[Column] Natascha Netha: African tech companies must work harder than ever to attract and retain top talent
The past few years have been immense for the African tech space. Thanks to substantial infrastructure investments, connectivity has become increasingly ubiquitous and affordable. The addressable market for technology-focused solutions has grown massively with millions of people coming online. Investors have taken note of this growth, with startups across the continent attracting a record US$4 billion in funding in 2021. Despite ructions in other technology markets, things have yet to slow down on the continent. In the first half of 2022 alone, more than US$3.5 billion was raised.
Along with the expansion of global technology giants into Africa, this rapid growth has made it more challenging than ever for African tech companies to attract and retain top talent. Further compounding the issue is the growth of remote and hybrid work, driven by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. African tech companies are no longer just competing for talent in the geographies in which they operate, but with companies based in Europe, America, and Asia.
That’s not, however, necessarily a bad thing. It just means that companies operating on the continent must adjust to these new realities and adapt how they attract and retain talent.
A borderless approach
Take the rise of remote and hybrid work for example. The pandemic showed many companies that what people do should not be limited by where they are. It’s something we’ve known for a long time at MFS Africa and we’ve long viewed having a distributed workforce as critical to our vision of making borders non-existent. Even then, we had to make adjustments. While We had a number of offices across the continent with some of our team members working remotely from Europe, India and other parts of the continent, we were still office first. The pandemic challenged us to think differently. As we interviewed and onboarded people completely digitally, we also began to expand our own definitions of borderless workplaces. Three years ago we would have preferred for people to work in the office, today we encourage people to find the model that best works for them while ensuring that teams meet face-to-face often enough to encourage strong collaboration and psychological safety.
With remote and hybrid now the norm, especially in the tech sector, African companies would be foolhardy to geographically limit themselves when it comes to recruitment. I can guarantee you that the candidates you’re looking to attract aren’t limiting their options in the same way.
So, if you’re based in Cape Town and you find an ideal candidate who’s based in Nairobi, why would you close yourself off to hiring them or make them move countries to work for you?
There are, of course, companies that will survive and perhaps even thrive with fully on-site workforces. I’m also not suggesting that anyone give up their offices (we have offices in certain locations that people can work from full time if they want to). But all companies need to understand that without embracing flexibility, they’re limiting the pool of tech talent available to them.
Working with purpose
Of course, simply offering remote and hybrid work options is no guarantee that a tech company will be able to attract and retain the best possible talent. One of the biggest trends I’ve noticed post-pandemic is that people increasingly want to work for businesses that do meaningful work, and where their own purpose and values align with those of the business.
For the right kind of African business, that actually represents an advantage and may even allow them to recruit from global technology players.
You can have a tech company for the sake of being a tech company and the barrier to entry is pretty low. If you’ve got the right technical skills and connectivity, you could start one tomorrow. But many African tech workers have a very real awareness of the challenges that the continent faces and want to help address those challenges.
As such, the real differentiator for tech companies on the African continent is the ability to solve real problems. Of course, big tech players will always hold some appeal but they tend to deal with higher-order issues and typically aren’t able to solve specifically African problems.
As a result, candidates are asking themselves, “why not see how this company is solving this problem in the region? And is the solving of that problem something that I feel has some meaning at an individual level?”
The same is true when it comes to retaining employees too. They need to feel like the company they work for has a real sense of purpose and is able to adapt to Africa’s evolving challenges.
Tell your story effectively
But if African tech companies are to take full advantage of that point of differentiation, they need to be able to tell their story. That doesn’t always come naturally, especially for companies that don’t want to look like they’re boastful. But think about it from a prospective employee’s perspective.
If you come across a role that looks great at a company that's unfamiliar, the first thing you'll do is Google the company. That makes it critical that the company is to tell its story effectively and demonstrate that it does all the things it says it does. It should also be clear that the kind of top talent that companies want will instantly be able to spot if a company doesn’t do so in a way that’s transparent and honest.
The benefits of having to work harder
Ultimately, there should be no doubt that African companies have to work harder than ever to attract and retain tech talent. Rather than bemoaning the situation, however, companies on the continent should view it as an opportunity. If they pull out all the stops to be the kind of company that the best talent wants to work for, the kind of company that solves real challenges, that can only result in a better company.
This doesn’t just benefit individual companies either. The more African tech companies that take recruitment and retention seriously, the better the outcomes will be for the sector and the continent.
Natascha Netha is the Employee Experience (EX) Director at MFS Africa.