Navigating the GIS job landscape in Africa


I have found myself in numerous conversations wherein people express their concerns about their career paths with Geographic Information systems (GIS) in Africa. Many of them have encountered situations where the job offers they receive are not directly related to GIS, leaving them hesitant about deviating from their intended career trajectory.

In the aftermath of these discussions, a recurring question lingers: “What truly constitutes a GIS job?” Is it solely limited to roles titled as GIS Analyst, GIS Specialist, Geospatial Analyst or Geospatial Data Scientist? Or does it encompass positions that incorporate GIS or geospatial aspects within their role descriptions? The complexity arises from the fact that this distinction is often far from straightforward; at times it aligns with the job titles, while on other occasions it transcends the boundaries of conventional job advertisements. This uncertainty underscores the nuanced nature of the GIS job landscape in Africa.

To begin, there exists an underlying pattern within GIS job advertisements – and I aim to elucidate this pattern through this article. Whenever you come across a job listing bearing the title ‘GIS’, I invite you to engage in the following exercise: scrutinise the company behind the posting. Take note of their location, whether they are locally or internationally based and whether they operate within the private or public sector. Compile these details into a list and thank me later.

Interestingly, a discernible trend emerges when it comes to job titles explicitly incorporating ‘GIS’. It often becomes apparent that such roles predominantly originate from organisations possessing a prior familiarity with, understanding of and experience in Geospatial technologies.

Many of these opportunities originate from the West, frequently from establishments situated in countries where GIS has cemented its presence and recognition. Equally prevalent are positions emerging from entities that have had direct exposure to GIS implementation, whether through past work experiences or affiliations.

This observation underscores a significant reality: the terminology ‘GIS’ while possibly familiar to you remains very foreign to numerous companies, organisations and public institutions in Africa. This is especially true in cases where the concept of GIS has yet to fully permeate their operational spheres.

To put this assertion to the test, consider reaching out to a diverse set of individuals – say, 10 friends or acquaintances – each representing distinct organisations. Pose the question: “If I were to apply for a job as a GIS professional in your organisation, would my chances be promising?” Pay heed to their responses, particularly those that echo sentiments such as “GIS? What exactly does that entail?” or “What roles do GIS professionals assume?”

Should you find yourself encountering more than five instances of such queries, this article is crafted with you in mind. It serves as a resource to navigate the terrain of GIS job opportunities in an environment where the term ‘GIS’ might still remain unfamiliar to many.

Allow me to share a transformative journey that underscores the incredible power of seizing opportunities, even when they are not what we initially envision. Eight years ago I took up a role as a Research Assistant, joining a dynamic team engaged in groundwater research.

My task was to collect groundwater samples from designated locations, residences and boreholes within our research community. These samples were then transported to the laboratory where I extracted viruses and bacteria, setting the stage for further investigation. Simultaneously, I analysed water quality indicators – Electrical Conductivity, pH, nitrate levels, and more – across each water source.

With a Bachelor’s degree, major in Geography and a minor in Psychology, I ventured into this new terrain with little to no experience in the field. The chance to gain training drew me in, compelling me to embrace this opportunity. It was a decision that had its roots in a previous setback. A short while before, I had been denied a position as a GIS specialist at USAID – an aspiration that had fuelled my career ambitions.

As I embarked on this unforeseen path, I undertook to capture GPS coordinates for all the water sources I was sampling from. Despite not being a requirement, I established an attribute table and a spatial component to my records – just a small extra effort that proved to be transformative. Over time, this meticulous documentation blossomed into an Excel database, harboring a wealth of information – water source specifics, water levels, quality metrics and sampling dates, among other crucial details.

What followed was truly remarkable. I delved into mapping this data, creating interpolated surfaces using the information at hand to produce meaningful visual representations. My passion for geospatial analysis soon captured the attention of my supervisors. This newfound dimension to my work gradually shifted the perception of my role; I was no longer just a research assistant, but increasingly seen as the GIS person – a skilled interpreter of spatial data.

This integration enriched our research immeasurably. The impression left on the minds of my supervisors led to them suggesting that we register a company dedicated to delivering GIS services to the water sector in our country. Our project ended in 2017, but a few months ago (June, 2023) one of my supervisors called me on the phone. He is now the Head of Department at his university and wants the department to build a spatial database that ensure all the students’ field data captures the locations and can be shared with others.

He then asked me to hold on and talk to someone – it was another lecturer from the geomatic department who was going to teach GIS to the Water engineering students of their department; and he wanted me to share my ideas with her. This is not because I was better than the lecturer, but the professor had seen me do stuff like that before. We have had conversations on GIS can transform how things are done in the water sector in the country, and I’m sure when he thinks of GIS I come to mind.

This story is intended to impart a lesson, not to highlight myself. For those in Africa seeking GIS jobs or in similar situations worldwide, the reality is that job titles explicitly labelled as GIS or geospatial might be rare and the terms themselves might be unfamiliar to many. People often underestimate the potential and impact of GIS, not recognising the transformative power it carries. It might not even be considered a significant part of a business.

In light of this, my advice is to cast a wider net. Apply for those roles such as marketing, customer service or tax officer, etc., regardless of their apparent lack of connection to GIS.

Once you’re in, inject innovation, understand the business and subtly weave location-based insights into the process. This approach positions you as the de facto GIS expert within teams like marketing, customer service or tax, ultimately helping you pioneer geospatial integration where it’s least expected. As you ponder my words, keep in mind: everything happens somewhere.

The journey is about bringing GIS to unconventional places until it becomes an intrinsic part of varied professions. While we may not see an abundance of job-listings directly labelled as GIS, the impact we make through innovation can shape the future. Until the time when our children aspire to be GIS analysts amid other professions like law, medicine or engineering without hesitation, this trend will always be so. In Africa, raising awareness and advocating for GIS is a mission that still awaits substantial effort. Go apply for the job of ‘De facto GIS analyst’, make them see what they never imagined.

>>>the writer is a GIS Solutions Engineer, assisting clients in integrating GIS technologies into their work processes to increase productivity through training and technical support. He occasionally publishes some of his thoughts in blogs. He can be reached via [email protected] or on Mobile: +233542507038

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