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Land of Opposites: State of the Web Industry in South Africa

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This post is part of a series called Web Design Across the World.
Big in Japan: Web Design in the Land of the Rising Sun
Big Picture: The State of Web Design in Africa

For the next few minutes, I’m going to give you a peek into the country I call home; its culture, the web industry, and some of our unique and interesting challenges when it comes to the internet. 

South Africa tends not to get too much attention when it comes to the web industry, nevertheless we have an exploding culture of talented developers, startups, industry and ideas, and I am quite honoured to share it with all of you.

cape town south africa
Cape Town, South Africa by Paula Vermeulen

Before we continue, it should be stated that South Africa has been a hot topic in local and international news lately, for many reasons. I will be making generalisations from time to time for the sake of brevity–any point I make should please be taken with a pinch of neutrality. 

Sit back, grab a cup of coffee and relax. Our journey is about to begin.

South Africa: Land of Opposites

South Africa, to some South Africans and the media, is often referred to as the “Land of Opposites”, or “Land of Contrasts”. It’s a fair statement to make. Due to a rocky past, the country has been left with some very visible contradictions and problems. It’s quite common to see incredible wealth right next to saddening poverty. South Africa struggles with inequality and corruption, like many other countries.

It’s hard to place this nation as a First or Third World country, as we sit somewhere in the middle. We’re one of the few countries to have three capital cities: Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Bloemfontein. Each city is a power house for different parts of government and industry. Cape Town and Johannesburg are by far the most built up and industry-centric areas to live and work in. 

Cape Town has the mountains, the wine farms and the ocean on almost every side, while Johannesburg is a sprawling metropolis, a concrete jungle. We’re also one of the only countries which has over ten official languages. That’s right, ten! Few individuals speak all of them, but the more well known ones include: English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa.

These three are the main languages you are taught in school. Afrikaans is derivative of Dutch, brought here by the settlers in the 1600’s. Xhosa, is a tribal language spoken by many Black Africans in the southern, coastal regions of South Africa. It’s important to understand that for the most part, English and Afrikaans communities are more “westernised” in terms of their cultures, family dynamics, and social behaviour, where as Xhosa communities tend to be more traditional, supportive, and community-based.

So, why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s important to understand the background of South Africa’s population in order to appreciate how information is accessed and assimilated nowadays. Socioeconomics play a very big role, and in fact, more of a role than any experienced web developer may even consider. Take a look at the statistics below regarding demographics here. We’ll come back to these figures later:

Population0-14 years old15-64 years old64+ years old
53 million29%66%5.5%

These numbers give you an idea of how much of the population has been born and raised with the internet.

The next statistical point provides evidence to an overwhelming challenge that we have in South Africa regarding internet access:

Ethnicity(%) of Population(%) Distribution of Wealth
Black African79.243.4
White8.941.5
Coloured8.98.0
Asian / Indian2.56.2

You may be asking yourself; if Black Africans make up almost 80% of the population, and White Africans a mere 9%, how is it that White Africans share almost the same distribution of income and wealth as the majority of the country? I won’t get into the “why’s” as it doesn’t really lend itself to the point of this article, but be aware that this statistical fact plays a massive role in the question of internet access and web-related services in South Africa.

Web Culture in South Africa

Now that you have something of a “big picture” idea of South Africa, let’s get down to the entire point of this article: the web. 

In more built up areas where the urban mindset dominates, so does technology. We are nowhere near as advanced as the U.S. or certain European countries in Europe when it comes to Internet access or major web-based corporations.

South Africa’s information access to the World Wide Web is essentially provided by a few main companies, most well known of all being the telecommunications giant: Telkom

Telkom runs the phone lines, the ADSL lines, and the vast majority of ADSL based internet access. The majority of alternative ISPs backbone off Telkom, or cellphone giants like Vodacom and MTN. Over the last few years, telecommunication companies and certain ISPs have been making big progress on fibre-based internet, in partnership with the government, who have spent some time digging up pavements in urban and suburban areas to lay the cable. In fact, a few (albeit more affluent) areas and ISPs are already offering fibre-based internet which is a huge win for us as a country.

South Africa is bursting at the seams when it comes to web-related skills. Whether you’re a UX Designer, Front-end Developer, Full Stack, or DevOps, there’s opportunity for you here.

Industry

The web industry in Cape Town is exploding. More and more companies are letting go of print and beginning to invest in web. Even agency-based businesses like Ogilvy, TBWA, and Young & Rubicon are beginning to embrace web-based technologies and mindsets not only when building websites, but also for engaging with target markets.

Cape Town Skyline of CBD at Dusk
Cape Town Central Business District at Dusk

Unfortunately, the spike in internet-based careers has been something of a recent occurrence. To say that we are a bit “delayed” in pushing experienced individuals into the workforce is a concern, however it is slowly gaining momentum.

Over the last few years many international and national companies have started to set up shop in urban centres. Amazon, Google, and others have established offices and support centres with regards to aiding the African timezone and countries. Office space, on a square metre basis, depending on where you are located within the city centres, is a lot more affordable than setting up premises in New York or London. In fact, some of our own web based giants like TakeaLot and Kalahari.net have settled into towering branded buildings in Cape Town, standing as a stark reminder of their success in the internet business, especially in South Africa. 

Careers

I’d like to start this section off with the following quote from CareerJunction’s, Odile Badenhorst:

“…software development is undoubtedly the most sought-after IT skill set so far for 2016. On CareerJunction, every second vacancy posted within the IT sector is for Software Developers.”

According to research from CareerJunction, programmers with C# skills are the most sought after in the South African job industry, shortly followed by systems and network administrators. 

httpswwwcareerjunctioncoza
www.careerjunction.co.za

Even more exciting is that the list of skills below (some of the most sought after skills in South Africa) trends closely to international standards:

  • (UX/UI) designers and developers
  • Full-stack Web and product developers
  • Network engineers
  • Security and Cyber-Security professionals
  • Mobile engineers
  • IT project managers
  • Cloud architects and integration
  • Data scientists
  • Content management system skills

It may sound like a bit of contradiction when I stated above that: 

“South Africa tends not to get too much attention when it comes to the web industry”. 

In the same sentence, I’ll tell you that it’s probably one of the most exciting places to begin or further your career. There is a great demand for web-based professionals here. From Ruby and Python, to Javascript and Node.js, even SysAdmin’s and DevOps - job boards are flush with positions on just about every level of experience. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the web industry. 

In fact, Career Junction voted IT related careers as one of the top, most well-paying careers in South Africa in 2015. 

The South African web industry has many great opportunities for young, inexperienced developers to learn. More experienced developers are always happy to help, to explain and provide a nurturing, yet challenging environment for young developers. This makes getting the nod for web-based jobs relatively easy in terms of what is expected of you. However, the curve tends to get aggressively steeper when you look at mid to senior positions in industry, due to the lack of experienced individuals within these positions.

Standard of Living in Web Industry

Our currency is weak when compared to the USD or GBP, so from an international perspective salaries may look below par, but it is a lot cheaper to live here depending on your financial situation. Please see the table below (at time of publication, 1 South African Rand equals 0.063 $USD):

Job Function20 - 30 y/o30 - 40 y/o
40 - 50 y/o
50 - 60 y/o
DesignerR13k- R23kR27k- R33k
R27k- R33k
-
Systems AdminR15k-R22kR23k - R33kR33k - R44kR44k - R46k
Network EngineerR15k-R22k
R22k-R32k
R32k-R45k
-
Database EngineerR16k-R31k
R42k-R47k
R47k-R49k
R49k-R53k
Mobile App DeveloperR20k-R30k
R30k-R40k
R40k-R60k
-
Security SpecialistR20k-R33k
R33k-R43k
R43k-R52k
R52k-R60k
Web DeveloperR20k-R31k
R39k-R41k
R41k-R46k
-
Software DeveloperR22k- R37kR45k-R53k
R50k-R55k
-
Project R25k-R34k
R34k-R40k
R40k-R52k
-
Executive-R65k-R74k
R74k-R78k
R78k-R93k

Opportunities 

To further my point, I’d like to present you with the list of skills required for Critical Skill’s Visa in South Africa:

  • CISCO Solution Specialist and CISCO Engineer
  • Solutions Architects in Telecommunications and ICT
  • Integrated Developers (PHP, PERL, JAVA)
  • Network Analyst
  • IT Security Specialist
  • System Integration Specialist
  • Enterprise Architects
  • Data Centre Operations
  • Microsoft System Engineers
  • Network Controllers
  • AV Specialist (Anti-virus)
  • Desktop Support Engineer

Interesting isn’t it? I’d like to make special note of “Integrated Developers”. PHP is a really sought after skill set in South Africa. It’s often overlooked when lined up next to Ruby and Python, but many smaller agencies focus primarily on WordPress, CodeIgniter and Laravel. 

Startup Culture

Startup culture is another section of industry which is bursting at the seams in South Africa. Not only is our environment and day to day life conducive to startup culture itself, but startup costs are also low. In major cities around the world, “hot-desking” has become very popular, and more internet-based startups are forgoing offices with high overheads for the “freelance” lifestyle. 

Cape Town on www.sharedesk.net

Let’s look at a very general example of costs involved in starting up a simple WordPress-based business. 

ItemCostMonthlyHourlyIncludes
Hot DeskR3,000Yes
Wifi, Printer, Phone, Boardroom
Hosting / ServerR39Yes
Server, DB, 3GB BW, 3GB HDD
DesignersR250 - R500
YesGraphic / Visual Design Services
Web DevelopersR550-900
YesFront-end / Backend Development

Lately, two South African startups have been receiving great attention: one being Giraffe which has been just granted seed funding from Silicon Valley. Giraffe has been making serious waves in the recruitment industry here. It put some impressive technology to work, such as an intelligent matching engine that will identify the most suitable candidates for a given job, notify them by SMS and schedule the interviews. 

Giraffe
Giraffe

The other is Utyre. Utyre is a mobile tyre fitment startup. Using a combination of WordPress and WooCommerce, the startup has found a really interesting niche in the consumer market by bringing tyre fitment to your home at a great price. They offer secure online payments, comprehensive online booking and all at your own convenience. They even balance and align your tyres for you, inclusive within the price. 

It would be irresponsible of me not to mention one of South Africa’s biggest internet-based exports and the first South African in space, Mark Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth’s company: Thawte Consulting specialised in digital certificates and internet security. In December 1999, Thawte Consulting was acquired by VeriSign for a whopping R3.5 Billion. 

Web Education

Unfortunately, one of South Africa’s greater pitfalls is education in web-based technologies. This is largely due to the fact that our internet and connectivity in more rural areas is limited. Aside from that, web orientated professionals are for the most part, self-taught.

Many of you reading this article may relate to the self-taught aspect of web. I am self-taught in just about everything I know about building websites. Our struggle here lies with the fact that the Department of Education doesn’t fully acknowledge web-related skills as being a credible degree to study. We have many great computer science degrees available at reputable institutions, but these focus more on C+ or C# with a focus on systems and security, or database engineering. 

Coding Bootcamps aren’t present here either. Ironically, we do have one very interesting bootcamp which doesn’t cater to South African prospects at all; iXperience is solely for American IVY college students looking to get into tech and build standards compliant web apps. It’s run by South Africans, and is a great program for young foreigners to both learn code and get to know Cape Town. 

eCommerce

eCommerce in South Africa has gotten off to a slow start. The eCommerce industry accounts for $USD1.5 trillion in global sales, of which just R6-7 Billion is contributed by South Africa. Statistically, eCommerce accounts for 1% of the country’s retail sector, and is a sector which grows by about 25% per annum.

South Africans in general have always been slow in the uptake of online and mobile payments. There is a definitive notion of distrust when it comes to using a credit card online. MEF’s 2015 Consumer survey revealed that trust is the largest obstacle to growth in the mobile content and commerce industry here. Banks have been slow to the uprise in providing online banking technologies and even promoting safe, secure online transactions. Those that forged ahead, made it a tedious and frustrating experience.

The general consumer base tends to feel more trusting of eCommerce providers who sell more commodity-based items. Websites like takealot.com and bidorbuy.com are well respected and used often, helped by the many payment options and good return policies they offer.

Age also seems to be a contributing factor in eCommerce. Ageing generations steer away from it for the most part. 

In conclusion, the biggest point that can be made about South African eCommerce is that there is major room for growth and opportunity.

WordPress

The WordPress community in South Africa is a small, but passionate one.

httpswwwwoothemescomabout
WooThemes Team

WooThemes, the creators of WooCommerce, is based in Cape Town, South Africa and we’re incredibly proud to have such a giant in the WordPress community call South Africa home. Not only does WooThemes develop great software, they also host the annual Wordcamp Cape Town, as well as regular WordPress Meetups. A huge thanks is due to Hugh Lashbrooke, who is part of the WooThemes team, for all that he does in Cape Town for WordPress culture and the effort that goes into organising these events.


If you’re based in South Africa and are interested in joining the WordPress community, you can join the WordPress Cape Town slack channel

User Mindsets, Platforms, and Browser Stats

Ok, some more numbers for you: Chrome currently holds 52% of the browser market globally. Internet Explorer and Firefox run quite far behind at 15%. In South Africa the statistics are more or less aligned. 55% of the market currently uses Google Chrome, with 22% using Internet Explorer and just ~12% using Firefox.

According to statcounter.com almost 50% of South African mobile and tablet consumers use Opera as their mobile browser of choice. Chrome is second to this with ~17%. There is a clear and direct reason for this, which applies to many countries in Africa and is something that I have come across quite regularly in my career. The majority of the country, people who live in less affluent areas, use feature phones. Developing a web experience that is optimised for feature phones is a struggle, as some of you may be able to relate. This is something that very few developers ever take into account in their work, if at all.

httpgsstatcountercommobiletablet-browser-ZA-monthly-201504-201604
gs.statcounter.com

The most popular search engine here is Google, dominating an incredible 94% of the market. Other Search Engines, namely Bing (4%), Yahoo! (1%), DuckDuckGo (0.05%) barely make a dent in the user base.

When it comes to mobile operating systems, Android dominates the market with 43% usage. iOS only takes 5.46% of market share.

Connectivity

South Africa has 24.9 million active internet users; that’s less than half the current population. This figure includes access from both fixed line devices (laptops) as well as mobile devices. 

The internet, along with its connectivity and speed, is a great complaining point amongst South Africans–a real pity as an ever-growing part of our population depends on it. For home use, ADSL packages start around R200 per month, this is uncapped data, unlimited devices but it is a shaped line.

It’s not uncommon to overhear a fellow office colleague all of a sudden shout “Is it just me, or is the internet really slow?!”. Certain times of the day it can be unbearable. This is especially true mid-morning and lunchtime, as well as between 7pm-9pm in the evening when everyone comes home. 

If your ADSL isn’t up to scratch, you spend more time buffering Netflix (which launched the beginning of the year) than you do streaming. Services like Hulu, Spotify, Pandora, and Soundhound are not accessible in South Africa. There is no ban on the services, but the businesses themselves haven’t opened up to this territory yet. Except, that is, for Apple Music.

To get around this, VPNs are commonly implemented, but for the most part, unless you are technologically inclined and interested in setting a VPN up on your home network, no one is really interested or willing to do so. 

Other than the above services, there are no bans on Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, nor on Google, Bing or Duck Duck Go. Which is just as well; we don’t have any real local alternatives to those services. 

Mobile

South Africa has almost 80 million mobile connections, and mobile surpassed desktop browsing here back in 2014. This rise was thanks in no small part to adoption of Opera.

Mobile data is a bit of crutch for South Africans. It’s expensive for one, but coverage across networks can be seriously problematic. 

The most popular activities that consume mobile data are email and instant messaging; the most frequently used service being WhatsApp with Social Media and Facebook Messenger trailing closely behind.

Prepaid-based data (Top Up) is a lot more expensive than contract-based data. For 1GB of data, you will pay R149 - R180 / month. 10GB of data is priced anywhere from R599 - R650 / month. There are no contracts that I’ve managed to find through my research which provided unlimited data. 

The fastest bandwidth networks allow is 4G & LTE on supporting mobile devices. This fact also takes into account your location. Signal coverage of 4G and LTE is largely situated in city centres. For those who can afford it, most households will have an ADSL connection, so data is largely reserved for getting from A to B and public areas. 

One thing we haven’t really managed to crack here in South Africa is good public wifi. The odd coffee shop will offer you free, uncapped wifi, but they are few and far between and the chances of it being in good working order is slim. 

Conclusion

The future is always difficult to predict, even in an industry where practicality and logic prevails. In the coming years we’ll see South Africa focus on longevity. Each year that the country moves forward in terms of remedying poverty and crime puts forth a new generation of smart individuals ready to take to the internet.

Technologies like Node.js and React will become more prevalent in required skills. Eventually, our internet and mobile data infrastructure will catch up with the rest of the world and we’ll move past the sluggish delivery of data. We’ll also see a bigger movement in the community, focusing on seeking attention for the South African market when it comes to WordPress and startup culture, much of which has already begun. I expect–I hope–that these opportunities will also spread to other countries in Africa.

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