Onja: Teaching Web Development in Madagascar during COVID

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Jan 2020 - Apr 2021
Onja is a non-profit organization in Madagascar that provides free education and training to underprivileged students in web development and English language skills, with the aim of helping them secure remote employment opportunities in the tech industry.


After my experience as a mentor at Passerelles Numériques in Da Nang, Vietnam in the first semester of 2019, I knew that I wanted to continue mentoring young student developers. It was an experience that had challenged me in so many ways, but had also been incredibly rewarding. So when I came across an offer for a front-end lecturer position at a new NGO called Onja in Madagascar, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me.

I reached out to Sam, the founder of Onja, and after our first email exchange, I realized that this was the perfect fit for me at that moment in time. The challenge was great: to teach 20 Malagasy students front-end web development within a year, when they had just learned English and how to use a computer. It was a big gamble, but I had the conviction that I could make it happen.

In January 2020, I took a flight to Madagascar. Although I had traveled extensively before, arriving in Madagascar was a culture shock, albeit a positive one. The weather was beautiful, but poverty was evident everywhere. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. However, my host village, Mahanoro, was a peaceful little village. Onja's school was just 20 meters away from the sea, and my small cabin was located 200 meters further down, also facing the Indian Ocean. It was a true little piece of paradise, a tranquil haven.

I took on the challenge with my colleague Shaun, another front-end developer from Wellington, New Zealand. He taught computer basics, as well as markdown, HTML, and CSS, while I prepared the JavaScript lessons. The year there was quite challenging outside of class. After three weeks, I contracted malaria. Just after I recovered, the city of Mahanoro was hit by Cyclone Francesco, and two weeks later, the global COVID crisis hit, and Madagascar closed its borders.

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But I decided to stay and continue the mission. It was a big gamble, but I have no regrets. Onja's students were brilliant, and I was lucky to have them as my students, as they learned very quickly. In just a few months, with six days of classes per week, they became very good at web development.

From a technical standpoint, I created a course based on real-world projects to train them first in JavaScript and then in React with TypeScript and Redux. The lessons were, of course, in English, and I set up code review and pair programming systems among them to get them used to modern development practices in companies.

I also conducted intense technology watch to make sure I was teaching them skills that would be useful in landing their first jobs, as well as training them in remote development practices.

And the mission was a resounding success! After 15 months of intense effort, I can confirm that every Onja student now has a remote job as a web developer. It was an enormous project, and I am fortunate to have joined the team at that time because now the foundation of the project has been validated, and the Onja project will continue to grow and help the Malagasy population find remote web development jobs. It is the project I am proudest of to this day.

I have many memorable experiences from my time in Madagascar. If you are looking for good web developers to work remotely, don't hesitate to contact Onja.

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