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The Quandry: Building Web Apps in Africa

One of the debates that rages amongst the developers, designers, and strategists across the African blogosphere is what types of web and mobile applications are being built in Africa. When we look at the available web applications and mobile offerings around the continent, we generally ask ourselves two questions:

  • Why are there no new ideas coming out of Africa?
  • Should we be developing applications for Africa, or should we be building applications for the global market?

The Big Question for African Web and Mobile Developers

These are very important questions, for they represent the overall web application direction within Africa. They should also raise the question amongst developers of whether or not they are really trying to meet the demands of African web and mobile users.

1) Why are there no new application ideas coming out of Africa?
Background reading:
Uno de Waal

It really isn’t that I’m negative about South African webdevelopment, it’s just that we’re producing crap clones of products that are already out there, while I think we can do much better.

John Wesonga

Africa and Kenya specifically cannot be empowered using technology when the mindset we have adopted is one of reuse rather then revolution. If we are truly to be the next frontier of untapped technology then we must strive to build skill and nurture innovation from the onset.

Both Uno and John are concerned that we have a culture of copying and customizing not of invention and innovation. Are we? By and large the answer is “yes”. But that leads to the second question, because there might be a real reason for the direction that we see things going.

2) Should we be developing applications for Africa, or should we be building applications for the global market?
Some examples of this would be:

  • Muti – an African Digg/Reddit
  • Afrigator and Amatomu – African Technorati-type applications
  • Zoopy – an African YouTube

Sometimes repurposing of a good idea and customizing it for a local demographic is just what is needed.

All of the examples listed above do an outstanding job of allowing a local community to own their own web-space, with content and conversations specific to them, instead of just being a tiny voice on a much bigger platform, lost in all the noise inherent to the web.

However…

While there is a need for region-specific applications, there is no reason why African developers cannot create global products.

For instance, I read a great article by John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing. In it he talks about the need for an application that marries up the best parts of a CMS/CRM/Accounting stystems in order really create and utilize a marketing plan. Something like this is needed for small and medium-sized businesses.

What you have here is someone stating that there is a possible need (do your own analysis first) and outlining the types of workflow and application tie-ins necessary to achieve it. It’s basic, but it’s an idea.

There is no reason that a web application developer in any city in Africa could not develop this type of application just as well as their counterparts sitting in the US or Europe.

While I want to see continued development of applications that might repurpose ideas from well established web apps for Africa, I too would like to see some real original work being done that is for a global audience.

11 Comments

  1. Original work will only come from developers solving original problems that pertain to their own environment.

  2. AAAAAHHHH!
    I am sitting on a world class web/mobile app. Unlike the US we dont have a Tech40 or DEMO etc to support us. Please do not underestimate our creative potential. I for one need angel investing to develop. I’m solving a problem with my solution. I iterate that we have the ideas but lacking the backing.

  3. This sentence: “Sometimes repurposing of a good idea and customizing it for a local demographic is just what is needed” proffers answer to the questions raised in post. Until we can make relevant and configure what is globally available to the local audience and users there is no point raising those questions, in my opinion.

    I’m glad you listed those South Africa- based platforms, and there are several more, in different shapes and manners, that have emerged to serve the needs of Africans either on the continent or in the Diaspora.

    What will keep delaying the emergence of truly “African innovation” is our messed up infrastructure – poor power supply and internet penetration, and low computer usage. where in innovation going to come from when very few have access to the basic tools and services? Add to this the “silly” IT curriculum being taught in the vast majority of colleges in Africa…there are many computer majors out there that have little or no relevant IT eduction and exposure.

    Although the stats in these areas are increasing and have registered encouraging up-shoot in the last 5 years, it is really unrealistic and too early to expect significant innovation from Africa in the IT/web development field as long as we are faced with these limitations.

  4. I had been wanting to comment here and had this chat this afternoon with Erik that incoporated much of what I wanted to say. I hope people dont mind me pasting it here verbatim:

    thakadu:
    one thing I wanted to add tho…
    was that as web devs we shouldnt really be burdoned with trying to solve africas problems 15:58
    and we are definitely not going to solve those with web apps

    Erik Hersman
    That’s true.
    But, in the creation of your apps, you should be trying to solve a problem for someone.

    thakadu
    so it may seem cruel that we concentrate on stuff that is basically “entertainment” or fluff

    Erik Hersman
    Are you solving it for Africans, or the global user?

    thakadu
    not sure I agree with that 🙂
    why should I have to solve any problem at all?

    Erik Hersman
    But it’s true. even with Muti, you’re solving a problem for someone

    thakadu
    what problem does myspace solve?

    Erik Hersman
    Most web apps come from this desire to solve a problem. It’s what they’re all founded on.

    thakadu
    yeah I guess what I am trying to say is that the “problems” that muti and so on “solve” are so hugely insignificant in the greater scheme of things

    Erik Hersman
    Whether it’s organizing information, connecting people, communicating better, etc…
    Oh, right. They can’t be compared to things like dealing with the problems in Zimbabwe

    thakadu
    that its a misnomer to think that they contribute to solving any of africas problems
    yeah and also inevitably we will be judged like that

    Erik Hersman
    Well, you can create the platforms that others use. Whether they choose to use them to change Africa for the better is up to them. You’re the tool creator.

    thakadu
    I guess it brings up the question: “why are us devs creating these apps in africa?”
    its not to solve afica’s problems, its not gonna make us money, so why why why?

    Erik Hersman
    Well, put that question to the people. 🙂
    I’d love to hear what they have to say too.

    thakadu
    yeah will do
    can I paste our discussion verbatim in as a comment? 🙂

    Erik Hersman
    Take a look at mobile phones. The reasoning behind the carriers was not to solve Africa’s business and communications problems. They wanted to make money. However, they did just that.
    lol. go for it.

  5. Imnakoya – That’s an interesting point you raise about the IT curriculum being taught in a lot of African universities. If universities in the West have problems keeping up with the changes in the IT sector, imagine the difficulties placed on an under-staffed, under-funded and under-resourced facility in Africa (minus S.A. of course).

    Many of the top developers that I met were doing the learning on their own. Fortunately, they figured out a way to access that information through computer labs in schools or cyber cafes. The barriers to entry are high though – it’s not like any old kid in the US who can just jump on the internet and start finding interesting things to hack and play with.

    However… (you knew this was coming) 🙂

    Just among the African developers that I met from S.A., Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria – I can tell you that there is enough brains to come up with some revolutionary ideas and products.

    How they go about solving problems and who they solve those problems for is what I’m interested in finding out.

  6. Build apps that solve local problems. If you choose well and your solution solves the problems of many, then build a community. Your user community will ultimately determine your succcess. But remember…apps aren’t the only way to online succcess. Tell stories, tell the news or teach…then monetize your content.

  7. Hash, are the African developers you spoke of, in contact with one another? Is there a forum they use? A common set of resources? Posted resumes/portfolios?

    And…what about the design community?

  8. Tzaadi:

    I do not believe that getting in touch is the problem. While there may not be an “official” forum as such there are blogs such as this one, and other forums, and we do (mostly) all know each other.

    Another problem we have is that almost everyone I know working in this space has a “day job” which is their primary source of income. This makes it even harder for those of us in Africa as we have to pretty much give up our free time to work on something that may or may not take off. I will also add that it takes a LOT of work. You cannot just throw up a prepackaged web forum for example and hope that it will be the next MySpace. In the US and other places developers often get “seed” money to support them during the initial phase. This is largely absent in Africa. (I am not saying that its absolutely necessary, just pointing out one of the many differences)

    Regards

  9. Tzaadi – most of the developers are loosely connected within their own countries – though South Africa and Kenya tend to lead in the areas of in-person interaction and sharing of ideas.

    It might be interesting for someone to create a “developer/designer database” for African talent. I’d think that you might want to have certain qualifications to being part of it though, or at least levels that differentiate the experienced from the newbies.

    Designers in Africa are a totally different lot – beyond my scope on this piece. There are more quality designers than developers, but they tend to have a very low profile online (the reason for this I can’t tell you – it doesn’t make much business sense to me).

  10. Neville and Hash, thanks for your comments.

    I am interested in dialoguing with designers and developers in Africa. After 10 years of successful web engagements with virtual teams in India, Dubai and Sri Lanka, I decided to take a sabbatical for 2007. Now as my year of rest and contemplation nears an end, I am revving up a new venture. Among other things, Tzaadi will be a showcase of ‘qualified’ web talent from around the world with a particular focus on emerging economies. I hope Africans will participate.

    David Lash
    Tzaadi
    Louisville Kentucky US

  11. Thinking about the work of organisations like tactical tech in enhancing local NGOs and social movements use of technology particularly web 2.0 calls for web 2.0 applications adapted or built specifically for the continent. Many of the web 2.0 apps are embeded with Western needs, infrastructure and culture. We need apps that are appropriate to our infrastructure limitations and minimal access to technologies as a whole.

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