Coding’s call to arms

With Africa Code Week coming up in October, we dug deep into the world of coding with Claire Gillissen-Duval, the Co-Founder and Global Lead of Africa Code Week.


What is coding and why is it so relevant today… and for tomorrow?

When I grew up, coding used to be for the tech-savvy kids, the next logical step after they managed to dismantle the first PC they got their hands on. 40 years later, we live in a super-connected world where ICT equals more than the sum of its parts: beyond a set of commands to activate a device, coding has grown into an actual language – as in “system of communication used by a particular country or community” to share, explore and grow together. Some even say, (with good reason, that coding is about the closest thing to a superpower that can be taught in the digital era.

Today, more than 90% of professional occupations require digital skills and last year, The African Economic Outlook reported that in the youth labour markets of 36 African countries, there was a 54 percent mismatch between the job seekers’ skills and actual employers’ requirements. Why do we need to act now? Because the skills gap is only going to widen if we don’t: by 2020, the world will need no less than 400 million digitally educated boys and girls who are groomed and ready to thrive in the global knowledge economy. (Source: César Alierta, President and Chairman of Foundation Telefónica)

For a coder, there is no such thing as a problem without a solution, and a challenge is just another opportunity to create something new.

Steve Jobs said: “I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” How can you add to his words?

Steve Jobs, together with most of the world’s leaders according to (Sheryl Sandberg, Bill Gates, Chris Bosh, former President Obama and Stephen Hawking) all agree
that coding is the language of the 21st century, and so much more at the same time. Coding definitely teaches one to think, and to think outside of the box – tapping into your creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills – all the while teaching you to collaborate beyond physical and geographical boundaries.

For a coder, there is no such thing as a problem without a solution, and a challenge is just another opportunity to create something new and culturally relevant. Not to mention that coding is the most transversal subject in education: it can be leveraged to solve a variety of problems from virtually any other subject.


What is the current situation in terms of school education and coding?

In 2017 and despite great gains in secondary education participation over the past decade, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, young Africans are either excluded from or propelled into the workforce rather than being prepared for it. The outcome in both cases is a waste of talent and potential, with youth being prevented from contributing to Africa’s development.

With 103 million youth, Africa is the youngest population in the world and has the opportunity to be the fastest growing digital consumer market on the planet, provided young people are empowered through ICT. Well aware of the stakes at hand, governments are more and more committed to helping youth become technology savvy and strive to make coding a daily reality in the classroom.

But in a world that is more and more interconnected, there are some things governments can’t do in isolation anymore: corporations, non-profits and social/tech entrepreneurs have the opportunity to step up and help fill this gap in ways that governments cannot. Renewed, cross-border collaboration is the name of the new socio-economic game, and this is exactly what initiatives like Africa Code Week are bringing to the table: a shared-value platform where governments, nonprofits and private sector partners can join forces to bring coherence and scale to digital literacy programs and drive change in an unprecedented way.

Take Morocco, Cameroon and Ghana for instance, where 165,000, 62,000 and 51,000 kids respectively learnt coding as part of Africa Code Week last year. These numbers are living proof that when governments endorse such initiatives, the sky is the limit when it comes to youth empowerment through ICT on a nationwide scale. The fact that we now have UNESCO (through their YouthMobile initiative) and 15 governments on board, only 3 years after the initiative was launched, speaks volume on the importance and impact of private-public partnership in this digital day and age.

Through Africa Code Week over 10,000 teachers have been trained, with each teacher training  76 youth on average.

What are the challenges in terms of poor facilities for most of our kids – and how can learning to code perhaps change the future of our majority of potentially unemployed kids?

This is a core pillar of Africa Code Week’s mission: to make coding education accessible to all children, from connected cities all the way to remote, rural areas. It is also the vision of H.E President Gurib-Fakim in Mauritius or Ondo State Governor in Nigeria, to name a few. Beyond endorsing Africa Code Week, they commit to spreading coding education across every town, village and community, ensuring that no child is left behind. How? By encouraging teachers to take part in the Train-the-Trainer sessions organized in the run-up to October events in every participating country.

The sustainability of initiatives life Africa Code Week relies on the meaningful collaboration of like-minded partners eager to support Africa Code Week at the grassroots level. Google is one of them, and they want all students to have the opportunity to learn and get excited about computer science (CS). To spread the excitement about Africa Code Week in 2015, 2016, and 2017, Google has funded the Cape Town Science Centre to offer small grants ($1,000 USD) to organizations and grassroots groups who want to give more kids aged 5 to 18, especially those who may not have access to many CS learning opportunities, a chance to engage with computer science.

While access to computer labs is an indisputable challenge, the only way to overcome it is through existing and new partnerships over the years to come. This is why we always welcome new business partners eager to sponsor or support the initiative in the communities that most need it.

Last but not least: while access and connectivity is key for nations to empower youth, we shall also remember that the first generation of coders honed their skills without a single Internet connection – simply because there was no such thing as the Internet back in the days. Today, there are many ways to learn coding both offline and online, starting with Scratch and the Africa Code Week courses starting September 26 on


Is code age-neutral? Could a 55-year-old nearing the end of their career dip into coding and discover a new career… or is it only really relevant to millennials or the young?

If coding is a language, then it is as age neutral as learning English. Not to mention that the world doesn’t have enough people who can code, or as Richard Branson once said: “I learned how to fly a hot air balloon when I was 30,000 feet up and my life was in the balance: you can learn skills at any age but why wait when we can teach everyone to code now?”

More good news is that learning code is fun and exciting for all ages: just look at the smiles on teachers’ face as they navigate their way through Scratch during Africa Code Week’s Train-the-Trainer sessions and you will get a sense of how fun coding can be for adults. Empower a teacher, empower a classroom, they say: similarly, if teachers are falling in love with the learning materials they are experiencing first hand, chances are their pupils will too.

SAP skilled volunteers have trained over 10,000 teachers on Scratch across 30 countries so far, and with an average ratio of 76 students introduced to coding in 2016, Africa Code Week is offering an “opportunity to marvel at what the future holds for young Africans.” These are the words of SAP CEO Bill McDermott, for whom “leading companies have a moral obligation to initiate people into the modern economy, regardless of where they come from.”

Computer programming is one of the most underrated professions although its projected growth rate of 17% between 2010 and 2020 is twice as fast as any other job.

What are the different options out there for people to learn code? Should they look at just learning some basics that can either add to their life or help a bit in their career or business through coding… or could they get value by having an eye on becoming an expert?

Oddly enough, computer programming still is one of the most underrated professions although its projected growth rate of 17% between 2010 and 2020 is twice as fast as any other job out there. Why is that so? Because the answer to society’s most pressing, increasingly complex challenges are in the code.

Whether you’re looking to start a career in the industry, a new hobby or just to understand technology, learning coding has numerous benefits in store for you. Beyond coding as the new language of the 21st century, you will learn to ‘think like a coder’. This is exactly what we are imparting with Africa Code Week: a culture of innovation and creativity that is key to unlock a new world of opportunities, new jobs, new careers, new markets and new connections for present and future generations.

Although there are many tools and MOOCs available out there to learn coding, Scratch is a wonderful, free resource for people of all ages to get started. But don’t let its building-block, playful approach fool you into thinking it is only for beginners: Scratch is a powerful leverage for anyone eager to take their coding skills to the next level, from building games all the way to mastering robotics and flying drones.


How does SAP offer and what are your competitive advantages in terms of teaching coding?

Africa Code Week’s strength lies in its growing network of over 100 engaged partners: bold visionaries, committed doers, passionate teachers – all utterly convinced that the young generation is holding unprecedented keys, not just to their future, but also to the world’s future. This is what enables the initiative to reach higher goals year over year.

Together, we are now gearing up to empower half a million young Africans with coding skills from October 18 to 25 across 35 countries. This is twice the scope and 25 times more beneficiaries than our initial goal of 20,000 across 17 countries back in 2015. SAP Africa Code Week provides many ways to get involved, from becoming a Coding Instructor and hosting coding workshops for young people all the way sponsoring the initiative as a partner.

Women can also start mentoring girls in their community by joining the initiative launched by our strategic partner BMZ (Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development). Joined by UNESCO and Africa Code Week and endorsed by G20 Leaders in a statement annexed to their Leaders’ Declaration at the Hamburg Summit in July 2017, #eskills4girls is on a mission to increase the access of women and girls in the digital world and to boost relevant education and employment opportunities on a global scale.

Women can also start mentoring girls in their community by joining the initiative.

What interesting anecdotes can you share about people who have learned to code?

Although I am not a coder myself, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by them all my life and throughout my career at SAP. These software developers and tech leaders are literally changing the world with the sheer beauty of their code. They are the very software architects and brilliant minds who literally wrote the story of ERP technology, analytics and business intelligence as we know it today.

I love the way they think, and our conversations often turn into a spirit-lifting exchange that renews the very way I see the world. And when asked why they became who they are, they all point to a specific point in time. It could be the day they dismantled their first hard drive with a mere screw driver, or the first time they played Space Invaders on an Atari computer. Most of them say it happened in a split second.

There was a before and an after, and eventually they became a tech evangelist or software engineer. I believe this is at the heart of Africa Code Week: we want to secure the chance for that spark to happen…and nurture it afterwards so that the beauty of young Africans’ code ends up impacting individuals, families, communities and society at large.

The single most important predictor of student success is the family’s attitude that learning is a positive, joyful and valuable experience.

What can leaders (and parents) do in terms of guiding and helping their people (and kids) to learn coding?

AS our High Patron H.E. President Gurib-Fakim reminded us on June 18 at the launch of Africa Code Week 2017 in Mauritius: “family is the first innovation lab.” As a matter of fact, research shows that when communities, parents and schools work together to support learning, students perform better academically and stay in school longer. The single most important predictor of student success is the family’s attitude that learning is a positive, joyful and valuable experience. More and more parents are attending our Train-the-Trainer sessions because they too want to be an active vector of change for the young generation: teaching code to their kids and encouraging them every step of the way is now a top priority for them.


Why should a high-profile business leader learn to code?

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers speed and disrupts every facet of work and business, leaders from the public and private sectors need new thinking to ensure they equip themselves, as well as their workforce, with the digital skills needed to survive and thrive.

Advances in computing are accelerating the pace of innovation and enabling companies to develop, test, launch and adapt new products and services in record time. However, without the requisite talent, companies and governments will have an impaired ability to keep up with the pace of change, and will soon find themselves outperformed by more agile competitors.

  • Claire Gillissen-Duval is the Director, EMEA Corporate Social Responsibility at SAP and the Co-Founder and Global Lead of Africa Code Week.