Roughly 567 million of Africa’s 1.3 billion population live in urban areas. While urban-dwelling continues to grow, the majority of people still live in rural areas with limited or no access to electricity. In Uganda, 80% of the population lives in rural areas, and less than 10% have access to electricity.
Since connecting the country’s entire population to grid electricity is a slow and costly process, alternative sources of power like solar are growing popular. And services like pay-as-you-go (PAYG), are making solar affordable as homeowners can make lease payments for a specified amount of time.
While PAYG solved the payment component of reaching “last-mile” communities, it doesn’t address operational challenges like remote monitoring. To address this need, Uganda-based startup Innovex developed Remot, a cloud-based IoT solution enabling solar companies, EPC, and distributors to remotely monitor and manage their energy systems.
By providing better after sales support, Remot is transforming how solar companies do business by reducing overall downtime and improving the accessibility of solar systems and equipment.
I spoke with Frank Odongkara, Software Architect at Innovex, about some of the challenges they faced building Remot, discovering and developing talent, and his thoughts on tech in Uganda.
Remot is a case where the problem found us. One of our clients at Innovex approached us, saying I want to turn on and off my solar system and audit it remotely. To see if there was a market for such a product, we asked him to introduce us to some of his colleagues who are also solar vendors, and we realized the issue was prevalent throughout the industry.
How the industry works, solar systems are sold pre-agreed. Customers then pay a fixed amount monthly until the system is paid off. For vendors, there is no technology to assess whether the solar system is working well and turn it off if somebody does not make payments. This costs vendors a lot of money because if they want to turn off the system, somebody has to get in a car and drive hundreds of kilometers. To cover for their losses, they price the solar systems higher.
After doing our due diligence, we thought with our experience in IoT; this is the perfect area to go into. We started building prototypes, testing them, and getting feedback from the vendors until we got it to a comfortable stage.
Although solar vendors are our major customers, we’re also building new variants to our tool to help farmers monitor the solar water pumps they use in irrigation. And for NGOs who supply various schools with solar systems.
We are also constantly adding new features. The first is a credit risk assessment feature where vendors can enter a customer’s information and learn about their creditworthiness. And the second is making our platform smarter. We are bringing in machine learning experts to help us get more out of our data to offer better features to the end-user.
Moving Production Closer to Home
We needed high-precision machines to print the boards and fix the delicate chipsets, so initially, we designed here and manufactured them in China. The cost of setting up a production house for electronics here is quite high, and for investors to put up any money, we had to reach product-market fit. The most cost-effective way was to find a manufacturer who already had that exact business model.
However, recently, we moved our hardware production closer to home. The benefits of moving it back here are a faster turnover rate and quality control. In the past, if a client requested 100 copies we would probably order 300 boards don't always meet quality standards. Then wait for about three weeks for boards to arrive. Now, in two days, we can print, test, and discard those that don’t meet quality standards and quickly print new ones until we meet the required volume.
The challenges you faced building Remot?
In most African markets, you need to reach product-market fit before you get funding. And as a software and hardware company trying to build in the middle of Africa, reaching that point with limited funding was a huge challenge.
Our devices use the telecom 3G networks to communicate because most people in rural areas don’t have WiFi. And here, you buy a data bundle upfront and use it. There are no plans where you can use the data and pay later. And the telecom companies don’t have a platform where companies like ourselves, who are managing thousands of SIM cards, can view all of our SIM cards, check which data bundle is depleted, and load data onto them.
It’s slowly changing now but finding skilled talent was another challenge. Most people don’t have experience working on these systems, so we have to hire people and give them a very long time to train. It’s improving, but it’s becoming a little scary because now we are starting to see a lot of brain drain happening as people start to work for European companies. It’s a growing problem, but it still hasn’t caught up to us yet.
Developing Talent and Defining Potential
My tech career has been a trail of mentoring talent. Before Innovex, I worked at Andela as a Software Development Learning Facilitator. And from my experience, if somebody has the potential and is not building it, they are not the problem.
Yes, they have to take ownership of their work, but you have to take ownership for their growth as a leader. And that means listening and understanding what works best for them. No one method fits all. People learn and work at different paces.
As for potential, if you look for one attribute, you’ll miss out on a lot of talent and frequently make the wrong hiring decision. You have to look at the aggregate.
Personally, there are a few things I consider when evaluating talent.
Software development requires a lot of ownership. You have to be able to own up to a task that is given to you.
It’s hard to initially assess someone’s technical competence, so I look at things like an affinity for math. Not classroom math, but how you solve problems.
How a person handles feedback will tell you a lot about how they’ll survive working in a team. The Hollywood idea of the loner software developer is a very rare instance. You need to be able to work in teams, own your task, and receive harsh feedback. And not hash to put you down. Instead, maybe you’ve been working on a task for weeks, but it’s not good enough, so you need to start again from scratch.
You need to have a thirst for learning because you never stop learning in software development, so being curious is very important.
Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?
What companies or products are considered Built In Africa is a discussion that we’ve had a lot recently in the community as the world has given companies like Andela and Jumia this designation.
For me, I don’t care much where a company is headquartered. What matters is how much they’re here in the field because building solutions for Africa is building solutions in Africa. Coding is the final product. The actual building process is going into the field, finding out the people’s needs, understanding how things work, and building all that into the product.
Built In Africa to me is a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground approach whereby you’re here physically engaging with the final consumers. You can go and develop the software wherever.
A great example of a Built In Africa company is Wave. Their team has spent so much time in rural Africa collecting information to understand the end-user. They’re completely boots on the ground, which is impressive to me and embodies the essence of Built In Africa.
Thoughts on tech in Uganda?
Recently, during our election, we had a national internet blackout, but if I were to say this is a one-off occurrence, I’d be lying.
In Uganda, on one side, you have people trying to build solutions using technology. And on the other, government policy preventing the advancement of technology. Frustrated, some entrepreneurs are moving their companies to other countries. And some software developers are relocating to other parts of the continent and the west because they feel like it’s not going to work here.
To summarize, tech in Uganda is being made difficult. However, there is a growing market demand for technology. More business owners/ leaders are looking for custom-tailored solutions to enhance their companies. You have everything from agriculture to energy to transportation tech companies. Also, from the consumer perspective, people are starting to trust and see the value in technology.
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