Time is ripe for African innovators in the online services and apps market to up their game

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Time is ripe for African innovators in the online services and apps market to up their game

Last week Google held a very well attended G-Kenya event for developers. But this has been just one of several things that have been happening on the continent that show a renewed focus on services and apps development. There is fertile ground for African tech innovators but they need to decide what prize they will be seeking, writes Russell Southwood.

For a moment, it seemed like there would be lots of bandwidth (both national and international) and crashing prices but not much local content, services or apps to use on it. But below the radar, there have been a number of developments that saw the light of day over the last month that show Africa’s tech entrepreneurs are gearing up to fill this gap.

Take three developments that have happened:

* At the end of August, Maker Faire Africa was held at the University of Nairobi, bringing together makers and inventors for everything from solar power devices to childrens’ crafts. This was the second Maker Faire Africa and it is organised by some influential people including Erik Hersman (of iHub and Ushahidi fame), TED Africa producer Emeka Okafor, Mark Grimes from Ned.com, Henry Barnor of GhanaThink and social designer Emer Beamer.

200 people came together to showcase innovations that included using waste materials to make things, water saving devices for agriculture, social media applications for mobile phones and a new manufacturing process for sisal rope. Why might this be important for the ICT sector? Well, for two reasons.

Firstly, the winner of an award sponsored by General Electric was a Kenyan physics teacher called Robert Mburu who created a new alarm that that can be activated or deactivated using a mobile phone. It incorporates motion sensors, a digital display showing the number of intruders and has 98% success rate up to 15 metres. Mburu’s prize is a week that will be spent learning from top GE scientists in Bangalore, India. "When my television got stolen, I was inspired to work towards finding home grown solutions to Africa's problems," said the winner.

The second reason is that events like this breed the habit of innovation, something that will be central to the process of developing a market in services and apps for both mobiles and the Internet. More of which in a minute…

* Erik Hersman was one of the key movers behind the launch of iHub, based at the top of an office block out on Nairobi’s traffic-jammed Ngong Road:” Ushahidi bankrolled it initially. We wanted to give back to the country. We said to ourselves, let’s try it. We wanted someone to fund it but no-one wanted to. But once we got going, they all became corporate partners. If you put enough smart people in a room, good things will happen.”

And physically, that’s all the iHub is: a well-designed airy room with comfortable, funky seating, free Wi-Fi (with a 20 mbps connection from Zuku) and a small café. But the space it provides offers the “soft” element so often missing in grand schemes to promote entrepreneurship: it allows networking, a place to work for those starting out and good place for visiting tech people to get a feel for what’s happening amongst developers.

Based on membership, it has various different levels that allow anyone to become part of its network and use its facilities. One level of membership allows you desk space, a locker and the use of a conference room. Hersman believes that there will be 150 members by the end of the year:”It’s a place to find people for jobs and see what events are going on. Using its website, you will be able to see examples of work members have done and when employed, they will rate you on things like how they were treated and speed of payment.”

“It’s a little like a co-working space. There’s a new space in London called Tech Hub and the model is interesting and very similar. What we’re doing is very much experimental.” The physical space is used by an average of 20-40 people a week. But Hersman points out that the potential constituency is much larger: 600 plus people attended Bar Camp Africa, a mixture of developers, programmers and bloggers:”It’s a growing market and we need to find enough seed capital so that 10% (of ideas) make it. There are not enough guys taking a risk. Local investors want 60% of the business. We need people willing to put up US$10,000-50,000 to get the ball rolling.”

* This week’s G-Kenya event attracted 1,200 people and a similar event in Uganda around 650 people. However, by the time I attended a panel event on Tuesday numbers had slipped down to a hardcore of 400-500 people. But whichever way you look at it, this was a big event with an outside marquee for breaks and a DJ running sounds through those breaks.

Google is seeking to get its products into a market that now has the bandwidth and devices to use them (see story in Telecoms News below). Nelson Mattos, Engineering Vice President, announced the Kenyan launch of Android Market, the Apps store that will allow developers to sell their products and services anywhere: in the local market; across Africa; and globally to 2 million business users and 25 million individual users. Android phones are late into the African market but will begin to catch up in the next 18 months.

I participated as a panellist in the “Idea to Product” session. There was a low-intensity spat between one panellist and myself that I found revealing. I made a comment that there was too much “me-too innovation” in Africa and that copying what someone else had done elsewhere for the local market was not really innovation. This touched a nerve with one of my fellow panellists who responded by saying he wanted to make money and that there was nothing wrong with taking ideas from elsewhere and making a success them.

He was reasonably pointing out that there was much work to be done in “localising” services and apps for the local market in the short-term and that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with doing that. Original ideas were few in number and often these ideas were simply new ways of using existing techniques.

The reason I was pushing this line of argument was that in my position I get to see a lot of news and that this goes in waves. It has felt like there has been a seemingly endless stream of announcements for Facebook look-alikies. I’m counting three in Kenya alone and often these are skin-deep products that simply that take a local brush to a platform created elsewhere. The giveaway on these kinds of products is that they don’t have many users and have very little original content (for example, in the case of a recent West African classified site bought to our attention). In other words, the developer has really taken the smallest of risk and has not understand how to create the all-important community of users that will actually turn a “dead” site into a living, breathing success.

In the long-term, African developers will need to create services and apps that stand comparison with their peers in African other countries and ultimately with the fierce market of global ideas around the planet. So for example, Seedcamp the European micro seed fund that focuses on early stage startups chose three South African start-ups at its inaugural Tech4Africa Conference to go on to compete at its European Seedcamp week. The 3 selected startups include: Cognician: www.cognician.com  GetaGreatBoss: www.getagreatboss.com iSigned.com: www.isigned.com

Now you might fault their judgement in not managing to find innovative potential start-ups outside of South Africa but it’s harder to disagree with their sense of global ambition. This route may not be for everyone but unless it is for some within the developer community then Africa will simply be producing look-alikies into the middle distance.

Things like M-Pesa (which was not actually birthed in Africa), Ushahidi and the SMS exams service in Kenya (see Computer News below) are all innovative ideas. When the exam service went live, it got 1.5 million requests. Real innovation is about ideas that don’t really exist combined with a need for them. Africa needs more of this kind of innovation because it will make for successful global products. These products will get money into the continent that will create a very different future for Africa. And that’s the challenge ahead….