As Africa approaches a population boom and the challenges that come in suit, the growth of one landscape – technology – is becoming crucial in order to shape the future all the others.
In the age of climate change, tech’s power lies in its potential to get hyper-localized solutions into the communities that need them, says Kennedy Kirui, co-founder of Tanasuk Africa, a design thinking and software consulting firm based in Nairobi, Kenya. Here, he gives the lowdown on the state of African tech and why its future success depends on developers falling in love with problems.
Could you tell us a bit about what you do?
We work with organizations in Africa, helping them develop and build products that people will use. We focus on understanding the design and software development processes and how to identify which tools to use for which particular problem.
People often just conceptualize [new ventures] based on their assumptions and the environment they live in. They invest money in building a product and take it to market only for it to flop. By leveraging more of the design thinking process by doing more field research early on, building quick prototypes, testing and then using that knowledge to decide whether to go forward, to tweak it or to abandon it entirely, we’ve managed to help people save quite a bit of money and build things that actually work.
How do the tech scenes in African cities compare to those of cities elsewhere in the world?
It’s not a good idea to compare yourself with Silicon Valley because it’s a very old ecosystem. The tech scene across Africa is growing pretty well, especially in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. I would say those countries are the leaders. Egypt is doing pretty well too.
We’re seeing a lot of early founders who, having had most of their initial ventures fail, have learned from the experience and are now running startups that have greater impacts. Five years ago, startups didn’t have the resources to hire consultants. But now, we are seeing more and more growth-stage startups. They have a product that works and are looking to scale it. We are at a good stage generally. We just need to give it more time to .
Could you share some of the projects you’ve worked on, including any particular success stories?
An interesting project that we’ve been working on is a partnership with an NGO called Project Concern International (PCI) to develop an app for marginalized communities called AfriScout, which we created with a couple of designers from Google.
What it does is very simple: it allows nomadic pastoralists to locate grazing grounds using an app.
The first version of this particular project was a satellite map with a snapshot of vegetation, which was then printed and sent to the communities. Of course, that takes a while. We made an improved version that could be shared via WhatsApp, but one remaining problem was: how do you get feedback? How do you confirm that the map is accurate? So we decided to take a shot at building an app instead.
With the help of Google and a couple of pastoralists and experts in geomapping, it took us about a year to design and test the app. We launched it last year, and it now has about 10,000 downloads in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania and in seven different languages. It’s very much icon-based because literacy levels are low in this region, and a lot of the illustrations were co-developed with the community because symbols mean a lot of different things for different people.
The project is now one of Google’s design-sprint case studies.
What are the biggest challenges for tech development in Africa?
The biggest challenge is probably the copy-pasting approach of taking solutions that have been implemented in other markets and then trying to force them to work within our space, instead of recognizing that it’s a very different context and environment. We’ve seen many projects fail because of that approach, even in the corporate sector.
One example is how M-Pesa [a mobile money transfer system based in Kenya] tried to expand to South Africa. It didn’t work out, because it’s a different market where people deal with money differently.
Of course, the other challenge is the skill gap. While we’ve made a lot of strides, I don’t think we have a significant enough mass of skilled tech professionals yet to solve all of the problems that we face as Africans.
On top of that, we’ve looked at tech as the solution itself and forgotten that we have to focus on understanding problems and applying the right solutions to them. People tend to think: “There’s this really exciting idea, let’s go ahead and implement it,” yet they haven’t really interrogated the problem enough. We need to realign people’s mindsets to fall in love more with the problem. First understand the problem, then generate as many ideas as you want and then test them.
Are women well represented in the tech field in Kenya?
No, not even close. We have a huge diversity problem. There are very, very few women in technology. I think the “tech bro culture” is also quite alive in the African tech ecosystem, and it easily pushes out even women who are already in that space. A lot needs to be done in terms of changing organizational culture and making sure that it’s a more inclusive environment that allows different people to thrive. Diverse teams achieve a lot more than homogeneous teams. People are not seeing it yet as a big deal, but it’s going to blow up at some point. The same way that we’re seeing it becoming something big in Silicon Valley, it will become a problem here too.