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An investor, an operator, and their plan to upskill Africa’s workforce

An investor, an operator, and their plan to upskill Africa’s workforce

One out of three tech jobs globally are filled by necessary skilled labor, and according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), this is one of the biggest concerns of global business leaders.

Over 50% of the organizations that these leaders manage, in a survey, say they have lost competitive advantage due to talent shortages. The bad news is that the situation might not improve for these companies in the coming years, as the WEF projects that 77% of the 150 million new jobs created by 2030 will require digital skills and young people might not be prepared to fill them.

In Africa, hundreds of millions of youths are expected to join the continent’s workforce in the next decade. Over 200 million jobs will require digital skills in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Finance Corporation. But the challenge with Africa’s talent shortage, unlike the rest of the world, is that while the barriers to gaining these digital skills, such as the digital divide and unequal access to quality education, are conspicuous, what’s gone on the radar for so long is upskilling those with digital skills.

Upskilling employees (from soft skills such as communication, decision making and problem-solving to hard skills showing technical knowledge and foundational skills like teamwork) is a headache that most executives, managers and HR operators across small- to large- African enterprises have had to deal with for several years. And it’s a first-hand frustration that Seni Sulyman and Kayode Oyewole, both investors and operators, have seen founders complain about during extensive conversations.

Online courses and mentorship with a local context

A few years back, Sulyman was the vice president of Global Operations at Andela, where he helped scale the company across Africa and had teams in the U.S. With a decade of experience working at Andela, some Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. and angel investing (including as a venture partner at Ventures Platform) Sulyman clearly understands the role that deliberate growth and development played in improving tech talent. 

Same with Oyewole. As a partner at Ventures Platform, a $46 million fund where he helped back many of Africa’s most prominent venture-funded startups — and as an operator before Ventures Platform, Oyewole is familiar with the difficulty founders and senior leaders face when trying to scale their team’s capabilities to meet evolving needs.

We had independently been working on overlapping ideas in this space when Kola Aina (founding partner, Ventures Platform) introduced us to each other to have a conversation,” Oyewole said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We talked to each other extensively for weeks and quickly realized that we share the deeply held belief that investing in upskilling talent to scale companies regionally or globally, with an end goal of creating more jobs and economic output, is Africa’s most important opportunity over the next three decades.”

The operators-cum-investors-cum-founders left their roles to build Talstack, an all-in-one platform that enables businesses to upskill their employees with competency- and gap-assessment tools, content, courses and insights from Africa’s well-known professionals and entrepreneurs. 

Typically, most African businesses resort to training agencies when upskilling their employees. However, this limits their access to tailored and specific training programs from top experts, primarily seen in foreign upskilling products, including Udemy, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Go1, or verticalized offerings like Masterclass.

For Oyewole and Sulyman, both options are short-term fixes for Africa’s labor market because they are expensive, lack contextual relevance, and are difficult to connect to specific growth or development outcomes in Africa. 

The reasons are spot on. Even in this age of globalization, where the pandemic increased the appetite for online learning, an African employee working in a B2B e-commerce market cannot learn about the dynamics of that industry from, say, Udemy. In essence, though platforms based in the U.S. have tried to make generalized content and explainers on various skill sets, they miss many nuances concerning operating within different markets. That’s why startups like Platzi and UpGrad have capitalized on this, creating more curated growth and development products for emerging markets such as Latin America and India, respectively. Talstack, an abstraction from talent stack, aims to replicate the B2B elements of these platforms in Africa; it might explore a B2C offering similar to other local upskill platforms, including GOMYCODE and AltSchool, in the future.

“Our customers and those in the pipeline are telling us that the current learning options they have are not engaging enough for their employees, that the content and insights are not contextually relevant to their people, and that their feedback is not prioritized given Africa is not a priority for global upskilling companies,” said CEO Sulyman, who ran Black Ops, an Andela for operators over the last three years. “We are building Talstack with insights from the markets where our customers and their employees operate; we are in our customers’ offices, their WhatsApp messages, and their Twitter threads, learning about what drives the most value, iterating and building, quite literally, with them.”

Talstack is currently running a closed pilot with eight paying customers (businesses), with at least three employees in each company taking the platform’s “self-paced courses and engaging in the learner community.” Currently, employees in its pilot have access to five courses on soft skills, including “Communicating Effectively in the Workplace,” “Giving and Receiving Feedback,” “Time Management,” “Goal Setting,” and “Problem-Solving.” 

Sulyman said the startup launched with soft skills because it was a pressing need for the companies in its closed pilot and through their research, “soft skills are the bigger problem for companies today.” He also stated that because these skills are necessary regardless of a company’s department and cut across roles, it was faster to deploy and test some hypotheses. The three-month-old upstart will shortly onboard more professionals as it develops a more robust course catalog to address Africa’s most sought-after cross-functional and domain skills and competencies. The upstart also plans to open access to a broader set of employers in the second half of this year.

Backing from local investors to drive experimentation

Talstack courses are taught by African professionals and operators with operating experience in Africa, working for prominent startups and multinationals such as Andela, MAX, Paystack and Google. Each course has several modules in video format (five minutes or less). While Talstack pays these instructors a flat fee per course, it might explore sharing its revenue (which it gets from currently charging businesses a monthly subscription of N10,000 (~$13.33) per employee) as it engages a broader set of instructors upon launch. 

Many of our current instructors are experienced professionals who already have an appetite for sharing their knowledge and are being viewed as thought leaders. However, there is no scalable way for them to create and deliver courses to a large, engaged audience, which Talstack provides,” said Sulyman, adding that other companies and traditional training agencies can monetize their content on platforms like these professionals. 

On the other hand, employees can access tools and a journey map for self-assessment, an active community of other learners and opportunities to interact with these African operators through live Q&As. 

L-R: Kayode Oyewole and Seni Sulyman (Talstack co-founders)

The size of Africa’s workforce today is close to 400 million people and leaders of the continent’s most prominent companies have the same fears as their global counterparts. In PwC’s annual CEO survey, 87% of African business leaders expressed concern about the impact of talent gaps on their company’s productivity and ability to deliver on business outcomes, and 47% of them would like to prioritize training and upskilling to bridge skill gaps. 

Therefore, though Talstack is starting with small startups with tens to hundreds of employees, helping legacy companies such as banks, telcos and large consumer-facing companies deliver outcomes for thousands of their employees is critical to seeing exponential growth and adoption. For now, though, Talstack, buoyed by founders-market fit and an $850,000 pre-seed, will first experiment, then wait and see if Africa, which has the youngest population globally, wants what it’s selling.

“We’ll continue running our ongoing closed pilot, fill a few important roles, launch more courses and tools, iterate on tech/product and open up the platform to more companies. Our pre-seed round aims to prove our thesis with customers ahead of our seed,” Oyewole noted. The only way we build hundreds and thousands of regionally and globally competitive companies on the continent is for us to have a highly competent workforce across all levels and that’s the need Talstack addresses.”

Pan-African early-stage investor Ventures Platform led the pre-seed round while Voltron Capital and Golden Palm Investments participated. TLcom Capital, an Africa-focused growth fund, also backed the startup, its first pre-seed investment from the firm’s second fund (TIDE Africa Fund II), according to partner Eloho Omame. 

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