Still basking in the afterglow of what obviously must have been an uber exciting outing in San Francisco, the Saya Mobile team is arguably the most popular tech startup in the whole of Africa right now. To my knowledge, they are likely the first African startup to pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt.
And as it turns out, their outing wasn’t just to see the sights. They held their own against formidable startup teams, most of whom are located right there in the bay area’s hot bed of technology. The two man team from Ghana entered their messaging solution into an arena filled with cutting edge products and services stemming from some of the most disruptive technologies on the planet right now — ed-tech, big data, cloud, artificial intelligence, auto and many more — eventually fighting their way out of the initial thirty and onto the last battlefield, the final round of seven. Whew!
But that was as far as they got. At the end of their valiant quest, the proposition of giving an aspirational 5.4 billion feature phone user demographic a chance to have cheaper, smarter communication on non-smartphones was not enough to net them the coveted Disrupt cup and $50,000 prize money.
On the bright side however, the Saya Mobile Team have earned themselves some other spoils which might turn out to be even more valuable than the cash — significant bragging rights on the African tech scence, and much more important, global exposure that will no doubt see enthusiastic backers from around the world knocking on their doors pretty soon. I heartily congratulate the Saya Mobile Team, Robert and Badu, as well as the Ghanaian MEST incubator from whence they came on the achievement of this significant milestone in African startup technology.
Having acknowledged this positive turn of events, my mind finds itself turning towards more practical realities that should give us some cause for concern. Saya Mobile has proven what we already know to be true, that great technical talent does exist in Africa. But the question that gives rise to a good amount of head scratching is, where is the rest of that talent? And how much of that talent is ready to compete on a global level?
Save for developments with Saya Mobile, I didn’t really follow TC Disrupt that closely. However, in the first twenty minutes I spent watching two other startups on the battlefield, I noticed that the stakes have (maybe not so suddenly) gotten a lot higher. Not only did I see what clearly were well manned teams, composed of specialised talent, often numbering no less than four people, I also saw that newly minted startups have now begun to wield the same nuclear weapons that behemoths like Apple, Samsung and Google are trying to wipe each other out with — patents.
That tells me a lot about the technical frequency on which these people are operating. These are not PHP script kiddies we’re talking about, we’re probably looking at the some of the best talent within their various industries who have forgone corporate and institutional career alternatives and instead have chosen to team up and create well oiled startup machines for the purpose of building disruptive products and services.
Now I am not by any stretch of imagination suggesting that owning patents is what wins startup competitions. From what I could see, the eventual Disrupt victor, YourMechanic, doesn’t have any. But in real life, these things matter. For instance, registering patents in the course of building a product speaks to the quality of not just that product, but also the talent behind it. Again, a startup that has patented technology is many times more likely to pique investor interest than one without, because it feels like they are investing in disruptive new tech that just might become the next big thing years down the line.
From the seemingly off-handed manner in which startups like Gyft and Expect Labs made us aware of their patent assets, I began to get the idea that this is the new geek cred. Is it possible that in a short while, without one of those nifty little patents, your pitch deck won’t be quite complete?
Coming back to the African tech scene with that context in hand, my initial concerns about how much technical game our local developers have got will no doubt resonate more clearly now. I can’t speak for other African tech communities, but in Nigeria, I know that really great dev talent is either really scarce or just plain hard to find within the mainstream startup ecosystem. The ones that show promise are almost always snapped up by Google, IBM, Oracle, or some other corporate.
There aren’t many cohesive and specialised teams, just a lot of lone rangers and local champions, a bunch of one man startups. Since they are often alone, they have to do everything and can never specialise long enough to get really good at anything. And since knowing code is the first barrier to entry into hacking, it also means that most of the dev skills available are skewed towards plain code and not design or UX. My eyes almost always hurt anytime I have to take a look at another local software product, because all the guy who built it knows is PHP or Java, and he couldn’t find a front-end developer to team up with. As a matter of fact, you won’t even find Nigerian front-end devs and user interface designers just lying around like that, they’re almost like rare earth minerals.
Again, most of the local talent are self-taught hackers who serendipitously stumbled into code in their late teens or early twenties, and while they know enough to build stuff that works, most are yet to attain the kind of mastery that it takes to build really standout, truly kickass products, in any code discipline. They don’t have any real bar to evaluate themselves against because they often do not belong to any dev/design communities, local or international, online or offline. The other day on Twitter, I asked any Nigerian devs on Github to signify. I only got two. I can’t even hazard a guess at how many we’ll find in places like Stackoverflow, Dribbble, Behance or the Hacker News Network.
So how does a Github-less developer in Nigeria with delusions…er, sorry…aspirations of world Zuckerbergification even begin to compete with 15 year old patent-toting super geeks with extensive community roots, cred and funding in the bay area? I imagine it’d be something like playing a handicap game of Monopoly in which you and your opponents start off with the normal stack of money, but the other guys already own all the utilities on the board from the word GO, and they are all playing against you, in co-op mode. Aaaah, you’ll be fine, don’t worry…just as long as you don’t land in Water Works, or the Electric Company. Or any of the four railroads.
If you’re an African developer or a stakeholder in the African startup space, and you’re reading this, and aren’t feeling too defensive yet, I thank you for coming with me this far. Now get ready to hear some more shit.
It’s time we got out this self-congratulatory group jerk-off that we’ve been participating in all this while and start asking ourselves some hard questions. Like are we trying to build stuff that kicks ass and gets the attention of the investors in Park Lane and Boardwalk? Or are we building stuff that is good for no more than being a fancy mock-up that lives in a local sandbox, and then hoping investors will line up to ogle it? Are we aiming the dice for the community chest and hoping to pick off quick but ultimately irrelevant short term wins in overrated hackathons and innovation competitions? Are we just content to exist in perpetual mediocrity — to gingerly pick our way across the board, pass GO, collect 200 and repeat? Because at the current skill levels within the ecosystem, we aren’t really playing to win.
Enough with the digital high fives already. If we acknowledge that the code sucks, that technical skills are fundamentally lacking, and that we need to collectively up our game, then and only then can we begin to explore the means by which we can collaboratively engineer talent into the DNA of the African technology ecosystem.
We need to make long term commitments to technical skill acquisition from the earliest stages. Weekend hack-ups, hackathons, code jams and what-not are great, but these help only intermediate level hackers, and are of no benefit to the majority who are script kiddies that desperately need to grow up. It’s like organising varsity Basketball play-offs to look for all-star talent without a junior league infrastructure in place. What we need are early and developmental stage platforms like the Paradigm Initiative’s TENT, but along more technical lines.
Our developers need to team up and stop pretending they can be one man armies, because it never works. Just look around, how many successful one man tech startups do you know? Joining a team allows each member specialise and become not just good but totally badass at what each of them does. In this fight, swiss army knives are good for nothing. We need more code warriors, design ninjas and business Midases to form Voltron and start kicking global tech butt. There are one or two great teams out there that I will start talking about soon.
While we’re at it, we also need to define technical and creative standards by which we evaluate our progress, and the best way to do that is by forming and joining communities where the industry’s language is spoken and where the imagination is challenged on a daily basis. There is no reason why any dev worth the title shouldn’t have a github, or why a designer shouldn’t be on Dribbble, DeviantArt or aspire to be accepted into the Behance design community. On the local front, a certain Stack Arena has come to my notice. While it is obviously a Stack Overflow clone and still needs a lot of work, I think it’s a good idea that can be relevant to the Nigerian developer context, if executed properly.
I think over time, we have acquired what I can only describe as “hackathon mentality”, for lack of a better way. And it absolutely has to go. The kind of short-term thinking that motivates people to build apps specifically to win competitions is also what ensures that in under a year, we won’t hear about most of them again . Unlike most African startup competitions, a good number of the teams that pitched TechCrunch Disrupt didn’t need the money. Most of them were just there for visibility and the swag. YourMechanic had already raised 1.8 million before they came to win Disrupt. Sure, another Fifty grand cannot hurt, but the fact is they didn’t really need it, they already had cash in the bank. It’s the classic Mathew effect — to him who has, more will be given. We need to see more startup and business ideas that are inspired out of a need to solve real world problems and seize clear market opportunities, not out of a desire to win prize money.
Again, I am proud of what Saya Mobile has achieved. But we don’t have the luxury of clinking glasses right now, not just yet. Not until we have a lot more Sayas across the continent. Africa is not likely to make significant impact on global technology until we hit a critical mass of local talent. And as you have seen, the stakes get higher with every day that passes. To rise with them, we need to aggregate super, kickass local developer talent, and we have to do it at scale. This is not about competing with the rest of the world. This is about ensuring Africa’s place in the future. It’s time we quit the digital high five club and start doing what we need to, to really get into this game.