There needs to be a distinction made between ICT for development and ICT in developing countries -- Ken Burns, Frontline SMS
I've been watching, and participating where I can, in discussions about the business opportunities in Africa. They are tremendous; especially, as they relate to computer and telecommunication services. I think the opportunity in ICT is being distinctly overlooked by western tech start-ups and in some ways being mismanaged by advisors to African tech start-ups.
But, first a story. I did not start Next2.us to make money. I am in my 50's and motivate by working on larger problems. Next2.us, I admit, is not pretty from the front but the supporting technology is good. Sure, at this stage its a bit slow, and hampered by the use of MySQL and not optimized to scale. But nevertheless, what the software does, I think, has applications as a SMS based social network for use in developing countries -- worldwide.
I built Next2.us so I could use it to locate local, fresh food sources located near me. I am still focused on delivering a software solution to help farmers connect together to grow more food and build markets for their products. In the United States there are a lot of consumer projects that are trying to create farm-to-table networks. In the developed countries early adopters, the media and start-ups are enamored with "native" web apps. Like a lot of things in life the computer industry is cyclical. We've now gone back with mobile to a closed proprietary "client-server" mentality that the internet completely busted open and will again. Steve Jobs wasn't right when he didn't allow other manufactures to make Apple computers and Android is going to slowly end-run the IOS operating system. It might take time but inevitably it will happen.
After working to deliver a farm-to-table solution connecting consumers to local farmers I realized that providing a interface to the Next2.us technology via SMS would open up a whole new world of opportunity.
In looking and studying what is going on in Africa I've come to a number of conclusions that appear to me to point to a restraint on a "outside" solution like Next2.us in gaining acceptance and traction in markets in Africa. I am not talking about restraints in infrastructure such as limited bandwidth, unreliable power, etc but more of a business mindset.
Some of my observations include;
- The development of home-grown technical talent in Africa is just beginning to show promise. Sure there are some notable success out of places such as South Africa and Nairobi but primarily due to the lack of leading computer engineering universities, Africa, is just starting to develop competent local programming talent.
- The focus of aid from outside via NGOs and government agencies has skewed the playing field. Due to funding criteria, local field works are constricted by the requirements imposed by their research (academic) or funding sources.
- Over reliance on open source solutions. Sure open source is great and I use it a lot in my own solution but the leading edge western solution have moved on from the open vs proprietary debate to one of discussing APIs and mashups and how start-ups can work together to build applications and services on top of each other's data.
- The engineers and coders behind open source solutions look to some of the same source of funders (hey we all got to eat) as the ICT for development field workers that use grant money to support their research.
Its all kind of an incestuous circle that goes round and round, from field researchers to open source solution providers to funders and back to grants field researchers write.
Everyone is kind of doing their own thing, running their own pilots, writing their own grant proposals, protecting their own funding sources and contact to local governments and while they are all telling funders they don't want to get locked into some proprietary silo they are creating a bunch of mini silos that kind of pop-up, generate some research and then fade away.
My intent here is not to criticize. Lord knows I am outside looking in and the work of researchers and the open source solutions they use and create have accomplished some real good and much better then what is going on in much of the for-profit world where small incremental, rather unimportant new technical twists are "ahhhed" over by the media and tech press. The work being done by researchers and open source solutions is way and above more valuable then the average western start-up; if only. by their focus on working on important issues and problems.
However, I think there is a role for business in ICT for development. And, I think an important role for western technical solutions and entrepreneurs to work with and support African entrepreneurs. The opportunity is huge. Bridges need to be built. Leading academic institutions in the west need to partner with computer science schools in Africa. Start-up incubators everywhere need to join together to share tech and business knowledge and market opportunities.
Tech entrepreneurs in African need to get out of the mind set that somehow western start-ups are going to re-colonize African. Its like they have this great secret about a beautiful continent, with an enormous, young population, with tremendous natural, cultural and human resources that is enjoying year after year of real growth and they don't want to share because they feel someone is going to come in from the outside and take it away from them.
I say "get over it" by dint of you being there, participating and aware of the opportunity you are way ahead of entrepreneurs, such as myself, that want to work with you and you are, in my opinion, only hurting yourself by trying to do everything on your own. Partner, build relationship, concentrate on what you know best and learn the rest.
In China after centuries of being closed the Chinese communist party finally woke up and welcomed foreign partners and encouraged technical transfer. Due to centralize authority they were able to control by regulation what percentage of local businesses a foreigner corporation could own. What the Chinese did was welcome technical transfer, learn through partnership and then take back ownership in key industries. Essentially, they kicked the bastards out of the "Middle Kingdom" after squeezing them dry of knowledge, technical know-how and money.
I am not saying China is African but sub-Saharan African countries would do well by developing their own technical transfer programs with western high tech companies to build local infrastucture, computer engineering talent and business know-how.