Digital Explorers: Connecting talent

The people involved in Lithuania’s pilot project Digital Explorers have made it their mission to connect the Lithuanian and Nigerian ICT markets by providing young Nigerian ICT talents with an opportunity to advance their careers in Lithuania. SOCIETY spoke to Eugenija Kovaliova, AfriKo co-founder and Digital Explorers programme manager, about the innovative initiative. 

Can you tell us something about the initiative? How did it take shape and what are its main goals? How did the cooperation with Nigeria come about?

Digital Explorers is an initiative that, broadly speaking, seeks to connect two vibrant and up-and-coming ICT markets – Nigeria and Lithuania. Both countries, despite massive differences, have had successful growth of their ICT ecosystems in the last years. For us – the founders of the programme – this seemed like an opportunity for a fruitful and long-term cooperation.

The choice of Nigeria as a partner country for the project was neither accidental nor really planned—it all started with a small development cooperation grant from the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which focused on countries of West Africa. As project initiators, AfriKo was looking at potential partner countries, taking in consideration that it should be an English-speaking country and have a vibrant ICT scene since we knew early on that we wanted to focus on this particular sector. When it came down to choosing between Ghana and Nigeria, the latter secured our choice, especially after Mark Zuckerberg’s visit had put Nigeria’s startup scene in a global spotlight, which, we thought, would help us build trust and credibility regarding what Nigeria has to offer for Lithuanian companies and the government.

Before our first scouting-for-partner journey to Nigeria, we already knew we wanted to implement some sort of experience or skills exchange programme, as we believe that this is an area where the mature Lithuanian IT sector can offer the most.

Right now, the main goal of the programme is to provide opportunities for young talented Nigerians to advance their careers by having advanced digital skills training and hands-on work experience – either through traineeship or employment in Lithuanian IT companies. The reason behind the focus on elaborate digital skills is that there is an abundance of training on basic digital skills in Nigeria and there is also an incredibly huge amount of free online resources for anyone wanting to learn to code. But after taking this first step to build a professional career in IT, many young Nigerians struggle to find meaningful practical experience that could propel their career further, and that’s where Digital Explorers steps in.

There are other goals within the project as well, all in line with the idea of connecting the two ICT markets, for example, sharing Lithuanian experience and best practices in becoming Europe’s Fintech hub with its Nigerian counterparts.

How are the young Nigerian talents being approached and what are the next steps then?

At its core, the programme facilitated the recruitment and training of 30 young Nigerian ICT specialists, out of whom 26 were placed in Lithuanian tech companies through two mobility models: 1-year employment and 6-months paid traineeship. Candidates were selected through a tailor-made recruitment programme, designed together with ICT professionals from both Lithuania and Nigeria, and based on the analysis of market needs in both countries.

To approach potential candidates, the programme relied on its Nigerian partners and its wide tech network Venture Platform Foundation, a well-established tech hub in Nigeria’s capital Abuja. Having a local partner was important in order to build trust in the new programme in an environment where mistrust in “too-good-to-be-true” opportunities is high. We also had to work to build an awareness about Lithuania, a country that most of the potential candidates had not heard about before.

The candidates, who carefully filled in the application form and submitted a video pitch, would go on to perform online coding tests, followed by short interviews with the Digital Explorers team. Successful candidates would be either invited to a week-long on-site hackathon (pre-pandemic) or online specialized workshops. One of the keys to successful matching between Lithuanian companies and Nigerian candidates was the inclusion of company representatives (technical leads or human resources personnel) in selection activities (hackathon, online trainings), that allowed to build mutual trust and make informed decisions before hiring.

Outside of this project – what could be done in order to facilitate the access to the European job market for qualified young specialists from Africa?

 Current mobility tools, like the Blue card initiative, are targeting highly skilled workers from non-EU countries – that is someone who already has considerable experience and a matching high salary. In Lithuania, for example, the specialists that mostly use this scheme are C-level professionals or senior specialists, who are sought after throughout Europe and therefore can often choose among offers from several countries. The numbers of talents who used the scheme to relocate to Europe are rather low.

When it comes to younger and less experienced specialists, they have to jump through many more legal migration hoops to be employed by a European company. From our experience in Lithuania, smaller companies are deterred from hiring third country nationals by complicated and lengthy legal procedures of relocation. Also, often these companies have not hired from abroad before and are skeptical about having employees from, what they perceive, a completely different cultural setting. Programmes similar to Digital Explorers could come in handy to give these small and medium size businesses the necessary push and support to consider diversifying its hiring practices. Several of the companies that participated in our programme now continue hiring from outside the EU, while others have taken it one step further: After getting a better look of what Nigeria can offer, some have opened their own branches there, to hire locally.

To facilitate access to the EU for specialists from Africa, it is important that they are able to go through migration processes in the country of their residence. This becomes problematic for a small country like Lithuania, with limited diplomatic representation in Africa. For the Digital Explorers project to succeed Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established two visa centers in Nigeria and without them, the project participants’ journey to Lithuania would not have been as quick and smooth, or, perhaps, even possible. There should be more innovative ways of collaboration between EU member countries that address the challenges of smaller states and facilitate bringing talents from African countries, or, for that matter, from elsewhere around the world.

Why does the EU even have a shortage of young talents?

 In the case of Lithuania (and the trend can be true for several other countries in Eastern Europe), until recently, the country faced a large wave of emigration after gaining its independence. And while the balance of emigration vs. immigration (mostly due to returnees) has been more positive in recent years, several of the sectors, including ICT, are struggling to find enough workers, and current projections are unambiguous— unless there is increased immigration, the demand for skilled workers will not be satisfied.

As for talent demand in Europe, ageing tendencies explain why there is a shortage of working-age population, alongside low migration rates and small family sizes; scientists predict that by 2050 Europe will lack 44 million workers.

What are the results/outcomes of the initiative so far? Are there other countries interested in joining the project?

We are proud of what has been achieved with the pilot programme despite the scepticism that this “unexpected connection” evoked initially, when we started in 2019, and later – despite the pandemic. 26 young men and women have relocated from Nigeria to Lithuania through two mobility models: one-year employment and six-months paid traineeship. They joined 13 companies working in ICT, engineering, fintech, and data science markets. After the programme, 18 participants were retained by Lithuanian ICT companies, while others continue their careers in Nigeria, making it a win-win initiative.

These are very tangible and measurable results. Besides that, there is invaluable know-how generated throughout the three years of running Digital Explorers. As a project team, we have set the goal to continuously reflect on our experiences, analyzing what worked best, and now we eagerly share this knowledge with others, be it our government institutions on ways to improve talent attraction practices (including legal regulation), or consulting international organizations on how to best involve the private sector in similar projects.

We are currently carefully exploring ways to build upon all the groundwork that has been done and expand Digital Explorers from Lithuanian to the Baltic States as well as broaden partnership beyond Nigeria in Africa.

(c) Digital Explorers