Software development is addressing untapped needs in some of Africa’s most critical industries including healthcare, finance, education, agriculture, and logistics. And young, talented African software engineers are leading the way.
But what does it mean to build software for Africa? And what should a developer keep in mind as they’re building their software solution?
First, it’s important to note that many of the roadmaps that exist in other parts of the world can’t be implemented in Africa.
“In the West, when you’re starting a new company, people advise you to work on one thing and one thing only. That is a privilege. You can’t do that in Africa because the infrastructure is not there.
You often have to integrate across your entire value chain because if you don’t, the system will destroy you.” — Alex Tsado
Having spoken to 80+ software developers from 20+ different African countries, I’ve learned that designing and building scalable and sustainable software solutions is no easy undertaking. And that it doesn’t happen by chance. It requires being intentional, learning from peers, and, when possible, standing on the shoulders of those who came before you.
Based on these conversations, I’ve curated 18 things to consider when building software solutions for Africa.
Part 1: Getting Started/ Understanding the Market
1) Focus on the Problem:
Don’t start with an idea; focus on the problem and understand your market. This will make it easier to find the right solution and technology to apply to the problem. And don’t overlook the importance of deciding which technology to use.
2) Know your market:
Start by investigating the viability of the product in that market. We asked companies about their pain points and listened to them share their problems and give us feedback on our idea. After speaking with them, we knew that there was viability somewhere and that our product could work. Hard, upfront work must be done to see the viability of products before you start anything.
3) Don’t Copy & Paste:
Most developers try to copy-paste an existing solution that is working. Let’s say there is a product in Uganda, someone in Kenya might try to copy-paste it and bring it here, but often that does not work. You have to tailor your solutions to meet your specific market’s needs because each country/ market is different.
4) Lower-end Mass vs. Niche Higher-end:
Today, most of the startups here are building solutions for the higher-end because most founders need money. And to get money quickly, you have to start with the upper and middle class who can afford your services. The one challenge with this population is that they are more likely to complain and will easily switch away from your services if your competitor is good enough or if your product is not fulfilling their needs.
While the lower-end mass will remain loyal customers if you implement helpful solutions, they stick to something that works, don’t complain, and appreciate any continued product refinement. So before you get started, it would be best to choose whom you want to serve.
5) Start small:
I believe in going deep into the market and finding a very strong sense of product-market fit, and putting strong operational practices in place to make it easier to scale.
As a dev and a solutions person, you want to solve problems. And you hope that everything will align to allow you to solve the problem the way you want. But we have to be realistic when building, especially building for Africa. I think that’s why many organizations from the West don’t succeed in this market because they don’t understand the fundamentals.
So there’s a lot of realism that comes with building for Africa. I’ll give an example with Teledoc. The main objective is to reach all individuals with chronic illnesses, heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases requiring constant monitoring. The population that we’re targeting a majority of the people are above 60 and live in rural areas.
Although that’s our perfect demographic and the biggest part of the problem, we’ve been forced to focus on top-level executives in the towns and cities. Because they’ll be more receptive to new technology and typically have a Wi-Fi connection at home, which is way cheaper than data. Once we solve it for them and gain some traction, we plan to raise funds, create our own wearable devices, and expand to our ideal client base.
7) Getting funding:
In most African markets, you need to reach product-market fit before you get funding.
Part 2: Building the Solution
8) Find the correct users for testing:
Get a reliable and cooperative group of test users. I would strongly suggest that they are computer literate but not tech-savvy. As software developers, we have blind spots, so we’ll never view the system as a normal user does.
You might be tempted to spend time on the tech and not solving the problem. Sometimes, the problem can be solved with simple tech, not with a complex architecture with features that no one asked for and that don’t add value.
With the right test users, you’ll get an unbiased opinion of your product. You’ll learn if the product makes sense and where to spend your time.
9) Have it built by Africans:
Have Africa’s problems solved by Africans. You need to have an African perspective in your product lifecycle. I’ve seen several companies try to map what they have in Europe or the US to Africa, and most of the time, it fails, partially because of the differences in cultures.
At Lori, we’ve created a logistics marketplace, and we had to do it the African way. If we tried to build a solution like Uber Freight, where you simply get on an app and say, pick my stuff up from here and take it there, it wouldn’t work.
In some African countries, the cost of smartphones is quite high, so people use feature phones, so a solution that requires a phone application wouldn’t work. Ensuring your solution has Africa in mind and includes an African perspective will help you build successful software solutions.
10) Avoid Perfection:
You’ll find that developers and entrepreneurs will attempt to have the perfect product before they launch. Not realizing market needs are constantly changing and evolving and that the longer you take, the longer you delay the feedback loop. But if you deploy quickly, you get the feedback faster, making it easier to iterate.
Lastly, if you’ve stuck trying to evaluate how much time to spend before you launch, here’s the answer. When you have your minimum viable product (MVP) or the major features required for your application are done.
11) Exercise discipline:
Often, people start and then lose sight along the way. They get sidetracked by other things because the journey from idea to execution is long. You need focus and discipline that’s concentrated on building the product, no distractions whatsoever.
12) Keep it Simple:
It’s probably universal, but I think for Africa, it’s even more important. For most user testing that we’ve done, I’ve learned that the simpler the application, the more the user will use it. Because you’re looking at a population of people who are a bit behind in education and extremely resistant to change and new technologies, so they won’t use it if you make it complicated.
13) Don't overlook the application size:
The majority of the cell phones used here are at the lower tier of Android phones, and most have 16 GB of memory. These phones come preloaded with all the Google applications, and people will likely download Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, so you’re working with limited space. And by the time you factor in pictures and videos, you may have about 300 MB left on that person’s phone.
Also, it takes data to download an application, which is expensive. 400 megabytes of data is 20 pula, which is almost $2 to download an application in a country where the median wage is about $400.
Part 3: Additional Things to Keep in Mind
14) Document and tell your story:
I documented my journey while I was building Djuaji extensively. It went viral, and it opened up many opportunities. That’s when I realized the value of telling good stories and started being more proactive about positioning myself online.
A lot of us are first or second-generation tech entrepreneurs. There is no institutional memory in African countries that would permit decision-makers or leaders to assess technology or software businesses on merit. There’s no old dude at Bell Labs who’s going to say this is legit and then make a bunch of phone calls for you to get 100 million dollars from AT&T. That doesn’t exist here.
The way people assess the viability of your business is via proxies and signals. If you can signal that you’re legit, that’s usually all it takes. And that can be the difference between getting a license in that country or not getting a license. Or the difference between hiring a rockstar CTO or not having any CTO at all.
15) Be involved in the startup ecosystem:
I recommend that developers who are building a startup be a part of communities and ecosystems. There is some information you’ll need along your journey that is difficult to learn on your own, and you won’t find it in a book or video. Someone will have to tell you; this is how to do it, don’t waste your time with this or concentrate on that. Being a part of an ecosystem is paramount to a founder’s growth and development.
Being a part of a community is especially important for founders who have a full-time job and are building a startup simultaneously. Most of the accelerators that help startups with legal, accounting, and marketing are designed for full-time startup founders. A strong community can serve as a substitute.
16) Value your talent:
Value your people and have a culture in place from day one enables people to excel. So you can retain the best talent.
Africa’s Talking had an open culture, which gave people the flexibility to set their agendas. It provided psychological safety for failure, which enables people to innovate iteratively.
17) Don’t overlook business/legal:
People tend to overlook the business and the legal side when they get started, but you’ll have major problems down the line if you don’t get it right initially. As a startup, you have to invest time and money in properly registering your business and getting advice from experts in tax planning and accounting.
But to hire the right accountant, you have to learn about tax planning and accounting, not to be an expert, but to properly vet. That way, you can hire someone who won’t advise you to pay more taxes than you need to and is aware of tax incentives and tax breaks that you can take advantage of.
18) Good HR practices matter:
Hiring people is not as simple as finding quality talent and paying them money. It’s a process, and many people overlook the onboarding step. When you hire someone, you need to agree on how work is done, who’s responsible for what, and compensation to ensure roles are clear and that no one feels that they are being shortchanged.
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