Interview with Diana van der Stelt and Stephen Ofori from Maxim Nyansa and Trinity Software Center
'It is our moral duty to set a good example to others'
Training talented young people, ensuring they get recognized certification and helping them with their professional development in countries where poverty is high and opportunities are scarce. All sounds good in theory, yet in practice, something is still missing. This opinion was shared by a top Dutch official who in 2015—after holding positions such as CFO and CIO throughout a career spanning 25 years—decided to swap bureaucracy for social entrepreneurship: corporate social responsibility, with the surprising twist that fair trade yields profit for all concerned.
An interview with Diana van der Stelt and Stephen Ofori about how their paths crossed and how Stephen has now become a fully certified IT professional thanks to Maxim Nyansa, the NGO that Diana van der Stelt founded together with Stanley Kwakye Dankyira.
It is a well-known problem that there may be more non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, active in Africa than is actually good for the continent. Of course, they all have good intentions. But the fragmentation also raises questions about the effectiveness of all the aid provided and the endless preservation of the role of victim with which disadvantaged young Africans struggle every day. This can and must change. At least, that's what Diana van der Stelt believed in 2015. After the umpteenth reorganization of the Dutch Government, Diana decided it was time make a change.
"Young people who do not come from wealthy backgrounds often get no further than tinkering with computers and dabbling in software"
(Diana van der Stelt, co-founder of Maxim Nyansa and sales representative at Trinity Software Center)
On 13 August 2015, just one day after she waved her final goodbyes to the Dutch Government and the Service for Land and Water Management, Diana was on a plane. Her destination: Accra, Ghana. Her aim? To start a training programme through the newly founded Maxim Nyansa offering unique opportunities to young ICT professionals. "For example, the opportunity to work as a fully certified IT professional," says Diana. "There is a lot of talent in Ghana, young people who do well at university but do not get the chance as IT experts to meet all the requirements that we set in the West. The result is that talented young people who don't come from wealthy backgrounds often get no further than 'tinkering' with computers and 'dabbling' in software, which is a real shame. Especially when you consider that there is plenty of demand for properly certified IT staff, especially in Europe. Due to this scarcity, we pay the top price for IT solutions in rich countries, even though we could hire professionals in Africa for a project who are just as well qualified and certified. But obviously, these people need to be trained and certified first. That is where the real opportunities lie."
Stephen Ofori is one such certified IT professional who can now do more than just 'dabble' in IT. He met Diana for the first time during the intake process for the Maxim Nyansa training programme. "A friend passed on some information to me about the training programme. I was interested straight away and I signed up. I really wanted to be admitted to the first intake in 2016", says Stephen with a broad smile. "I succeeded, but I wasn't used to presenting myself. During my four-year study at Kwame Nkruma University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi (Ghana), I never dared to ask more than five questions. And now all of a sudden I had to explain my motivation. And during the programme, I had to continually present what I was working on. That was quite a challenge."
"We shouldn't linger on the problems of the past. We need to work on solutions for the future with a different mindset."
(Stephen Ofori, General Manager at Trinity Software Center)
Diana quickly broke through Stephen's shyness. "Stephen is a textbook example of the sort of talent that fits perfectly with an important principle of Maxim Nyansa: capacity building. Many young people are inspired to follow in Stephen's footsteps and get more out of their skills. If talented people like Stephen make themselves stand out by performing well and getting recognized internationally, others will follow and we will break the cycle."
Poverty, corruption and a lack of knowledge
Stephen, who is a fair bit less shy nowadays, adds to Diana's point: "Countries in Africa have problems — Big problems, like poverty, corruption and a chronic lack of knowledge, which originated a long time ago and we still have to face every day. Structurally, we are lagging behind in Ghana. But that is no reason to sit back or complain, nor to give up. On the contrary, as I see it, we now have to deal with the problems of the past. Ghana has plenty of natural resources and we are very capable of achieving a lot with little means. Only we shouldn't linger on the past. We need to work on solutions for the future with a different mindset."
Thinking with a different mindset may sound simple, but it is actually far from it. Diana now knows from experience there is no quick and easy fix in Africa. "It is the most normal thing in the world in Ghana to think in the short term. Also, people who contribute to a project want to take the credit themselves. This is very deeply entrenched and, from my background, it is difficult to deal with that. Working in a team with deadlines and room for input from the customer and other stakeholders should be the norm."
After successfully obtaining his certificates, Stephen launched a spin-off of Maxim Nyansa: the fair-trade software company: Trinity Software Center, a fully commercial software company without subsidies and with Diana in the role of sales representative.
"The company's aim is to help people to work," says Diana proudly. "The more projects we secure with Trinity, the more jobs are created. Our first customer, Eurobizz Academy, hired us to develop planning software. We are now on the third release of the software and have built up a lot of trust with all our customers. We now have five full-time employees and a flexible layer made up of 25 freelancers. The contracts range from 5000 to 50,000 euro, and we have now been operational for two years. We now also have the confidence to take on larger projects. Why? So far we have delivered on all the requirements within the agreed time."
Nervous about critical questions
Stephen listens attentively to his colleague Diana's praise and confesses that he was a bit nervous prior to the interview at the EXIN office in Utrecht. "People communicate very directly in the Netherlands, which I have got used to now. But how do you answer critical questions in a good way?" Questions such as: 'It's all well and good that Maxim Nyansa trains young talents and gives them the opportunity to become fully certified and start a company, but how do you hold on to well qualified, certified employees? Don't they end up going off to try their luck elsewhere?' Stephen nods but actually means the opposite. "Of course, you have to take the competition into account and think ahead. However, my view is that my peers from my training period at
Maxim Nyansa feel particularly connected to the people who gave them a unique opportunity. We are part of a big family and see it as our task—no, our moral duty—to set a good example to others. It makes no sense to tie people down for a long time and hold them hostage with complex contracts. People need to want to work with you of their own free will to achieve the best results. That is what we stand for: one big family. And it works. I am now in the Netherlands and have complete trust that our CTO (recruited from the Maxim Nyansa class of 2017) represents the interests of our company in the best possible way. That is something money can't buy."
Everything under control?
With the support of EXIN, Maxim Nyansa has now helped 45 young IT professionals to successfully complete the training programme. They are now Prince2 and/or Agile Scrum certified in accordance with international standards. According to Diana, the future looks bright for the NGO. "It is our aim for Maxim Nyanza to be able to stand entirely on its own two feet within the near future. We already earn money selling exams and thanks to the support of EXIN and trainers who are fully cooperative, we are on the verge of a bright future. Do I dare to dream? Absolutely. In fifteen years, Trinity has employed hundreds of people worldwide, and from my hammock on a Ghanaian beach, I can be safe in the knowledge that everything is under control from head office."
Outsourcing your IT to Africa: where do you start?
Your first thought? That's right — inexperienced programmers throwing together software with minimal resources for next to nothing, and just waiting and seeing whether they deliver the required level of quality within the deadline. Project management is as good as non-existent. Surely, you'd much rather keep your IT close to home?
But what if a company from Ghana were to deliver solid products and services fully in line with the agile principles, meeting the requirements of the customer and all stakeholders? And what if this meant that you no longer had to deal with problems with scarcity in your own labor market, and you could create new jobs in poor countries as part of your capacity building, all at highly competitive rates? With fully certified IT professionals in Africa, you can combine the best of corporate social responsibility with maximum benefits for both the client and the contractor. Fairtrade and win-win.
About Maxim Nyansa
Maxim Nyansa translates to "maximum wisdom" and its logo is a symbol meaning "climbing the right tree". This means "He who works for a good cause may expect the help of others".
Maxim Nyansa's mission is to give Africans who are less fortunate a chance to be educated and to develop. There are many talented Africans, but they can be helped with a little push to climb to the next branch of the tree of their personal development.
To find out more about Maxim Nyansa click here.