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BarCamp Africa

Last Saturday I attended BarCamp Africa, an event hosted at the Google Campus in Mountain View. BarCamp Africa brought people, institutions and enterprises interested in Africa - as a topic, an opportunity, or a place of action - together in one location to exchange ideas, build connections, re-frame perceptions and catalyze action. It was a fantastic event. Here were some of the highlights:

Build Africa by Building Business

The day started off with an interesting panel of knowledgeable folks who have direct experience with the issues Africa is currently grappling with, namely education, governance, economics and health. Professor Wanjiru N. Kamau-Rutenberg started by sharing how historically, there is a perception that Africa is considered a place where funds (both philanthropic and private enterprise) go to die; that it is truly difficult if not impossible to see a return on investment. She spoke of the third wave of democratization that is transforming the continent as a hopeful indicator of change. All the panelists agreed that building a vibrant middle class is critical for these fledgling democracies to succeed and flourish. Building a vibrant middle class will require support on many fronts, but many of the panelists and speakers throughout the day felt that building business and enabling economic empowerment was a natural place to start.

Designing a Product… AND the System to Support It

As an aid worker in Africa, Martin Fisher observed first-hand countless water projects that had fallen to the the tragedy of the commons. People had and continue to fail at taking into account the ecosystem necessary to sustain projects. Fisher stressed that developing businesses that can self-sustain is imperative. As the inventor and co-founder of the lauded KickStart Pump, Martin shared how the success of his product is the result of:
- understanding a fundamental human need
- understanding the culture and motivations of the market
- developing a product AND the ecosystem to support the product.

Martin shared the how the ecosystem currently being used for KickStart uses charitable donations for the marketing of the product, whereas the product itself is for profit and will continue to do so until the pump reaches a tipping point and can support it’s own marketing efforts.

He felt the three proof points people designing products for Africa need to keep in mind are:
1. Prove Impact
2. Prove Cost-Effective Impact
3. Create a Sustainable Exit Strategy

Martin as well as others stressed that understanding the needs of the African population is critical to designing successful products. What motivates people? What is a particular person’s value system and how can your product or service fit into that perspective? We as westerners bring many assumptions that do not fit into the cultural perspective of most Africans, yet possessing a firm understanding is required in order to develop products for the African market that have an impact. How do you get that insight? The overwhelming response of most of the speakers throughout the day was, “you have to go there and experience it.”

Mobile is the Future in Africa
Far and away the most exciting speakers and topics for me were the ones related to mobile innovation in Africa. David Kobia of Ushahidi, an open source platform that crowdsources crisis information, shared the amazing mobile work from his team. They’ve developed a variety of mobile input interfaces that allow people to easily enter information through their mobile devices. Moses Sitati of Nokia in Kenya shared how his teams focus on using participatory design and development processes - both for inspiration and feedback throughout development - to ensure the products and services designed by Nokia fit the needs of African users. I found out from a few folks that M-PESA is still vibrant and growing. A guy from Kenya told me he knew someone who had $20,000 stored on a SIM card. Amazing.

David Kobia

The event got me thinking about the emphasis we in the UX field put on mobile vs. PC experiences. Yes, they are fundamentally different experiences and we need to be thoughtful about the differences. But, there is probably no meaningful distinction between a mobile phone and a desktop PC for people living in Sub-Saharan Africa besides accessibility. As much as we focus on the distinction between the two experiences, the more we probably are losing sight of what really matters to people - access to information and the needs that information can serve.

Professor Wanjiru N. Kamau-Rutenberg said, “… the force in Africa is like a river trying to find a way.” It seems like it is a force that could redefine how we think about mobile technology.

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