Most twenty-somethings in Nairobi are underemployed–and most also can’t afford to pay for college to get better jobs. On a trip to the Kenyan capital to give a talk about the future of education, edtech pioneer Jeremy Johnson was asked a difficult question: How is it possible to scale high-quality education if people can’t pay for tuition?
At the time, Johnson was running a startup called 2U, a platform that partners with universities to offer online degrees. But after leaving the conference, he couldn’t stop thinking about the challenge of providing education in Africa and had a spark of inspiration that eventually led him to quit his job to start something new. “What if instead of charging tuition, like a traditional educational system, you were to instead pay people to learn?” he asked.
Andela, the new company Johnson cofounded, links education to a skills gap–software development–and uses the students’ own work to fund their learning. “There are certain skills, in particular in the digital economy, that are inherently incredibly valuable right now,” he says. “The skills gap is massive. There are four jobs for every software developer in the U.S. right now, and 14,000 open IT jobs.”
The new program takes advantage of that demand to fund learning. Students spend six months in an online coding bootcamp, and then start using their new skills to work for clients overseas. U.S. companies pay Andela about half of what they might pay a typical developer, but that’s enough for the program to give students a middle-class wage as they learn, and to fund new students as they get up to speed. Over the four-year program, students shift back and forth between real-world experience and more education. Andela invests around $10,000 in each student.
“One of the key insights here was realizing that the best engineering schools in the world, the ones that companies want to hire from, require people to have industry experience–so you go back and forth from internship to academia,” Johnson says. “What we’ve done is replicate that model to create a modern guild, essentially, for software developers. In some ways, it’s a very new thing–we’re creating a system of education that funds itself through the work our students are doing. But in some ways it actually looks like an apprentice model from the guilds in the Middle Ages.”
After exploring the model last summer, the company publicly launched last fall. When Andela put out a call for students, it quickly had so many applications that its acceptance rate was lower than Harvard’s. “Within half a year we became the most selective technology training program on the continent of Africa,” Johnson says. The top applicants on an online aptitude test were invited for an interview, and in the end, only 60 applicants out of around 12,000 made it through for the first cohort.
The company launched in Lagos, Nigeria–a megacity with 90% youth underemployment–and now plans to expand to Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa. Within a decade, the company hopes to train 100,000 new developers.
It’s a model of education that could conceivably spread elsewhere, including back to places like the United States. But would it work for anyone not interested in becoming a contract software programmer, as a means to a more traditional education or even a vocational one in another field? That’s far more questionable.