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, which is 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,” says 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.

S4 develops software that automotive companies use to programme and test vehicles during production, and also the software required for after sales service. The company currently employs 40 software developers, almost all of them from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, predominantly computer science and electrical engineering graduates. Claassen himself is an electrical engineering graduate from NMMU.

“We are seeing significant growth in the opportunities for software developers in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. More and more companies are needing software and with the competitive price advantage companies here can offer clients to the quality of graduates coming out of NMMU, it makes sense for companies to be based here, and, like we do, to send our developers on contract internationally according to the need.”

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. We are constantly looking for talented software development students and graduates. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth and Rhodes University in nearby Grahamstown are our main recruitment areas and have been for the past eleven years,” explains Korbitec’s GM: Software Development and Operations, Peter Raine.

Also engaging with NMMU is a Joburg-based company called Yellow Professional Services (YPS) – the technology arm of the international Business Doctor Investments (BDI). It is currently negotiating an on-campus joint venture company with NMMU called UniYellow that will offer undergraduate and postgraduate students the opportunity to earn money while working on applied knowledge software development, and an opportunity to join the company. NMMU will receive a percentage of the profits of all software developed by UniYellow.

“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,” says Professor Jean Greyling from NMMU’s Computing Sciences Department who trains software developers. “Our software developers are predominantly from Computing Sciences and the School of ICT, with some from other disciplines, such as Business and Graphic Design.”

To produce software development graduates, a prerequisite for first year computer science is matric maths. “NMMU’s Govan Mbeki Maths Development Unit, which is linked to our faculty, has a very active maths learner development programme in the province, with an emphasis on schools in underserviced communities. Our department also promotes computer science in schools throughout the province and in George where NMMU has a campus,” Prof Greyling adds.

As one of the top Computing Science and ICT universities in South Africa, NMMU strongly promotes a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and an increasing number of graduates and students have started their own companies.

“The School of ICT encourages innovative ideas that can be turned into software to tackle real world problems or provide entertainment,” explains Professor Darelle van Greunen of NMMU’s School of ICT and the Director of the Centre for Community Technologies (CCT).

This month, one of NMMU’s ICT graduates, Justin Drennan, was recently selected as one of the top 31 entrepreneurs under 40 making waves in South Africa by multimedia digital publisher Burn Media’s ventureburn.com – dedicated to innovative startups and entrepreneurs. His startup, ParcelNinja, an e-commerce warehouse whereby you drop your stock at their smart-warehouse locations, and customers then order via ParcelNinja’s admin systems and delivery network. By handling these key logistics issues for e-commerce businesses it facilitates startup and entrepreneurial growth.

Prof van Greunen explains that opportunities are opening up from a range of industries, including healthcare, agriculture and computer literacy:

“One example is the whole new generation of medical practitioners, mainly doctors, who are part of the technology age and who come to us to work with them to produce healthcare apps, such as apps that can track whether TB and HIV patients have taken their medication.”

Through Prof 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.

“Many of the new generation developers want to use their skills to make a positive difference in society,” says Prof van Greunen. “As part of this we are developing software that includes multimedia aspects to assist learners from Grade 8 to better understand programming. The opportunities here are unlimited.”

To build and support innovative new businesses, NMMU established a city-based business incubator called Propella. The University offers Propella ongoing expertise and research, as well as innovative projects, and Propella’s 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, including some of our founding partners such as Engeli Enterprise Development, GMSA, IDC and BASF,” explains Propella’s business support manager, Ellen Fischat. This way, the development of software products and services does not happen in a vacuum, but in the context of market demand.

“The Seda Mandela Bay ICT Incubator (SNII) is also addressing the growing need for software development in our city, including 24 ICT startups. Their Research and Development Lab has NMMU postgraduate students participating on a part time basis. According to SNII’s executive manager, Phumza Mfenyana they have identified role players in the local economy who can benefit from innovative ICT solutions developed in their R&D lab. “This contributes to socioeconomic development and provides a creative hub for young entrepreneurs and innovators,” he explains.

“The software development landscape in PE has really started to change into a product development hub. Credit for this is due to incubators like Propella and SNII, institutions like NMMU who train students to the highest level and inspire them with an entrepreneurial spirit, and individuals like Allan Knott Craig and Craig Rivett whose initiatives like the Nelson Mandela Entrepreneur Fellowship encourage this growth,” says Direshin Pather, the founder CEO of a AppN Tech, a Port Elizabeth-based software development company that specialises in native mobile app development for a range of clients, including retail, communications and transport. Pather started his company in 2013 while he was doing his Masters in Computing Sciences at NMMU. He graduated Cum Laude in 2015.

Third year NMMU computer science student, Cornelius Greyling, opened a software house in Port Elizabeth called Avocado Chocolate in January this year, together with three NMMU graduates and a colleague from Cape Town: “Some of us were doing work for the Stellenbosch-based telecoms company, EverAfrica Group, when we decided to come back to Port Elizabeth. EverAfrica shared in our vision and helped to set us up here.”

AvoChoc Clients include Copa America (the worlds oldest and one of the largest international football tournaments), HeroTel (wireless internet service provider) and Project Isizwe, the largest government funded public space Free WiFi provider in Africa.

“We are based in Port Elizabeth because we enjoy the city. We are able to do a lot of work via Skype and emails and we travel for face-to-face meetings with clients whenever required.”

Another PE startup is Hello World Code, a two-month-old Port Elizabeth-based company founded and run by computer science and electrical engineering students turned entrepreneurs.

One of the apps they have developed is Appetiser, which helps users to find places to eat in their city that are offering specials – from street stalls to takeaways to high end restaurants. Port Elizabeth is their first of many Appetiser cities as the app can be used in any city in the world.

NMMU graduate Chris Wentworth, who has a BCom Rationum with majors in Accounting and Computer Science and an Honours degree in Computer Science, established his own company in Port Elizabeth this year, called W2IT Solutions. “I worked for a few years and then went on my own,” he explains. He is currently developing software for a group of companies in the construction industry.

Wentworth says that up until recently, computer science graduates from NMMU tended to rush off to Joburg or Cape Town or head overseas because Port Elizabeth didn’t offer sufficient software development opportunities. “This is changing and it’s exciting,” he says. “If we can grow the number of companies here and keep the talent, it will make a huge difference to the economy and intellectual capital of Nelson Mandela Bay Metro and the Eastern Cape.”