Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tech Success in Africa is Built on the Ordinary

It’s not a big surprise to see Nokia’s Symbian operating system is the most popular in Africa. We all knew that, but it’s by how much that draws your attention.

Royal Pingdom has an excellent post on the web usage (which is what they can measure) of the top OS use around the world. It’s amazing to see the difference between Africa, Asia and South America as opposed to Europe and North America.

While, as a developer, it’s a lot more sexy to work on the cutting edge operating systems like iOS and Android you’d be making a mistake to do that in Africa. Unless you’re developing apps that are global in scale or you’re doing client work, you should be focusing on Symbian (or Samsung’s Bada OS in some countries). It’s where the numbers are.

Reaching Ordinary Africans

This brings to mind something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Mxit, as most people know now, is the mobile social network out of South Africa. It was built about 4 years ago and has 20 million+ users.

Mxit didn’t get big because they tried to build something that was cool and sexy for the middle/upper classes in South Africa (which is what so many try to do there). Instead, they built one of Africa’s most successful tech companies by focusing on everyday South African youth and fulfilling their needs.

In fact, you can take this one step further. Almost any meaningful success in Africa’s mobile or web space has been from companies focused on meeting the needs of ordinary people. Go ahead, think of the success stories in Africa’s tech space, now name them and see if they’re made for a global market, Africa’s elite, or for the masses.


  1. Great post Erik.

    Mobile web usage in Africa will be really interesting to watch over the next year or so because of the potential for rapid change in this space. While Symbian currently dominates, I’d argue it’s dominating a relatively small slice of pie with the with mobile web users still being middle and upper class. While symbian app or Samsung (esp. in South Africa) app development makes sense for the moment, I’m really eager to see what happens with Android adoption in Kenya if the $100 Huawei ever makes an appearance. I just think the value proposition (in terms of consuming the web) that Android has to over vs. Symbian is so great that we’ll see mass scale adoption assuming the price is right and supply is right.

    While I completely agree with the premise of your post, my only point is this is a space where things could move very fast. I’d strongly encourage African devs to start boning up on Android. Eventually, there will be mass market opportunities here; it won’t be like developing for the iPhone.

  2. Nice one, Hash.

    I left Tech4Africa in August thinking about the same thing. We were all wowed by the potential of the iPad in the content arena but the reality is that it will not be an all round platform in Africa – at least not for a long while. I think Chinese manufactured Android based tablets stand a much better chance just because they cost a lot less.

    We often miss a huge opportunity too when we try so hard to emulate Americans by building “me too” applications or solutions that we hope will make us look like Silicon Valley techpreneurs. By doing so, we forget that the our Valley counterparts are building solutions that are relevant first in their masses (the American public) before they spill over our way. Similarly, we should concentrate on developing applications that fit into or provide solutions for the lifestyles of the majority around us.

  3. You’ll guess it’s no surprise that your post resonates, Erik.

    I’d say there are two key points to make here. First, you can build for the “future” (and Android is clearly going to play a major part in that, as Matt says). And second, you can build for the “now”. One of the main drivers for the initial development of FrontlineSMS was the second – that NGOs (or “clients” if you’re thinking in business terms) were desperate for tools to use “now”, and too many developers were going for the cutting-edge “future”.

    I’d say striking a balance is key – build for now but be flexible enough in your approach to allow for what’s on the up.


  4. Yes i think i agree with @Kiwanja’s sentiments. In Africa you need to strike a balance in this space which is quite difficult.

    Problem is there is such a huge digital/economic divide in Africa more so than anywhere else in the world which leaves developers with 3 options either to go for the elite market with mostly consultancy services or mass market with scalable apps or both markets which i believe is the right model.

    Lastly one huge bottleneck remains in Kenya (not sure about rest of Africa) is the monopolization of public digital resources e.g. Shortcodes, Bandwidth and TV/Radio Frequencies. If these were liberalized in some form of market you would see much more innovative mass market innovation here.

  5. Thanks guys. I agree that things will move fast in this space, they always have actually, that’s what’s so interesting about tech.

    What I wanted to point out though is the need for us all to focus more on the less sexy part of the work we do. The money and users are found in the mundane, more often than not.

  6. Great post,i do believe that the Android platform is something alot of developers should be looking into right now ,with Google wanting to dive into Africa and also the Chinese with huawei i believe that the majority of the kind of people who use this technology in Africa will be carrying Android handsets in a couple of years.Samsung itself seems to be shifting towards Android(too much for bada) and i dont even want to talk about symbian.

  7. duh, samsung is known for dropping support on their phones.
    ‘We often miss a huge opportunity too when we try so hard to
    emulate Americans by building “me too” applications or solutions
    that we hope will make us look like Silicon Valley techpreneurs. By
    doing so, we forget that the our Valley counterparts are building
    solutions that are relevant first in their masses (the American
    public) before they spill over our way.’ ironically, you are all
    talking about android.

  8. Not sure whether devices running opera mini browsers were counted…Not sure the OS can be detected when a non-native browser is used.

  9. This is what happens when you go on vacation! You miss the interesting conversations. Must say I agree with you Hash and also second what Ken says but I’d just like throw a question out in case someone is still reading this thread:

    I’ve noticed the meteoric numbers in the uptake of Android OS over the last year per the data I’d seen, *and* I’ve heard about the affordable handsets to come to Kenya – what I’d be interested in would be whether anyone has tracked the geographies of where Android has shown so much sudden success?

    The challenge of OS and platform in Africa (which of course you are all far better informed than I) is something I’d been pondering for a past few years – it seems the big difference between success over mobile and the historic success of the PC platform is the lack of standardization of any given OS. One can hope that Android might take this space going forward, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this?


  10. The assumption here is that Nokia will sit back and watch as Android and them all come and eat their lunch. I think that is a wrong perception. I think 2011 is a year to watch what is the next move that Nokia is going to make. Nokia remains a formidable opponent for its competitors…. And afterall… as they will soon realise, Africa is not for sissys

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