According to Newzoo’s Analytics, the global games market is forecasted to generate $159.3 billion in revenue in 2020, 48% from mobile gaming and 52% from PC and console gaming.
Similar to how in the late 2000s, most African countries missed the PC era and found themselves in the mobile computing era, Africa’s gaming industry also moved right into mobile gaming.
With the fastest-growing youth population and rapid adoption rates of mobile phones across the continent, one may argue that Africa is ripe for a booming mobile gaming industry. But in reality, it’s still in its infancy. In 2018, the market was worth $570 million. Today, African game developers face a range of structural problems, including slow, unreliable, and expensive internet connection.
Despite the challenges, some game developers are betting on the future of Africa’s gaming market and creating culturally relevant content, and Neno is one of them. Neno is a word search game with the goal of unifying Africans as it introduces players to native African language. It currently supports Shona, Ndebele, Zulu, and Swahili and is expected to introduce more languages spoken across the continent.
I spoke with Brighton Mukorera, Lead Engineer of Neno, about transitioning to game development, the state of Africa’s mobile gaming industry, and his thoughts on tech in Zimbabwe.
Share your journey into game development?
My career started in 2010, so I’ve been writing code for the past ten years. I began as a consultant, spent several years in the telco industry with Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, and then moved to the startup industry to work for Golix, a Crypto Currency exchange.
When I left Golix, I started working on my own, registered Cryptosine, and had plans to create a software consultancy. But through a series of events/experiences, I realized that I had an interest in combining gaming with African languages.
My first interaction with gaming was contributing to some research a friend of mine was doing to build a game that could teach preschool children Shona, our local language.
Then, later on, I was playing with my kids when the idea sparked. I realized two things. The first was that they focused more on English and that my daughter no longer had an interest in learning Shona. Second, she loved playing games on her devices, but none of them were African. So she was mainly learning and being influenced by European, American, and Chinese culture.
At the time, I was also finishing my master’s in computer science. I had developed an interest in natural language processing, which triggered the idea to combine gaming and Shona.
Initially, it was just meant to give the kids something to play in our local language. Then, I realized that this could be taken further and that I could do something to preserve African languages and culture.
Provide an overview of Neno and why you built it?
Neno is a simple word search puzzle but what makes it unique is that its focus is to introduce players to African languages. Currently, the game supports Shona, Ndebele, Zulu, and Swahili as languages that you can play in.
The game also supports English for people interested in learning one of the African languages. I’m looking to introduce Siswati in the next update coming in a few months.
The main idea was to create a game where people could play in their local language and learn words in other languages to unite Africans in different countries. For example, in Zimbabwe, Shona and Ndebele are the most popular languages, while my fellow Kenyans and Tanzanians speak Swahili.
How did you translate the game concept/idea into code?
Neno is my second game. My first game was Manzwi, which is a Shona word puzzle. Moreover, the process started with research. I had to decide what kind of technologies/platform to use based on the context of Africa.
Most African gamers use their mobile phone, unlike gamers in other parts of the world who spend a lot of time on their Xbox, PlayStation, etc. So going in, I knew that whatever I wanted to make needed to target the mobile platform first to reach more people.
The main options that I was looking at were the Unity and Unreal gaming engines. I hadn’t used any of them before, but I picked Unity mainly because it focuses more on mobile and supports mobile phones better for Android and iOS.
The next part was trying to find the data. One of the biggest challenges with African languages is they’re not well documented. So it’s very hard to find even a simple text file. I ended up writing some scripts to scrape data from local newspapers.
Since I’d already built Manzwi, it was easier to build Neno because I already had Shona words. Ndebele, common in Zimbabwe, and Zulu, common in South Africa, are almost the same language as they have less than a hundred words that are different. So I added both to Neno simultaneously. Then, I added Swahili, which is a popular African language. Google Translator came in handy throughout the process.
For the first game, I used a template for the puzzle, but I wrote the code myself with Neno. I also got help with the design from my wife, who is now interested in the work that I’m doing.
For the next game we're going to be working together. She has been learning to code and doing designs on Blender for two months now. She wants to build some of the assets for the next game, and I’m really excited.
Your thoughts on game development?
Looking at it from the African perspective, I think it’s something that is still starting. It’s only been a few years now since the start of Africa’s tech boom, so most people build back-end apps and create mobile apps for businesses.
People haven’t ventured into the gaming space because there’s no guarantee that you’ll make any revenue. It’s much easier to get jobs when you say you’re a java developer or a C# developer building apps for businesses. So most people in gaming do it on their own time.
There are probably one or two Zim companies in gaming. It is not common here yet because although Africans are spending more time on their mobile phones, other factors like internet availability and the cost of the internet can prevent you from monetizing.
Although it’s a risky space, it has a lot of potential. Over the next five years, as more people are connected and the internet becomes cheaper, the market will grow. So it’s best to start preparing for that time now, so when we get to that point, we already have things in place, and we don’t have to start from zero.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced building Neno?
I find the most common challenge that we face in Africa is the internet is really expensive. For monthly internet, you’re looking at a bill of around $120 - $150. And with gaming, I need to be online most of the time because I’m constantly researching and learning new stuff.
The other challenge is power. My home is sort of off the grid, so I use solar, and during winter, the number of hours that I can work is limited. My system can’t pull through for the whole night, so I have to make sure that I do whatever I need to do between morning and evening.
The other challenge is getting access to information and resources. In Zimbabwe, it’s very difficult to make payments for anything outside the country, so that can sort of stall your progress.
For example, suppose I tried to open a Microsoft account for Azure services directly online. In that case, I can’t use a prepaid MasterCard, and that’s the easiest way for Zimbabweans to make payments online. So a huge number of tech people in Zim can’t access those services.
The same thing with Google Cloud, you need a Visa card, which is expensive in Zim. As a result, you end up not moving as fast as you might wish, but we always find ways to maneuver around these challenges to make things work. I’ve grown to be patient and wait for things to come through.
What do you believe are the keys to being a successful software developer in Africa?
Make sure that you are part of a good community of other devs. For example, in Zimbabwe, we have forloopZim. Being a part of a community will give you a different perspective on how technology works and how problems are solved because college doesn’t teach you everything. You’ll learn the right things to read and the correct way to do things.
It also makes it easier to get jobs because other developers can recommend you for opportunities. Most of my former employers, when they were looking for developers, they’d reach out to me and ask for recommendations. The first people that I thought about were people in the community.
Those developers are also going to be the first people to support you when you need help. With the games I’ve developed, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other devs in the communities when it was in beta. They tested the game for me and gave me input on making improvements before the game’s final release. I got this service for free where in most other places I’d have to pay.
Also, make sure you are present. Participate and volunteer; if there are calls for presentations or speakers for a small function with 20 people, it’s good to contribute and share the knowledge you have with other developers. The more people you connect with, the easier it is to grow and learn.
Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?
Built In Africa, for me, is something built by Africans for Africans. It’s not limited to being used in Africa, but it’s a product or solution that relates to what being an African is. If someone says, let’s try to define Africa in different ways, you’re building something that can be part of that definition. That’s what Built In Africa means to me.
Thoughts on tech in Zimbabwe?
In Zim, we are in quite an exciting space right now regarding how the tech ecosystem is growing. Initially, it was centralized in the capital city Harare, but now tech is booming all over, and developers from different cities are connecting.
I have developer friends who are based in Bulawayo and Mutare. The internet has made it easier for everyone to connect and become one huge Zimbabwean tech ecosystem. Overall, a lot of good things are happening.
There’s also a lot of cool stuff being built. You’ve got startups that are building scalable solutions that meet the needs of local people. There’s a lot of young talent, and the number keeps growing. When I did my undergraduate degree, the number of students who graduated with computer science was 20, right now there are classes of 200 - 250 students.
People now appreciate technology more and value people who are in the tech industry. Before, if you’d say that you were in tech, the first thing that came to people’s mind was fixing printers and making sure that computers worked. Now people will ask, can you build a website or this app for me?
Also, Zimbabwean companies used to get South African devs to build stuff for them, but now technology is being built locally. Initially, the shift started because companies were having challenges making payments, but it led to the realization that there is talent in our country.
Unfortunately, there are some challenges with the national economy and a bit of instability in the political and economic space, making it difficult for people to find investments to fund their businesses.
But in terms of opportunities, tech is probably one area where people can still get jobs, and jobs are still being advertised. They might not be paying as much as we want, but many people are being hired, unlike other places where people are being laid off.
If you’re interested in learning game development and you’re in Africa, while it seems like it’s something that is impossible to start, I can guarantee that if you have the passion, it’s not that difficult to learn.
It’s not that different from any other form of software development, so don’t be afraid. The only thing that you have to do is start.
Right now, the internet is your best friend. It gives you access to information and can connect you to people from around the world who are willing to help and make sure that you get off on the right foot. Again, all you have to do is start.
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