This article appeared in the Weekend Post of 17 September 2016.
PORT Elizabeth is rapidly rising as a software development city. Companies with headquarters in other South African and international cities are opening offices or expanding their base here for a number of reasons, including the lower cost of property and rentals; the quality of life and the pipeline of graduates who are skilled in software development – a massive global market.
“We develop software for our international partners in the automotive industry, mainly in Germany and Belgium, and there is a massive and growing demand,” said Nico Claassen, the software development manager for S4, a Port Elizabeth-based industrial automation company whose clients include Volkswagen, Porsche and Bentley, as well as electric vehicle manufacturers such as Faraday Future and Karma.
The company employs 40 software developers, almost all of them from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), predominantly computer science and electrical engineering graduates.
Claassen himself is an electrical engineering graduate from NMMU.
Cape town-based Korbitec, a member of the LexisNexis Group, is one of the international companies that opened a software development office in Port Elizabeth this year.
“Port Elizabeth is a really good prospect for us because we are in the business of product development, not outsourcing. NMMU and Rhodes University are our main recruitment areas and have been for the past 11 years,” Korbitec software development and operations general manager Peter Raine said.
Also engaging with NMMU is a Johannesburg-based company called Yellow Professional Services (YPS) – the technology arm of the international Business Doctor Investments (BDI).
It is negotiating an on-campus joint venture company called UniYellow that will offer students the opportunity to earn money while working on applied knowledge software development, and an opportunity to join the company.
“Software development is a global language that is not confined to a geographical space, and with the scarcity of skilled graduates in this sector, companies are actively engaging with us,” said Professor Jean Greyling from NMMU’s computing sciences department.
“Our department promotes computer science in schools throughout the province and in George, where NMMU has a campus,” Greyling added.
Professor Darelle van Greunen of NMMU’s School of ICT and the Director of the Centre for Community Technologies (CCT) said: “We encourage innovative ideas that can be turned into software to tackle real world problems.”
Through Van Greunen, the CCT has secured a number of high-level, Africa-focused contracts, including from the European Union.
The local demand for software developers is such that it exceeds the supply and they are therefore importing developers from other parts of South Africa and the continent to come and work in PE.
They recently hired 15 new developers.
To build and support innovative new businesses, NMMU established a city-based business incubator called Propella.
The university offers Propella’s expertise and research, as well as innovative projects, and its partnership with the Telkom Future Makers programme supports the development of software development and ICT entrepreneurs.
“A big advantage of being part of Propella is that start-ups are groomed and linked with industry partners,” Propella business support manager Ellen Fischat said.
The Seda Mandela Bay ICT Incubator (SNII) is also addressing the growing need for software development in the city, including 24 ICT startups.
According to SNII’s executive manager Phumza Mfenyana, they have identified role players in the local economy who can benefit from innovative ICT solutions.
“The software development landscape in PE has really started to change into a product development hub,” NMMU master’s graduate Direshin Pather said.
Pather is the chief executive of AppN Tech, a Port Elizabeth-based software development company that specialises in native mobile app development for a range of clients.
Third-year NMMU computer science student Cornelius Greyling opened a software house in Port Elizabeth called Avocado Chocolate in January this year, with three NMMU graduates and a colleague from Cape Town.
AvoChoc clients include Copa America (the world’s oldest and one of the largest international football tournaments) and Project Isizwe, the largest government funded public space free Wi-Fi provider in Africa.
Another PE startup is Hello World Code, founded and run by computer science and electrical engineering students turned entrepreneurs.
NMMU graduate Chris Wentworth established his own company in Port Elizabeth this year called W2IT Solutions.
Wentworth said that until recently, NMMU computer science graduates had tended to rush off to Johannesburg, Cape Town or overseas because Port Elizabeth didn’t offer sufficient software development opportunities.
“This is changing and it’s exciting. It will make a huge difference to the economy and intellectual capital of Nelson Mandela Bay and the Eastern Cape,” he said.
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