In a digital world, access to affordable, high-quality internet is seen as the great equalizer.
But the internet promise overlooks an important barrier, language. Today, ten languages make up 75% of the content online, none of which are native African dialects.
In a recent GSMA survey, they found that a lack of awareness and locally relevant content was considered the most important barrier to internet adoption in North Africa (58%) and the second biggest barrier in Sub-Saharan Africa (38%).
With 2,000+ languages spoken across the continent, and English, French, and Portuguese being the official languages of many African nations; for the world's tech giants, creating or translating content to most native African languages isn't practical or feasible.
Moreover, as urbanization, globalization, and the 4th Industrial Revolution impact culture on the continent, it's unclear what that means for native dialects in the tech ecosystem.
Over the coming decades, African startups will play a huge role in the preservation of culture.
JidiTrust, which offers business management courses in Twi and English, is a model for the needed sentiment that technological advancement does not require culture abandonment.
Founded in 2020, JidiTrust provides web-based business management and financial literacy tools to micro, small and medium businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa. With the aim of helping business owners grow by improving underlying processes.
Currently, in the pilot phase, JidiTrust is set to launch in October 2020.
I spoke with Usheninte Dangana Co-founder of JidiTrust and student at MEST about building successful software solutions in Africa, providing financial education in native African languages, and tech in Africa.
How did your journey lead you to software development?
I was born in Nigeria, but I moved to Tanzania at a very young age, where I completed high school. After high school, I didn't want to go right into uni, so I went on a hiatus for two years. I wanted first to understand myself and the world as a whole a bit more.
During that time, my family relocated back to Nigeria. I moved around the country for a bit, and then I went to University in Ibadan, where I studied psychology. Halfway through my university journey, I picked up software development. How things came about is a funny story.
I'm a poet, and I wanted a way to host a poetry website for free. I did a random Google search, and GitHub popped up. I didn't know what GitHub was back then, but it said I could host a website for free. I spent the next couple of months learning Git.
And through a lot of serendipitous moments, I'm now a software engineer building technical solutions for businesses in the entrepreneurial space.
I'm currently an Entrepreneur-in-Training at MEST Africa, where I study software development, communications, and business development, all the essential skills needed to get a business idea off the ground and build scalable solutions for users and businesses in sub-Saharan Africa.
What is JidiTrust designed to do, and what value does it provide to the marketplace?
JidiTrust offers local language financial education and business management tools for small, micro, and medium-sized business owners.
We aim to bridge the gap between access to information on world-class business processes by giving small business owners tools to differentiate themselves from their competition.
In this part of the world, a lot of businesses operate on wins. Money comes in, money goes out, and there's little to no structure. We are trying to give them that structure.
What makes us unique is that our financial education courses are in African languages. Since we're starting up in Ghana, the languages we offer at the moment are Twi and Fanti. We aim to grow it to the point that people in other parts of Africa are using the platform in their local languages as well.
Our features include:
- African local language business courses
- Interactive applied learning
- Digital book-keeping
- Transactional insights
How did you translate the requirements of the business problem into code?
The early days were a lot of user flows and workflows, ideating, and design thinking about the problem. We found ourselves doing a lot of itemized documentation and sketching out the thought process an average user would have when they come onto the platform.
Elements as simple as the onboard process too in-depth as giving them time-based alternatives between certain actions and different segments of the app. Once we had all those pieces, translating it to code was not a problem.
I'm of the opinion that before any programming starts, you must spend a good amount of time planning. Once you have your principles and your first moves down on paper, it's not that much of an issue to execute.
Also, having gone through MEST, I now consider myself a minimalist developer. I've learned the hard way from my experiences before JidiTrust that it's best to use what works, it can be shiny, but it must be functional.
I'm not of the opinion that we should use libraries for everything. Sometimes you will find that this package or library you're installing could be done in less than 50 lines of code, so why not go the extra mile?
How are you translating the business courses into native languages?
We're fortunate to have a diverse team. The CEO and business lead for the project, Mazior Nyanyo, speaks multiple Ghanaian languages; Twi, Fanti, and Ewe. So since we're starting up in Ghana, she translates the courses from English to these languages.
Currently, she's the central figure in all of the videos because she understands the idiosyncrasies of the languages, and how to break down complex concepts into easily consumable pieces for users.
My other team member Lotanna Nwose is Nigerian. He's from the Igbo tribe, so in the case where we need to create such content for that market, that wouldn't be a problem.
I myself am very fluent in Swahili. So when the time comes for us to move to that part of the continent, that won't be a problem.
We're very aware of the importance of that African dimension in this project because without it we'd be the same as any other platform doing this online. I think our unique cultural backgrounds make us the best team to build this platform.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced building JidiTrust?
There's a modest infrastructure deficit on the continent regarding internet connectivity, so while it's ideal to build a mega platform, one has to be cognizant of the fact that these assets will be accessed on individual phones.
And people are very cognizant of their data usage. They'd rather not spend more than a reasonable amount of megabytes to use an application, regardless of how nice it is.
So little things like a page taking too long to load can hamper the user experience. That understanding has essentially fueled our current design process, so we are trying to engineer for that kind of low latency environment.
How has your experience at MEST impacted JidiTrust's development and how you solve problems?
First, as a developer, before coming to MEST, I was a bit of a renaissance technologist. I approached development as more of an art than a science.
Implementing a little bit of this and implementing a little bit of that, as long as it comes together, we're good to go. So being at MEST has given me structure in a good way. There are a lot of beliefs that I've internalized very deeply in terms of what one needs to do to execute any solid software development project. It's given form to my perspective as a developer.
With regard to how that has contributed to our current product, we find that implementing those principles that they taught and having a wealth of persons that we can reach out to for guidance has been helpful.
Not hands-on in the code support but rather experienced persons that can give you feedback on the architectural components.
Also, it does help that everyone on our team has technical experience. Lotanna had experience in front-end development, and Mazior had experience with Python and Django. So we each have an understanding of what an above-average product should be.
We do a lot of internal testing, which I call "attack the system," After I build a new feature, we go at it, then we refine and improve.
What do you believe are the keys to being a successful software developer in Africa?
I tell my friends being a software developer in Africa is an extreme sport. You're battling internet connectivity, power cuts, and general access to resources.
Certain roadmaps exist globally for learning and entering tech, but in Africa, the little things like having access to a laptop, which might seem like not a big deal in certain parts of the world, is a big deal.
For the average person, starting in tech in Africa, getting a laptop is one of the major hurdles they have to overcome.
So I think resilience and not giving up is an essential skill for all developers.
One of my first intense projects was in 2018. I built a React plugin for freeCodeCamp test suite, and I did it surviving power cuts. And at the time my laptop battery didn't last so if the electricity went out, I'd have like two minutes of power before it cut off.
When there was no power, I would write out what I needed to do when the power came back. I didn't have the luxury of just chilling and Googling. I had to know exactly what I was going to do so that when the power came back on, I went at it.
There was little room for failure. It took me about two days to finish building the plugin, but it went well. So again, resilience, being able to push on regardless. I like to say there are no walls; there are just higher obstacles to climb over.
Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?
When I hear Built In Africa, I think awakening because we've always been building, it's documented in our history. With regards to today, when I hear Built In Africa, I think technology, systems, and engineering a new way of life.
One of the good things about this new awakening about Africa by Africans, on the continent and elsewhere, is that we're starting off with culture.
I feel that a lot more curation needs to happen. That's why I really connect with what Built In Africa is doing because we have gone past the point of just churning out products. It's also about controlling the narrative and developing a central lens on how we look at things globally.
Once we can get that cultural element down, everything else will fall into place. There is a lot of tech talent in Africa that has similar capabilities to devs you would find anywhere else in the world. The opportunities are not quite the same because there are a lot of institutional and structural challenges that they face.
But as startups, we need to just take control of telling our stories, because once upon a time, Google was just a couple of individuals trying to organize the world's information. Now, look at what we have.
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