Tanzania, Africa’s tenth-largest economy and fifth-most populous country with an estimated 60 million people, has sustainably grown its tech ecosystem over the last decade.
According to the Global Innovation Index 2020 ranking, Tanzania (88th) has the 4th most innovative economy in sub-Saharan Africa after Mauritius (52nd), South Africa (60th), Kenya (86th), gaining nine positions since last year.
Despite clear growth indicators, Tanzania receives far less attention globally from venture capitalists and Africa-focused funds compared to other markets. Including its neighbor to the northeast, Kenya, known for its innovation, Nigeria, set to be the world’s 3rd most populous country by 2050, and South Africa arguably the continent’s most advanced, diversified, and productive economy.
Interestingly, the countries that received the largest share of sub-Saharan African venture capital investments in 2019, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana are also the origin countries for over 30% of sub-Saharan migrants living in the U.S. and Europe.
Although it’s difficult to connect the tech ecosystem’s lack of attention to the limited number of Tanzanian immigrants in the West, certainly, it’s not community development as there are 50+ innovation hubs across the country. Or technical talent as there is an abundance of people on the ground building world-class products, iPF Softwares being one of them.
Founded in 2015, iPF Softwares is a full-fledged software development house based in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es salaam, that’s focused on developing digital solutions that drive human behavior and engagement with the aim of helping businesses in Africa stand out in the digital world.
I spoke with Grayson Julius, Co-Founder of iPF Softwares, about iPF’s approach to software development, the products they’ve built for their clients, and tips to be a successful developer in Africa.
My computer engineering and software development passion started in class five, and I give my dad credit. He moved me from one school to another so that I could study computers and begin my journey.
Unfortunately, obtaining Microsoft certificates was as far as my journey went until I got to university, where I learned programming. At that time in my community, if you could use Microsoft Word or even turn a computer on and off, you were good at computers, so I never went beyond Microsoft.
In Africa, there is a huge difference in how kids’ passion for computers is embraced compared to kids raised in the states where, if someone sees you have a passion, they'll get you to learn block programming languages, i.e., Scratch, MIT App Inventor, etc.
As a result, most African developers have to play catch up because many of us learn our first programming language when we go to university, even though we may have had a passion for computers from a young age.
Summarize iPF Softwares journey over the past five years?
We celebrated our five-year anniversary in August, and over that time, it’s been constant growth, not simply financially but also in our technical and non-technical skills. What has helped us succeed is that we have not been afraid to try. Our willingness to try has helped us learn a lot.
When we started back in 2015, we were doing everything ICT related. And we made one of the most common mistakes new companies make – copy-paste services from inspiring companies or competitors.
We saw a company add social media marketing to their services. A few months later, we listed it as well :) Only to realize we didn’t have a plan in place to execute the service.
Running a startup is all about trial and error until you get it right. The lesson we got from that experience was to consider that maybe that startup you want to copy has a plan in place, or maybe they are just trying out the service, or maybe it is a mistake. And if it is a mistake, they will realize it earlier than us.
Now we have a clear vision, a great company culture, our “WHY,” and a mission to build one of Africa’s leading software development houses, focused on creating impactful digital solutions for African businesses.
What is iPF Softwares, and what are some of the products you’ve built?
iPF is a full-fledged software development company, and we are focused on building digital solutions for impact-oriented businesses in Africa. And by impactful digital solutions, we mean working with mission-driven companies to create digital solutions using mobile and web technologies.
We’ve partnered with many great companies to create some of the markets leading digital products, driving inclusive digital growth across Africa.
- Niajiri Platform – with our partners Ekihya Limited, we are building Niajiri Platform, a one-stop online talent management tool, helping organizations get employment-ready talents. To date, Niajiri has registered more than 60,000 talents.
- Chomoka Mobile Application – with Care Tanzania, we are building Chomoka Mobile Application, an industry-leading solution supporting informal saving groups in Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, and soon to be deployed in 5 more countries in Africa.
- Biashara Plus Platform – with Forever Living Products, we are building Biashara Plus Platform, which supports small-scale entrepreneurs in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo DRC & BZV to manage their inventory and pricing. The platform has 100,000+ users.
- Rise Up Platform – with Unleashed Africa SV we are building Rise Up Platform, the 1st Digital Safe-Space for Girls in Africa, empowering girls to execute their dreams.
These are just a few solutions that we are proud of because they’re disrupting the market, and we sleep better at night knowing we’re making an impact.
Building Pan-African products?
It’s not as complex as it seems because most Africans’ technology background is somewhat the same. The challenge is the language barrier because if you’re deploying a solution to Francophone countries such as Congo DRC & BZV, you need a local partner to work with on translations.
And for Arabic-speaking countries, i.e., Egypt, you have to consider changing the application's information architecture to create the best user experience. The good thing is, for most countries we’ve had a chance to deploy solutions to we’ve had local partners to help us with translations.
Also, another big challenge is payment integration. It’s something that we have struggled with in monetizing our product Biashara Plus in other countries. The main hurdle is connecting with the local mobile money providers, but it’s smooth once you have the right local partners to help you put together agreements with mobile network operators ( MNOs ), etc.
What has been your experience building a software development company?
With any project, there is the pressure to deliver a high-quality product on time, so when one of the products we’ve built is a success both with the client and the users, it’s a satisfying feeling. Also, seeing our team enjoy the work they’re doing here adds to that satisfaction, and it gives you the energy to persist.
Every day is a new day to learn something:
In my experience, there is a fine line between quitting and growing. As one of our company leaders, I face the challenge of serving our clients and dealing with their expectations, which can be tough mentally. You have to go home and come back the next day, realizing that these obstacles are lessons rather than reasons to quit.
What is iPF’s approach to software development?
We use the Scrum Framework to realize the capabilities of Agile. We choose scrum for several reasons; it provides a quick return on investment for product owners, promotes transparency, and allows you to change directions quickly.
As an experienced software development company, we also train our clients around the process of successfully building solutions because most of our local creators and thinkers come up with an idea and expect it to be built with all the features in a month.
For example, let’s say it’s WhatsApp; they’ll want video calls, group calls, blue checks, and everything within that month. We have to remind them that you’re building this for people you haven’t spoken to yet, so let’s start by sending a message from your phone to their phone without any cool features. Then, see how they respond. After, we can add double checks or video calls.
We failed at building our first digital solution in 2015 called African Fashion. We had no idea what we were doing or how we would make money out of it. We simply said we’ll make an app, people will download it, and then we’ll make money. We had no idea that we needed to make a business model canvas.
We learned a lot from our failures, and it's helped us better advise our partners and clients on how we can successfully build their solution. This also helps them be better product owners, and through that, they give us better requirements, and life gets easier for our engineers.
Worth noting, sometimes clients can’t tell the difference between a website and a full-featured application. So you have to slow them down, teach them what it takes to build a full-featured application, and even give them examples. You see, Uber, it took them years to get here. You’re not going to get to where they are in one month; slow down. Build a minimal viable product first, test it with the market, and then iterate. I think this approach is what our clients love about us.
You lead a team of engineers, Scrum Masters, and designers. What are the keys to building successful teams in Africa?
Successfully building a team requires constant training to develop engineering and technical skills as well as leadership and communication skills.
Every Friday we have a training called Hack it Friday. In 2019, we dedicated most of our Hack it Friday's to DevOps. Our technical lead, Jackson, learned about DevOps and said it would help us deploy projects faster and reduce bugs.
The weekly training was specific to the different roles within iPF. The quality assurance team learned how to apply DevOps to quality assurance while our scrum masters learned how to get the most from DevOps in an agile project.
From time to time, we use Hack it Friday to teach our clients. We’ve taught them how scrum can help them, as the product owner, make the most of their investment in a project.
We even have debates. Once, we had a scrum vs. kanban debate where we split the office into two teams and gave people a week to prepare. We came together Friday and debated why scrum or kanban is better.
Tips for software developers. What does it take to be a successful developer in Africa?
Stay up to date with trends but also stay focused on what you’re doing. You have to be aware of what’s going on in technology, like a new programming language, and spend time learning/ getting informed while also focusing on what you want to be very good at.
It’s important because sometimes clients will find out about new technology and ask you a question. If you don’t know, they will see you as less of an expert in the field.
Also, learn best practices and avoid shortcuts. A client might come with a low budget, but that doesn’t mean you build a substandard product. To me, that is not ethical. This is a profession and although your client can’t read your code, be ethical. Build in a way that when you see it next year, you will be proud reading your code.
Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?
When I hear the phase Built In Africa, I feel inspired and encouraged to innovate and create more. We’ve been consumers of digital solutions from Silicon Valley and other western countries for so long, and I think it’s about time we build our own solutions.
Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the founding father of our nation, once said, “No nation has the right to make decisions for another nation; no people for another people.”
And although we don’t need to cut off those solutions because technology is universal and has no boundaries, the culture of not believing in our own solutions needs to stop. Sadly if someone in Africa came up with Facebook, we wouldn’t have believed in the solution, but because it’s from some kid who went to Harvard, we are all using it.
For some reason, we think what is done by the rest of the world is better, and that is just painful because as a tech community, we’re pushing to build solutions, but without the consumers, it’s useless. Our solutions might not always be the best, but it’s a start.
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