Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Abyss of the Great Outdoors ....and the Spider Generation

I am slowly getting used to the fact that I will be lucky if get to write to this blog more than twice a year.
I had been meaning to put down a few thoughts for the past few months, but never got round to it. There a lot of reasons why I could not do it...but I will be honest today and tell you it was procrastination ...there ...i said it!

Cele’s Article

I was however jolted out my happy state of work filled bliss by an article on LinkedIn by my friend Celestine Ezeokoye which I think is well worth a read (its not a very long go the link). To give you a summary of what Celestine is saying: Nigeria already has a thriving tech industry. He goes on to list a number of heavy hitting Nigerian tech firms that were started locally by locals and have grown to become giants on the tech landscape and are doing quite the extent that some of them have received up to 90M USD in funding and so on. Celestine encourages the current generation of tech entrepreneurs to do more to stand on the shoulders of the now established tech entrepreneurship giants who have done so much and learnt so much to achieve success in this rough socio-economic landscape that is Nigeria. He says that we should also do more to promote the successes of these guys who have silently gone about their business in building great tech companies that are looking to stand the test of time ( the article, its not as long as this one).

I agree with what Celestine said in that article. There are many Nigerians (indeed Africans) young and not so young who have managed to build businesses based on technology that they bootstrapped with less than $2K USD in funding (from their wallets, family , friends etc) that are doing very very very well. For the purpose of this write up , “very very very well” means having staff of 15 and above and making revenues of more than $1M per annum. You do not find many of these peeps on Social Media or blogs sharing wisdom on best practices of tech entrepreneurship, startup culture  and so on. A number of reasons have been given for this. Some say that people who are busy running a successful business do not have time for social media or tech meetups. Others say that they live and work in a world where sharing wisdom could give your competition the required ammunition to put one over you. Which ever way you choose to look at it, there is a lot to learn from those who have done it...and are still doing it in the tech space in Africa and I would want to dedicate some lines in this article to join Celestine in encouraging our current generation of tech entrepreneurs to spend more time in the company of these people and learn a thing or two. Invite them to more of your meetups, ask them deep questions, encourage them to share more. I would also like to appeal to these tech entrepreneurs who are doing very very very well to make themselves available for people to learn from their experiences. Spare a few hours from your very busy schedules and make time for the community. Share your wisdom. There is a lot you can teach …. there is also a lot you can learn….and gain and I will talk more about that in the following paragraphs.

Abyss of the Great Outdoors

I would like to spend a little time to talk about the other side of Celestine’s article that we may or may not miss. But first I would like to introduce a concept I like to call the Abyss of the Great Outdoors, It is an abyss that runs parallel to the other abyss that we are all familiar with i.e. the Digital Divide. It’s an abyss that i alluded to in my earlier article on the African programmer and the sun. It is the great wide gulf that exists between the tech entrepreneur and his/her end user, the proverbial man or woman on the street. It is this abyss that makes it almost impossible for a single coder sitting in his or her room in Lagos, Nairobi or Bridge Town (a suburb of Cape Town) to create a product or service that will become an instant hit with 120 million people in Nigeria,  43 million people in Kenya or 51 million people in South Africa. It can be measured in terms of the amount of pain (physical, emotional, psychological , financial and spiritual) that a tech entrepreneur has to go through to directly reach his or her first 1,000 end users. It is an abyss that surrounds us to the extent that we do not notice it and take it for granted. Mind you, this abyss is not peculiar to Africa or emerging market countries because it also exists in places like the United States and Europe. The difference is that in those countries it has been bridged to a large extent. What do I mean by bridging?  lets talk a bit about that.

The abyss of the great outdoors

Over the years , indeed over the centuries a number of industries have built bridges over the Abyss of the Great Outdoors, often at very great expense. Some of these industries that we are familiar with are : the Banks, the schools, more recently the Telcos and the largest of all, the government agencies. These bridges come in different forms, shapes and sizes ranging from banking halls and ATMs to telco service centers, SMS to mobile phones, radio and TV etc. If you want to think about the cost of building a bridge across the abyss , consider the fact that according to this article on as at 2004, a single base station was selling for about $25,000 or more.You could also think about the cost of setting up a bank branch in your neighbourhood and then multiply this by the number of base stations or bank branches across your country to get an idea. 

Zim, Oby and the Corporate Bridge

Anyways for a long time these were the only bridges available for crossing the abyss of the great outdoors. I will illustrate this with a story about a fictitious pal of mine named Chukwuzimuzo (An Igbo name which in english means God show me the way). Lets call him Zim for short.

So Zim is a sharp guy who can churn out awesome code in any programming language faster than you can type an email. One day Zim comes up with this awesome idea to create a service targeted at young university students in Nigeria. This service allows them study and collaborate online while providing them with much needed educational content and for that he hopes to earn a small fee from each student. I am sure we have seen or heard of this model or similar models targeted at this or another audience. So lets take a look at the abyss between Zim and his intended users. Note that the assumption here is that Zim’s product/service meets the minimum required awesomeness level:
  • First is access to the students, how can Zim get his product/service in the face of the student. Lets call her Obianuju (Another Igbo name which means “The child that came in the time of plenty”), Oby for short
  • Second, how can Zim convince Oby that his service is the best thing since sliced bread such that she is convinced to use it and possibly pay for it?
  • Third, If and when Oby decides to use Zim’s service or product, how can Zim get paid? After all he is not running a charity service #boysmustfeed
  • Fourth, how does Zim maintain a relationship with Oby so that she keeps using the service and product and it keeps improving i.e. customer service and all that good stuff?

If Zim, is to solve these problems, then he has to successfully cross the abyss of the great outdoors. But how can he do this? Remember...this is an abyss we are talking about here.

Now in the days before the internet revolution really (and I mean really) hit Africa ( i.e circa 1996 - 2006), the options open to Zim would look something like this:

  • Setup a meeting with the authorities of the school to tell them about his new service and convince them as to why his service is the one thing that would make their university an Ivy league school in the next 2 years . This means meetings and presentations during office hours, meetings and presentations outside office hours (with a couple of drinks here and there), more meetings, more presentations and a whole lot of other stuff
  • If the school agrees that this makes sense to them , then they need to decide on how to collect money from Oby and her colleagues. One option could be to include the service charge as part of the school fees which the students pay the school and give Zim a cut. Most times they would rather pay Zim off once and for all with a license fee and then charge the students anyway. This means more meetings, more presentation, more drinks and so on.
  • Then when all is settled, Zim and his service can now go live. The school makes an announcement to Oby and her colleagues that Zim’s platform is now the platform of choice for extracurricular studies and that henceforth they will be charged an extracurricular study fee which amounts to about 1% of their current school fees so its not a big deal. Almost instantly Zim has about 30,000 users available at day one of his product launch.
  • In many cases, the platform will not be known to Oby as Zim’s platform but as the school’s platform (white labelling) so Zim stays in the background and happily collects a slice of the 1% service charge
  • A lot of times, Zim is not even in the background because he has been paid off with a one-time license fee and only shows up when there is need for maintenance for which he gets paid a maintenance stipend.

So why on earth does Zim have to get in touch with the school in order to reach Oby? After all his product is for extracurricular studies, so what business does the school have in the whole thing? Well you see, in this particular case the school has built a bridge to Oby, by virtue of the relationship between the school and Oby. The school has almost 24/7 access to Oby via the school bulletin board (or school email etc). This relationship is made possible because the school has something that Oby needs: A university degree. The school can get Oby’s attention whenever they need to. Zim cannot. So Zim needs to get to Oby through the school. There are of course other ways that Zim could get to Oby , for example he could get in Oby’s face via an SMS to Oby’s phone and charge Oby via her airtime but this would mean going through the same process I listed above but this time with a telco, who just happened to build the bridge to Oby and her phone through SMS and their billing system. Zim could also go through Oby’s bank who have a bridge to Oby virtue of her bank account and their banking halls and ATMs…..or he could choose to get the ears of the ministry of education who have the almighty bridge: Policy.

Now if you can think back to the period I am referring to without the school , the telco, the bank or the government in the equation and you put yourself in the shoes of Zim trying to reach Oby, you will begin to understand exactly what I mean by the abyss of the great outdoors. It is indeed an abyss: wide, dark and full of things that want to eat you.

The Open Web Bridge

Now let us look at a world where there is another that connects the tech entrepreneur DIRECTLY to the user without any need for physical meetings and the like. This bridge connects directly from the techie sitting in his self contained house with laptop to the front of the end user. Today it is (or usually is) the open internet, a.k.a the web. That is what i meant by the abyss being more or less fully bridged in countries like the USA and in Europe where the web is ubiquitous and part of everyday life. Most of the population can be reached via this bridge. This (in my opinion) is why the stories abound of great tech companies founded from dorm rooms and garages. The people in these stories had a bridge that linked them to their first real users across the abyss of the great outdoors.

There are a number of things required to cross the bridges built and maintained by the large corporates and government apart from basic entrepreneurship and technical skills. A number of things come to mind first like presentation skills, dressing the part when you show up for meetings, learning the corporate etiquette and culture of the organization that owns the bridge that Zim is trying to cross, negotiation skills because you need to negotiate the toll for crossing their bridge. But then there is the big one: the connections. You do not just stroll up to a telco , school, government agency or bank and say : I want to use your bridge, give me access. You need to speak with the right person or else you will be speaking for years to come with no results.  Now consider if Zim is a pimple-faced guy just fresh from undergrad or in his final year, what do you think are his chances of negotiating the corporate bridge with his sharp brains, bright ideas and coding skills? Particularly in our environment at a time when ageism ( stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age)  and classism (prejudice or discrimination on the basis of social class) ruled the day?  I would say somewhere between slim and nil. Now this differs from the internet bridge where Zim deploys his app , configures a payment method, does some internet and social media marketing and is up and long thing. The users of his service need not know that Zim is a university undergrad or fresh graduate who came up with this idea while decapitating bottles of beer with his mates 2 weeks ago.

There are however aspects to the open web bridge that are not always obvious or necessary on the corporate bridge for example if Zim are using the internet bridge, Zim has to be ready to carry out 100 different updates to his service in a year if need be because the users (and their usage patterns) demand it. For the corporate bridge this may not be necessary, once the corporate is happy, Zim is happy. Not so on the internet bridge, Zim needs to be on his toes monitoring Oby , her colleagues and their usage patterns. He needs to be able to change his business and marketing model overnight if need be.  He may not always need to do this if he is using the corporate bridge as he has SLAs and licensing agreements to cover his behind. Also on the internet bridge, user experience is a do or die affair. The ease of use of Zim’s product / service (e.g. where Zim placed a particular button or the font he used for a particular piece of text) could make the difference between Zim being the next Google and his service  being just another waste of internet bandwidth. Not so on the corporate bridge. I you do not believe me, next time you are in a large corporate environment, take a look at their intranet and then take a look at your favorite social network, the difference is 7UP. Lets not even go into things like recruiting and managing tech and other talent for both scenarios , that is a like 4 different blog posts on its own, the first of which was this one. Bottomline what I am trying to say is that skills and knowledge needed by Zim to thrive via the open web bridge are different from those needed to thrive on the corporate bridge.

The Spider Generation

Now let us come home.
  Image from

On our dear continent, the open web bridge is still being built, policy by policy, base station by base station, dongle by dongle, web-enabled phone by web-enabled phone, app by app, payment system by payment system and awareness event by awareness event. It is a painful process but it is sweet pain (like the type you get from push ups) for those of us who have dedicated our future to the pursuit of success on the African soil. We have slowly moved from when there were only the corporate owned bridges to a time when we have a bridge under construction, this bridge has a few strands connecting both sides which we hope will support the full structure in the years to come. 

The new tech companies in Africa that are coming up today are like spiders trying to stretch a web across an abyss, the abyss of the great outdoors. Have you ever wondered how spiders manage to build webs across roads or wide open spaces? Yes? Well then read this short article from the New York Times. In summary I will quote some excerpts directly:

Spiders that build the familiar orb-shaped web usually start with a single superstrength strand called a bridge thread or bridge line.
….. First, the material for the bridge thread emerges from one of the spider’s specialized silk glands and is formed into a strand by its spinnerets. The loose end is drawn out by gravity or the breeze and allowed to blow in the prevailing wind

And now the most interesting part:

If the strand does not make contact with something and attach to it, the spider may gobble up the strand and recycle its proteins, then try again. If the gap is bridged, the spider reinforces the strand and uses it to start the web.

Does that remind you of any tech startup you have met in Africa in the last 4 years?

These startups are pioneers trying to do stuff that may have been done before in a place where it has never been done before and in a way that it has never been done before. They are not waiting for the bridge to be completely built before they get on...they are on the bridge...building along with (and in many cases ahead of ) the builders. They stand at the edge of the partially built bridge and extend their webs to an unseen and yet unknown destination. I salute them. I salute them because they have a lot to teach us, they are in the laboratory….the field laboratory….the laboratory overlooking the depths of the abyss. They are carrying out experiments everyday, many of these experiments fail, a few pass, when it fails, they recycle their energy the way the spider recycles its web proteins and they try again another day. A lot of the lessons they have learnt cannot be thought by any tech entrepreneur or business school in the world be they from Silicon Valley….or Lagos who has not walked in their shoes ….not on this path. Simply because this path has not been walked before. Because there was no path…. it is an abyss. I salute the likes of Konga,, Iroko, Jobberman to mention a few. I salute all the startups hiding away in the likes of the Co Creation Hub , the iHub, MEST, iSpace, 88mph , IDEA Hub and a host of other incubators and tech hubs scattered around the continent.  I salute you and I root for you because you are the spiders...building a web across the abyss. I salute you because if you manage to build this bridge, it will be a bridge not just to one billion African users...but also to the 5 billion users across the emerging markets of the world.

Let Us Learn From Each Other

Yes, there is a lot to learn from the tech entrepreneurs who have found success plying the corporate bridge, things like tech entrepreneurship 101,how to run a company and manage people,  how to scale into the corporate world, how to leverage on corporates for success, how to use what you have to get what you want etc. But when it comes to how to locate , target, convince and convert the man or woman on the African street from scratch , with nothing more than a value proposition and keep them loyal to your brand, there may be a thing or two that the corporate bridge users can learn from the current generation of spiders.
I  know of a number of corporate bridge walkers who are trying to cross over to the open web and are beginning to realize that it is not a walk in the park. They have met with varying degrees of success but are all quick to appreciate that it is a different ball game.

I believe that increased collaboration between the spiders and the corporate bridge walkers will result in this bridge being built faster….with more rewards for all at the end of the bridge. We all have a role to play. Let us think about what it is….and play it.

P.S I wrote this while listening to this awesome YouTube playlist of Congolese music (I was bitten by the bug in DR Congo this April). If you encounter any typos ...horrible grammar etc, blame it on the playlist. And give me some credit...its a tough job writing and dancing at the same time


  1. Blonks I must let you know I read through this post pen and paper in hand and I wasn't disappointed! Thanks for putting this together!
    The knowledge has found application in a field I'm currently interested in outside of tech.
    Thanks man.

  2. Thank you for your kind words Samuel.
    Glad that the article added value to you. Please be sure you share whatever new learnings you may find in your chosen non-tech field

  3. This is still the most influential article I have read on the African technology ecosystem. Period.

  4. Blonka at his best. This a masterpiece, one of the most insightful piece I have read about the African tech space.