“If you’re developing solutions for Africa, you should enable Africans to solve their own problems,” says tech guru Jonathan Gosier. And he’s practising what he preaches.
Not only is he a software developer, but also a blogger, investor, entrepreneur and owner of the Kampala-based software development firm Appfrica. The software consultancy mentors, produces and invests in East African technical talent. In Gosier’s words: “Our sole role is to invest in other people’s projects.”
Fill the Gap
Last month the 30-year-old American spoke at Fill the Gap, an annual information and communication gala held at the Netherlands’ largest science center, NEMO in Amsterdam. This year’s theme was ‘Moving beyond the mobile hype’.
NEMO just screams technology, so it was the perfect place to have a one-on-one talk with Gosier. We spoke with him far away from the crowd and the press in a quiet room used as storage for extra chairs and tables.
“A revolution is taking place in Africa,” according to the Fill the Gap organizers. And it’s “driven by mobile technology and rapidly growing access to the mobile which is the key to smart entrepreneurship and citizen participation.”
What does Gosier think about that? “I would reverse that statement to say, smart entrepreneurship is the key to mobile innovation,” he says. “The same goes for ‘citizen participation’ and ‘need’. The buzz in its current form is flawed because it assumes that innovation in itself provides solutions that can help people.”
So what are the most popular and sustainable apps (the abbreviation for mobile software applications) in Africa today? Gosier cites apps all created by Africans for Africans: Ghanaian agro content provider Farmerline, mobile social community-builder Motribe headquartered in Cape Town and Abayima.
Appfrica has supported Abayima with funding and mentorship from the get-go. The app was created by Ugandan technicians after the country’s 2011 elections, when mobile communication networks started being monitored for messages that might indicate dissonance with the ruling political party. Abayima turns SIM cards for feature phones into publishing platforms.
“The great thing of the pipeline of Abayima is that you’re delivering content on the SIM card like you’re delivering a newspaper, which means people don’t care if the SIM is shared, because you’re consuming content and then you might pass it on,” Gosier says. “For example, a group of activists could send messages between two locations using a ‘runner’. When the runner arrives he hands off the SIM which will contain messages for the recipient.”
When asked about the value of locals creating these apps themselves, Gosier is realistic. “I suppose the problem that we’re solving gives access to capital, but that’s as far as we go,” he says.
The price isn’t right
But what is stopping apps from revolutionizing the continent? Mobile phone companies and fiber networks in many countries often stymie users’ access to the internet and prevent them from having a better connectivity, explains Gosier.
It’s a matter of price. “The mobile phone companies know if the market will bear the prices that they have right now, there won’t be a reason to change what works for them,” he says. “By not lowering the prices, they’re creating barriers for people to communicate. In fact, data is so expensive that if you’d given free smart phones to most rural Africans and the ability to use that data, the data would still cost more than they would pay for the phones and the SMS data they’re using right now.”
Like phone companies, the fiber networks also tend to keep fees artificially high. “The costs are high because they operate on a huge speculation that a region will become very active. Until they don’t see the activities actually start, they won’t lower their prices.”
Gosier didn’t set out to work in a particular world region. “My girlfriend was working for an NGO in Uganda, at that time. So, I followed her there,” he chuckles.
He seems proud of the accomplishments so far. “The reason why I started the business was because I saw an opportunity to help people, while also building a business… And then as that scaled, I found other ways to help people and I found others to do that with me. So, I just kept building on that foundation.”
“There was a moment when my girlfriend was almost sent to Latin America,” adds Gosier. “If that had happened, I would have been in Latin America doing similar things and who knows how that would have turned out.”
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