Building cyber skills from the inside out

While there is a lot of value in recruiting via an outside-in approach, an inside-out approach to accessing critical cyber skills has become an attractive strategy for brands struggling to find the right talent.

Enter the promised land

Forget the image of destitute, barely literate refugees sneaking past man-eating police dogs to enter Africa`s land of milk and honey. The typical technology immigrant to SA is fully legal, highly qualified and apparently more likely to create jobs than compete for them.Hearing her cut-glass British accent, it`s easy to picture Nigerian Moky Makura shaking hands with Maggie Thatcher on graduation day at Buckingham University. Or to visualise Harvard MBA graduate Cyrille Nkontchou, son of Cameroonian diplomats, clinching a $2.5 million deal with American financiers.Come to think of it, Sinisa Tucakovic, originally from Yugoslavia, is one of a minority of foreign-born technology workers who actually do seem to fit – well, sort of – the stereotypical immigrant profile.The country`s skills haemorrhage since the early 1980s is common knowledge, but accurate statistics on the real losses are hard to come by.It would seem, judging by Statistics SA numbers, that SA continues to lose more people than it gains, though the gap slowed from a net loss of 7 400 in 2001 to 4 300 last year.Still, it may be too soon for rejoicing – particularly for SA`s skills-intensive technology sector. Skilled people are more mobile, and losses continue to be heaviest in these sectors. In 2002, for instance, SA lost 379 engineers and gained a mere 27.But official statistics also reveal a shift in the countries of origin of immigrants to SA. African countries have steadily overtaken Europe as the main source of foreign skills, with Nigerians taking the lead, followed by Zimbabweans and then Ghanaians.Europeans remain the second biggest category of immigrants, followed by Asia.Least likely to settle in SA, it seems, are North Americans, accounting for only 180 of the estimated 6 500 legal immigrants, followed by those from the Middle East (103), Australia and New Zealand (65), and Central and South America (60). Meet the newcomersFor most immigrants from other African countries, like Nigeria`s Moky Makura, the demise of apartheid was the trigger for heading “down south”.Born in oil-rich Nigeria, Makura had left her homeland at the age of nine, spending the next 16 years in Britain, where she attended exclusive boarding schools and university. “For me, the UK was always going to be a pit stop; I was always going to go home.”The problem was that, in the end, she`d been away for too long. Back home for a week to test the waters of its working world, Makura realised that “Nigeria wasn`t ready for me yet. While I like a challenge, I also like an easy life. I don`t go camping, put it that way,” she says, tactfully referring to the scarcity in Nigerian offices of basics like flushing loos and working telephone lines.Back in London, Makura read a magazine article on black women like Felicia Mabuza-Suttle who were doing “wonderful things” in SA. “I thought, ‘I can do that!`”She settled in SA in 1996, first joining British-owned technology PR company Text 100 and then starting her own marketing business, Red, targeting a new market: the whole of Africa. “My vision was to build up the first pan-African PR network and, at the time when I launched, nobody else was doing that,” says Makura. Three years ago, when there were more African customers than she and three staff could comfortably handle, she sold Red to FCB, becoming joint MD of its Redline marketing agency.On the other hand, being a Nigerian in SA can have a flipside. “We have a bad press here,” says Makura of her Nigerian roots, but adds firmly: “I`m very proud to be Nigerian.”For the foreseeable future, though, SA is home. “When you start complaining about where you live, you know you`re home,” says Makura, now a permanent South African resident, married to a Zimbabwean.“People still ask me how I could leave London for here. Fact is, it`s highly unlikely that I would have set up my own company in the UK. It`s a lot harder there. The people here are much more open, more vibrant, more entrepreneurial. Maybe it`s the weather!”French-speaking Cyrille Nkontchou also left Africa as a child, moving from Cameroon to Paris, France, at the age of 11 with diplomat parents and six brothers and sisters. Things work hereHaving been out of Africa for over 20 years, he deliberately chose SA for his return for compelling business reasons. “This is the only place in Africa where I can run this business,” says Nkontchou, the 36-year-old CEO of LiquidAfrica, the Johannesburg-based company he started in 2000 to bring online trading to Africa`s 18 stock exchanges.“The infrastructure is here; things work,” he says, pointing out that in Nigeria, for example, businesses need their own power source to operate. “Here, there is also good office space and skilled people, and it`s cheaper. Had I been based in London, I would have had to compete with the big banks for talent.”Like Makura, Nkontchou says SA has allowed his entrepreneurial side to surface, after an earlier career that was stolidly corporate.On graduating from the Institute of Political Studies of Paris, he joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) for five years, then headed for Harvard University in Boston. Two years later, an MBA under his belt, he joined Merrill Lynch in London, heading up the investment house`s equity research effort for sub-Saharan Africa, excluding SA.With “Africa thumping deep in my heart”, Nkontchou visited Cape Town in 1999 to attend a global Harvard alumni conference, and was instantly sold on the country. Although originally intending to get a transfer through Merrill Lynch, Nkontchou instead leapt at the opportunity to set up his own company, LiquidAfrica, with $2.5 million in funding from American backers, Modern Africa Fund Managers.“We should be profitable by June this year,” says Nkontchou, adding that LiquidAfrica recently made its first acquisition, Fin-X, a company offering access to Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications). Swift services more than 7 500 financial institutions in 200 countries, daily processing payments estimated at $5 trillion.Business is good for LiquidAfrica – and that`s good for SA, too, says Nkontchou. His company now has 15 employees, 10 of them South Africans. “We have brought new investment into the country and we are creating jobs. I have also made a point of ensuring that our staff is properly balanced, with about two-thirds black and one third white.” The very image of an immigrantTucakovic also fits the humble beginnings profile in another respect: no safety net to fall back on. “It sounds clichéd, unfortunately, but I did come with one or two suitcases and a little bit of money,” admits Tucakovic, who arrived in Johannesburg almost 12 years ago at the age of 27. “I had to find a job fairly fast. It has turned to my advantage, because it forces you to work hard. You work hard or you die of hunger.”On the contrary, he has thrived in his adopted country. After initially helping a Yugoslavian friend to run his IT business, Tucakovic and six or so South African partners set up Project House, a contracting business, which they later sold to Usko, in turn bought by Bytes Technology Group.Apart from acquiring a taste for rooibos tea, Tucakovic, now professional services manager at Bytes Business Solutions, has married an Afrikaner, started studying towards an MBA, and become a fully-fledged South African citizen.“SA needs high-tech skills if we want to compete with countries like India who are positioning themselves as software facilities for the world with a fairly low cost of labour,” he says. “Skilled people will come through the ranks of the education system, but is it fast enough to offset the brain drain and Aids? As much as we are losing skills, we need to attract experienced, educated overseas people.”While SA`s pulling power for Africans is relatively obvious, developed world immigrants like California-born J Eric Wright, or Swiss national Robert Tibbs, are a rarer species, as immigration statistics show.Living in Africa wasn`t originally part of Wright`s long-term plans, although “I had always felt a piece of my heart belonged to Africa,” says Wright, who has a degree in economics from the University of Southern California, an MBA from Wharton and a US investment banking background. The lure of comfortsHe caught the “Africa bug” while living in Ghana, where he started Gold Coast Securities, a merchant bank. “Moving from California to Ghana took quite an adjustment and I realised that, to make Africa part of my long-term plans, I would need a bit more of what I was used to in terms of infrastructure and the comforts of life.”So, scenting change in apartheid SA, Wright decided to move here post-elections, accepting the position as Citibank`s head of private equity in Johannesburg for five years. “But I`m an entrepreneur at heart,” says Wright, who three years ago teamed up with American-born Swiss citizen Tibbs to co-found Africa Venture Partners (AVP) in Johannesburg.Specialising in pan-African telecommunications and technology from Cape Town to Cairo, some of AVP`s current projects include the Nepskom joint venture in Nigeria, where Eskom is stringing fibre optic cable on the power transmission lines of Nigeria`s power producer Nepa. AVP has also teamed up with European telecom operator Telenor to pursue strategic operating opportunities in the telecommunications assets field. It`s also preparing to launch broadband satellite Internet services across Africa, through subsidiary company IP Direct, with trials due to kick off in Ghana and Nigeria in July this year.In SA, AVP has been commissioned to investigate the feasibility of under-serviced area licences earmarked for new telecoms operators in ten rural districts of the country.“What a pleasure to work with a group like AVP,” says Heloise Emdon, a telecoms analyst with the Canadian-funded International Development Research Centre. “They understand the market, their work is to the point and on time. They have been brilliant.”Wright, now in his ninth year in SA, says that, for him, there`s no going back to corporate America – a fact potential foreign investors are likely to find reassuring, given his Wall Street contacts and AVP`s investment track record.But SA shouldn`t be counting too heavily on foreign investors alone to boost growth. “The country needs much higher levels of domestic investment before we will see higher levels of foreign direct investment (FDI),” says Wright. “And while I fully endorse the principle of job creation for South Africans first, the country should encourage the participation of highly skilled non-South Africans, through developments like Silicon Valley in the US, where entrepreneurs and programmers from Asia, specifically India, have been welcomed with open arms. Talent attracts capital.” Africa deserves a breakAs for First World perceptions that Africans are slow on the technological take-up, AVP`s Tibbs has a short retort: “Poppycock.”He says, “I often have to remind people that the first human heart transplant took place not in Europe or America but in Africa. The ability to create and adopt technology across the board is in Africans` hearts; Africa deserves a break.”Tibbs says it`s his “hobby” to prove stereotypes wrong. That`s because he`s broken his share of moulds. “I grew up poor and rural in New Jersey; my mother was a maid and my father was disabled.” After dropping out of school at the age of 15, he joined the military to make a little money. He earned two degrees with high honours by studying at night school, then moved into the corporate world, first in organisational development and later marketing.His next leap was to Switzerland, where he worked on various international technology projects with the likes of Credit Suisse, General Electric and American Express, while also learning to ski, play tennis, appreciate fine wines and speak fluent French – now his home language, his wife being a French-speaking Swiss.Hence Tibbs`s passion for technologies like boundary-busting broadband satellite, which AVP, through IP Direct, of which he is CEO, is about to pilot in Ghana and Nigeria. “I just don`t get this whole boundary thing,” says Tibbs, “cultural, geographical or otherwise.”That may be so, but borders remain a big deal for the South African government, which earlier this year introduced complex new immigration laws and regulations that some say raise the financial entry barriers. “Financially independent” foreigners, for example, have to pay a non-refundable fee of R100 000 and prove a minimum net worth of R20 million.Possibly even more of a barrier, though, is the red tape surrounding immigration. The new laws and regulations contain no fewer than 12 classes of entry permit and run to a staggering 234 pages. Talk about mountains to cross…