On Lessons from Appfrica

One of the most rewarding aspects of running this company has been our International Fellows Program which invites developers from all over the world to Uganda to work alongside our staff as peers. The following post was written by one of our recent Fellows, Oliver Christopher Kaigwa Haas (we called him Ollie) who now works at Frog Design.

As I enter the last week of my time working as a Fellow at Appfrica, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on the experience and to recommend this amazing program to future applicants. My experience has been nothing short of incredible, both on an educational and a networking level. When first reading about the program online, I immediately contacted Jon about joining the company as a Fellow, as I was eager to learn about its for-profit approach and about his experiences as a social entrepreneur in Uganda. Now, after four weeks in the country, I can definitely say that I have learnt a lot and that this experience has helped mould my identity as an aspiring designer for sustainable development and social entrepreneur.

The fellows program is structured in a way to encourage the sharing of skills, knowledge and ideas between members of the Appfrica team and the visiting Fellow. I was able to learn a lot about the technical aspects of mobile application development in resource-poor settings from the fantastic team of programmers here at the office. This was a great opportunity for me, as I get increasingly involved in the information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) space. I was able to bring my web/graphic design skills to the table and contributed to the design elements of a number of projects that were being developed by the other team members.

In addition to the graphic design work, I was also kept busy coordinating some of the initial technical development for ResultsSMS – my “baby project” during my time here as a Fellow. The first day after I arrived, Jon sat down with me at the excellent Good African Coffee and went through the current projects that Appfrica was working on. We worked together to figure out the best way for me to contribute, learn and to have an overall valuable experience during my time at the company. Due to my growing interest in the application of mobile technologies in international development, I was immediately attracted to the ResultsSMS project, which is an open-source system for distributing medical test results, patient education and follow-up information by SMS in resource-poor settings. As the project was still in its very early stages of conception when I arrived, I spent a lot of my time over the first couple of weeks researching on the technologies that would make such a system implementable, and developing the system together with a geographically dispersed team, through discussions and development of concepts and visualizations. This mini-project management experience and the ability to take control of a whole project during my time here was also incredibly exciting and valuable.

Unfortunately, this control would only be short lived. The Fellows program is of course transient in nature and I guess this would be the only limitation I can think of when reflecting on my experience. Since this project was largely managed remotely, I could have potentially continued to stay involved after the Fellows program. Unfortunately, due to a number of larger commitments I have waiting for me upon my return to Europe, however, this will probably not be possible. Therefore, I recommend that future participants in the program consider structuring their time in such a way to allow for potential completion of a project after physically leaving Uganda.

I also want to take this chance to mention my appreciation for the hospitality of Jon and Sarah, who got engaged during my stay in Uganda! They were wonderful hosts, not only providing me with a very comfortable bed in the guest room of their house 10 minutes from the Appfrica office, but also introducing me to a number of their wonderful friends in Kampala and generally allowing me to be a part of their lives in this very exciting city.

I came here to learn and to absorb everything I could from the experience. I would, therefore, like to end with a number of notes and observations I made throughout my time as an Appfrica Fellow:

For Profit Social Entrepreneurship

Social Entrepreneurship means many different things to many different people. From Creative Capitalism to non-profit business models with socially-oriented missions, the term is becoming almost as synonymous as Web 2.0 or the Cloud. In my opinion, Appfrica’s mission “to indentify individuals with talent, passion and training, picking up where the university leaves off to help them improve their technical skills, while mentoring their growth and solidifying their business skills”, definitely qualifies as social entrepreneurship.

After becoming increasingly interested in this concept over the past couple of years, I was excited to learn how Appfrica Labs balanced is socially-oriented mission with a for-profit model of financial sustainability. I have learnt that this model works incredibly well in the software development/IT space, where a lot of the company’s clients come armed with generous technology-oriented development grants or solid business models and associated financial backing. Appfrica’s clients range from NGOs to African investment groups and start-ups, which creates an interesting mix of projects. Some of these projects have more of a development focus than others, however, they all generally align with the company’s guiding principles of African investment and the building of innovative solutions for developing countries.

Apparent Lack of Design Thinking/Training in Uganda

When mixing in with a lot of the IT crowd in Uganda, and particularly with Makerere University students who are studying in this field, I repeatedly heard comments like “I like coding but I don’t like design” and “I am not much of a creative thinker–I’m not good at design.” It turns out that there is also very little focus on design in the IT-related curricula at local universities, and the general application of design thinking and the design process is also pretty much absent.

Although I think this a real shame, I also think it presents an interesting opportunity for the future. As the Internet starts spreading across the continent and connectivity becomes increasingly feasible and affordable. I think that the need for good web, graphic and UI designers in Africa is going to grow significantly. When this time comes, I imagine that much of Africa’s design work will be outsourced to design studios in the continent’s major economies or abroad. I truly believe that there is a skilled designer in any good coder/programmer. Good code logic and structuring is based on very similar principles to good web-design; I think that there needs to be more focus on developing and fostering these skills in university programs. Therefore, there is an opportunity in trying to create this, support or simply help to develop a solid web-design industry in Uganda. To anyone who is skeptical about the value of good web or UI design in development projects, I ask you to re-consider. The lack of a good interface and streamlined user-experience in a revolutionary technology with a great potential impact, will simply act as an obstacle to its widespread acceptance.

Open Working Environment

Another one of Jon’s founding principles for the company was to create an open working environment for businesses and entrepreneurs to “nest” while they are trying to grow. This makes for a fantastically diverse and exciting work environment, where almost every day, the office will be graced by the presence of an interesting individual who is working on some form of ground-breaking project in Uganda. These “visitors”, who are all allowed to make use of the office’s internet and power supply, quickly become part of the Appfrica “family” and will often share experiences or provide feedback on the current topic of discussion. Jon is further developing this concept into what will be referred to as 10K Spaces as part of Appfrica’s 10,000 Hour Initiative. This is a truly inspiring model for how to run an office of a small start-up.

Doing Well in Africa takes You Very Far

The point I am trying to bring across here is one that I have discussed many-a-time with a number of young entrepreneurs in Kampala. The continent is filled with opportunity and there is almost always a chance to do things better, in whatever industry you happen to be working in. Therefore, getting your hands dirty and investing your time and resources to put your ideas into practice can take you very far, even with little experience. Appfrica’s team members are not 10-year industry professionals, but they also don’t need to be.

Wherever there is a lack of experience, there is determination and competence, which has lead the team to be well-versed (or at least familiar) with an incredibly large number of programming languages, technologies and techniques. Therefore, building a start-up with minimal resources, experience and a team of recent university graduates very much paid off in Apprica’s case.

Providing Basic Resources

The office is theoretically equipped with what is considered one of Uganda’s better internet connections. I say theoretically, as their ISP seems to have a lot of difficulties consistently delivering the speeds it promises. Oh, and the power can drop out without notice as well! I quickly learnt how to work around these limitations, however, and now I create two to-do lists each day splitting my internet tasks and non-internet tasks. This allows me to remain productive even if the power is out. When the Internet does work, it is a vital resource for the company’s operations. Every so often large software development kits or programming guides need to be downloaded, along with the occasional TED video for the day’s source of inspiration. I have learnt that investment into basic resources like good internet and computers, although expensive in this part of the world, really pays off and creates a more productive working environment overall.

No Shortage

Working for a software consultancy with a development focus in Uganda has re-confirmed my original belief that there is no shortage of passion, skill, creativity and unique opportunity in this continent.

Oliver Haas can be reached directly at here.

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About the author: Jonathan Gosier is a UI designer, software developer and writer. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a TED Fellow.
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