Tech Talent and Expat Bubbles – Kenya Edition

(Note: cathartic, bloated essay forthcoming, read at your peril)

Say you are a Kenyan web designer living in Seattle, do you think anyone cares that you came from Kenya? No, they only care that you are a great web designer.

If you’re an American programmer working in Nairobi, does anyone care that you come from the US? Yes, for some reason that matters. You’re judged on where you come from as well as your skill set.

It’s not apples-to-apples, though it should be.

kenya-usa

This is at the heart of an issue that I’ve seen played out many times over the years in Kenya. My position in the community, my background in Kenya and the US, and the organizations I’ve built locally give me a unique perspective on what’s going on here culturally, that sometimes is hard for others to see.

Americans, Europeans, etc want to work in Kenya and be part of a growing melting pot of engineers, web designer and entrepreneurs trying to build out the next great tech economy. It’s a grand dream, and one that we should all support if we want Kenya to be on the global map.

Kenyans are madly building companies, growing a new breed of programmers, designers and entrepreneurs that are waking up to the reality of a global market. It embodies all of the energetic vibrancy that makes Kenya a regional economic powerhouse.

Both are needed. However, all things are not created equal, which leads to tension.

Kenyan tech has global competition, so act like it

I often talk about the Kenyan tech scene as highly active, yet nascent. There is a great deal happening in our space, but it’s not nearly as big as other larger and older tech communities found in the Bay Area, London, Berlin, Israel, Moscow, Bangalore or New York City. We’re growing, we’re half-way up the mountain, and there’s still some climbing to do.

There is likely the same percentage of top level engineers and designers in Nairobi as anywhere else, but the pool is still small. I’d guess the total pool of engineers is somewhere in the 3,000-5,000 range, and designers are only about 100-200. It’s not a deep pool to pick from, and there are many who linger around the edges claiming that they have skills, but who aren’t qualified to do more than create a “hello world” website.

In the startup world, Kenyan-led companies tend to be under-resourced and without the same networks that make it so much easier for expats to get started. While we’ve been building up more and more base resources locally for seed capital, and the business acumen of the founders is improving due to them being in town, it’s still not enough. And, while the $25k accelerator level is very much present in the community, there’s a huge gap in the $100-500k investment levels.

So, with local entrepreneurs, this leads to a protectionist mentality about how many mzungu’s are around and how they are sucking up resources. It’s not a good place to be. What we need to realize locally is that in the tech world there are very few borders, that we’re automatically in a global playing field. There needs to be lighter rules for immigration of expats (from anywhere) who are willing to bring investment and talent into the country, and keep it here.

If anything, Kenyan lawmakers should be finding ways to reduce the ludicrous tax rates on software companies, which would incentivize local ownership, encourage local investment so that the companies that do well have their profits stay in-country, and try to attract international talent and grow local talent. It’s a long-term game, and will pay off in the years ahead.

US/EU immigrants need to understand where they are

On the other side of the fence are the international expats who enter into Kenya. They are often well-meaning folks with a desire to build a company, or be part of a company in this vibrant country brimming with opportunity. This should be encouraged.

What I’ve observed over the years however, is something that shouldn’t be encouraged. These immigrants who come into Kenya tend to hang out with each other. This isn’t strange at all, Kenyans tend to do the same when they’re in the US. What’s not healthy is when you spend most of the time around people who look and sound like you, then when you want something from the rest of the greater community, act like it’s not there because it’s not directly in front of you.

There are some amazing programmers in Kenya, some ridiculously good web designers, some top-notch entrepreneurs. You will not find them by throwing a dart in a room and hoping to hit one.

Complain all you like about immigration policy, the need for more high-level talent being brought into the country, business taxes, etc – and I’ll be right with you. You complain about there not being any local high-level talent and I’ll call BS.

Instead, get out and get to know people. Get outside of your expat bubble and be a part of the community. This isn’t just meetups, this is who you go grab a drink with, who’s wedding and hospitalization you attend, who you watch rugby with and who you help (and are helped by) when in a bind. This is Kenya, where relationships matter, and where they are earned over time. Friendships here aren’t given lightly, and when they’re given, then they mean something.

To many in Kenya, the expats come and go, so why should they be invested in? Sure, make “friends”, and see what can come out of it, but the problem is that we all know the expat will be gone in 2 or 4 years. The deep investment we expect out of our relationships in Kenya isn’t found in that kind of transient immigrant mentality.

A personal final recap

Back to the talent issue. I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing Kenyan programmers, designers and engineers. How was I able to find them? It turns out that the relationships that I started building back in 2006 (8 years ago), then continued throughout the years, opened my world up to the people who really know what they’re doing. I courted some for 3+ years before they finally joined my team(s), others that I’d like to join my team still won’t budge from their old positions.

Right now I’m looking high and low for an electrical engineer for BRCK, senior-level EEs who have telcoms and/or consumer electronics backgrounds aren’t in deep supply in Kenya. However, I know they’re here, I just have to look harder and keep pushing out beyond my normal network.

They’re here. They’re not easy to find and they might already have a great job. Your lack of being able to find them doesn’t mean they’re not here. Your inability to attract them to your organization isn’t their problem, it’s yours.

24 thoughts on “Tech Talent and Expat Bubbles – Kenya Edition

  1. M

    Well said.

    It is incumbent upon us as employers to work harder to find good talent. I’ve found over the years that good talent never advertises itself and must be actively sought out.

  2. Kenneth Oyolla

    Well written piece. couldn’t agree more. The tough reality of its not apples-to-apples is true.

  3. Pingback: Two Stories > About Tech Talent

  4. Wanjiku

    I think the main point is where some of the immigrants make more money from donors and VCs, to justify hiring expats or something like that. Donors and big corporates with money to spend love these stories. I recall having a debate with Paul Kukubo over his consistent slide that there was no capacity in Kenya and I wondered, nothing had changed in three years?

    As @roomthinker says, great talent rarely advertises and at times you have to bring it out in them, for instance, one of my colleagues has turned out to be a great techie, yet he never thought he could do it. Someone convinced him that its a good job…easy to learn etc…

    There is also the issue of pay, you look for people on a peanut budget. In that case, take the half baked ones and train them or up your salary. Period!

    1. Adam Nelson

      The problem with underpaying developers in Nairobi is an epidemic. We need to get salaries much, much higher here and be public about it. For a funded company to offer less than 100k/month is really ridiculous, and even that number should be higher. I also find it crazy that funded companies don’t offer health insurance.

      As for great talent, they almost never apply through standard channels. The best people have to be harpooned one by one, not caught en masse with a net.

      Nonetheless, it’s nice to be able to work the entire world when recruiting, not just one country. The last developer I paired with in NY was from Honduras (a Ruby guy) and he was great. If the US hadn’t let him in, the company he worked for would have been at a great disadvantage and probably would have gone out of business.

  5. Adam Nelson

    Erik, you hit the nail on the head with the first part here. The second part is true too but expats don’t make laws, expats don’t have citizenship rights, expats don’t have many of the tools available to locals.

    But anyway, we all agree that this isn’t an argument about tech talent in Kenya (there are definitely talented developers here), it’s just about how the world will always be bigger than Kenya and that without being able to recruit internationally, startups won’t be able to scale in Nairobi.

    1. Johann

      Great post. Agree with most everything you mentioned however I wouldn’t say that an employer saying they’re unable to build a truly experienced dev/design team in Kenya is BS. I’ve interviewed over a 100 candidates and some were good but not great. I know far too many companies in similar situations.

      I believe it’s not a question of if there are great developers/designers, it’s about how long will it take Kenya to produce a globally competitive critical mass of talented individuals (e.g. Cairo, Tel Aviv and Berlin) that become mentors and engender a new generation of world-class engineers and designers. Thanks to the emphasis on education, the various accelerators as well as investment ramping up in Kenya’s tech scene I’m confident that we’re well on our way to achieving this.

      1. HASH Post author

        @Johann, to be clear, I wrote: “You complain about there not being any local high-level talent and I’ll call BS.” The talent is here. Will you be able to get it, will they even apply to be interviewed by you? Maybe not. Claiming they’re not here because you can’t find/attract them just simply isn’t true.

        However, I didn’t say that we had a great and vast quantity of talent. This is why we need better immigration rules/laws too. Some highly specialized positions you will not find in Kenya. Other times there are only a handful of people who can do a certain job and you can’t land them in your company. This is where distributed teams, or adding immigrants to the mix comes in. As you might have noticed from my organizations, I’m a fan of mixed teams too – it’s good to mix the blood, so this isn’t about being mutually exclusive either.

        1. Johann

          Yes, very much agree with your take on this. Building a great team is difficult anywhere in the world and how you attract talent to your particular project is key. In our experience talent attracts talent yet immigration, quality of life, taxes and salary expectations are often the deal breakers.

          Having lived 5 years in the UN expat bubble, I recognize that learning to also branch-out and mix your team with talent from a variety of backgrounds (e.g. age, class, gender and race) is sadly still far too rare in Kenya.

  6. Jass

    > Say you are a Kenyan web designer living in Seattle, do you think anyone cares that you came from Kenya? > No, they only care that you are a great web designer.

    List of people who DO care that you come from Kenya:

    1. The company that has to sponser your H1B visa and has to prove you are able to provide a skill for which there is a shortage.
    2. The American programmers who are fundamentally opposed to your presence (http://againsth1b.com)
    3. The US immigration and naturalisation service (INS) that limits H1Bs and will force you in limbo for 6-12 months while they provide you with entry clearance
    4. The state and federal government who are concerned you’re depressing wages (http://www.workpermit.com/news/2005_10_26/us/us_h1b_visa_holders_earn_less.htm)
    5. You who knows you are tied to the H1B, have no freedom of job movement and have to leave within 90 days if you can’t find another job (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H-1B_visa)

    The EU is even worse.

    Don’t make blanket statements designed to portray the US/EU as this mecca where talent rules. Both zones are protectionist. It’s perfectly natural for citizens to follow suit.

    1. Adam Nelson

      Your points show all the more reason that Kenya should (and must) jump ahead. Think of all the talent Nairobi could pull here if the GoK was progressive and moved ahead of the US and EU on this stuff.

  7. Matt B

    Good article with some valid points indeed.

    As being a EU IT-mzungu married to a Kenyan lady for many years, i also had ideas about starting up some software development in Kenya. Through friends and family i have met talented people, both young Kenyans, and Kenyans whom have been working in EU/US and for some reason or another moved back home.

    Besides the usual problems with shady electricity, hardware always being stolen etc i find it cumbersome to put together a good team and get something done.

    One problem is that it is almost impossible to get people to show up on a predefined place at a predefined time. If half the talent of innovating excuses for not attending would be put in development we would all be billionaries. Strangely, even people that have been working in EU/US and returned for some reason forgets the art of time management as soon as their feet touch Kenyan soil.
    This of course also goes for deadlines in general, a mere decoration in the project description not to be taken seriously.

    So in the end, to land a project in time/to specs i sometimes have to mix in wazungu manpower, not that the talent or education is better in any way, but at least something will be done in time.

    So i try to preach time management, the art of showing up in time, the art of calling in if some meeting needs to be unbooked/moved , to call in sick instead of not showing up at all etc.

    So now most of development is done in Europe, making money that could have benefited Kenya.

    I still have hope, and will try again with some smaller projects. But to struggle with people instead of technical challenges is not easy, at least not for an asocial tech like me.

    1. Matt B

      Dear owner of this glorious website… You are more than welcome to remove my ranting about people not showing up in time etc.

      After an analysis of the text i wrote (honestly to say, it was in affect) i can now see that any individual with googling abilities will hold said ranting against me every time i am late for a meeting (which do happen, Nairobi traffic, bad matumbo etc etc).

      With highest Regards, so on and so forth
      Matt

    2. Ali Hussein

      @Matt I find your comment about time and deadlines attributed only to Kenyans abit off to say the least. Believe you me there are some of us Kenyans who value time. Infact I have had occasions where I have had appointments with muzungus who never keep time. The art of time keeping is endemic across the world not in Africa alone. That’s why there is a Multi-billion dollar business eschewing an education in time keeping.

  8. Lauren Rosenberg

    Thanks for writing this Erik. I found it a really interesting read (as well as the comments contributed by other readers) as a South African who’s just moved to Burundi and is colliding with similar stereotypes about recruiting talent. I’ve also noticed though that the expat talent bubble seems to perpetuate itself as expats find it hard to find peer-recommendations for talent / service providers outside of their familiar network…. so the bubble just keeps growing.

    Once again, thanks for writing this. It’s challenged me.

  9. Michael Pedersen

    If there was no challenges to solve you would have no advantage over your competitors – and being an entrepreneur would be no fun…

    The challenge of putting together a great team are not small – but once you succeed it is another barrier for any competitor who wants to follow in your footsteps…..

  10. Nicholas Sowden

    Great, great post. Thanks Erik. This should be given to foreigner entrepreneurs as part of their on boarding process when coming to Kenya…

    Also, it’s not just tech. I often hear this same complaint “no talent…” from foreign entrepreneurs that are leaving in a bubble about all kinds of positions.

  11. Jim Forster

    Eric — great posting. I agree about the mostly global nature of IT, especially software. I very much agree with the need for the long term view, for long term relationships. That’s certainly a problem with ex-pat / mzungus — not so many stay for more than 5 years. Friendship and trust do not emerge quickly, but when present enable great results.

    With respect to work attitude, time management, etc.: An Indian manager, with HP India experience later working for an IT company in Accra, commented about the difference she perceived between working in the two places. She said in India people knew there was a line of people waiting to take their place if they didn’t perform. She didn’t see that in Accra. Probably there were many factors in that observation such as HP vs. small startup, salary level compared to the local norm. Maybe a factor is also the size of the workforce pool: Africa is many countries, and immigration policies don’t allow free movement of people (similar to H1B issues in the US). India is very large, and smart young people from all over India can move to the IT centers.

    Adam — the trouble with raising salaries is that you might price yourself above what local market would pay for the services you can deliver, or in the case of world products and services, above the competition in other countries. This is happening to the US in a big way, as India & China are very hungry with lots of smart people. I’m in India seeing some of that — lots and lots of very smart, very hard working people. So Kenya has to compete with the world. They certainly can do that, if they look at the world as both their market and competition.

  12. Ballison

    Great article & fully concur.
    My problem is that I know nothing about tech. I do know a good website when I see one and i know what I want it to do / look like. My company also has plenty of money to spend on getting it right. We have twice invested good money in IT teams who we have sourced from the iHub…but despite many fun, productive & exciting initial meetings, brainstorms, proofs, launches…both have ended up with disappointing results and great frustration. I fully accept that we may be doing something wrong at our end & have unrealistic expectations of what can be done but now we don’t know where to turn! We want to throw cash at this & have a very cool website and we want to use the best Kenya can offer. Anyone out there think they’re the one for us – let me know!

    1. Kennedy Kirui

      Ballison,
      Most people face the same issue that you face; developers promising to deliver and never delivering. Interestingly this is not an issue related only to the Kenyan tech space. iHub is doing something about that, we have an initiative called iHub Consulting which brings together teams and coordinates the development process to ensure that projects and delivered as promised. The key goal is to create that culture in the Kenyan tech space of delivering on whatever you promise. Please feel free to drop me an email at kirui[at]ihub[.]co[.]ke and we can pick up the conversation from there.

  13. Carey Eaton

    Erik, great post and timely.

    Couple of comments though – in my experience, finding great developers and designers and tech talent is a global problem experienced by small and big companies everywhere, and its getting globally more difficult and much, much more competitive.

    Secondly, in Kenya, the industry is young and by definition, no talent here has already built global-scale tech companies. So anyone you meet, who tells you they have 5-10 years Kenyan experience of building at scale is probably not someone you should hire!

    So all of us need to try be creative and get the balance right between growing local capacity (which MUST be our local priority for our businesses, the ecosystem, Kenyans and the country’s long term competitiveness) versus getting the top talent we need now from the global pool to drive our Kenyan businesses.

    My sense is that some businesses bring in global talent for the second without having a genuine commitment to the first. And that is wrong.

    Totally agree with your comments that some arms of the political arena can do more to tone down the “foreigners are stealing our jobs” rhetoric where for the most part a small number of foreigners are helping Kenyans to build very important future industries. And the government, which has “digital” as one of its top 3 core policies in the Jubilee Manifesto, can do more to position and directly support Kenya’s tech ecosystem competitively in the talent space with real, firm, clear headed decisions around skill-gaps, tax competitiveness, the investment and infrastructural environment.

    On a related note, is the subject of “voluntourism” from all levels of tech and NGO people who come for an African experience short term – often with no visa – some with low experience but good academic credentials, others with neither but with Western work-practice capability – some leaving skills behind, others not so much – not sure what people think of this scene which I think is pretty real in Kenya and I think is the source of a lot of the negative feelings from Kenyan jobseekers, perhaps more so in the NGO sector than tech, but tech is not immune.

    1. Afrowave

      Thanks Carey,

      I completely agree with you that the skew to the balance should be in growing local talent rather than shipping in global talent. Sadly, a lot of the local talent has then disappeared into the global (mostly Western) space. However the trend is towards the return of the globally-aware-local-talent.

      “Voluntourism” is economic migration. Its just that its not obvious since this is happening in reverse of the normal trend. And, yes, being mzungu does help to get into the foreign NGOs and “{{insert_your_choice_field}}4D” donor space. This does create tension since salaries to this group are rarely based on skill or output. But its not the US/EU immigrant’s fault. Its our fault, the Africans, by creating opportunities for the do-gooders.

      China, India, the EU and the US are “territories” that are only comparable to Africa as a whole. The first 2 compare with Africa on the scale of population and a potential market. The last 2 compare on the economic advantage that Africa’s integration into a single bloc would bring. Only then would the economic “bullying” stop.

      Africa is divided into small inefficient countries that cannot benefit from the “Economies of Scale”. We, the Africans compete with each other in offering resources and markets to the large “territories” above. Nothing will change until we remove the borders in Africa allowing free movement of labour, trade and money.

      Imagine for a moment, the East African countries merged and the ICT talent was in one place, say Arusha with infrastructure, connections and access better than in Nairobi. Everything would be different. The talent pool would be deeper, opportunities greater and the market larger. Everyone wants this, no?

      But for now, let’s learn what Erik is talking about here. Commitment, generosity and audacity.

      Commitment – Erik can live and work anywhere in the world. He chose to do it in Kenya. How many of us Kenyans are committed to Kenya (Africa as a whole) and to world beating standards whilst we (and our politicians) whine about “foreigners” taking our jobs?

      Generosity – Erik has great ideas but he knows he can’t do it alone. So he opens them up for those who are committed to doing a great job of whatever they lay their hands on. Right now its the BRCK.

      Audacity – We can produce world-class solutions right here. But it will take world class skills and attitude, not mediocrity and small-mindedness, whether one is a Kenyan or expat.

Comments are closed.