“Immersing yourself in a community is essential to being successful in tech in Africa. It will allow you to rely on the knowledge of the people who came before you.”
Communities, both virtual and physical, foster ideas, propel innovation forward and act as the heart of a thriving tech ecosystem.
They provide everything from the emotional support a developer needs to transcend the many obstacles they’ll face along their tech journey to operating as the first line of defense by testing and debugging a developer’s solution before it’s released into the market.
Today, across Africa, hundreds of tech communities are bringing tens of thousands of developers together. But building a strong, inclusive tech community where tech enthusiasts can come together to learn, grow, and be inspired doesn’t just happen on its own.
Based on the conversations I’ve had with community leaders from across the continent, I’ve curated a list of 10 tips that center around what it takes to start, grow, and sustain a community.
Hear from 7 community leaders from 7 different African countries who are leading their local GDGs, Python community, forloop chapters, and forming brand new communities.
Part 1: Starting and growing a community
1) Address a problem you face:
Start by addressing something close to you or a problem you face. That’s the easiest way to attract people to your community.
Then from there, it’s just asking questions. This is where UX research comes into play. Every community manager needs to have a basic foundation in UX research and know the principles of building a product or service because a community is a service.
2) Target the right demographic:
Target university students, specifically those in their first and second year. Students in their third and fourth year are often focused on getting a degree and a job.
3) Take responsibility!:
If you want to start a community or are currently running a community, don’t depend on Google or Microsoft to build the community just because they built the product. In our case, Flutter is a Google product, but we started the meet-up without getting anything from Google. We volunteered ourselves.
Yes, there will be challenges if you start on your own with getting funds, speakers, and venues for the events, but you have to persevere. We’ve driven 100 kilometers before to get to an event we were hosting at this campus, and we weren't getting paid, but that’s what it takes to build a community. If we didn’t sacrifice our cash and our time, I don’t think Flutter Developers Kenya would be where it is now.
Once we became vibrant and began to make a lot of noise in Kenya’s tech ecosystem, Nilay Yener, the Developer Relations Manager from Flutter, reached out to our team. That started our relationship with Google. Now they reach out to us to see what we’re planning and if they can support us.
There’s a huge difference between when we started and now. When we started, we were struggling on our own, but now our network has grown. We collaborate with GDG’s, DSC’s, other tech communities in Kenya, and the Flutter team itself through DevRel. So if you feel like you’re not going anywhere, know that there’s someone out there watching. You’ll never know who it is, so keep pushing until it works.
To build a community the most important thing is to listen to what your members need. That’s the number one responsibility of the community manager, active listening. Instead of trying to impose what you want them to do or how you want them to behave, act, or believe. Listen to what they’re telling you and respond to their needs.
Community management is very reactive, which can be a little frustrating. It’s an iterative process. You listen, then adjust. You build, listen some more and then fix it up again. So being able to listen is the most important skill.
Part 2: Connect with others
5) Ask for help (internally):
We don’t need to overwhelm ourselves. You need a support system. Having a passionate partner is great if you can find one. Ideally, the active members of the community will be able to pitch in or help drive growth. These things happen organically, so continue to express the passion you have and give it time. Slowly but surely, things progress and grow on their own.
6) Ask for help (externally):
Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. We got advice and support from Android 254, Coding Kenya, Apps: lab Ke. Don’t feel ashamed because, as the saying goes, “a problem shared is a problem half solved.”
7) Connect with community leaders from other African countries:
Last year I went to PyCon Africa in Ghana. What I like about traveling and going to other countries is getting the opportunity to learn about other people’s cultures, see how other developers work, what problems they’re solving, and how the products they build impact their community.
The way we do things here in Namibia is different from how people do things in Ghana, Ethiopia, and Nigeria because cultural context creates different outcomes. I currently have friends from all over the world, many of whom I talk to every day. Some of them have helped me with Python Namibia by providing suggestions on how to grow our community.
8) Create partnerships:
Partner with tech companies, locally and internationally. There are excellent ambassador programs that offer swag and software licenses for attendees, and that usually enough to motivate most people. And that’s what I love about running a community. You don’t need much money to run one. You only need the heart and the willingness.
Part 3: Additional Things to Keep in Mind
9) One person:
Having one person show up to an event is enough. It’s easy for people to sign up, like on social media, and chat in a group. Having one person take a step and come because of their interest is enough.
Yes, it stings, but don’t think about the 20 people that registered that didn’t come. Focus on that one person who did show up. That’s the person you can grow the community with. Countless research shows that only a small percentage of people in online and offline groups drive the community’s growth and engagement.
10) Redefine community:
It’s a community as long as there is some exchange of ideas, perspectives, and knowledge. Even if it’s just a WhatsApp group where people have a conversation once every two weeks, that’s a good start. Getting one or two people to share a perspective and bounce ideas off of each other is enough momentum to grow the community.
Bonus: Share your work!
In Zimbabwe, we have this thing where people get good jobs and never tell anyone about their process or success. I guess it is common in a lot of places too. We don’t share our stories enough. This is another thing I learned from my East and West African friends. Those guys share their stories, inspire each other, and help each other grow.
So that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do with our communities. We want people to be proud of their work and inspire each other.
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