August 3, 2020

The Next Generation of Learners, Disruptors, and Inventors – Largest Pan African Hackathon

by:
TECH TOOLS :

Innovation is connected to every business's destiny, whether it's an emerging start-up or legacy multinational. 

According to an Accenture study, 95% of business leaders say innovation is crucial to their success.

With technology seen as the means to innovate, hackathons have become increasingly popular amongst companies as a way to push boundaries, and encourage unique ideas.

A hackathon is a design sprint-like event; often, in which computer programmers and others involved in software development collaborate intensively on software projects. 

The combination of diverse backgrounds and the time limit on hackathons creates an intense atmosphere that forces participants to create actionable solutions.

With 1600 registrations across 21 countries, Afrikathon, the Largest Pan African Hackathon is on a mission to evolve the next generation of learners, disruptors, and inventors in Africa. 

The five-day ideation and prototyping sprint simulated a remote work condition. Participants formed virtual teams with members in different time zones and of different native languages to create solutions in one of the five tracks: decent work and living, gender equality, media & entertainment, education, remote work.

I spoke with Andrew Miracle, Afrikathon's founder about his journey leading up to Afrikathon, how his experience at MEST inspired Afrikathon, and design thinking. 

How did your journey lead you to create Afrikathon?

I used to run a cybercafé, and one day someone asked me to build a website. Never having built one before, I still accepted the challenge. It took me about four months, but I really enjoyed the process and wanted to continue building products. So I invested the money into a Udemy course to further my learning. 

One year later, I was hired by a radio station in southeast Nigeria to manage its IT infrastructure, which started my corporate work experience.

Since then, I've worked at start-ups, founded my own company Tecmie LLC, a software development agency, and I'm currently at Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST).  

MEST is an intensive one-year scholarship program, where they bring in the best tech entrepreneurs across Africa, and train them across 3 disciplines: communication, technology, and business. During the program, you form a team and build a company. 

I'm working with a group of talented individuals on a project called Kpilens. Our solution gives development organizations, like UNICEF, GIZ, The MasterCard Foundation, the means to measure impact and track the outcome of their projects. 

My experience here at MEST is one of the many inspirations behind Afikathon. I live and work in the same building with 54 talented individuals from 16 different countries. It's truly an amazing experience and has furthered my belief that technology can solve a lot of problems for individuals and businesses across Africa.

What specific void or opportunity did you discover that inspired Afrikathon? And why are you the one to address this problem?

Generally, I've always looked for opportunities to share what I know, the things I've tried, succeeded at, and even failed at. 

The first step I took was creating a tech entrepreneur training academy, Teta. The goal was to teach newbies the core principles of building software products. Although all developers learn how to code, most don't understand the structure or the systems behind programming. I wanted to create a program to teach them.

With the first cohort, we experienced a lot of challenges. Although the outcome was really good for the participants, there were a lot of things we didn't do well. I decided to take a break to figure out how to overcome those challenges.

That's when I joined the mentorship platform Coding Coach as one of the first 10 mentors. I figured that since I couldn't manage it on my own, I'd join a team with a similar mission and contribute in my own way. As an early contributor, I received a lot of e-mails and responses from individuals trying to break into tech, especially Africans, mainly because I was the only black person at the time.

I got e-mails from people in Rwanda, Mozambique, Somalia, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, and they told me about their challenges with coding and breaking into tech. Some of these people have gotten jobs, published their apps on Play Store, built websites, and fully transitioned into tech and are earning really good money.

From that experience, I started to see the synergies that could be created if you connected individuals from across Africa, not just within a country or region, which coming to MEST solidified. 

The 54 individuals I'm here with are not just ordinary people. They're like me. They've started a project in their respective countries, run a business, have networks, and are influential. So I thought, how can I leverage this once in a lifetime opportunity and create something that can affect people's lives across the continent.

I decided that hackathons were the best because they require you to start from point zero and get to one hundred. Sometimes it's unrealistic, but what's more important is the learning and the networking. 

What role did Design Thinking play in creating the Afrikathon experience?

I used design thinking to determine the best way to organize the hackathon, given the constraints of COVID-19, but still achieve our goal. I designed the process around the GV Design Sprint

We made design thinking a core process because, in Africa, the problems here are unique and not adequately documented, and with design thinking, you're able to gain knowledge about a problem from the little information at your disposal.

If I give you an equation that says, _ + _ = 5, and I tell you to fill in the empty spaces. You can give four responses 2+3, and it's inverse, or 1+4, and its inverse. The point is that when you start with the solution to the problem, you find out that there are multiple "problems" that can lead to a solution. It can be 10 or even 1,000, depending on the complexity.

However, if I give you 1+1, mathematically, the answer can only be 2. The same goes for 2+2; the answer can only be 4. 

Design thinking teaches you how to understand the problem so well that you see the answer. 

When we applied the design thinking process to Afrikathon, I discovered two core problems.

  1. Techies needed a way to network with other techies across the continent 
  2. Most individuals do not have the opportunity or medium to take action or responsibility for the problems around them. 

We wanted to meet these needs with Afrikathon by providing participants with a place to learn, network with other Africans around a shared purpose, and solve problems.

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What did the 5 days of Afrikathon entail? 

The first step of the hackathon was to take the IBM sponsored Design Thinking Essentials course. Each person who completed it got a certificate. We were particular about the quality we wanted to get out of the program. Even though we had about 1600 registrations, only 40% completed the course and were able to participate in the hackathon. 

We selected the IBM course because it had a module around diverse empowered teams, and we felt this was necessary with participants from various cultures. We also wanted to make sure that everyone in the Slack channel was speaking the same language.  

Day one, participants joined a track and networked with each other. Within 24 hours, we expected them to find people of like interests and form teams with a minimum of 3 individuals. 

The next stage was defining the problem you want to solve and researching it.

Wednesday, Day 3, was our first evaluation round, where we evaluated teams on their problem-idea fit.  

We took a break, and when they came back, the remaining teams moved to the prototype/MVP sprint. Which included fast pace rapid prototyping and building an MVP. 17 teams made it past the first evaluation round, then we picked 5 during the final round. 

Do you plan to continue running Afrikathon, and if so, how do you see it evolving over the years

We're definitely going to keep doing Afrikathon. The feedback from this year's participants has been amazing; I don't see how we can not. Plus, I'm also excited about continuing.

Since it ended, I've spent some time thinking about how it will evolve. I have the overall vision for where we want to be: to create a platform where people can learn, network, and be a part of teams with mission-driven projects. How I'd like to see that play out, honestly, I don't have a roadmap yet, but in the next couple of months, I will.


What do you believe are the keys to being a successful developer in Africa?

Network: You have to know people in the tech ecosystem; if you don't, it won't be easy to break in.  

Perseverance:  It's not going to be an easy journey. You'll encounter many challenges before you even get into the ecosystem and start making money as a developer.  

Multi-disciplinary: In Africa, if you're a developer, you have to be multi-disciplinary in your skillset and understanding. I'm a Frontend developer and Data Engineer. But I also understand the full breadth of the development ecosystem. From Design → Frontend → Backend → Database → DevOps etc. Yes, mastering one discipline is important, but don't dig into one part of technology and neglect understanding of the others. 


How does someone conduct UX Research during COVID-19?

When you're building a product, you start with your idea, hypothesis, and assumptions. To validate those assumptions, you need to interview your proposed user persona. 

So you might ask, given the constraint of COVID-19, how do you conduct user research?

A virtual interview and survey are an option, but for those who want personal interaction, you can interview a proxy user. 

Human beings are great actors. You'll be surprised how effective this works. You can give your friend a script of the user persona. 

For example, "If you owned a five-star hotel. What would you wear? What car would you drive? Would you have a personal assistant? One or two? Would you have an accountant?"

The proxy user can help you validate the empathy requirements of your research assumptions.

Generally, I've seen that it can work almost accurately if the person can correctly play the role.


Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?

What comes to mind are stories about people in the African Diaspora leveraging tech's power to make a positive mark on the continent. And those changing the narrative from the usual stories we hear about Africa.

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