The market for apps in DRC can only get bigger

Digital Content

Carlo Lekea, a nattily dressed 22-year-old res- ident of Kinshasa, has just created the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) first mobile phone application.

I would take computers apart and figure out what made them operate, but later I got into software

The app is a relatively modest affair, better enabling readers of Impact, a magazine produced by France's co-operation agency in the country, to access content on their mobile phones.

For Lekea, however, the app is just a stepping stone towards greater things: "I have many other projects that I'm pitching to clients. I want my apps to have international, not just local, appeal."

Lekea says Congolese app developers' main constraint is low internet penetration.

Only 200,000 Congolese people have reliable internet access either via computer or smartphone, with an unknown number of others who regularly visit cyber cafes.

"Here in Kinshasa and throughout the country we have constant electricity shortages that do not help. And a good internet subscription is around $100 a month, which is a salary or more for most people," he explains.

The Congolese authorities have yet to show much interest in apps, and Lekea has not experienced any political restrictions on his efforts.

The problem, he says, is more the threat new technology poses to rent-seeking bureaucrats: "I and other designers have pro- posed digital solutions for several state organisations to digitise their archives and make public access easier, but they block this.

They do not want access to be easy. If it was easy, they would not be able to collect fees for finding documents."

Lekea taught himself information and communications technology (ICT) in Bologna, Italy, where he lived from a young age until his return to Africa in 2011.

As with so many people in the field of technology, he says his original inspiration was Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple.

"I told myself I wanted to be like him. At that time, I was more into hardware. I wanted to understand how it works. I would take computers apart and figure out what made them operate, but later I got into software.

"I started off by creating a website for a local Bologna football team," he says.

Lekea first went to Brazzaville and struggled to make a living there.

He crossed the river to settle in Kinshasa two years ago.

He started working for telecommunications company Tigo but was frustrated.

He said that internal politics blocked his efforts to develop an app there.

Lekea quit and set up his own company called Idea IT & Conception.

He laments the standard of computer programming in the DRC, which he says is still woefully low.

"Programmers here have very little experience, have not studied to a high enough level and have too little access to computers.

"I meet programmers with diplomas in ICT from Congolese institutions, but when I speak to them I can see that there are many things missing, particularly relating to the latest technology."

Internet surge

Mobile telephony and internet provision certainly have much scope for growth in DRC. Around 35% of people have mobile telephones while only 2.3% of the population have access to the internet, according to a 2013 report by internet research firm BuddeComm.

Internet access is also likely to surge in 2014, as the DRC completed connection to the WACS undersea fibreoptic cable in 2013.

This will help the rollout of cheaper and faster download services.

Meanwhile, Lekea is already looking to his next project: "We Congolese, we love to talk, so anything in chat or social media is going to have appeal.

And as smartphone penetration grows, this market can only get bigger.

The trick is to conceive an app that taps into this but in an original Congolese way. I have plenty of ideas for this. Watch this space."