Tl;dr: We don't know

Tl;dr: We don't know

Are Digital Skills Training Working for Women Entrepreneurs in Africa?

Jan 24, 2024

Illustration by Neema Iyer

Recently, I have been asking myself some broad questions about the efficacy of ‘Girl Coding’ programs, digital skills training as well as women-focused startup accelerators. There are often large PR campaigns around these programs with hypervisible partnerships between governments and private companies. Along a similar line of thinking, my ex-colleague and friend, Adam and I, have often considered investigating hackathons, large PR campaigns that seem to harvest ideas from across the continent and then disappear just as quickly without any outcomes to show.

Then yesterday, I saw this tweet from Nanjira Sambuli who rightfully calls for impact assessments and accountability from digital skills initiatives in Africa: 

In a post from Mariéme Jamme, she also lists down her frustrations on coding programs:

“Over the last five years, I have seen endless funded programs in and out of Africa aiming at teaching Africans how to CODE. I have felt so frustrated that people used the "coding narrative" to get cosy with governments without delivering any tangible way of teaching people fundamental coding skills to our people. I was surprised to find out that we spent lots of money on programs as a continent. The Digital Ministers were let down by their naivety. On some occasions, coding programs that got global attention, governments backing with press releases and selfies only exposed kids to learn Scratch or Minecraft.”

Without a doubt, these types of programs expose girls and women to training opportunities, to communities of like-minded people and help give a step up towards whatever their goals may be; a fun learning experience, confidence, a promotion, a better job or starting up their own business. And it is important to know what you want to get out of it going in. However, it's important to question the actual impact of these programs over the past decade within the African context. Are we truly getting the best value for our (their?) investment, or is it merely a case of lip service? Are the resources invested actually yielding tangible results or could there be a better way of designing programs on digitalisation in our emerging markets?

In this blog, I’ll do two things: explore what metrics we could use to evaluate these programs and then, make a wish list for what I wish these programs could provide to the entrepreneurship landscape. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll look at digital skills through the lens of entrepreneurship (rather than employment, which is equally if not more important).

Digital training with the goal of boosting employment is tricky because many companies don’t want to hire “newbies”, as one of my readers put it. There are also complaints that participants who come out of these training are not job ready. Some easy metrics could be employment rates or increase in salary, but it may take considerable self-education on the part of the participant to get there.

What does success look like for Digital Skills Training Programs?

There may be programs that teach the basics of digital skills such as mobile phone use and perhaps, how to use tools like Microsoft Office, which are useful for anyone to know. Then, there are training programs which claim to provide a higher level of technical skills, often aimed at more intensive programming or data science skills, or more broadly at digital entrepreneurship. When we step into “providing technical assistance to entrepreneurs, small and medium-sized enterprises and the private sector”, what exactly are we talking about here, and how then, do we measure the outcomes of such partnerships and programs? What’s the outcome beyond the number of women trained?

We could measure a few indicators such as business growth, for example, net profit margins or expansion into new markets, within countries or across borders, within Africa. We could also measure reductions in operational costs, staff/talent retention or even brand recognition. If we even went with the simplest option, we could simply measure participant feedback on the overall satisfaction with the program and how they felt the program benefitted them (or not). Even better would be if we could get some gender data within these different categories. However, it’s quite difficult to find reported outcomes, especially beyond the value of funds raised.

So, to kick us off, here’s my metric wish list for measuring the outcomes of programs that provide digital training and technical assistance to entrepreneurs, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Business Growth Metrics

  • Revenue Increase: Revenue pre and post program participation.

  • Profitability: Measure improvements in net profit margins.

  • Market Expansion: Assess expansion into new markets or to new customers.

  • Product/Service Diversification: Number of new products or services introduced.

Operational Efficiency Metrics

  • Cost Reduction: Measure reductions in operational costs of the business.

  • Process Improvements: Better customer service, or delivery time or other internal process metrics.

  • Technology Adoption: Track the implementation of new tech whether to streamline communication, payments, payroll, accounting etc.

  • Staff Retention Rates: Monitor changes in employee turnover and retention.

Participant Satisfaction and Feedback

  • Program Satisfaction Ratings: Collect participant feedback on the overall satisfaction with the program.

  • Recommendation Likelihood: Measure the likelihood of participants recommending the program to others.

  • Follow-up Engagement: Track the ongoing engagement of participants with the program and maybe its network. You could also charge a fee and measure demand over time. Free market style, baby!

Gender or Sex-disaggregated Data:

  • Skills gap on entry to program: Where do the different participants stand at the beginning and end of the program.

  • Gender Composition of Participants: Track the number and percentage of women vs. men applying and participating in the program.

  • Gender Composition of the overall Tech Sector: Track STEM enrollment, graduation, and sector jobs by gender.

  • Access to Finance by Gender: Track differences in access to loans, grants, or investments between women-led and men-led businesses.

  • Women in Leadership Roles: Measure the increase/decrease in women holding leadership positions within the businesses.

  • Community Impact: Evaluate the difference in community engagement and impact.

  • Program Satisfaction by Gender: Collect and compare feedback on program satisfaction from women and men participants.

  • Profit and revenue growth over time: Differences by gender (and why?)

What’s on offer with accelerators and incubation programs?

Around 2015-2020, I had been looking for a digital skills training program for myself. I had seen various iterations of coding and entrepreneurship bootcamps abroad, but none were offered at the level that I was looking for in Uganda. The main avenue of learning that I had access to at the time was an accelerator program, which offered small grants to participants - something I desperately needed when I was starting out. 

Africa-wide, accelerators have proven some success. In 2022, 330 startups, representing 52% of funded startups in Africa took part in an acceleration program before or during a capital raise. While this doesn’t speak to the overall success and sustainability of the business, it is one metric for measuring the impact of accelerators. Furthermore, fundraising, as well as legal and regulatory compliance, is a large focus of the types of coaching and mentorship that accelerators do offer, especially if their business model runs on equity. That’s all keeping in mind that globally, women-led startups received just 2.3% of VC funding in as recently as 2020.

A few months after founding Pollicy, I got accepted into an accelerator program. My overall experience was lacklustre. The mentorship was sparse, technical skills were too basic to be useful and the funding offered was minimal. Basically, death by ‘business model canvas.’ 

Looking back, this accelerator, I use that word loosely, was intensely focused on the product we were building. But, what I really needed help with was everything else. How to set up operational systems, onboard new staff, set up bank accounts, which accounting software to use, how to prevent “shiny object syndrome”, who to network with, how to build our brand, how to position ourselves, and so on. 

I eventually learned all of this along the way. However, in conversation with emerging women founders, I find that the same challenges I faced all those years ago persist. It’s really all the “boring” stuff, but I firmly believe it's very much the foundational structures for a successful business in the long run. It’s also not enough to have a quick once-a-month or so check-in regarding this type of support but rather some solid deep-dives and hand-holding in thinking about the philosophy of your organisation’s operational philosophy and as my successor, Irene Mwendwa, wrote in her recent blog, it even comes down to planning your eventual departure and transition down the road, from day 1.

One-size fits all training won’t work

During COVID, I was invited to a small group of directors on Whatsapp. Even this small ad hoc group proved to be so helpful in the growing stage of Pollicy. We were all facing similar challenges and we found a safe space to discuss and problem shoot. How to set up remote work contracts, how to register in multiple locations, sorting out multicountry taxation issues, frustrating experiences with donors etc. It showed me that even as you grow, the type of support, mentorship and community that you need evolves, and may often not be as readily available to you, because many programs are tailored with a one-size fits all curriculum that often focuses on the basics.

“Pulling” vs pushing support

So, in making the case for the less shiny and sexy parts of running a business (depending on who you are, that is), here’s a curriculum wish list if you are planning on launching an accelerator, training program, bootcamp or just handing out wads of cash. I like how Roger Norton frames it in his blog, Why most accelerators struggle in Africa: “Instead of pushing all startups through the same 3 month curriculum, allow each startup to constantly ‘pull’ the support that they need.” This would mean tailoring these training on technical and digital skills for entrepreneurs around holistically growing a successful business, specifically for the growth stage of that unique entity. This also means as an entrepreneur, being acutely aware of what you don’t know!

  1. How to set up Operational Systems

  2. How to Budget and Manage Finances

  3. How to Hire and Retain Talent

  4. How to Research and Write Effective Copy

  5. How to Successfully Network and Get in the Right Rooms

Open-sourcing the curricula for input and impact

Imagine the potential impact if these training programs adopted an open-source approach to their curricula, welcoming expert insights and advice from entrepreneurs who’ve already been in the trenches and come out on the other side. It’s understandable that they might not if it’s proprietary certifications, but for straightforward digital entrepreneurship training, this openness could improve the quality and relevance of the training offered, especially considering that many of these initiatives often involve partnerships with governments. It becomes necessary to establish a transparent framework for accountability and scrutiny.

What’s the ROI?

In wrapping up this meandering post, I wanted to end on MONEY! A significant amount of funds seemingly goes into these programs at a national, regional and continental level by a wide-range of small and high-ranking private sector players in partnership with governments and regional bodies. Beyond measuring solely the financial terms of these programs, we have to once again ask about the real-world impact beyond fueling short-term projects. How do we set up long-term robust training programs on emerging technologies with a solid pedagogy focused on business essentials? How do we additionally funnel funds to improve policy and regulatory hurdles to enable young businesses to thrive? Who does this responsibility fall on? It prompts a reevaluation of how these funds can be more strategically and equitably deployed to ensure they address critical gaps in resources, infrastructure, and training that hinder the growth of local enterprises.

When large corporations pledge substantial funds, such as US$100 million, towards innovation programming in Africa, it raises an important question: Who truly benefits from this investment? Who receives the bulk of that $100 million? 

In the end, we all want to see successful models of entrepreneurship, thriving innovation ecosystems and dignified job creation, but it would be wonderful to get an idea of the real impact of initiatives that aim to empower these local entrepreneurs and innovators across Africa. So to answer the initial question, are digital skills training working for women entrepreneurs in Africa, I’m clearly left with more questions than answers.

I’d love to know more about your experiences in training and acceleration programs. If you’d like to share your experiences or ideas, do reach out here.