By Laju Iren
Coding: the process of designing, writing, testing, debugging / troubleshooting, and maintaining the source code of computer programs. It sounds serious, and really difficult. However, 24 year-old Founder and Director of Hyperion Development, Riaz Moola says it’s perfectly possible for someone to become a coder without having strong Mathematical skills.
He should know; because his built-for-Africa platform which pairs tutors with students trying to learn programming through a low-bandwidth, text-based resource has trained over 8,500 people-some of them prisoners-since it was founded in 2012.
The birth of Hyperion was sparked by a series of events in Moola’s life. As an undergraduate student of Computer Science in a South African University, the vast majority of students doing the same degree as him dropped out after the first semester. “A significant number of them had never used a computer before, but were expected to write code,” he said.
After transferring to University of Edinburgh to study Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, a subject which was not available to undergraduates in South Africa at that time, it made him think that people in his country should be able to take it.
Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs seemed to be a solution, but there was a downside; considering the poor broadband penetration across Africa, the large videos offered by most MOOCs would not be accessible to low income earners considering the huge data costs required.
So Moola created a simple online course with small files in a new programming language (Python) teaching people some basics of AI. The foundation for Hyperion’s online course platform is the simple idea of using Dropbox to link students and tutors. It allows them to exchange text and programming code files without high data costs or reliable internet connectivity.
He told Hitech Start-Ups: “I went back to my old school during a holiday and spoke to students in my previous classes, urging them to sign up for the course. Over 100 signed up in the first week. The course then spread organically to many other universities in South Africa. Now, we have students from every tertiary institution in South Africa. We now have students from eight African countries and this is growing every day.”
But it’s not business as usual for the South African national. “What we do has quite a social impact. We provide education that can empower people economically.”
Hyperion Development offers an online course programme to those who can afford, at a fee, and uses some of the money raised to provide free courses to those without means.
“We sell some of our courses to high-income demographics, and use some the money to fund free education to low-income groups,” said Moola. The start-up has also received generous, yet well deserved grants from Google, Facebook’s Internet.org, among others.
The Gates Cambridge scholar is optimistic about the future of software development in Africa. “Africa is one of the biggest growth regions for the creation of software development talent that can be harnessed globally. Andela is a good example of this, but I believe this can be scaled up. We should make computing education ubiquitous and open to everyone,” he said.
Continuing, he added: “Africans are extremely entrepreneurial, but the issue is tech skills. You can’t have a tech startup without tech skills, and training in tech skills is extremely behind”