Community Connectedness as a Competitive Advantage

In the last couple weeks I’ve had the opportunity to be in Nigeria (Maker Faire Africa), followed by South Africa (AfricaCom). Along with Kenya, these countries represent the biggest technology countries on the continent. They are the regional tech hub cities at this point in Africa.

In both places I was struck by how different each country is, and the challenges and opportunities that arise due to the tech community’s connectedness, regulatory stance and local entrepreneurship culture.

The Kenyan tech community in the iHub

Some Theories

South Africa has so much infrastructure, you’re immediately struck by how money isn’t an issue there. The lesson I took away from the DEMO Africa conference is that South Africans are far, far ahead of the rest of the continent in enterprise apps and services. They tend to see themselves as “not African”, and try to identify with Americans or Europeans. This comes out in their tech products, they have a more global focus and tend to fill the gaps that are needed by the many multinational corporates that call South Africa their home in Africa.

Nigeria has so many people, it overwhelms in it’s pure mass. It’s a bit cramped, louder, and more energetic than almost any other country in Africa. Nigerians have a long history in entertainment, with their Nollywood films and music spreading across the continent. It wouldn’t be surprising to find a killer entertainment consumer app coming from Nigeria, that can be exported regionally and internationally.

Kenyan tech companies tend to focus on localized consumer needs, and we have a competitive advantage in anything to do with mobile money. Even in the secondary and tertiary uses, I’m always struck by how much more advanced the Kenyan startups are with local eCommerce products and marketplaces than their other African counterparts.

Kenya is smaller than Nigeria and has less infrastructure than South Africa. Why then are there so many more startups per capita, more innovative products coming from Kenya right now?

A History of Community

Kenya’s technology scene is vibrant and there’s a certain connectedness amongst the community that isn’t found in the other two countries, yet.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

I was in Ghana in 2009 for the first Maker Faire Africa. I went around visiting a lot of tech companies and individuals I had gotten to know via blogging over the years. What struck me at the time was that there wasn’t even a tech mailing list that connected the community. We’d had the Skunkworks mailing list in Kenya since 2006. My assumption had been that every country with any type of critical mass in tech had a forum of some sort for connecting tech people to each other.

20+ members in the Ghana tech community came together at Maker Faire Africa and decided to start Ghana tech mailing list. I’m still subscribed to it, and it’s a great resource for both myself and those using it. With that list, and the founding of MEST in 2008 (their tech entrepreneur training center) that Ghana’s tech scene started to get connected and move forward strongly together a couple years ago.

Points of view

Fast forward to Nigeria a couple weeks ago. As far as I can tell, there are some tech-related forums, though not a mailing list. These have been valuable in connecting people, but it seems that the ccHub, founded last year, is the start of a real connectedness between members of the tech community. I got the feeling that all the energy and entrepreneurialism that makes up the Nigerian culture of business now has a tech heart and that we’ll see an acceleration of growth in the coming years that has been missing until now.

For many years, the tech bloggers of South Africa organized and centralized conversations around tech with events like 27Dinner, BarCamps and more. They have long-standing tech hubs, such as Bandwidth Barn, they have a network of angel investors and greater access to VC funding. There wasn’t a centralized mailing list or forum back in the day (before 2008) that I know of. A few years ago we saw the rise of Silicon Cape, an initiative to bring attention to Cape Town’s startup culture.

At AfricaCom an interesting discussion ensued around South Africa’s tech community and questions on why it wasn’t getting as much attention or traction as Kenya. Two points were brought up that I think are incredibly important.

First, while Silicon Cape is focused on branding (and doing a good job of it), what is really needed is someone to bring the new tech hubs, startups, angel investors, media, academia, corporations, and even the government together. There’s a lot of activity, each in it’s own silo. It’s a hard job being the trusted bridge between these different parts of what can be a very opinionated and political community. I’d suggest that Silicon Cape’s mission should be to do just this.

Second, In Kenya and Nigeria the founders of startups tend to look a lot like a cross section of the country’s population. The tech community in South Africa doesn’t look a lot like the racial makeup of the country. to put it bluntly, I rarely see a black South African tech entrepreneur. Not being from there, I’m not sure why this is, so it’s just an observation. It’s hard to build a product for a community that you’re not from, nor understand, so I can’t help but think that the South African tech scene would benefit greatly by having more people building companies to solve problems from all parts of that country’s stratified makeup.

A Connected Community

Sitting at 38,000 feet writing this piece, I keep thinking how there seems to be a link between the connectedness of a tech community in a country and it’s vibrancy as an industry. Though I realize there are other variables, this explanation helps me explain why Kenya is further ahead in some areas than other countries.

As I look to Kenya more deeply I’m struck by how important the egoless actions of individuals like Riyaz Bachani and Josiah Mugambi (Skunkworks), Dr. Bitange Ndemo (Government), Joe Mucheru (Google), and others have been in setting us on a trajectory that we all benefit from as the whole becomes greater than the sum of it’s parts.

This theory of a connected tech community doesn’t mean that the everyone always agrees or walks in lock-step with each other. There’s a healthiness in internal critique and desire to find solutions beyond the status quo of the moment. However, I do think it does provide a foundational element for cities and countries trying to grow a more meaningful and vibrant tech community.

The connectedness can come in two ways, digital and analog, and will have a different flavor in each country that mirrors it’s own culture. It helps to have a centralized digital space to throw out questions, opinions and find answers on efficiently. Equally, I think we’re seeing that analog, physical meeting spaces that are represented by the growing number of tech hubs around the continent are another way to accelerate the connectedness needed to grow.

Africa’s tech hubs are the new centralized meeting spaces, the watering holes, for connectivity and connectedness. However, it’s not enough to have a space, without local champions who are willing to make it their mission to grow, connect and bridge the tech ecosystem (gov’t, corporates, startups, academia, investors), then they won’t work.

16 thoughts on “Community Connectedness as a Competitive Advantage

  1. Mbwana Alliy

    I am really thrilled you wrote this post Erik, but you certainly mirrored my observations in my recent tours of Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa. Fascinated by Nigeria & Ghana as well. I also am trying to think about Portuguese speaking countries via my trip to Lisbon, Mozambique and Angola have their place in Africa too- and my journey there began in Lisbon! Met a number of Angolan students studying there. The power of the diaspora should not be underestimated and is related to the connectedness and community point you raise.

    With contentedness comes better alignment, with alignment comes better planning and vision. Without a vision, you can’t hope to get where you want to. Even though we knock initiatives like Konza City in Kenya, at least there are conversations about them in the open and folks know what it can and can’t solve- and an outsider can decide how that helps them vs working with grassroots hubs.

    Even though I have my reservations about impact investors in early stage tech, over time I understand where their model might work for what sectors- but only through being connected to them and conversations.

    Even though there is a talent gap in Kenya, I can walk into the iHub at saturday 9am and see a ruby on rails class taught by an experienced Silicon Valley Developer…

    This is why Kenya is a winner.

  2. Christiano Kwena

    Based on your explanation, Hash, I think SA has a problem with publicity because it’s industry is quite artificial as compared to the Kenyan one that is organic. Of course, this blog already highlights this fact.
    Thanks for yet another enlightening explanation.

  3. chidi

    Nice one as this is my irst time on this site. I have heard somethings about Kenya’s tech initiatives from here in Nigeria. I think these hub initiatives have to turn into fund-propelled companies that can go viral. So more investor-techie forums have to be organised at intimate fora. The diaspora community is also very important for a country like Nigeria that has huge populations abroad. It is instructive that two of Nigeria’s major sites – notjustok.com for entertainment nd saharareporters.com for politics are operated from the US!

  4. Victor Asemota (@asemota)

    I am also doing this at 38,000 feet above the ground in the middle of nowhere. I wrote a long comment previously but lost it thanks to OnAir from Emirates on the Airbus A380.

    Thanks for an insightful post. Brad Feld in his article then book mentioned this type of social interaction as an imperative to building communities.

    I will also add my theories as to why West and South Africa are the way they are because I have lived and worked in both places.

    West Africans (Ghana. Nigeria) do connect online but in social media (Twitter and Facebook), the narcissism in “us” makes it difficult to do things in closed forums where it is impossible for us to be loud and be heard by the rest of the world. Nairaland is one of the most popular online locations for Nigerians and there you see loudness at its best.

    I have tried many times to get a lot of the people who regularly voice their opinions in 140 or less to either join closed forums or write blog posts but they prefer instead to connect in public and offer a lot of noise without substance.

    Ghana is better than Nigeria in this instance as there is less noise but there is a subtle form of elitist tinge to the community. Beyond MEST and others, the interaction in Ghana is based on the old boy/alma mater network which is hard to break into if you are not an “insider”.

    Nigeria has a lot of promise but infrastructure remains a problem. There is a greater chance of success with analog communities there and more locations like ccHub will be required to get more people connected as Nigeria is really HUGE. Nigerians know how to do one thing very well and that is adapt, I am sure that there will be some fantastic new ventures coming out of there shortly as the noise is gradually toned down.

    South Africa is a sad one for me personally as racism still plays a big role even though people fail to admit it openly. By racism, I don’t mean only white discrimination against blacks but also vice versa. The digital communities in SA are a reflection of the analog ones built around institutions and locations where people live. Cape Town and Pretoria communities are predominantly white because they started from where white people live and work. Segregation is still there and it is enforced by economic reality.

    BEE also does not help as it makes the white community petrified and brings a sense of entitlement to the black community that does not help in building the kind of communities startups need. It is easier for people of colour from outside SA to work with both sides there than for them to work with each other.

    I believe we all have a lot to gain from SA as they are advanced and dynamic. I believe we should do away with pitching ourselves against each other as regions but rather work together as one larger African community with common problems. Working together across the continent will help each region to overcome their constraints and also let them grow internally.

    I am happy you are in touch with these communities and it is important for all of us to interact and share experiences.

    I hope this posts before my data allowance is gone. I have spent $30 already just to make a comment :) That is part of my contribution to the African community.

  5. Steve Song

    Erik, you put your finger on it. There is a sense of common cause in Kenya. While I am generally opposed to nationalism, I love the way that a sense of pride in the Kenyan ICT sector bonds people together. That is the essence of what is different between Kenya and South Africa. I think if we could change two things, South Africa could live up to its potential in the communication sector. Those two things are education and leadership.

    Education. South Africa has struggled to reform and recover from the pernicious evil that was the bantu education system. It hasn’t done nearly as well as even modest aspirations would expect. There are many opinions as to why but the reality is that South Africa isn’t turning out intellectually hungry and ambitious graduates in the quantity that it should.

    Leadership. ICT sector success is a three-legged stool which involves government, industry, and consumers. KICTANet embodies this beautifully. It is an amazing forum where industry leaders, entrepreneurs, government mandarins, and consumers engage with each other. In South Africa, we have no ground level engagement with the Ministry of Communications and no leadership from them. This has led to a corrosive bitterness where we now almost expect government to do something appallingly stupid. They end up living down to our expectations.

    Contrast this with Kenya where one can see people like Michael Joseph and Bitange Ndemo visibly engaging with everyday people. You may not agree with them but they are there articulating their vision and engaging with other Kenyans about the future.

    In South Africa, the Ministry of Communication lives in fear of being ridiculed (again) by industry and the media. This encourages them to do nothing. I believe that if the ANC appointed someone with courage, knowledge, and conviction to the post of Minister of Communication or even to the post of Director General, we could turn things around.

  6. Scarlett Fondeur Gil

    The UNCTAD Information Economy Report 2012 was released yesterday and looks at the software industry in developing countries. It also makes a point of the importance of fostering tech communities, in particular software developers. We say to governments that they need to facilitate collaboration in what you call “the tech ecosystem (gov’t, corporates, startups, academia, investors)” to develop national software capabilities, innovation, and overall ICT use and demand. I think you would find it a good read: http://www.unctad.org/ier2012

  7. Simon

    As a an ex-pat living in South Africa for 5 years now, I believe I have seen enough to share a modest opinion on the racial divide of entrepreneurship. Whilst I make no attempt to make any sort of judgement on the merits (or lack thereof) of BEE, I can comment on what I have observed. One of the unintended consequences is that white folk (rightly or wrongly) believe that they have no future within a corporate environment. As a result the easiest path to success for them is to start their own business. On the other hand, black folk find the going easier within a corporate environment. So whilst in a normal economy everybody should be swimming in the same stream, BEE serves the purpose of creating 2 opposite flowing streams. For white folk swimming downstream means self-employment. For black folk, swimming downstream means corporate employment. It thus stands to reason that there will be a natural divide in this regard as each group chooses to take the easier path (in general). As a result, in my humble opinion, the greatest barrier to black entrepreneurship (particularly in technology) is not skills or education as many people believe but the ironic consequence of BEE.

  8. Indra de Lanerolle

    Thank you Erik for a very interesting set of thoughts and observations. I wanted to add an aspect of connectedness to your idea though and thats the connectedness of the online community in general (beyond the tech community). In South Africa until relatively recently the entire online community was overwhelmingly white and the online culture that has developed here reflects this. Mxit was an exception but not the rule. While Steve is certainly right I think about the importance of education, I’m not sure that really explains it. I think theres a social explaination – I’d suggest that the elite in SA is much less like – or maybe much less connected to – the rest of the population than the elites in Kenya or Nigeria. And so the Internet until recently reflected that social disconnection. Of course your observation about race in South Africa is right but I don’t think Victor Asemota’s gloss is quite right. English speaking white people have always had strong links to especially the UK and its white majority colonies and I think that was a big motivation for them to get online (international phone calls are expensive). For most South Africans (who would never have dreamed of making international phone calls and who are coming out of a long history of isolation – especially from the rest of Africa) – the Internet has just been too hard to access and too expensive to afford.

    But we have just published research #TheNewWave at University of Witwatersrand in collaboration with Research ICT Africa (www.networksociety.co.za) that shows that this is really changing – two thirds of Internet of user are now black (speak african languages at home) and most new users live on low incomes (one third below official SA poverty line – less than about $60 per month). Through new projects like JoziHub I’m hoping that we can begin to address changing the profile of the tech community but I think an important driver will be that there is now a real market of South Africans who are much more typical of the population as a whole and that the people who are going to be able to address their needs are people who understand them.

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  10. Joe

    Hi

    There were a number of strong online communities in ZA before 2008. Clug.org.za mailing lists from 1999. Internet.org.za lists. Ispa.org.za lists from 1996. Probably a few before that.

    Maybe not very centralised – and you can’t really have 6k people on a mailing list – but I sometimes miss the mailing list culture.

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  14. Alexandra Fraser

    Great post Erik and some important points made. I agree with you 100%. Silicon Cape definitely needs to focus on connectedness within our own ecosystem, as well as with other African and global tech hubs. This is a goal for the new Exco and something we have already been discussing.

    In terms of the profile of our community this too needs to change. We need to include and connect with all members of the tech sector – young, old, female, male, black or white – through greater awareness, inclusion and specially designed initiatives. Two additional portfolio positions on the Exco have been created specifically to focus on issues around transformation and on students and careers – showcasing how careers and business opportunities in tech are viable options.

    We have a very enthusiastic and capable new committee so hopefully we will see additional positive results in this space in the not too distant future.

  15. r

    Encountered your post via ‘CP-Africa’ (http://www.cp-africa.com/). Very interesting, thanks!

    On the basis of comments by others, one conclusion is that it is very valuable for Africans to travel between themselves and learn, collaborate together, rather than flying exclusively to Europe.

    > Victor Asemota

    A useful explanation, thank you!

  16. Solomon

    Interesting article by whiteafrican, however, despite his pride in the Kenyan (and east Africa generally) app market dominated by mobile money apps, it’s unfortunate to note that such apps would be obsolete in south Africa and are not practical (this was a lesson I quickly learnt as a developer recently relocated to south Africa from Uganda). This is because the banking industry is advanced (70% of the population have a bank account) and the industry boosts some of the best apps you will see anywhere. FNB’s ewallet application for instance makes mobile money (so popular in east Africa) seem like an app from the 80’s because you receive money through an SMS message on your phone and withdraw it from any ATM machine at your own convenience (no need for an agent or a middle man). Mobile money apps are indigenous to east Africa because very few own bank accounts and the majority have ordinary phones whereas the majority in South Africa have back accounts and own smart phones with access to the internet making the South African market ripe for high end mobile apps.

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