This past weekend, I had the honor of being invited to be on a panel discussion at South by Southwest (SXSW), “Appfrica: How Web Applications are Helping Emerging Markets Grow” The panel was moderated by one of my favorite techies who’s single-handedly birthing Uganda’s “tech sphere,” John Jon Gosier. Jon is the founder of AppAfrica Labs, an incubator based in Kampala, Uganda. Joining me on the panel were David Kobier and Erik Hersman from Ushahidi and Rose Shuman, founder of Question Box. You can watch the video (bad audio feed) or read a recap of the discussion by ALEX DE CARVALHO or Jon Gossier.
While the topic of discussion centered mainly around the road blocks inherit in writing apps for developing regions like Africa, the underlying hurdle to the growth (and commercial viability of products in this space) is connectivity. Wether you are an African or a Westerner developing applications and technologies with global ambition, connectivity is going to affect how you build and roll out your product. This is not to say that all of Africa should be looked at as holistically unconnected. Certainly, there are markets in Africa where connectivity is vastly better; South Africa and the Mediterranean North African countries, for example. The opposite holds of areas that have abysmal broadband infrastructure, like the DRC, Southern Sudan, etc.
But this patchwork service availability is a “now” problem, let’s look at Africa 24 months from now. Of the 5 serious broadband initiatives slated for completion in the next
5 2 years, SEACOM is in the process of landing this in Kenya and will be operational by this summer. The rest, including Google’s O3b Networks, go live within the next 18 months. In order to develop and succeed in Africa’s emerging “tech scape,” you have to have the ability to look around the corner and quickly predict what the environment will look like. Actually, that’s not even true, you have to have the vision to paint a picture of what you want it to look like! Look at the current conditions, spotty as they are, as gaping holes in market opportunities. Think outside the box. You have to think mobile, and mobile web. Africa isn’t a laptop destination, it’s a mobile-based application destination. What market solutions will you have ready to hit critical mass once this major stumbling block to market access is alleviated? You have to be able to finish the African Proverb, “When the cable arrives…”
SEEING THE BIG PICTURE AROUND THE CORNER
An article arrived in my inbox this morning that commented on Google’s acquisition of a startup video conferencing company. On the surface, Google acquiring another company is nothing earth-shattering. If fact, I am rather disappointed when a month goes by without Google swallowing investing in yet another upstart. But the landscape changes completely when you look around the corner and see what’s coming. Google is a major investor in O3B Networks (O3b), the nemesis to the uncoordinated consortium of highspeed undersea cable initiatives. Instead of laying fibre, O3b is betting on a constellation of 16-Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to the tune of $650 million. LEO Satellite access would be more beneficial for landlocked countries because [satellites] would provide landlocked countries direct access to broadband backhaul without having to traverse and negotiate rights of access to undersea cables with coastal nations. This also relieves land-locked nations from costly and wrangle-some partnerships like EASSy—instead, allowing them the ability to independently deploy high-speed networks countrywide and worldwide.
Lets look closer.
Google pretty much offers a host of very good services for free: mail, calendaring, photo-management, video, etc. What is/was lacking from it’s vast portfolio of products, was realtime collaboration tools. Enter Marratech, a video conferencing and collaboration company, that Google just snapped up. Marry that acquisition and a successful launch of O3b, and you’ve got yourself uninhibited, real-time, global collaboration that includes developing markets. (Pssst! Tech-savvy, entrepreneurial Diasporans! This is where the light goes off in your head, I am just saying). All of a sudden, the playing field is leveled. Access is ubiquitous. African software engineers think globally, not regionally. The sky, as they say, is the limit.
All this, of course, is assuming that O3b can negotiate country-level spectrum rights. Steve Song, a Shuttleworth Foundation fellow in South Africa and general telecommunications enthusiast had this to say about the many challenges facing O3b’s impending launch via email last fall:
If O3b works out, it will be very good news for Africa. However, I see a few challenges in the way:
1) regulatory challenges. 03b will have to negotiate a spectrum license for every country they land in. Regulatory frameworks in
Africa are evolving but there is still a lot of undue influence by incumbent telcos who may or may not be interested in seeing o3b
2) LEO satellites. Previous attempts to establish connectivity via a web of LEO satellite have both failed. Iridium and Teledesic sucked up a ton of money and both failed. Launching a satellite involved a certain amount of risk. Just look at the last Intelsat launch attempt. O3b multiplies that risk by 16. Also, these are non-geostationary orbit satellites which mean that a) they don’t stay
up as long as other satellites and b) they need to manage constant hand-off of bandwidth connections as the satellite pass over.
3) Greg Wyler. Founder of Terracom, then Rwantel. Stories differ about what happened there but I tend to take the side of the
Rwandans…. in the words of Minister Albert Butare…. “Promises were made…”
True on all three counts, but I am putting my money on Google. No, I am putting my money on all the broadband initiatives headed to Africa’s digital shores to succeed. If it’s true that competition is good for the consumer, then the existence of these ventures is a good sign. O3b Networks builds out it’s satellite network, and EASSy, NEPAD, et al lay down down some mean fibre. All of a sudden the cost of Africa merging onto the information super highway drops through the Serengeti floor.
THE TAKE AWAY
A digital highway is being built not to Africa, but out of Africa. From business processes outsourcing to next-generation technology and incubation hubs, Africa is ripe for technology investments. It’s still early enough in the game to engage Africa. In fact, the time is right to ask @afridev where the market opportunities are. The time is right to look around the corner and see the big picture. “Africa is rising.”
UPDATE (March 21, 07:51)
Made spelling correction and added additional links for reference.