I’ve had some recurring thoughts over the last couple weeks, mostly pertaining to how technologists in Africa present ourselves, and how those outside Africa see us. How does “Brand Africa” – from the technology angle – play out, and why? What is unique that we offer to the world, and why should African technology matter in the global context?
It’s about “Brand Africa”
We need to re-frame the way we think about technology in Africa before we can expect others outside of Africa to do the same. Our challenge is to get people to realize that there is a real competitive advantage to developing and testing software in Africa. After all, if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.
The development conditions are unreliable and the environment is harsh. It isn’t fun to work off slow internet connections or deal with expensive and poor mobile phone networks. All of these things, and more, make just the technological side of developing in Africa a challenge, which is why it’s also a particularly good place to try new things.
If we embrace those handicaps, we might find that there’s a silver-lining inside.
African technology exported to the world
Fring and Ubuntu are two popular products coming out of South Africa that have gone global. There are more though. When Ken Banks built FrontlineSMS, he first tested and developed it within the African context. Ushahidi is being developed in Africa because these are the conditions that will make it work anywhere in the world.
In the enterprise solutions space there are a couple companies that do some good work. Two examples of this are Herman Chinery-Hesse‘s Softtribe in Ghana, and Microhouse in Kenya. Some of their solutions are for the local markets, and some are used in bidding on international projects.
Africa as a testing grounds for new applications
There’s a really neat application called Qik, which allows you to stream video live from your phone to a website. It has amazing potential for live video reporting, especially in a war zone. So, that’s just what David Axe did – and it failed miserably. Why? Because Qik designed their application not thinking of the unreliable and poor data connections found in much of the developing world.
David gives a couple suggestions:
First, there should be a â€œstoreâ€ function, whereby you can shoot a video in some austere location, save it to your phoneâ€™s memory, then stream it later once youâ€™ve got a solid network.
Second, Qik needs some way to buffer videos so that, if the software briefly loses its wireless network connection, it doesnâ€™t also lose the whole video.
Granted, Qik is probably not aiming at a global market, just the US and Europe. However, it’s a good example of how creating or testing software to work in harsh settings can make your product more robust and help you think of simple solutions (like David’s) that can make your product better for everyone.
Most people outside of Africa don’t align any type of technological edge to what we do here on the continent. In fact, most are surprised when a developer from Africa pops up on the international stage at all. Though there are fewer software developers in Africa per capita relative to their Western counterparts, what most don’t realize is that those few are really quite talented.
This means the South Africans as well as their counter parts in Ghana, Uganda and Senegal. We’re all in this together, whether we like it or not. Remember, to outsiders we’re one homogeneous landmass. What we each do reflects on everyone, whether we’re creating for local or global markets.
Finally, let’s first realize that the challenges we face also provide excellent opportunities and a competitive advantage. Then, let’s start creating world-class software here, and start exporting it to the world.
(Brand Africa image via Brand Africa Project)
[Update June 2009: A great example of just this is seen by Google with their Gmail Preview release.]
October 6, 2008 at 2:16 am
Hash, this is such a timely post. I have been having this conversation with many African techies due to BarCamp Africa — and the recurring theme I find is that although the challenges on the continent are complex, the solutions are sometimes more elegant — and Ushahidi is a true examples of this.
October 6, 2008 at 3:35 am
Great post Hash. You said:
“This means the South Africans as well as their counter parts in Ghana, Uganda and Senegal. Weâ€™re all in this together, whether we like it or not. Remember, to outsiders weâ€™re one homogeneous landmass.”
I think that’s a powerful point – there’s so much more room for collaboration in Africa. Room for more strategic thinking beyond the confines of our individual national borders. While its true that many of the technological solutions require customisation to specific population groups, I still think we could do with a lot less of a “silo mentality” in Africa.
In any case, with the exception of relatively more populous countries like Nigeria and South Africa, any sound business plans/models would need to have a more Pan African outlook to capitalise on economies of scale.
October 6, 2008 at 11:59 am
“Africa is not a country” comes to mind 🙂 I love your 404 page! I tried having a look at Fring, but the link is jacked up. I found the site, but wanted to let you know the link isn’t working properly.
October 6, 2008 at 2:41 pm
@ Taylor – fixed, thanks for the heads up.
October 6, 2008 at 7:49 pm
The article about Qik brought to mind a device that I was shown while at a workshop in Zambia last year. It was developed by a woman named Revi Sterling that used to work at Microsoft many years.
She had found that the rural African women farmers were having a difficult time having a voice about the specific issues they were encountering and that the “solution” was to provide them with cell phones. However, it turned out that in many cases soon after they received them, their husbands took them and sold them (probably on ebay).
So the device that Ms. Sterling developed addressed the issue by going low tech. It’s essentially a plain looking box with a button and microphone. Pressing the button they can record up to 30 seconds of audio with is stored on a mini-SD card. The device also has a wireless networking adapter that uses a Mesh network to store and forward the message to the next closest device to a community radio station for broadcast. It apparently is very tolerant to non-persistent networks.
October 7, 2008 at 12:06 am
Calling Ubuntu a product of South Africa is a bit inaccurate. Sure, there’s a South African at the lead of it, but not doing so from SA and it has had very few South Africans involved, and I’d be surprised if even 1% of Ubuntu Dapper (let alone Hardy) was done by South Africans.
There’s almost no mention of South Africa’s connection to Fring around – nothing on their web site, nothing on their Wikipedia page. Any good pointers on exactly who does what with Fring in South Africa?
October 11, 2008 at 8:25 am
Regarding Fring – I believe that is actually an Israeli startup. I originally thought that was form South Africa too but I think I got mixed up; we have a local Fring blogger Simon Botes that happens to live not to far from me but I don’t believe it is a local startup; rather look at Yeigo and mxit instead.
October 12, 2008 at 6:08 am
Thanks for highlighting the powerful competitive and revenue generation advantage of proving technologies in Africa.
June 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm
Great post man!
Think that it is time us africans started thinking up appropriate tech for ourselves instead of just apeing western tech.
We don’t have the broadband penetration that they do nor the years of using the net, but we need this tech, we do not have the luxury of choice.
More mobile net, more community based projects and less dependance on goverments to do it for us
June 9, 2009 at 6:57 pm
Completely agree. I would be very interested in suggestions out how a small open source services team engages with African developers. We are looking to extend our platform to mobile devices and we think that Africa is the place to make it work. Talk to us! – Thomas, akvo.org