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Three major challenges facing SA’s mobile app ecosystem

Competent software developers are essential to all app development projects, but the skills void and fast pace of innovation mean there aren’t enough to go around.
Kegan Peffer
By Kegan Peffer, Software developer and analyst, and CEO, Adoozy Power.
Johannesburg, 20 Jun 2024
Kegan Peffer, CEO of Adoozy Power.
Kegan Peffer, CEO of Adoozy Power.

Mobile app development has come a long way since the days of the humble Nokia 2110, but South Africa’s developers face systemic challenges that we cannot afford to ignore. Left unchecked, the industry could soon lag other countries that have been quicker to embrace and upskill their workforce for a digital future.

With mobile penetration in South Africa nearing 200% of the population, there’s no shortage of potential users. However, according to one source, fewer than 4 000 South African-made apps are on the Google Play Store out of the nearly three million available.

That’s a penetration rate of barely 0.1%, which I believe should be higher because of Africa’s, not only South Africa’s, mobile user base. All the evidence you need is this list of the most downloaded apps in the country, which is clearly dominated by international shopping and social media apps.

There’s no doubt that competition is fierce, and I believe we could become also-rans in the mobile app sphere unless we address three fundamental challenges facing our industry.

The brain drain and the skills gap

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I see skills as one of the most pressing challenges we face. Add to that the brain drain, and one has to wonder where our programming talent is going to come from.

Competent, skilled developers are the lifeblood of any successful app development project. However, in South Africa, finding the right talent is increasingly difficult. Many skilled developers are lured abroad by better opportunities, leaving a significant void in the local industry.

As a result, the human resources role takes on a far more pivotal role in securing success. Early in our journey, we underestimated the need for a robust HR strategy, only to learn the hard way. Hiring the wrong fit for the company can be costly, both in time and resources.

One lesson we have learnt since is that contract developers often outperform permanent employees, who can tend to become complacent. Contractors, on the other hand, are task-focused, deliver on specific goals and can be more cost-effective.

Competent, skilled developers are the lifeblood of any successful app development project.

As a result of this squeeze on good developers, they come at a hefty cost. Unfortunately, this can lead to under-skilled developers commanding top dollar because of this small talent pool. High development costs and low technical output is a recipe for disaster for any software company.

An accelerated pace of innovation

The second major challenge is the rapid pace of technological innovation. Mobile technology evolves quickly, and staying updated requires continuous learning and adaptation. New operating systems and devices are released frequently, meaning we need to adapt if we want our app to be compatible on new devices and platforms.

The pace of development also forces us to make tough choices over whether to build for a single platform (iOS or Android) or to adopt a cross-platform approach. Each choice comes with its own set of challenges and resource requirements.

There’s no getting around this, so we simply have to adapt. Which we can only do quickly and continuously if we have the programming talent able to grasp these changes, and are willing to continually learn new skills.

Not surprisingly, this again comes down to skills and attitude.

Navigating the role of AI in development

The third challenge is navigating the evolving role of artificial intelligence (AI) in development. While AI has been a buzzword in the industry for some time, it’s still early days in terms of practical application in mobile app development. Many companies, like us, are still wary of outright AI adoption in the development cycle.

For us, it’s still far too early to fully understand where we are at and where we are going.

Looking ahead, the future of AI in development is promising, but it’s important to approach it with caution. AI may eventually play a more significant role, potentially transforming how we develop apps.

However, for now, it’s essential to balance the use of AI with human expertise to ensure the highest quality outcomes.

Preparing for the future of mobile app development

In conclusion, the South African mobile app development industry faces considerable challenges, but the right corrective measures can make get us back on track.

As I’ve already alluded to, the one tool that can help local developers stay ahead of the pack is having the right talent on board.

In our current context, that’s easier said than done because the talent pool is so small. This is a challenge the industry will have to address collectively if we hope to have a larger, more skilled workforce to choose from.