Andela, one of Africa’s successful startups has a catchy tagline; Brilliance is evenly distributed. Yet, the opportunity is usually not. That has been the case for the African gifted, until the arrival of the internet and technology. The two have democratized opportunities, especially for this Ugandan software developer.
Sam Epodoi, a self-taught software developer basically Googled his way to kickstarting a software development career. At 13 years, he is among the young and tech-savvy Africans using the internet to create and leverage the opportunities it presents.
Also read: Liquid Telecom releases report on “the generation that will define Africa’s digital future”
“I do web development and designing commercially," Sam replied when I asked what he does. Adding that, “ I also do [mobile] apps and desktop apps." Though, he noted that "design is more of a hobby."
As a young boy, Sam got introduced to software development as a result of frustration. He noticed a lack of applications that he needed.
"Sometimes, I would look for certain Apps, but I couldn't find them so I wanted to learn how to make my own,” he says. He credits Google for his initiation into Software development. The other credit goes to his friend who guided and encouraged him.
“My friend, he is older, right now he is like 17, was also one of the people who introduced me and inspired me.”
Though he doesn’t recall the exact application he wanted, what he knows is that he was 9 years at that time.
Despite all this, it wasn’t until his parents started supporting him that he started taking off. “Once my parents discovered that [i was good at software development], they took me to meet other people,” Sam says. Some of the people he met included “mentors who do the same thing, so I could learn from them.”
Parents like Sam's are rare in Uganda. Since many still prefer their children to undergo the traditional system. Those that come close take them to International Schools.
But, Alex Nkusi Shyaka - one of Sam's mentors says that there's a growing list of such parents. According to him, there's now a big number of parents who are now homeschooling their children. "I was surprised to a how many [parents] are now embracing tailored education [for their children]," Alex says. "There's this whole growing movement of them."
[caption id="attachment_4019" align="aligncenter" width="1008"] Sam during his very first hackathon at Hive Colab in Kamwokya[/caption]
Clocking 12 years, in June 2016, and after nearly three years of coding, Sam landed his first client. “There is this company in my neighborhood called Paint Night K'la," Sam says. "So they asked me to design a website, and it was my first one."
This first gig sparked a growth in the number of paying clients, all from word of mouth. “I did it and they were impressed,” he says. Then “someone went to their site and asked them 'who did it?'” and, according to him, that is how it all started. His dad then stepped in to aid in the acquisition of more clients.
Many University graduates in Uganda struggle to find meaning employment. IT graduates included. Yet, at his age, he has so far worked with over 15 paying clients to his name in less than 2 years.
Ever since his first client, most now come through word of mouth referrals. “Most of the clients I get are word of mouth,” he says. “I do work for someone and they are impressed, most of them come back and they also go and tell other people.”
[caption id="attachment_4018" align="aligncenter" width="1032"] Sam Epodoi during a mentorship session with Alex Nkusi Shyaka, at The Innovation Village in Ntinda[/caption]
In a world filled with DIY, Do It Yourself, tools and a sea of website developers, Sam is able to charge between UGx. 200,000 and UGx. 800,000 per website. Though he still finds the price not only affordable for his clients but cheap.
Currently, he is in 8th grade - which is an equivalent of S.2, going to grade 9 and points out juggling school and his passion as a key challenge. “One of the challenges is the school. Like I have to manage my time well,” he says. Adding that, “another challenge is sometimes when I write code and it doesn't work, it's frustrating.” Alex also adds that there's “another challenge is boredom.”
“These things, in the beginning, can be exciting but then when they reach in the middle, they get hard. When they get harder, people lose interest," Alex Nkusi Shyaka.
But says that it usually stems from the lack of support, encouragement, and mentorship.
Alex says that he is involving him in competitions for personal development. “He is also involved in some competitions, so he puts his stuff out there,” says Alex.
Currently, Alex wants to get him to work closely with the developers at Andela Uganda. Though worried that he might not be welcome to most of the programs and events due to legalities surrounding a person of his age.
This is because companies don't want to use or work with children under 18 years. But Alex is trying as much as he can to see that Sam’s talent isn’t stifled by these legalities.
So far, he has participated in hackathons at Outbox, Innovation village, and Hive Colab. “I think the first hackathon I attended. It was hive Colab," he says.
Meet Sam, our youngest participant at the #ConnectKampala hackathon. He is a 13 year old self taught programmer who faithfully participates in our technical workshops. He initially joined .@OutboxHub to participate in our Kids programming classes. He was way advanced 4 that. pic.twitter.com/pRZ2AwgPii
— Richard Zulu (@richardzulu) January 26, 2018
"It was last year in November. Yeah, we built a trafficking solution to stop trafficking. The project is on Github, so when am done launching Skill, I want to pull it and work on it more, and publish it."
This year, Sam wants to launch his pet project. A marketplace for casual laborers called Skill. “Essentially, it provides jobs for casual workers," he described it.
"By casual workers, I mean plumbers, builders, helpers, and drivers. And it enables you to go and you search for them, and you are able to hire them. And we would verify that those are actual workers.“
[caption id="attachment_4017" align="aligncenter" width="1204"] A mock-up of Sam's Skill Project Website[/caption]
Besides that, he is looking to learn a couple of new things and travel. “[I am also focused on] learning new languages and developing much better solutions," he says. "I would also like to attend some events, activities, and competitions outside Uganda."
During our conversation, Sam informed me that “I would like to solve as many problems as I can."
“One of the things, you know I want to be a serial entrepreneur. So I want to have started a couple of companies as well as being able to go and visit companies like Google."
He hopes to visit Silicon Valley sometime this or next year. Perhaps, there, he will meet his inspiration, the currently under-fire Mark Zuckerberg. Whom he attributes his love and admiration to a “very fascinating and interesting” Facebook story.
This interview was carried out with the permission from both Sam's parents. I would also like to thank his mentor, Alex Nkusi Shyaka, for the efforts he put in to ensure we carry it out.