Sunday, July 8, 2012

On iPhones and Africa’s Tech Industry

Author: Christopher Guess

It was November 2008 and I had just returned to Nairobi from Tanzania where a friend and I had been traveling for the better part of three months. In need of a hamburger and a decent cup of coffee, we had decided to take a day trip to the very American-style Westgate Mall.  What we didn’t expect was to have to weave our way through a line, stretching for what seemed like a kilometer, leading up to the Orange mobile store.  After asking around for a few minutes, what we found out surprised us.  The line was for the opening release of Apple’s iPhone.  Much like other geeks, nerds and technophiles of the world, Kenyans had lined up to get their hands on what the tech world had dubbed a year earlier as the “Jesus Phone”.

I flew back to the US two days later and everyone wanted to hear stories.  Of all my tales and tragedies, the line for an Apple product was one of the few that truly surprised everyone. My friends had always thought that Africans lined up for food, not phones.

It’s an old story, albeit still a truthful and disappointing one, that Westerners have little understanding of Sub-Saharan Africa, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of technology.  Sure, there are places in Africa that time (and post-colonial recovery) has forgotten, but in many places the norm is becoming glass-encased, Wi-Fi-powered tech hubs, not clay brick huts. More than just cell phone access, the countries on the East and West coast of the continent are seeing their tech industries blossom. According to The Standard, one of Kenya’s top daily newspapers, at least 26% of Kenyans have Internet access. This is higher than even South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, with roughly 14% of its population online at the end of 2011.

Map of Africa's Tech Hubs
Education is lacking, but with near ubiquitous Internet access in major cities, a world of opportunity has been made available--pardon the cliché. What many people in the West seem not to realize is that the Internet works exactly the same, despite your location. Kenyans are meeting Nigerians, who are meeting Californians and Germans.  Isolation has long been one of the central issues holding back Sub-Saharan Africa; this is quickly becoming an absurd notion. Facebook and its ilk are omnipresent. Safaricom, a major mobile phone carrier in East Africa and a subsidiary of Britain’s Vodafone, allows people to use text-based Facebook and Twitter messaging, instead of SMS, on their mobile phones.

Tech environments, like the ones forming in Africa, are the primordial soup of new industries.  What makes this part of the world so fascinating are the opportunities and unique experiences that so many in its new generation offer, even when--maybe especially--compared to Silicon Valley or Seoul. Products have already proved the difference. One prime example most readers have probably heard of would be Ushahidi. The idea behind this software comes straight out of its birthplace in Kenya.

Ushahidi, a crowd mapping platform
developed in Kenya.
In 2008, Kenya was roiled in post-election violence, tribe on tribe, egged on by their respective sides and tribes.  In the middle of this conflict, as is so often the case, were bystanders and individuals wishing nothing more than to go about their everyday lives. Ushahidi, which has since grown far beyond its inventors’ initial expectations, was started by a small group of Kenyan journalists to allow ordinary people to serve as witnesses-- to report street violence and trouble spots. On too many occasions people lived in places that journalists, perhaps lacking deep contacts in those neighborhoods, could never imagine covering.  Since the spring of 2008, Ushahidi’s developers have made available, for free, their source code, including for both iPhone and Android mobile apps. Since this act of altruism, the service has been used the world over, the most famous example being in Haiti after the devastating earthquakes in 2010.

Technology producers cannot exist without technology consumers, however, and the consumers seem to be outpacing the major providers these days. There are too many examples of African ingenuity in the face of extraordinary circumstances to mention.  One of my favorite examples to tell, even though it may be a bit outdated, is the twin SIM card.  The quality of cell phone service can vary massively between carriers in Africa.  Though you can count on having phone signal almost everywhere, the issue is with roaming. The village and the city almost always have different coverage, but they do roam with each other for massively increased rates. To work around this problem, many people buy two SIM cards, one for the city, and one for their trips back home to their villages.  It works well, so well that mobile phone manufacturers started producing phones with twin SIM card slots. This is an idea that would never have occurred to western consumers or producers--it’s something uniquely African.

There are enough examples of African ingenuity and forethought to fill a book or, in my case, a series of columns over the next few months. Since I started researching for this piece, I’ve stumbled upon so many issues and solutions on the continent that my notebook is beginning to overflow.  I have been sitting on research and theories for a long time and I cannot wait to see what the readers of SEADiaspora think of them.

One last note, and to finish the story I started: I lucked out getting through the line at the Nairobi Orange store--concerts, and a few Star Wars openings in the United States, had taught me how to interact with a long line of people sitting in one place for far too long.  When we finally did get the hamburger, my writer friend and I sat down and looked at the early twentysomething Kenyan sitting next to us.  He was alternately checking his Facebook and coding what I’m quite sure was a PHP website.

Christopher Guess is a journalist, photographer and tech entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, New York. Christopher writes about emerging innovations and individuals within Africa’s tech industry. Through his reporting, he seeks to highlight the successes and issues that emerging economies face when transitioning to knowledge based economies. He has reported extensively in the United States and internationally on humanitarian and economic issues. Eastern Africa became a specific point of interest for him while travelling and reporting in the area in 2008. In addition to his journalism, Christopher is the co-founder of two tech start-ups in New York City, giving him a distinct vantage point on developmental milestones and opportunities.

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