Rebuilding an economy after war requires a range of institutions including, Government, business, Not For Profits and civil society to work together. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, some institutions have been more effective than others. Tourism has become a key growth industry with people from around the world coming to Mostar and Sarajevo to learn about the history and see some of nature’s beauties. Speaking to locals, it is clear that tourists are not yet seen as a burden (unlike places like Barcelona or Dubrovnik). They are helpful, respectful and always interested to learn about our countries and travel experiences. However, beyond tourism, there is another emerging industry that is putting Bosnia and Herzegovina on the global stage.
A Bit of Background
In order to end the Yugoslav war in the 1990s between Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, they signed the Dayton Agreement, which created a new Government structure. It also turned out to become one of the most complicated and layered political structures in the world.
Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina has 3 Presidents (A Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian), 14 Prime Ministers and hundreds of ministers for a population of less than 4 million people. The Presidents are responsible for international policy, however their track record for decision making shows a long chain of non consensus, which leads to holding patterns and inaction. This trickles into other areas of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Government with corruption and inefficiency a known problem in the country. For example, trying to start a business can take weeks with a series of documents that seem to be either superfluous or repetitive. When almost half of all young people not engaged in full time employment, these inefficient process can have a massive negative impact on society and the economy.
This is one factor resulting in ‘brain drain’, a term used to describe talented people leaving the country to pursue careers in countries with stronger salaries and opportunities. For Bosnia, many people are moving to Germany and Scandinavia to pursue careers.
The challenge for Bosnia and Herzegovina is to find ways to attract and retain talent to the country who can invest in the development of the new economy.
The Fastest Growing Industry in Bosnia
One such development of the new economy is in the ICT sector. Technology is providing jobs and developing new skills that are in demand to retain people locally. A small population, 3000-3500 people are programmers and about 60-70% of the labour is made of young people up to the age of 35. According to Statista, in 2016 the whole ICT sector accounted for just over 14 500 people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Globally, ICT skills like coding, agile management and IT engineering are important and critical to deliver the next wave of global digital transformation. Ministry of Programming was one of the first big ICT firms in Sarajevo and now have over 60 employees. They work with companies around the world to build the future of technology through design, strategy and development. They are one of the few original ICT companies who put Bosnia on the map for technology development around the world.
According to Emerging Europe, ‘The ICT sector, with over 420 firms, has been one of the fastest developing sectors in Bosnia and Herzegovina over the last few years. According to the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA), its share of the country’s GDP amounts to 80 million euros. In 2016, the number of IT people employed by ICT companies increased by 97 per cent compared to 2010, and net profits of ICT firms have doubled.’ It may seem small in comparison to their other industries of metals, energy and weapons, however it is one of the fastest growing global industries.
One of the more recent ICT superstars in Sarajevo is Ant Colony. I sat down with Amar Pljevljak, a Project Manager and has been part of the Ant Colony team from the start. Ant Colony are a product oriented software company that helps entrepreneurs, businesses and innovators around the world to build digital products that have a dynamic product market fit.
Our meeting was in a co-working space called Networks, one of the first in the Sarajevo region. It was started by the Founder of Ant Colony alongside other local companies as a way to help stimulate the freelance economy. Their multi level space now has approximately 150 people both freelancers and businesses. With open spaces to collaborate and private offices, it is a hub of activity. Amar’s fascination with entrepreneurs and building businesses led him to start volunteering at Networks when it had just opened. ‘I was fortunate to meet with some amazing Bosnian business leaders who were humble and passionate about making Sarajevo a great place to work.’ From there, he met the team who had just started Ant Colony and joined their team as one of the first hires.
The Ant Colony
Their team has grown from 3 people 4 years ago to over 30 people today. ‘Sometimes it can be a challenge to find talent because there is such high demand for developers around the world.’ Amar shares. To attract people to their business, they look for skills beyond coding. ‘Coding is like learning a language. If you can speak it then it is helpful, but there are so many languages out there.’ They look for people who are logical thinkers, have a hunger to learn and are ready to be taught. If their applicants have this combination, then coding can be developed on the job.
‘Ant Colony is unique because our culture is built on collaboration not competition. It is like an ant colony, they are stronger when they work together. It is the same with us.’ Each employee gets mentors to support them and they also get meaningful work where they are decision makers. ‘At Ant Colony, no matter the level, our employees are making decisions and working directly with the client. This creates a really dynamic and autonomous work environment.’ As a Project Manager, Amar coordinates the teams and leads the sprint planning. Although he doesn’t code himself, he said that the first thing he will do when he has children is to enrol them in coding school. ‘It is a skill of the future and having a thriving ICT sector in Bosnia has revitalised the country and brought young, talented people back into the country.’
Women in ICT
Since this event, other coding camps for girls have continued to pop up to help show girls that ICT can be a viable career option. This is important for Bosnia and Herzegovina to manage their youth unemployment rate and start to build more gender equality in the ICT industry.
Looking To The Future
Ant Colony has big aspirations to become a global technology leader in ICT and digital development. ‘We have the right mix of culture, skills and passion for technology to continue to grow the business.’ Amar shared. He also sees it as an important sector for Bosnia to continue to compete on a global stage. ‘We have a great standard of living here, with national parks, nightlife, quality food and friendly people. It is a great place for people to come and work.’
Their workload continues to grow as the quality of work relative to costs is becoming noticed around the world. The Balkans are often seen as the more cost effective version of Berlin. Sarajevo’s rich culture and history creates a unique and exciting space for growing the ICT industry.
However, Government could be doing more to invest in infrastructure to continue to grow the industry. According to BIT Alliance estimates, Bosnia and Herzegovina spends a mere 0.04 percent of its GDP on the industry, while the world average is 2.7 percent. The investment opportunity is huge. For example, the training of 1,000 software engineers in Bosnia and Herzegovina could generate, primary from export, more than EUR 45 million per year.
Hearing Amar’s passion for technology, Ant Colony and Bosnia and Herzegovina painted a strong picture of the future potential of the country. Tourism provides opportunities for people around the world to see all that Bosnia and Herzegovina has to offer. This can only help their ICT sector to attract new talent and clients.
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