Africa Plan Foundation is giving Eastern Nigerian graduates tech skills and jobs

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On Saturday, March 15, 2014, about 16 job seekers were confirmed dead, and over 119 people were injured at several recruitment centres for the Nigeria Immigration Service. The tragedy occurred due to overcrowding, stampedes, and panic among the 6.5 million people who had gone to recruitment centres across all 36 states of Nigeria and its capital Abuja, to be screened for 4,000 immigration job vacancies.

Unemployment has been a direct cause of mortality for many Nigerians. Low levels of education are a major factor in the country’s 35% unemployment rate, but even education isn’t a sure shield from the menace. Over 25 million of Nigeria’s unemployed hold graduate and postgraduate degrees from tertiary institutions. Recognised polytechnics and universities dispense about 600,000 graduates each year but with no employment within reach, the more proactive ones try to acquire the needed skills to become entrepreneurs or to fill a skill gap and compete for limited corporate jobs that have no direct relation to their academic backgrounds. 

Globalisation has melted geographical barriers and made it possible for Nigerians to compete for corporate jobs virtually. There is a great demand for talent, especially in the local and global tech ecosystems. No matter their educational background, Nigerians can qualify for these highly demanded tech roles as long as they acquire the necessary skills. However, there is little access to gaining these tech skills for these unemployed graduates. 

Online and physical learning organisations that offer paid learning resources do so at prices beyond the purchasing power of graduates who are not gainfully employed. The internet offers access to a plethora of courses, books, and communities that can teach these skills for free, but in a country where the average person lives under a dollar a day, learning on the internet is expensive. There is a high penetration of mobile phones among graduates, but they are more pervasive as an instrument of social networking than an instrument of learning. This is largely due to the cost of mobile data plans. It costs less to use social networking platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, as they consume less data than downloading or watching tutorial videos. It also costs more to use laptops for learning as they are very expensive to purchase and maintain, and as such, not many Nigerians have them.

Non-profit organisations and some altruistic individuals have identified these challenges inhibiting the country’s tech talent pipeline and are making efforts to meet them. Some of them provide comprehensive training programs free of charge, while others provide free data plans, free laptops, and even power inverters for steady power supply to tech-skill learners. Understandably, only a few of these altruistic organisations provide everything at once, at no charge. One such organisation is the AfricaPlan Foundation. 

The AfricaPlan Foundation (APF) is a US-based non-profit organisation founded by Oni Chukwu. The organization is currently running a fully-funded residential intensive coding boot camp for graduates called Hackathon Africa.  As a residential boot camp, the AFP provides housing, feeding, and a monthly stipend for its participants, while running intensive practical training on full-stack web development. The training spans three months and will cover the coding languages MongoDB, Express(.js), React(.js), and Node(.js)—the MERN Stack.

In addition, the programme will provide internship placements for the participants to give them the opportunity to apply their skills to real-world problems and begin their careers in tech. The boot camp kicked off on Thursday, September 1, 2022, in Enugu, southeast Nigeria, with 20 participants—10 male and 10 female, all of them university graduates. TechCabal interviewed AfricaPlan Foundation founder Oni Chukwu, project coordinator Jonah Onah, engineer Priscilla Iroaganachi, a member of the board of trustees, programmes officer Chizaram Iroaganachi, and boot camp attendee Ceasar Chukwu to learn about the nature of the program and its objectives.

TechCabal: There is a good amount of pushback on using tokenism to achieve gender diversity in tech. Some think it is discriminatory to men since it appears that fewer women are interested in tech. How did you achieve gender parity in your selection process?

AfricaPlan Foundation: We didn’t have to put in extra effort to get women to apply. A lot of people showed interest in the programme because it was obvious how beneficial it was. It was a free training programme that would provide you with full-stack web development skills as well as a job. We received about 420 applications, of which 30% were from ladies.  We had enough candidates to select 10 men and 10 women, and the selection was purely based on merit. From the testing to the interviews of the applicants, everyone was treated equally. Women showed a particularly enthusiastic interest in the programme when it was announced. Some even offered to be volunteers and help out with the facilitation of the programme. The notion that women shy away from technology seems more perceived than actual. Right now in the academy, both male and female students are going through the same learning difficulties, and both are thriving.

TC: What’s a typical day at the boot camp like? 

Caesar Chukwu (one of the APF’s trainees): On a typical day, at the boot camp, we wake up by 7 AM, do some cleaning, and have breakfast before we begin classes. From Mondays to Thursdays, we have software development classes, which run from 10 AM to 4 PM with an hour’s break at noon. On Fridays, we have soft skill classes at 5 PM. Sometimes we have impromptu sessions when we work in groups to solve problems. Each member of the group is responsible for a portion of the application and defends their work in front of the entire class. 

Sometimes classes extend into the evening because we are not grasping a certain concept satisfactorily. Some of us stay up at night; I do it sometimes when I have some catching up to do. I study documentation to keep myself on my toes so that I can perform better in the next class. During the weekends, we engage in leisure activities. Some of us go to places of worship on Sundays.

TC: What does the training entail?

APF: They are being given the core full-stack web development training that they need to be job-ready. They learn JavaScript stacks, MongoDB for the database, Express JS for the backend, Node JS, as well as React for the front end. We also invite professionals in the tech industry to whom the participants can relate to give them soft skill training. For example, a software engineer who kicked off his career at a boot camp was recently invited to share his experiences and tell them what to expect in the industry as entry-level professionals. 

After the training, we will place them in companies for internship programmes. We have made arrangements such that our partner companies will give them every opportunity to apply their newly acquired skills to real-world problems while paying them a considerable salary for their work. We’ve identified a couple of companies in Nigeria, in particular, that will provide this help, but we still need a bunch more for the present and future cohorts. We are open to partnering with tech companies, especially fairly young entrepreneurial companies across the country. 

TC: So what are your expectations from these companies, and what plans are you making to prevent the exploitation of the participants who will be working for them?

APF: We’re helping students who really have no hope of getting employment, so we understand how vulnerable they are. We want companies that can provide an environment for learning, but they also need to be ready to provide considerable compensation for the interns, as they will be doing work for their businesses. We’re going to be supervising them through the program as well so that the vulnerability of the students is not exploited during their work as interns. 

TC: Do you have the same plans for the next cohort?

APF: The next cohort will kick off in August next year. We are hoping to partner with non-Nigerian companies so that the students in the next cohort can have the option to work virtually. It all depends on how successful this cohort turns out to be. 

TC: Why did you choose to launch the programme in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria? Why not Lagos, the tech hub of Nigeria?

APF: It is because the east is fairly depressed when it comes to economic activity and technology in particular. It seems like our young people are being left behind. When people talk about “brain drain”, they are mostly referring to the migration of talent outside of Nigeria. However, there is a concerning brain drain happening in Nigeria. People, ideas, and businesses are moving to Lagos from every other state in search of greener pastures. Much of the tech ecosystem’s activities are concentrated in Abuja and Lagos. It excludes so many promising people who cannot afford to uproot themselves from either state. The Africa Plan Foundation wants to change the narrative. We want to create a level playing field for empowerment across Africa, so it seemed more necessary to start in the east of Nigeria.

Editor’s Note: It is purely coincidental that the author and the interview subjects share the same last name. They share no personal relationship.

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