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There are around 750-million SIM cards in Africa (versus 220-million desktops), which means that the US$50 smartphone presents a massive opportunity for the continent. But are African tech entrepreneurs ready for the coming explosion? When US$50 smartphones become the norm, only those who are able to build for them will survive.
“Do we want the Germans coming to our shores and eating our lunch?” Gareth Knight asks the audience at Tech4Africa in Lagos, Nigeria. “When the US$50 smartphone hits the continent, where will they get the apps and who is building those apps for them?”
Knight, who has been running Tech4Africa — one of the continent’s leading tech conferences — for the last few years, argues that not enough scalable apps are coming out of Africa. Nigerians are building apps for Nigerians and are doing nothing about marketing them to the rest of the world.
“Why is that Rocket Internet is coming into the continent and building products?” Knight asks.
Technology is the new economy of the Africa — at every corner there are developers and entrepreneurs building something and creating new experiences. Despite this, Rocket Internet and other international companies have blazed on to the continent ready to takeover.
When more Africans get online and have access to products, it is important that those products are built for Africans, because there are great opportunities to make money here. Chances are, Knight argues, Rocket and the like will be waiting for them, so why aren’t Africans?
There is a lot of talk about the innovation explosion that currently happening. When the internet revolution happened, the rest of the world got all the party favours and Africa was let behind. Now the continent has arrived to the party and all the party favours were gone – meaning that Africans must now build themselves new ones.
“Why don’t I see a lot of apps from Africa?” Knight poses.
He reckons that Africa is long overdue when it comes to building popular apps in app stores for global users. Americans and Europeans build most of the most popular apps in the world. With Africa’s large populations and talented pool of tech innovators, why are the continent’s apps less popular?
Focused on solving African problems
The Lagos audience argues that there are app builders here but if they cannot be monetised, the projects are abandoned. The skills base to create the products exists and the drive to build innovative products is here.
So what is the problem?
There are two key issues that are possibly keeping Africa from playing in the game of tech domination, namely: commercialisation and scalability. African apps are built for Africans and there are no clear monetisation models to make them commercially viable.
Knight reckons that African app developers and entrepreneurs need to rethink their position in the app and tech market. He believes that Africans understand African problems better and have the knowledge and expertise to build products that can easily be scaled to the rest of the world.
“Everyone is hustling to make it. Americans are hustling and so are the Europeans, so there should be no reason Africans shouldn’t be,” says Knight.
One audience member responded to his assertion by pointing out that the general assumption in Nigeria is that you must hustle. The audience understands the need to push in the tech business but projects are abandoned when they don’t make any money.
Africa isn’t ready for the US$50 smartphone because Africans have been thinking about solving the continent’s problems in little bits but not creating sticky apps that bring people in daily.
“Africa needs you and you need it,” adds Knight.
The internet explosion is imminent and this time, he argues, the African cannot be left behind.