Between 1960 and 1989, about 30% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s highly skilled personnel, an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people, left for Europe and North America.
Resilient, despite the “brain drain,” by the late 2000s, many African countries took full advantage of the mobile computing era, which has created a more connected and tech-enabled continent.
Although millions of Africans have moved to Europe and the US since the turn of the century, the “West” is becoming a revolving door. A new generation of African professionals, optimistic about the continent’s future, is on the horizon. Case in point, Tavonga Muchuchuti, a Botswana nationalist who returned home after attending university in the UK, to create Xavier Africa.
Xavier Africa is a Botswana bespoke software development agency that identifies and solves inefficiencies in African companies using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Set to reshape the continent, artificial intelligence can help organizations improve and scale their decision-making process. And plug-in many of the continent’s infrastructure gaps.
Today a large portion of Africans still don’t have access to proper health care. Xavier Africa hopes to address this with their product Teledoc. An application that uses IoT, data analytics, and machine learning to help individuals with chronic illnesses monitor their condition in real-time to improve their health and life expectancy.
I spoke with Tavonga Muchuchuti, founder of Xavier Africa, about Teledoc, what it takes to build successful software solutions in Africa, and his thoughts on tech in Botswana.
Journey to Xavier Africa
I graduated from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, top of my class in finance. But my junior year, I realized that a lot of the stuff we were doing in school, like calculating vars and probability matrices, was being automated by the largest hedge funds and investment banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. So I figured I was wasting my time with finance.
Around that time, I also discovered artificial intelligence and decided to start Xavier Agency. We are a software development agency that specializes in creating bespoke software solutions. We go into companies, mainly banks, investment firms, parastatals, do a complete scan and diagnosis, and then create custom solutions using different technologies.
In Botswana, most organizations don’t have a standard way of storing their data, but they all talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). We realized for companies to participate in 4IR, we had to create the infrastructure, sort their data, and start moving their documents to the cloud.
We’ve been working with companies for the past three years, and although it’s exciting solving different problems, we realized there was a ceiling, especially here in Africa. The work is limited and becoming more volatile as Indian offshore development companies flood the local market.
Last year, we decided to start using the money that we made from our development agency and start building our own solutions and taking them to market. We’re currently bootstrapping a solution called Teledoc. Half the company will continue creating bespoke solutions for companies to bring in money, while the other half works on Teledoc.
How do you remain grounded in your approach to software development?
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.
Number one, data is extremely expensive. Two, you’ve got a large population of people who will only use WhatsApp and Facebook. Three, you’ve also got a large population of people who are too scared to experiment and use new things. And part of that is not their fault. People here are still struggling to get a loaf of bread. And for many, until they get that loaf, they have no room to think about using a new app on the market.
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 that need 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.
What is Teledoc?
First, I’ll share the story of how Teledoc came about. My grandmother has had diabetes for the past 20 years. She checks her blood pressure and sugar levels every morning and visits her doctor once every three months. But last year, because of the pandemic, three months turned to six months.
During that time, she fell sick, and her condition got a little more critical. Thinking about how we could have helped her avoid a situation like this, I realized there’s only so much insight you can gain from measuring your blood pressure twice a day.
I looked into wearable tech like smartwatches and smart rings to see how it could provide more insight into someone’s health. They can measure many of the vital signs a doctor would use to assess a patient’s condition, like heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature, to name a few.
The idea with Teledoc was to measure all these vital signs in real-time, collect the data, and use AI to identify patterns and potential risks. Patients will have a red, amber, or green status, and when they elevate to red status, we’ll immediately alert their doctor, who will have access to it via a web application.
We also added a feature where patients could log their symptoms and share the medication they are taking. Using all this data, we hope to help doctors make better diagnoses. I know one heart specialist that has fifteen thousand patients. It’s almost impossible to monitor them all. Our web application will give context to doctors and help them make better decisions.
The biggest challenge you faced building Teledoc?
Since we’re bootstrapping and trying to balance building Teledoc with running the agency, we haven’t made the progress that we would have liked. As much as we said, half the team will build Teledoc while the other half builds solutions for companies, it hasn’t been realistic.
The pressure on the money-making side and the need to keep on the lights has often required the entire team to focus on our client work. Since all our staff is on salary, we need business to make sure that everyone can survive. If I could count how long we’ve worked on Teledoc cumulatively since August last year, it’d be a month and a half.
What does it take to build successful software solutions in Africa?
The biggest challenge is accessibility. On this side of the southern African region, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana, the telecoms companies have special data bundles for the social media apps Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram. These are the affordably priced data bundles, while Internet access for anything outside of those apps is extremely expensive.
For organizations to access their end-users, we often had to build WhatsApp and Facebook chatbots because they may not have access to the Internet outside of those social media apps. We’ve been trying to lobby against it for a while now because it disincentivizes using African made products. But the telco industry is filled with oligopolies, so they have no incentive.
The second is simplicity. 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 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.
Third, and probably one of the most important, is the size of the application. 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.
Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?
Built In Africa is a necessity. And It’s about time we started building our own solutions because it’s been made in China for a long time. lol
And as a Pan Africanist, it makes me proud to know that there’s a generation of African entrepreneurs pushing the barrel despite facing 10x the challenges of those in the Valley, yet are getting things done for the continent.
Graduating at the top of my class, I had many opportunities to work in the UK, but I felt called to go back. I asked myself, if you’re not going to solve the problems, then who is? And I think that’s a huge opportunity. People are coming back and saying, yes, we have all these problems. However, we have the capacity to build solutions and move the continent to a position where the world will start using them, just like we did with China.
Returning to the motherland
It was by no means an easy decision. Having grown up here my whole life, I knew what I was going back to. I can’t sit here and lie and say that it was a glamorized version of an Africa rising that I could see, and I was like, I’ve got to be a part of that.
It was a tough decision. You can imagine that my parents weren’t happy because their generation was the one who pulled themselves out of poverty. And they wanted their children to reach some level of security and prosperity.
And here I was, leaving the comfort of the “West,” to then say I’m not only going back to the motherland, but I’m also going back to become an entrepreneur. That’s double suicide. But it was a tough decision that had to be made.
And in terms of inspirational words for someone doubting whether to come back or not, I’m not going to patronize anyone and lie to them that things are prospering on this side. It’s still challenging, but it comes down to what you believe in. For me, I’ve always wanted to come back and create solutions for Africa.
All the people that I looked up to, like your Nelson Mandela’s, were people who made great sacrifices. 27-years of his life were taken from him for what he believed in. I thought, who was I not to sacrifice a couple of years of my life and go back home and try to make a change for my continent? Because we are our solution. No one is coming to save us.
Thoughts on Tech in Botswana?
As a software development agency, tech is probably one of the hardest fields to work in. People don’t take it seriously, especially the parastatals, large corporations, and organizations with deep pockets. A company will ask you to build Uber for $1,000 or build a solution but then say we have a small budget. It’s because they don’t appreciate the process it takes to build these solutions. And they often want it for the sensational value rather than for actual usefulness.
So as much as you are a problem solver, it makes it difficult to put your best foot forward and have the motivation to create cutting-edge solutions. You are somewhat forced to give them the basic solution. Otherwise, you’ll always be frustrated.
And again, data is a huge problem. Here two gigabytes of data are about $10 so what often happens is you’ll build a solution, but no one will use it, not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford to.
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