Building the next generation of tech leaders in Africa

Alumni startup receives $180 million investment

Updated February 2019

Back in 2016, on a sticky late-August day, a guy named Mark walked through the streets of Yaba, a historic neighbourhood in Lagos, Nigeria. He was keeping it low key. Just a few handlers and security guards sweating buckets in the heat as they all made the two-kilometre journey on foot.

As local newscasts revealed the next day, the Mark in question was Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg — and he was on his way to visit a new, local startup company, Andela.

Andela. That would be the same startup in which he’d just invested $24 million U.S. through his Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Under the initiative’s mission of “advancing human potential and promoting equality,” the financing of Andela made complete sense. Andela is a company that takes the brightest and most brilliant math, tech and engineering minds in Africa, and then trains them to become accomplished, top-tier developers. Eventually, the developers, known as “fellows,” go on to take full-time roles in more than 100 partner companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Viacom.

CNN has called Andela, which has locations in Lagos, Nairobi and Kampala, “one of the most selective training programs in the world” and “… harder to get into than Harvard.” Indeed, of 70,000 resumes the company has received, only 500 people have been accepted.

And now Andela has received its largest round of funding to date. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s investment firm, Generation Investment Management, is leading a $100 million funding round, bringing Andela’s total venture capital haul to $180 million.

There is brilliance everywhere on the planet

Extreme recruiting isn’t about elitism, insists co-founder Nadayar Enegesi, who graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in computer science. In fact, it’s about breaking down education barriers — and lifting up the hundreds of developers it has trained since the company launched in 2014.

“There is brilliance literally everywhere on the planet,” Enegesi says. “What Andela is essentially doing is scouting really brilliant people who have some sort of disposition toward technology, and creating an environment to thrive, learn and grow quickly.”

The University of Waterloo, of course, knows a thing or two about breaking down barriers. Sixty years ago, it disrupted the post-secondary education landscape when it became a university that would integrate workplace experience with academic study. On August 27, 1956, Ira G. Needles, president of the largest employer in Waterloo Region at the time, made a speech about how a new kind of university could help address the shortage of highly skilled workers in Canada. That speech, entitled The Waterloo Plan, would set the stage for the founding of the University of Waterloo in 1957.

Nadayar Enegesi

Nadayar Enegesi (BCS ’13) Computer science alumnus and Andela co-founder

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji (BA ’12), Legal studies alumnus and Andela co-founder

Brice Nkengsa

Brice Nkengsa (BSE ’12), Software engineering alumnus and Andela co-founder


Waterloo model continues to inspire

Waterloo’s co-operative education program is now the largest of its kind in the world and has become a model for other universities as society struggles to provide students with relevant, meaningful education in a rapidly changing world.

Fast forward 60 years, and Andela is tackling a similar problem in a different way. Enegesi says, “There’s a very great talent shortage of engineers and we can actually solve that global problem — and at the same time generate a lot of impact in our home country and continent.”

Enegesi helped found Andela with two other Waterloo alumni: Brice Nkengsa, a software engineering grad, and Iyinoluwa “E” Aboyeji, a Waterloo arts grad who was based at St. Jerome’s University on campus. They launched Andela, which also has offices in New York City and San Francisco, at a time when the U.S. government has predicted a shortfall in skilled people for 1.3 million software development jobs projected in 2024.

Despite political protectionist leanings in the U.S., Britain and other nations these days, Andela is more than ready to train programmers — no matter where they live. Africa is home to seven of the Top 10 fastest-growing internet populations in the world, so it’s easy to see why people like Mark Zuckerberg are willing to make the trip to Lagos.

If people are educated and ready, there is opportunity in Africa, says Enegesi. “You probably wouldn’t have thought in the next million years that the tech leaders building your products will come from Africa. But now we’re showing the world that that’s possible.”

Out of Africa … then back again

The three Waterloo entrepreneurs never thought they’d actually move back to Africa after living in Canada. They’d met at an international high school in Hamilton, ON, in 2007. Nkengsa’s father, who is in marketing and travels often for work, ran into the school’s recruiter while on a plane back then. She convinced him to send his son to her school in Canada — a move Nkengsa’s mother, a teacher, was all for.

A native French speaker, Nkengsa, now Andela’s director of engineering, didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in Canada with his brother. He taught himself to speak the language by watching episodes of Friends and Seinfeld.

Enegesi, however, is the first to admit he moved to Canada for a far less practical reason. A top student who nevertheless struggled to find his footing after graduating school in Nigeria, he … followed a girl here.

“It actually didn’t work out with the lady, but I got way better returns because I got to meet people like Brice and E,” he jokes now.

Mark Zuckerberg with Andela programmers in Nigeria

Andela programmers gather around Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on his visit to their office in Lagos, Nigeria.

“Priscilla and I believe in supporting innovative models of learning wherever they are around the world — and what Andela is doing is pretty amazing.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO and co-founder of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Connections made at Velocity

Eventually the three met again at Waterloo, going on to launch a startup called Fora, a distance-learning platform for African universities, with Canadian EdTech entrepreneur Ian Carnevale. They worked out of Velocity, a leading entrepreneurship program at Waterloo and the largest free startup incubator in the world. The company, however, didn’t perform as they’d hoped. It had too little capital and too few political networks to break through regulatory barriers.

But when networking pro Aboyeji reached out to EdTech entrepreneur superstar Jeremy Johnson in New York City, their fortunes changed. Johnson had a dream to start a company that would go on to become the Andela model. He believed in the concept so much, he left his company to become Andela’s CEO.

Rather than pivot Fora, they decided to start Andela along with Carnevale and another co-founder Christina Sass, who had left her PhD program at Harvard to help.

Soon Enegesi had a one-way ticket to Lagos from Toronto, ready to recruit and train the first set of Andela developers. It was nuts, he recalls. Only a month before, the team had been brainstorming ideas about how to write the future of technology in Africa by educating and up-skilling Africans in software development.

Sure, he could have pulled in a nice paycheque in Canada, working for someone else, but he knew there was so much more he could do with his skills and co-op experience he’d picked up at Waterloo and in Velocity.

Nkengsa also remembers the time well. Within days of seeing Enegesi hop a plane for Africa, he dropped everything in Toronto and moved to New York City, where Andela is also incorporated, for eight months before heading to Lagos.

“At the time, I wasn’t thinking about coming back to Africa at all, but there was an electric connection and this desire to make an impact,” says Nkengsa. “It was kind of an incredible ride — and yeah, it was pretty awesome.”

The co-op connection

While Velocity put the entrepreneurs in contact with other like-minded students and mentors, the company would likely be a very different place if it hadn’t been for the alumni’s co-op experiences.

“It empowered me to learn by doing,” explains Nkengsa, who took on co-op jobs at BlackBerry and AMD, a hardware company. “I actually got to work with expert people, learning from them and apprenticing under them, so that by the time I was actually graduating, I had skill sets that were employable.”

For Enegesi, even a bad co-op experience taught him something that helped him decide to launch his startup. While at a stock-trading startup in Toronto, he was making good money, but knew his heart just wasn’t in it.

“I learned that people should be working on things they’re passionate about and things they can infuse their soul into,” he says. “It was a huge life lesson there.”

Students listening to guest speaker at Velocity Residence

In 2008 the Velocity Residence opened as the world’s first digital media “dormcubator,” providing the opportunity for student entrepreneurs to live and work together.

The importance of hip-to-hip mentoring

But, like Nkengsa, co-op helped him form the idea behind what Andela offers: hip-to-hip mentoring of brilliant people. At a co-op placement with Toronto software agency BNOTIONS, he was given an opportunity to lead a few teams.

“It was amazing,” he says, throwing around terms like “radical candour” and “being helpful” and “believing in people.” The experience also taught him to believe in himself more and to be less judgmental of others’ skills.

It also led to his belief in something called “cognitive apprenticeship,” where experts and trainees work side-by-side so the student can learn even faster. Joe-jobs, he learned from his co-op days, don’t help the student learn and don’t help the company’s bottom line.

“It’s a way different experience than giving someone a mundane task and telling them to sit in the corner and deliver it,” he explains. “A lot of things I learned (at that co-op placement) definitely influence the way I think about mentoring developers today.”

What’s next?

Andela operates in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, and has about 1,100 developers on staff working across more than 200 companies.

Aboyeji has moved on to launch Flutterwave, a digital payment infrastructure program, to address a need he noticed while at Andela: payment is tough for e-commerce merchants in Africa. He wants to change that.

But one of the biggest changes has been in the developers and trainees themselves, says Nkengsa. He has watched people, who were barely scraping by in old professions earn a good middle-class income as an Andela developer. The work changes lives.

“You see a lot of our very first developers, two or three years in, and the things they’re able to accomplish for partner companies is amazing to witness,” he says. “It comes down to human transformation and people realizing their true potential.”

Enegesi agrees, thinking back to that day when Zuckerberg came to the office, said a few words to a roomful of developers and then went in for a closed-door meeting with the founders and managers. If you watch the YouTube video of the visit to the office that day, Enegesi stands out, wearing a bright pink “Waterloo Mathematics” T-shirt. During the small meeting, Zuckerberg was humble and encouraging. If he could create Facebook, they could build Andela — and the future of Africa — through training.

Enegesi says he looked around the meeting room that day and watched his team’s faces.

“I could see in their eyes,” he says now, “that they believe they can do the same thing.” 

Looking back: History of cooperative education

1956: Curriculum development focused on co-operative education begins with $25,000 from the Ontario government.

1957: First class of engineering students start their studies with co-op work terms a compulsory part of the curriculum.

1961: 100 per cent of the 318 engineering students are employed in co-op jobs.

1964: Co-op program expands beyond engineering to physics students.

1975: Co-op program expands to the Faculty of Arts.

2001: New co-op program called Enterprise Co-op is established for students who want to launch their own ventures.

2002: William M. Tatham Centre for Co-operative Education and Career Action opens on campus.

2016-17: Employment rate for co-op students is almost 98 per cent with a nearly 5 per cent increase in co-op students from 2015/16. 1 million+ co-op job applications submitted and more than 67,500 interviews conducted.

Engineering student on co-op term.

Chemical engineering student Peter Page with engineer C.R. Howey on a co-op job in 1961. University of Waterloo Library. Special Collections and Archives