What African developers need to do to offer ‘African solutions to African problems’ presciption
Africans have had problems since colonization and neocolonization eras; problems that have led to illiteracy, ignorance, half baked literacy, and outright stupidity. These root problems have resulted in poverty, dictatorial governance, corruption, wars and conflicts, and most importantly importation of solutions to solve them. For example dictatorial/bad governance and corruption have generated conflicts in countries such as Mali, DRC, Somali and others but the attempted solutions to these conflicts have been Western orchestrated.
Since 2005, there have been talks by the African leaders aimed at finding solutions to the African problems in Africans ways and resources. However, as this article by Abukar Aman tries to explain, the African solutions to African problems don’t seem to bear much fruit.
It is not just the wars and conflicts that has received the ‘African solution to African problems’ prescription but poverty, leadership, education, health, entrepreneurship, and many others have also had a good share of ‘African solution to African problems’ redress.
Just recently, a week before President Obama hosted the African leaders in White House in order to create a working relationship between the respective African countries and USA, and in reference to the huge debts hanging on the necks of most African countries, President Obama called on the African leaders to stop “making excuses” for ongoing economic problems in their countries. He said,
As powerful as history is, and you need to know that history, at some point you have to look to the future and say, “OK, we didn’t get a good deal then, but let’s make sure that we’re not making excuses for not going forward”
Added to the call for the African leaders to forget the past, or at least forget the source of their current problems, is the statement that the leaders should “stop looking somewhere else for solutions” and “start looking for solutions internally.”
These he said while addressing a group of 500 young Africans who were attending a leadership course in Washington; and this brings me to the other problem that Africans have faced since colonialism and neocolonialism eras; the leadership problem – a problem that also requires the ‘African solutions to African problems’ prescription, and President Obama wants to help.
The help by President Obama has come in the form of Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) or the Mandela Washington Fellowship that has since trained 500 young Africans in the areas of business and entrepreneurship, civic engagement and public administration. The aim of the fellowship is to allow the young leaders to “access professional development opportunities, mentoring, networking, training, and seed funding to support their ideas, businesses, and organizations” that will be using in developing their respective countries. Forty six Kenyans were lucky to have joined the YALI programme.
Then most recently Google’s Access Field Development Director Kai Wulff, speaking to Techmoran about the need for African Startups to create solutions to Africa and not the West, added his voice on the ‘African solutions to African problems’ by saying,
Whether one is creating a mobile app, a factory or any business idea they should focus on creating solutions for the continent and not building for the west. There are many startups replicating ideas that are successful in the west which might not work in Africa. Africa needs developers building for Africa instead of targeting the US , Europe or other markets.
The need for African startups to create solutions for Africa is even more necessary as foreign startups who base themselves in Africa don’t come to create solutions for Africa but for the West too as seen in Wulff’s further statement saying,
There are not enough people creating solutions for Africa. Most businesses want to use cheap labour to create solutions on Africa for the west and this means they’re not developing the local ecosystem at all. They think they can just create and sell it. We need startups that believe in Africa and are building for Africa.
I read the statements by Wulff and asked Kachwanya the question, knowing that he has dealt with many developers for many years, “Why isn’t it easy for our tech developers to come up with products that are directed to solving our unique Kenyan problems?” His response enabled me to come up with and analyse three major reasons that prevent our tech developers from generating the so called African solutions to African problems or to be more specific, Kenyan solutions to Kenyan problems. The three obstacles are 1. Ignorance 2, Neocolonialism and 3. Monetization Excuses.
The type of ignorance I am referring to is that type which the ignorant isn’t aware of. What the Kenyan tech developers are ignorant of are the very Kenyan problems they ought to offer solutions to. This is to a large extent influenced by neocolonialism that I will address in the next section and also by their lack of will/interest to acquire both theoretical and experiential knowledge of the problems.
Kachwanya describes the ignorance by the following words:
The developers don’t read – they don’t watch news – they are the most ignorant people even for the fields they are developing for. They only read codes…
Most of the Kenyan tech developers are urban breeds who watch Hollywood movies, shop at Yaya , Play Need for Speed and FIFA games, and read New York Times online if they must. Their basis for creating tech products are inspired by fundamentals by the Western pioneers, application examples based on Western enterprises and lifestyles, and their dreams and visions set by the Western success stories. They probably don’t even have these inspirations; as probably, the only thing they know how to do is to code. They are no different from my college Physics professor who knew nothing away from Quantum Mechanics Equations – he talked in that language literally.
That’s before we even take them to the real world where the problems manifest. The Kenyan tech developers are expected to generate solutions to problems unique to Kenyans, but are they practically familiar with the very problems? Yes they are supposed to come up with tech products to solve drought, famine, hunger, malaria, water, farming, settlement and housing, early childhood education, basic school infrastructure; they are expected to help sort hawking menace, garbage collection and disposal, urban planning and development, traffic jams; they are also required to solve family conflicts, offer products for relationship enhancements, come up with networking tools, simplify business management; but do they have practical experiences in these sectors?
Neocolonialism is highly linked to ignorance and works in several layers, top being education and training. Take for example the young 500 Africans that are under the Mandela Washington Fellowship programme to become the next generation African leaders, a number of which is expected to reach 1000 by 2016, what governance and leadership template are they trained by the top American universities to follow?
During colonization, those who were to become the liberating leaders in the struggle to independence were those who were schooled in the greed of Western culture – greed to concur resources and wealth to oneself, greed to enslave Africans for the development of the privileged white, and greed to squander the cunningly or forcefully acquired resources to live large lifestyle. The Western schooling trained our so called leaders to abandon the African togetherness but embrace Western capitalism whose foundation for prosperity is greed and superiority. The master-slave relationship the White colonialists had with native Africans was transferred to the leaders, leaders who practically applied the training by transforming to become the modern day White masters.
The education that taught our leaders how to be greedy hasn’t changed. Companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and all others are very successful because they know how best to implement the greedy capitalism business model. Take Apple for example, the slave-like labour it uses to manufacture iPhones in China, ability to cover cheap internal architecture with expensive aluminium casing, exploitation of rare African resources got from conflict torn DRC (read: Smart gadgets fueling DRC war?), and its direct robbery of cash by setting profit margins at 65 per cent, 35 per cent higher than the industry’s margin of 30 per cent, has managed to make Apple the biggest company worldwide by market capitalization.
Continued Western education is making more and more Africans think of how best to exploit fellow Africans for their business growth and profitability. An example of a philosophically corrupted company is Safaricom that is borrowing heavily from the business strategies of the West. To illustrate, just recently Safaricom announced a reduction of M-PESA transaction fees yet in real sense the company increased the M-PESA transactions fees by 27 per cent overall, and hid this fact from the consumers.
Just as the independence African leaders were taught to be greedy and manage to be excellent dictators whose primary aim was to enrich themselves and thus generate the modern day African problems, the modern day entrepreneurs and young leaders are being taught on how to be chief capitalists – how will they offer African Solutions to African Problems.
The other layer in which neocolonialism works is the ability with which it manages to make Africans not living under the African Problems, or those who have escaped the African Problems into the First World Problems, to not know what African Problems look like hence cannot relate to. This is the greatest challenge our tech developers face.
Once a tech developer acquire the Western education (that we Africans offer), they immediately start thinking from the worldview of Western cultures hence are only able to create tech products for solving the first world problems. An example is the Automs.gs App that won last year’s Vodafone Appstar Challenge developed by Benard Mukangu. Despite being an App that addresses first world problems like forgetting birthdays of spouses (which has become a ‘major’ African problem thanks to Hollywood movies), the App still went ahead and won the 2013 Vodafone AppStar Challenge whose criteria for selection of successful Apps was and still is an App “designed to meet the local market consumer needs with relevance to the target demographic.” The description of Automs.gs reads:
An SMS/Text scheduling tool that helps you never forget to send the important messages in life.
Another important layer that neocolonialism works at is the funding issue. African governments reliance on donor funds down to startups reliance on Western seed funds play a big role in African tech developers not being able to develop products capable of offering the African solutions to African problems. This is because donors and Western venture capitalists will only fund projects they can relate to, and projects these people can relate to are those projects that solve problems they can understand, and they can only understand the so called first world problems. Vodafone Appstar Challenge judging criteria explains this part explicitly
The application submitted could be used in other territories with similar consumer needs.
3. Monetization Excuses
In late July I met one of the Kenyan tech developers by the name John Muiruri and interviewed him on his experience as an App Developer with Intel. I posted the Interview in the article Profile: Meet John Muiruri, App developer with Intel. Here is an excerpt of the Interview:
Odipo: It has been said Kenyans don’t like Apps developed by Kenyans, do you have the same experience?
Muiruri: I would say so. Very few Kenyans don’t just not like Apps developed by fellow Kenyans but paid Apps too.
Odipo: That could be because Kenyan App developers don’t know what Kenyans really want? That is, Kenyan App developers come up with App ideas with foreign markets in mind?
Muiruri: That is partly true. Personally I have identified a unique need of Kenyans and I am working on an App to address that need.
The second part of that excerpt touching on knowledge of Kenyan’s needs/wants has been addressed under ignorance. The first part is very important. John Muiruri said that Kenyans dislike Apps developed by Kenyans (most probably because of ignorance factor) and also Kenyans generally dislike paid apps.
What the second part implies is that there is one major monetization model Kenyan app developers like, they create apps tfor sale.
I posed the same line of argument (that Kenyans don’t like to buy apps) to Kachwanya after I read Wulff’s statements. I asked him if the tendency of Kenyans not to buy apps is contributing to tech developers not being interested to make Apps for Kenyans and here is what he replied:
Nope. The success of the tech in other parts of the world does not depend on people buying apps. You cant do consumer apps and expect people to buy. That does not happen even in the West. Look at Facebook, Twitter, etc.
It is not just Kachwanya that holds to the opinion that lack of willingness to buy apps is just a silly excuse. In October 2013 Marco Armen who describes himself as “a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast” wrote an article he titled, “Yep, paid apps are dead” in which he started by quoting Jeremy Olson who said:
I have been talking to a lot of the most successful app makers out there — who many would assume are millionaires off their top apps — and I’m hearing the same thing again and again: people just aren’t buying as many apps anymore. …
People are downloading more apps than ever before and there are still incredible opportunities. Developers who can adapt have an extremely bright future!
Having that in mind, it is clear that the inability for Kenyan tech developers to monetize their products is not because Kenyans are unwilling to pay, but because they (developers) are ignorant of products Kenyans are willing to use – which basically goes back to the ignorance argument, and their ignorance is largely caused by neocolonialism.
The biggest challenge faced by Kenyan and African developers in general is ignorance of African problems. The way forward for prescribing “African solutions to African problems” will therefore be to fight ignorance. Fighting ignorance that one is not aware of is rather hard; but even if one would humble him/herself and accept that he/she is ignorant, the unlearning that is required is not an easy task.
This is so as one wouldn’t just need to acquire knowledge of the African problems, but to foremost unlearn the Western oriented “wisdom” so as to appreciate what actually ails Africans. Close to none will be willing to undergo this unlearning process.
The short cut is for the tech developers to forego the unlearning stage but go straight to watching news and visiting local villages and towns to add “African Problems” as part of their both theoretical and experiential knowledge.
A few tech developers in all industries might be willing to unlearn and come up with solutions that can truly solve the African problems, but if the leadership that provide the political and economic environment for implementing such solutions do not unlearn, then the unlearning by the tech developers shall have been in vain.