Four years into blogging about cool innovations brewing on the golden sunsets and undulating plains of East Africa especially Uganda, and I can barely name one or two hardware startups. This year 50 startups have qualified to the semifinals of Pivot East 2014, a premium startup conference held across East Africa am particularly a fan of. Of the 50, 25 have been selected to battle for $10,000 prize in the finals to be held this week in Nairobi Kenya.Out of the 25 startups,18 are from Kenya, 5 from Uganda. Tanzania and Ethiopia are represented in the list by one startup each.
But here’s the cold truth — none of them is a hardware based startup. That fact underpins a fundamental flaw in the Tech ecosystem here in Africa. It’s obvious that hardware is the bedrock of every kind of technology, and by hardware I mean the circuit boards, motherboards, down to the nitty gritty details of transistors, capacitors and resistors.
Hardware makes up all the information and communication highways we’ve in Africa. It provides the entertainment in users’ living rooms, it’s used to administer health care among several other applications. Your average teenager in Africa now holds a phone — something that was considered a luxury 10 years ago. An average middle class family in Africa owns a Television set (now they have flat LED screens), a laptop, several smartphones and maybe a tablet.
Yet despite this knowledge of the presence of a mass market that has been cannibalized by players in the US, Europe or China, African startups and so called accelerators continue to ignore this market. We simply develop “Apps” that run on top of several stacks of hardware and software innovations to deliver half-baked solutions to consumers.
Yes, I know I’m being too hard here. But that’s because I know it’s not that we can’t have the latest Galaxy S5 or the latest BMW emanating from Africa, it’s simply because we don’t have the will. Look at economies like China, South Korea which were laughable half a century ago, having been stricken by the same problems we like at point to today in Africa. These economies today churn out shinny smartphones and large LED TV screens that grace your pockets or living room. Now, I’ve to note that there have been attempts to break into this market in Africa. The Kiira EV for instance, a hybrid electric car developed by Makerere university students in Uganda is said to be hitting the road in 2018.
Celebrated Ugandan developers like Abdu Ssekalala thinks that the reason that hardware isn’t that attractive is because the components aren’t readily available on the market and he believes hardware is a lot harder to scale based on an interview Dignited had with him:
“It’s more difficult to work on a hardware project because the tools aren’t readily available in the local market. Software is more rewarding than hardware here. It’s more difficult to sell and had to scale.”
Besides being harder to scale, another Developer at iLabs@Mak believes that its a skillset problem as narrated in this post by Frank Odongkara on “Why we don’t have hardware startups in Africa” on Dignited; “Our problem is quite technical. To design a sophisticated electronic device requires electronics, software and firmware expertise. The problem is the firmware developers, we do not have them.”
Are there no developers to write software programs into a read-only memory?
The challenges are many. As such we’ve decided to follow the path of least resistance — Apps. Software presents the least costs of entry into the Tech industry because of plethora of readily available open source or free software available on the internet. A developer/designer even with rogue coding skills in PHP and a mid-range laptop can roll out a website for some business wanting online presence in just less than a week and earn a few bucks, right? Now the App economy which has taken the continent by storm has several Startup pitching conferences that continue to fuel this trend. But we continue to neglect the reality.
Now it’s worth noting again that there have been attempts to introduce hardware hacking into the African space which is worth applauding.
Gearbox, an open marketplace for hardware hacking in Kenya is geared towards bringing about a shift in the way techies work by nurturing a community of members working on projects in computer technology, industrial art, robotics and electronics. Perhaps such initiatives will bring open hardware components such as the Raspberry Pi, Arduino boards into the continent where hobbyists and enthusiasts can get their hands dirty and test their ideas.
Innovation hubs such as iHubs are now bringing open hardware projects, such as the sensational $35 computer — the Raspberry Pi — to developers as Techcabal reports.
Fundibots, a non-profit Robotics training school based in Uganda founded by Internet entrepreneur Solomon King is another initiative worth mentioning. Their intent is to use robotics training in African schools to raise a new generation of problem solvers, innovators and change-makers.
Maybe when we put our efforts into such initiatives, we won’t have to wait for the likes of Google/Facebook to build orbiting balloons or drones to connect the next billion people to the internet. Instead home-grown hackers will build more rogue routers such as Kenya’s BRCK, a smart, rugged device that can connect to the internet, hop from one network to another, create a hotspot for multiple devices, while plugged in to power or running on battery power.
Africa has been hailed for leapfrogging century-old legacy technologies such as landlines to mobile wireless technology affording millions of users with affordable communication, information and healthcare. Thumbs up! The west has in fact learnt from mobile payment systems such as M-Pesa in Kenya that are low cost and scalable financial solutions. Another thumbs up.
Unfortunately, hardware isn’t something Africa can simply leapfrog. There’s no way of getting around it. We need to build our own Silicon valleys in Africa.