What we learn’t from our first Tech4Africa in Nairobi

IMG_1276Last week we held our first Tech4Africa in Nairobi, which was great. We’ve wanted to do it for a long time, and so viewing this as a test run for a bigger event next year, we came away generally upbeat and excited about opportunities the Kenyan ecosystem seems to be presenting, albeit with some negatives.

What follows are our thoughts and observations, in no particular order:
Our contention is that technology traction in most of Africa will come from solving everyday utility problems in a meaningful way (think mPesa, Mode, iCow), and so key to this is researching, understanding and then problem solving these daily problems which create opportunities for disruption and thus wealth creation. From what I was able to see in a week of being in Kenya, there are real opportunities and there are some smart folks taking advantage of the gaps they are seeing. For the most part, opportunities seem to be a growing enterprise or corporate market that needs services, and then consumer problem solving with tech.

However, it seems that in Kenya most tech people (developers) are thinking about problems very localised to themselves (largely because the cost of travel within Africa is prohibitive), and so the markets which they’re working on are very small (ie: solving traffic in Nairobi is a local problem but probably not scalable or revenue generating), and traction is slow or non-existant. There are some thinking globally (using the app stores as distribution channels), but again the chances of success are against anyone in any country – the vagaries of the app stores are well documented.

Our audience was very passive, whilst we actively encourage engagement with speakers and lots of questions. Sometimes it felt like pulling hens teeth, which was demoralising. After learning this was normal and primarily the result of an education system which is based on rote learning, we felt a bit better (that it wasn’t just us).

Tech4Africa Nairobi
Our audience had little or no idea of timekeeping and respecting start times or the time slots the speakers are allocated. That, and a few speakers running over meant we ended up running an hour late at the end of the day. Very frustrating. My own view is that this isn’t good enough, and is indicative of a mindset partially responsible for relatively little tech traction so far (the go-getters are on-time, hustling and doing well, everyone else is wondering why they aren’t). So in future we’re going to be more militant about timing and introduce de-incentivisation (like closing doors) to counter this.

Some of the local speakers were really awesome, engaging and clearly very good at their subject matter. This was extremely encouraging and so obviously we’re going to look for more of them!

In the end, we had a packed venue for the whole day, attendance rates which I’m told are standard, everyone staying to 6:30pm, and really good attendee feedback on the content, so that’s what we’re counting as success.

The most exciting thing I saw or heard of all week was the BRCK wifi device being pushed by Erik and his team. Really cool to see a hardware play coming out of Kenya / Africa, and with some top hardware folks working on it to boot.

USSD is definitely something any mobile developer in Africa should be skilling up on until the smartphone market is pervasive. That and Android. Backend architecture to cope with lots of small amounts of data input are still key however.

I feel the biggest opportunity for a software play would be “Data as a Service / Platform” which everyone can build off of. I’ll leave you to untangle the rest 😉

I didn’t hear anyone mention the business model canvas. I did see a lot of Facebooking.

IMG_1289In three of four separate conversations, we spoke to non-technical people who were looking for tech people either to partner with or to contract out to, but who were finding it very difficult to do so. They felt that Tech4Africa was a great place to meet developers, and commented that some of the talks they listened to were great at helping them with “bullshit detection” with some of the developers they were already talking to. So that was great validation, but also showed how we can add value.

All told, it really feels like the most limiting factors are belief, confidence and hustle; rather than technology, opportunity and market. At least three people I spoke to felt that a good success story was sorely needed to create role models (we believe that every tech ecosystem needs good and bad role models), there were very few folks who displayed self-confidence and the self-awareness to go against the grain and build something awesome – and they were mostly folks returning to Africa from Western countries where they gained their skills and confidence. Again, hustle and drive are the first characteristics needed for success in general – and we just didn’t get the feeling it was in abundance.

So, where to from here?We’ll be back in Nairobi with an entrepreneur bootcamp to help ‘treps skill up on business models, revenue models, presentation skills, and building teams; an action packed developer day to focus on mobile development skills; and a full day of inspiring sessions. It’s pretty clear that the best we can do is to offer learning, inspiration and networking.IMG_1333