African Start up

The startup that’s harder to get into than Harvard

CNN  — 

Johnson Ejezie was initially daunted by the prospect of moving to Lagos from his home town in Nigeria’s south-east.

The polio he contracted at a young age left him with lasting health problems, so he felt vulnerable living in a city where he didn’t have any family or friends to lean on.

But what pulled the 26-year-old to Nigeria’s bustling metropolis was stronger than his fears – an invitation to take part in a bootcamp for Andela, a startup which pays young Nigerians to train as programmers and work for international companies.

Andela acts as talent accelerator, scouting for smart and ambitious Nigerians with the potential to work as top-level developers for foreign firms. The ones who pass the rigorous selection process are paid what the company calls an upper middle class Nigerian wage while training. Successful alumni have been placed with for Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft as well as up-and-coming start-ups, all while being based in Nigeria.

Plight for programmers

The idea is the brainchild of two entrepreneurs, American Jeremy Johnson, who made the Forbes’ 30 under 30 list last year, and Nigerian Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, selected as one of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers in 2012.

“Andela began after my friend and mentor Jeremy Johnson visited Nairobi in 2013 and saw how a lack of career paths for young people was contributing to Africa’s youth unemployment,” says Aboyeji.

“At about the same time, I had spent a year and a half in Lagos exploring new models of education that could raise the bar and tackle Nigeria’s chronic youth unemployment problem,” he adds.

The pair put their heads together and noticed that while young Nigerians struggled to get jobs, tech roles in United States were hard to fill: “Even at $100,000 per year, Jeremy could not find a developer for his last company. That was when we decided to begin recruiting our first class.”

Elite recruits

With an acceptance rate of 1% Andela is arguably one of the most selective training programs in the world. In comparison, Harvard admits 6% of applicants and Princeton 7.4%. The training is four years long and starts with an online application, after which candidates take aptitude and skills tests.
Those who make it to the next round have a face-to-face interview, and then undertake a two week bootcamp – the final selection stage. There, aspiring developers are taught how to build web applications and they are assessed on the speed at which they learn as well as their soft skills.

Aboyeji doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that the selection process is grueling: “We are looking for brilliant young people who are potential leaders, and who have the grit and perseverance to get through a very tough program,” he says.

Tech talent

So far 15,000 people applied for the scheme and Andela started training its first class of 100 developers in June of last year. The company is based in New York and Nigeria, a country chosen partially because its status as Africa’s most populous nation means it offers a wide pool of talent.

“The primary and secondary education system remains strong here, but the youth population is growing very fast which makes the problem of youth unemployment chronic,” says Aboyeji.

The strong emphasis of earning while learning is reminiscent of the apprenticeship system, something that Andela founders readily embrace.

“We believe there is only so much you can learn in the classroom. But with practical work experiences, you can translate learning into habits that will make you a true professional,” Aboyeji says.

He adds that in today’s globally connected world, it makes little difference that the companies young Nigerian programmers work for are based thousands of miles away: “With a reliable Internet connection, a world-class developer can add value remotely from wherever in the world they happen to be.”