about what you’re doing with in relation to the skills gap. Are the people you’re placing staying in Uganda or on the continent? Are they going abroad? And if they’re going abroad, what can we do to retain more developers and more tech talent on the continent?

MN (14:51): So we have a couple of guys who are working from Uganda, but working for companies out of Uganda. Last year before the Second Wave, I met somebody from Nigeria, who told me we no longer care where you’re located, it’s no longer an issue. All we need is your productivity. So if you have access to good internet, you have access to a good device, you’re good to go. If you have the skill, and you can commit, you’re good to go.

I have people that I know that are working for companies in the UK, but they are based in Uganda. We are not seeing people physically leaving the country, but they are working for companies out of the country, which is a beautiful thing. And we’re also seeing the students who go into these companies, but they’re not hopping from one company to another. The opportunities are there Brenda, the companies are looking for talent. And they could actually even match some of the pay to large extent, if only if the people that they hire can maintain their level of productivity. We have quite a number of opportunities that we can speak to. I think in the last two months, in the last three weeks, I have seen adverts for companies looking for close to 150 software developers, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to struggle, so they probably head-hunt or they will snatch from someone else. But the opportunities are here. And there are good opportunities.

BN  16:27: And speaking about demand – what  can we do as Africans to continue growing tech talent at scale?

MN (16:34): There a couple of things that need to be done. The first thing is to prepare tech talent is not cheap. I will tell you from the experience I’ve had at Refactory, if it weren’t to be for a grant that we got from the Norwegian government, we probably would have, I don’t want to say closed, but we would be struggling. Why? Because for you to get good facilitators, they must be people that have experience in industry. And you don’t bring them and you pay them peanuts, you must pay them something close to what they would be charging as consultants.

Now, another unfortunate bit is that many of the people that have the passion don’t have a lot of resources at their disposal to spend on some of these programs. A number of people that we’ve worked with through our program confessed to us that their parents tell them you finish your degree, that is it. Anything extra, you’re on your own. So we also have to find a way of subsidizing. I’ll give an example of what people are paying at Refactory. It is a subsidized program, about maybe $300. A similar program in Kenya is going for about $1,700. A similar program in Nigeria is going for about $3,000 similar program in the UK is about £5000. I don’t know if you’re getting the mix?

BN (17:55): Yeah. 

MN (17:59): Now, in our economy, when you try to engage entities like government and say, help us here, because we are training higher level skill, help us come in and give us some support. We go through some bit of dynamics back and forth and they keep asking you all sorts of things like “Is this an innovation?” Like, if you cannot get it, then probably we don’t need to have this conversation. The first thing I would say is that governments need to recognize this. That’s why governments like Rwanda are able to engage entities like Andela to come and train talent there because they know that the talent that is trained in Rwanda, will return that investment, even 30 times.

Two, is that some of our development partners are driven by numbers, you will get a grant application or grant opportunity. But they’re telling you they want you to train maybe 50,000 people in let’s say, five years. Honestly, if I’m unless I’m training people how to make “Rolex”, I can’t train 50,000 software developers in five years at scale, and you expect me to deliver those jobs, like a typical factory, if you want to go into work. We’ve had some pushback on some of the opportunities that come in for funding. We tell them – look, we want to see more money, we want to train more people, but your cost per trainee is so low for me to commit to deliver these numbers for you. That’s where we have some gaps, but the opportunities are there.

I’m pretty sure Brenda that if people had disposable income, people would be lining up on our programs, but they can’t. Even when we attempt to do scholarships, especially now that people are doing remote learning people tell you “but I don’t have a laptop”. And then you have ridiculous costs for the internet that make it even more complicated for people to be part of this ecosystem. At the national level, we need to look at this from a very strategic direction. And not like you’re thinking about setting up market or something like that.

BN (20:21): Earlier on, when we started the conversation, we talked about basic digital skills that you need for the workplace and having the right ones. To be honest, yes, much as Africa has a very young population, we also have a very ageing workforce. There’s a bit of an imbalance, there’s a bit of old people working, and then there’s the young workforce. And for the older ones, what can be done in the workplace to reduce the skills gap?

MN (20:49): I think, Brenda, with the opportunities and programs that enable people to become productive with the tools that they have, the first thing that the older persons need to do is to change attitude. And I’m saying this because I see it quite a lot. So, you go to them, and you say – I would like to introduce this program, introducing you to digital skills, and X, Y, Z. They will respond –“those are for you people”. They don’t realize that even when they retire, they are most probably going to go into work and the closest device they’re going to work with is a computing device, or even a smartphone. So, upskilling is going to be one of the things that I’d actually recommend and say understand how technology works. And there are programs that expose you to how technology works.

One of the things we’re going to start this year is a digital transformation leadership program that is really focusing on leaders. And that is intended to help leaders to see the bigger picture of technology, and see how they can get their businesses and get their people aligned to technology and deliver it. I hope that will become kind of catalytic in terms of “Yeah, can we do this? Can we do that?” That kind of thing. 

The next thing I would say is, programs like ICDL, do have specific programs training. We have one particular module called Digital Citizen. And that Digital Citizen module introduces you to technology from a very entry level for you to understand that if I am a citizen, how can I best use technology. And so there are these opportunities that can actually be leveraged on.

The third thing I would say is don’t fear technology. I have seen quite a number of older persons who will have an email because they were doing one thing but will never check their emails. Or they have smartphones and they are using, let’s say 2% of the smartphone capability. One of the things I encourage is just be curious, have some level of curiosity to know how you think could be of value to you. I hope that makes sense. We were once trying to help professors get their publications online for my court periods where professor says “Why do you want my publications online”? When you go through the process of trying to explain to them that you know what, when they’re online, people get to see your work, and as they see your work, it will create a number of opportunities, X Y, Z. Then, try and introduce them to things like LinkedIn. They’ll say – “I don’t want to be found”.

BN (23:49): Yeah, it’s going to take a mindset change. 

MN  (23:54): Yes, absolutely. 

BN (23:56): I want to talk to you about something you’re really passionate about, which is Rotary. Michael, we see you running like a hunter. You know, participating in everything Rotary related. I just wanted you to tell me and everybody who is listening, why Rotary is so important to you.

MN (24:16): I got in touch with Rotary when I was still at university and my guardian, who passed on last year, was a Rotarian. I got an opportunity to go with him every time Rotary had the community outreach initiative. There were these women that they were supporting in Mpererwe, giving them heifers or something. This was the Rotary Club of Kololo.

For me, I was seeing these men and women who in all aspects seem to be accomplished but seem to be doing this with a lot of zeal with a lot of passion. And then got to know a little bit more about service above self, that it’s not really about what you do, or the position you hold in society, but what is it that you can do in society that you will be remembered for. And so that spoke to me that connected with me. And also because it was neutral – it was not political, it was not religious, it was neutral. In there would find a Muslim, I’d find opposition, I’d find government—everybody seemed to be there. One mission, service above self.

And the more I got into Rotary, the more I got to appreciate that it’s not about me, it’s not about my immediate family. It’s about those that are less privileged that we reach out to serve. And that’s why Rotary now is branded People of Action – that we act on those challenges in society that nobody wants, or if they are, not very many people are paying attention to. That’s dear to me because I may not have much in terms of money to give. But I have time to go and be part of a community initiative. But even beyond being of value to society, is also an opportunity for me to meet people in networks beyond the ones that lets I work with or that I spend time with. It’s one community of people passionate to serve beyond the call of duty. And that speaks to me.

BN (26:35): Wow, Michael, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I really enjoyed speaking with you. I mean, I know we go way back. But it’s always a pleasure speaking to you, and just tapping into your wealth of knowledge. I’m really honored that you took the time to come onto the podcast and just have this conversation. And, you know, I’m always cheering you on from the sidelines. Thank you so much.

MN (26:58): Pleasure is always mine Brenda. And yes, I like what you’re doing with this podcast. And I think for me, the direction with which you’ve taken it is quite different from the many others that seem to be more of of a historical perspective, or if it’s not political, it’s about the whole aspect of motivational speaking and that kind of stuff. So yes, well done, and for collecting people’s views from a diverse African community. So kudos to you. I truly, truly appreciate what you’re doing.

BN (27:34): Thank you so much Mike.

MN (27:35): Pleasure is mine.

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