Websites vs Apps: The Kenyan Mistake (and a proposed solution)

If you took some time to study the African tech scene, particularly in Kenya, you would notice a slight problem. (Then again it could be just me but indulge me).

Tech is booming in Africa, that’s a fact no one can challenge and moreover, growth is a good thing. Uneven growth is a not so good a thing and to be quite honest, I believe we have already embraced it.

I could be wrong but the way I see it, most “techies” in the Nairobi tech scene seem to be “into” web development mainly using the PHP language…and believe me there’s nothing wrong with that UNTIL that becomes the predominantly growing sector in the industry.

The risk here is that other sectors of the tech industry may suffer due to lack of innovation or mere interest! Sectors such as robotics, networking and even Business I.T.

If the trend continues, what we’ll be seeing is a bunch of irrelevant tech solutions such as myriads of websites and web services which cannot be accessed by the majority of internet users seeing as 75% of Kenyans primarily access the internet from their mobile phone!

Most of what we are seeing right now on the African tech scene are websites and web services. Of course there are a couple of apps here and there but then again with varying mobile platforms and standards its hard and costly to reach the masses using apps.

The websites vs. apps battle really isn’t a “playable” battle in the African tech scene. My reason for saying this is that the parameters are quite different from those of the developed world. Parameters such as access to technology, usage trends and can go as wide as development issues.

I have an idea for a solution: Why don’t we focus more on creating a standard platform on which developers can build locally relevant services and/or apps? The platform should take into consideration how the greater African population relates and uses technology and its potential impact on the African people?

For example, I believe USSD and Voice Apps are a suitable platform for the African market although they may be limited in functionality. In the west, the common platform is a mobile phone operating system. I perceive most of the western people as having access to devices such as the iPhone, Android phones, BlackBerry’s and Windows Mobile all of which have a vast number of dedicated applications and even mobile sites customized for each. Perhaps if we could do the same in Africa, with locally relevant tech solutions, we could achieve a great deal of technological growth in all sectors.

Technology development and innovation are not about showcasing skills but rather about problem solving. This is another mistake we are making in the tech sector. I personally know a good number of people who are extremely good at programming but they lack the necessary knowledge of problem solving (which, as I have learnt from my university education, is a fundamental principle in software engineering).

About mtoto wa jirani

...the boy who changed the world...

03. October 2010 by mtoto wa jirani
Categories: Innovation, Mobile, Musings, Technology | 5 comments

Comments (5)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention New post on "Websites vs Apps: The Kenyan Mistake (and a proposed solution)" --

  2. While I agree that “Sectors such as robotics, networking and even Business I.T.” need to continue to grow as much as programming, I don’t think there’s any mistake being made. Remember that programming is at the root of these other sub-sectors.

    An apps vs websites framing is a little bit off in my mind as well. It’s not really the paradigm that we work within. What we do work within is data, databases and clients. Some might make their databases available via USSD, while others do it via SMS, PHP or Mobile Web. Whether they do it on their phone or computer is irrelevant, as long as they’re creating a service for the needs of the market that they’re trying to reach.

    I do think that an African apps marketplace would be useful, as there are quite a few that are localized to specific cities, countries or languages. That really is just an intermediary though, an aggregator of what is out there and where it can be found, seeing as they’ll each have different channels for access depending upon whether they’re app store based, downloadable apps, mobile web browsing, SMS signups, or other.

  3. It completely depends on the market being addressed by the tech startup in question. It may make sense to have an SMS/mobile web app to serve the low affordability african masses when delivering healthcare information, M-banking, microfinance etc…

    Whilst building a blackberry or nokia app for the business/enterprise class may be the right strategy in some african countries when thinking about business applications given the high marketshare of that platform

    The web is the platform that glues all these together no matter what you bet on- and one would be wise to have this as the core platform, no matter what other platforms get served. The web is the future even if the majority of africans access the info via their simple feature phones, it is safe to assume in 5 years they will be shifting to lower costs smartphones with browsers and app marketplaces. African tech companies need to adapt as needed- for instance skype is offered in almost every mobile app marketplace and operating system, the same with ebay, dropbox and other popular service even they probably started one specific platform to get traction.

  4. I like your idea and I will give my take on it below. But firstly, I think you are getting a bit ahead of yourself. Let’s look at this from a different direction. If you have been in Kenya, particularly for the some time, you should be able to see a trend every 5 years or so in the what-to-do-after-school areas.

    After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in the wake of “privatization”, the invading western multinationals and the explosion of the “multi-party” NGOs required a number of skills. “PW’, Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC), and Ernest & Young had seminars and scouts picking primarily engineering and science students to become accountants. For those going into IT at the time is was all about DOS, DBase and FoxPro.

    By the mid 90’s, Windows 95 came into the scene and it was now about “packages” and “colleges” such as IAT, were started then to soak in the avalanche from the corporates that were “retooling” their staff as well as the a new wave of “finishers” who were into “computers”.

    FormNet and Africa Online checked in as the Internet went global. Desktop publishing took off as well as “multimedia” CDROMs. For web design, it was GIFs, HTML and Notepad. And then there was LANTech, UNEP Gigiri got rewired. Everyone was into Cisco and networks.

    Y2K. DotCom bust. Safaricom born. Bush comes into office, 9/11. Kenya gets “new” president. Windows 2k and XP catching on. .NET framework with C# launched after a bust up between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems over J++. Cisco exams are the rage. On the web, Java applets dead, overtaken by DHTML, JavaScript and Flash. Mobile really takes off in Africa as Mbeki announces the “Renaissance”. Everyone was making Flash websites.

    By the mid 2Ks, and with hardly any “copper” telecom networks across the continent, Africa began to quickly jump in Telecom terms, 100 hundred years of copper legacy. In commerce terms, we are skipping the “credit card” business model.

    Currently, in the name of “downsizing”and “cost saving” the multinationals and NGOs are dropping M$ and picking Linux and PHP for their Intranets. All the good programmers work for these corporates are making good monies. UN campaigns are carried out on the Web. Web development rage is on.

    Now to reply to your idea.

    Robotics in particular is the combination of industrialisation and the computer. For most of Africa, highly unlikely, unless we become like China, where we begin to produce industrial and motor goods for ourselves. Best case, 20 years. Business IT is coming, and solutions will be web apps with mobile dashboards.

    And now the current “finishers” are hearing about “ICT” and the government effort into growing the sector. The Internet and its services are estimated to grow by at least 10% for the next 10 years in Kenya. Entry is cheap, i.e. an average spec computer. Knowledge is available – the Web. Opportunities of all shapes and sizes are appearing fast from “build my blog” to corporate Intranets. Global recognition in both Web and Mobile galore, urging even more “youths” into this sector.

    So what you are seeing is true, most techies are “into” the Web with PHP as the major tool. I assure you, its temporary. Expect a boom soon in “Front-side_ technology growth. Not good design though. That takes longer to grow depending on market stratification, client awareness and demand as well as web “designer” growth in number and skill. And with that, Web Apps, both mobile and desktop.

    Right now we are experiencing in rapid succession in Kenya, Web 1.0 which is survived by Amazon style eCommerce, Web 2.0 whose flagship is Gmail in terms of AJAX and currently Web 3.0 “Social Networks” is here with the likes of Facebook.

    To reflect on certain technology trends here, USSD is MNO controlled. The monetisation equation is skewed severely towards the MNOs. So unless its a “free” sponsored service, very little movement will be seen. However, the entry of AirTel, not could, will change this game completely. AirTel will recognise the ICT talent that exists here and with their “India” knowledge will introduce possibilities for “Open Source” programmers in Kenya. Safaricom, have a first-to-market advantage but have a history of very bad PR without the community. So expect a lot of “noise” in this area soon. Currently, there’re MNO “work-a-rounds” like Symbiotic’s Zunguka products ( ).

    We should not overlook the likelihood of cheap smart devices coming from China, and Africans taking them up as fast as they took on the mobile, with their penchant for “being ahead”, bling, and most being young. So unlike anyway else, all 3 “Web X.0” will happen at the same time and with a lot of blur in between. “Money will be poured by foreign masters” as “Africa” becomes the flavor of the moment in all sectors for Western interests. And they have to, before Africa becomes locked into China and India.

    Mobile Web will be the place to watch in Africa. And guess what, PHP, HTML5 and CSS3 will be all over the place.

  5. Mobile Web will be the place to watch in Africa. And guess what, PHP, HTML5 and CSS3 will be all over the place.

    Spot on.