How African Developers Can Win on Mobile

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A-new-mobile-Wave-by-Sams-006By David Okwi, Editor in Chief, (formerly This is his second piece on challenges developers mobile face in Africa. If you missed the first piece, find it here.

Last week on Techmoran, I did hit off an eye-opening post on why African developers struggle on the mobile sector despite living in a continent that’s been hyped and hailed as a “mobile-first” space. The reactions to the article from my circles of developers and those involved in the Tech ecosystem were not surprising at all as we both shared similar sentiments.

Those that live outside of the continent and get to learn about the continent’s technological revolution are often misguided by hyped blog posts with carefully crafted catchy headlines from visiting journalists that have absolutely no idea on what’s happening on the ground. The realities of how hard it is to make it in Africa are further buried by conference keynote speakers who often conveniently neglect to tackle real challenges facing the industry and instead hide behind western-borrowed catchy Tech trends. These “mobile conferences” have so far yielded no viable solutions to problems that continue to plague the mobile industry.

Mobile remains to be a space solely dominated by Telecom companies, Phone manufacturers and operating system vendors such as Google, Apple and Microsoft. The OS vendors simply like to lure developers into their respective platforms in order to make their platforms more lucrative while neglecting more urgent issues such as viable payment methods suited for the African environment. Google for instance in all its “Googliness” has failed to come up with a payment method that will make it easy for developers to sell their Apps on its stores and for Android mobile users to easily buy Apps using locally suitable methods. By “locally suitable”, I mean current payment methods such as Google Wallet, Paypal, Visa credit cards remain almost non-functional in most of Africa.

That said, developers are unfortunately on their own — at least for now.

Allan Atukunda, one of the co-founders of Intelworld, an e-commerce solutions company based in Kampala Uganda believes that developers should cut the cord from the carriers and build new marketing and distribution systems for their apps and content;

“We have to create new marketing & distribution systems for apps & content, independent of the standard telecom network infrastructure. Let the Telco’s provide the data, we shall provide the apps & content. Most of the systems used by Telco’s are proprietary solutions, and tinkering with them to create new revenue streams is usually limited, besides, their core business is selling data & voice services.”

mobile contentDeveloping an independent marketing and distribution channel for digital content that’s independent of the Telecoms is next to impossible. The Telecoms control customer relationship and billing while the OS vendors are the gatekeepers of App stores, leaving developers as digital content (App) providers who have no control over distribution and monetization of their work! Allan suggests that developers have to create payment mechanisms different from Telecom-controlled mobile money payment system;

“I know the biggest challenge is developing a payment mechanism & system that is acceptable to everyone, but I think we can find alternatives to mobile money payment systems.”

Taking such radical turns requires monumental sums of money that developers don’t have initially. James Makumbi, another veteran software developer and founder of Billable hours, small Enterprise Resource Planning system for law firms that computerizes the entire workflow of a law firm, thinks that developers have to convince those with the money to invest in radical ideas.

“All our startups have only dreams and “good ideas”. Businesses are unwilling to buy in on such. Businesses are shallow, skeptical, shortsighted and tunnel visioned. So they cannot grasp the depth of your vision, see the future return on your idea or see “the big picture”. That is why all prizes for innovation go to those cashing in on poverty.

A developer today must really try hard here to convince those with money that his idea sells or find someone suffering and hold them at ransom.”

But Roger Bambino, a Tech blogger with Techjaja and a Telecom guru advises developers to first patent their ideas before they can present fancy looking powerpoints at the Telecoms headquarters. That might at least prevent Telecoms from using in-house developers from replicating their ideas overnight.

The mobile space is indeed as tough as the African wild. The Ericsson June 2014 Sub-Saharan Africa Ericsson Mobility Report predicts that in just three years’ time, 3G technology will become the dominant technology across the region with 930 million mobile subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2019,  557m smartphone and 710m broadband subscriptions. According to the report,  in 2014 phone users accessed 76,000 TB (terabyte) of data per month, doubling the 2013  figure of 37,500 TB per month while in 2015 the figures are expected to double again with mobile phone users accessing 147,000 TB per month. The African digital storm is brewing and its upto developers to tap into their ingenuity so as to take advantage of this opportunity while sidelining challenges that beset them.

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