Over the years Appfrica has evolved to be a multi-faceted organization which has spawned several spin-off initiatives that we’re proud of including HiveColab, MetaLayer and Abayima. As we pursue new endeavors and scale some of the existing ones, 2013 is shaping up to be a fantastic year!
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It’s always great to look at one’s current or past successes, but what about the failures? Every entrepreneur (hell, every person person) has failed at something….even if it’s failing at being humble enough to admit it!
So here are 11 projects from the past five years that I tried to launch, either on my own or with colleagues, that failed for whatever reason. I’ve also included the business lessons I learned from each project.
Afridex (2008 to 2010)
The Idea: Back in 2008, there was little information about the various companies across the pan-African business sector. It also featured micro-format compatible ‘cards’ that businesses could place on their website. Definitely not one that had APIs or fancy design. So I set out to create one by modeling it after Tech Crunch’s CrunchBase. (Photo Above)
Why it failed: There was no clear business model (that I’d identified at the time) and I never came up with a strong enough data acquisition strategy – just because you say you’re going to crowdsource data doesn’t mean the crowd is going to volunteer to source the data for you!
Lesson: ‘Buzzwords’ like crowd-sourcing are usually based on a lot of hard work that is easy to overlook.
A.fricame.me (2010 to 2012)
The Idea: To create Techmeme-like destination site for information on all things tech, business, and policy related in Africa.
Why it failed: To make it sustainable, this type of project requires a lot of time on behalf of the founder. That said, I never cared about making this project profitable but I underestimated how much of my own time it would take to keep it functioning an relevant.
Lesson: Don’t take on side-projects without fully investigating how much time they will take away from your priamry proejcts.
Appfrica 1 (2008 to 2010)
The Idea: Appfrica began as a blog and long-form investigative research site all about what was going in Africa. The goal was to be something akin to GigaOm Pro for the African audience with high-quality blog posts, market reports, infographics and the like.
Why it failed: This eventually worked in the form of other projects (Appfrica still does market research) but it takes a degree of critical mass in demand before pursuing a business model like this. Doing it for no money was too time-consuming and draining to be sustainable. At one point I even hired a few writers, but because there was no revenue, that didn’t last long.
Lesson: Know your customer before you launch a product. And if possible, make every attempt to reach out to them to make sales as soon as (or even before) you start. This is now known as the ‘lean startup’ model, but I assure you that philosophy is as old as commerce itself.
Appfrica 2 (2009 to 2011)
The Idea: In parallel to trying to make Appfrica a successful blog, I was also running a small developer shop in Kampala. The idea was to follow the example of companies that earned their business from corporations in North America and Europe who wanted out-source to Asia. Why not out-source to Africa?
Why it failed: While Appfrica had very high visibility, press, and market awareness at the time, scaling a consultancy is hard.
Lesson: Hire too many people too fast and client work may not come in fast enough to sustain your staff, resulting in your going bankrupt or having to lay off people. If you fail to hire enough people quick enough, you’re stuck with an avalanche of projects, and no one to work on them.
Appfrica 3 (2009 to 2010)
The Idea: In ’09-’10 I wanted to find ways of offering capital to early stage African entrepreneurs. By leveraging profits from our consulting business, and partnering with experienced VCs, we could make investments, or at the very least introduce entrepreneurs to the investors.
Why it failed: Ultimately it came down to my lack of experience in the investment sector.
Lesson: Experience matters. I got better at it pretty quickly. Now Appfrica has found several ways of solving the problem of lack of access to early-stage financing. One is through our competitive funding program Apps4Africa, the other is through our SeedCapitalAfrica fund.
The Idea: A Twitter account that tweeted one fact about Africa each day an and accompanying podcast that shared one interesting fact about Africa each episode.
Why it failed: It was actually quite popular, but my own attention for researching and producing the show is what waned.
Lesson: If you want it to last work with others.
LocaleMotive (2010 – 2011)
The Idea: An ambitious location-based edu-tech startup that aimed to use gamification and parent/peer interaction to improve the way study groups work in the U.S.
Why it failed: While this is still something that I’d like to see done, it was a capital intensive project to startup. I would have needed an angel investor almost right out the gate.
Status.ug (2009 to 2010)
The Idea: A feature-phone accessible mobile-social network that leveraged mobile money for social m-commerce in Uganda.
Why it failed: Actually, this was a by-product of the ‘Appfrica 3′ experiment in angel investing. Also, I think I loved the concept more than the entrepreneur did.
Lesson: A founder needs to be a founder first. An investor needs to be an investor first. If those stars are misaligned, expect the worst.
Wheragi (2009 to 2010)
The Idea: Location based note-dropping and discovery. Essentially like Foursquare, but using short-codes and natural language so that it could work on feature phones. Also toyed with the idea of doing an Augmented Reality version for development aid workers using smart phones.
Why it failed: I made it too complicated to build by trying to do everything at once. Also, such an ambitious project requires one to show that they can actually execute.
Lesson: No one can ever (convincingly) argue the viability of something that is already functioning and that already has traction. This project had a lot of interest, but I should have started small and got the basics working before looking for funding in a major way.
WeWorkForFree.com (2006 to 2008)
The Idea: Create an online community of artists and graphic designers who sell or donate their art and services to help generate money for charity.
Why it failed: Where do I start? First, artists and designers are already an exploited bunch on the web. Now someone was asking them to compete to give their stuff away for free? Meanwhile our site was going to then auction work, not to make a profit but to donate to charities and do projects in developing countries.
Lesson: A business that means well is not necessarily a business. It needs to mean well, do good, and sustain itself. If you’ve read anything I’ve written after 2008 now you’ll understand partly why that message has become a personal mantra of mine.
The Idea: To create an African Incubation hub (like ccHub, I-Hub, or ActiveSpaces) for the 16 and under demographic.
Why it failed: Too dependent upon the parents ability to afford or appreciate aftercare education for their kids. In other words, the concept though interesting, did not consider the needs of the user (the students and their parents).
Lesson: Users first. Always.
The ultimate lesson in all of this is failure is only a permanent condition if you let it stop you, otherwise it’s a temporary ailment. Keep trying. The horizon only looks like like the edge of the earth, if you keep heading in that direction, I’m pretty sure you won’t fall off.
So when you email me or call me to ask about how projects MetaLayer, Appfrica, Apps4Africa and/or Abayima have all been so well received, please know that none of those would have been possible without the experience gained from failing so often and and not giving up.
The Appfrica blog has been more-or-less active since 2008, and it’s had many looks which we’ve recently updated. The new site is clean and minimal and makes for better reading of the longer content we’ve written over the years.
While we were at it, we also slightly modified our logo which hadn’t changed in quite a while either.
Just for the fun of it, here’s a look back at the past! First the website….
We’ve come a long way since then! Now a trip down memory lane with some of our old logos…
The past few years have been incredible for the team here at Appfrica. What started as an ambitious effort to invest in an incubate Africa’s rising talents in technology has become a quickly growing company that’s never been more vibrant! That said, we’re excited to announce the addition of Bahiyah Yasmeen Robinson to our staff as Executive Director. In her role she’ll oversee our many programs and partnerships.
Former Director Jon Gosier, is now the Director of Advocacy and will work with assist Bahiyah in scaling Appfrica’s efforts to invest in, and nurture the African tech sector.
Bahiyah Yasmeen Robinson became involved in social entrepreneurship at a young age, partnering with friend out of high school to run a fashion line that sourced and imported local fabrics from women’s cooperatives in Tanzania. That experience invigorated Bahiyah’s love for international, cross-cultural exchange and commerce. She went on to explore the world of media and entertainment in order to obtain a well rounded view of the media industry, eventually returning to her true passion: international affairs and social entrepreneurship.
To date, Bahiyah has established and ran non profit organizations and businesses with ties to Sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S. and Brazil. She has a degree in International Relations, and has worked with large NGOs, including the Council on Foreign Relations and Ashoka in both administrative and consulting roles. Her passion is international branding, marketing and organizational development, building public-private partnerships that add value to all parties, and aligning business practices with clear and well intentioned core values.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
In the American and European tech space there’s a growing problem. There’s so much funding available for early stage startups that everyone and their college dropout buddy is starting-up, leaving no one out there to hire.
It’s one of those first world problems: “We just raised 4 million dollars for our social network for redheads but we can’t find any developers…frowny face.”
If Silicon Valley is having trouble hiring top tech talent, then it means that there’s also a drought in the NGO space. Even the biggest non-profits are suffering from the same lack of technical resources.
If you’re an African developer, this is a huge opportunity. Focus on acquiring (or maturing) some of the following skills. Talent in these areas is elusive even in the U.S. and Europe, being good at them will make you far more employable (or fundable if you want to start a company), globally as well as locally:
For Technical People
- Ruby on Rails A lot of web startups use RoR because it’s a great language and it also impresses investors. However, they quickly realize that it impresses because Rails developers regularly command high salaries due to such high demand.
- Python and or Django The Jan Brady to Ruby’s Macia. Actually, Python is probably more in demand these days simply because more developers are competent in it. It’s also great for mobile app development which makes it useful for all those SMS apps local firms are dying to build.
- iOS – the iPhone continues to dominate the smart phone arena. It’s less relevant if you’re targeting a local audience (there go with Android or stick with Java), but if you are building apps that you want to sell internationally then there’s no app store with a richer economy for developers than Apple’s.
- Data visualization All that ‘open data’ out there is irrelevant. What’s relevant is data that can be used by anyone at any organization, with minimal fuss. Visualization makes it easy to relate complex datasets to those too busy (or too lazy) to analyze them. Data vis goes beyond any specific programing language, but it is a skill and it’s one that Africans can find a great deal of opportunity in.
- Math/Statistics Before one can visualize anything they need the components to visualize. If you’ve got a strong grasp of statistics and analysis, distilling information so that it’s actionable for others (who usually don’t share this skill) is a highly lucrative path to pursue.
- Semantic Analysis Despite what everyone thought, the semantic web is here to stay. It hasn’t become a ‘new web’ like some once thought it might, but semantic technologies (sentiment analysis, natural language processing, text parsing) have become the methods that are routinely used to power some of the web’s most popular applications. These skills are incredibly lucrative. The growth of the ‘Big Data’ industry is fueled by them.
- NoSQL & NewSQL Modern web apps require a great deal of backend engineering to deal with and keep track of all the byproducts of social, sharing, and content creation. There’s two schools of thoughts on this: one is that by doing more of the work on the application side (on request), applications can scale faster while handling more operations from more users. That’s the non-relational approach. The other school of thought is that there was nothing wrong with the old way of doing things, which stores data with the values the application uses for retrieving them later. The challenge was that this created a bottleneck at the database level which often lead to slow or stagnant apps. The new thinking around NewSQL is to keep the relational model and simply build better database software that allows for more throughput. Entire companies are being built of each type of database (see: Cloudera, Vertica, 10Gen), pick the one that makes sense for you. Also, this is the fuel for the Big Data/Open Data rocket ship.
- Hardware Engineering The ‘maker’ movement amplified by Afrigadget and Maker Faire Africa highlights another opportunity on the continent, the localization of manufacturing. Whether it’s bicycles or mobile devices, companies local to the continent that design and build things are scarce.
For Less Technical People
- Design Look at the majority of African websites. Most websites made by African developers still look like they were made in 1999 using the GeoCities default templates (translation: Fugly). Blegh. There is a bounty out for good African designers. The mistake a lot of programmers make is they assume design is about technical know-how. It’s not – it’s about a sense of aesthetic and attention to detail. If you are a lazy designer, you’re not a designer. If you are a programmer who thinks design is superfluous to your application, then you’re doing it wrong. There’s also a dearth of design talent in the U.S. and Europe and a good designer can command the salary of a top programmer. Where are the African designers?
- Writing You would be surprised at the number of people who can’t string together a well-written, cohesive, consistant thought in written form. Coupled with the rapid proliferation of social media (which, by the way, consists of mostly written messaging) the ability to write and write well has become incredibly important. I say this because you are not at a disadvantage if you are a non-native speaker. Example: Ariana Huffington is a non-native english speaker and she built a highly influential and powerful new media outlet that rivals old-school powerhouses like CNN and FOX on the web. It’s about being able to convey your thoughts cohesively and convincingly. It takes practice, so keep blogging!
- Project Management Being the person who can cultivate the best traits from your team of peers is a huge asset that has always been rare. Many people manage, few excel at it.
- Videography – We’ve all heard that there isn’t enough local content being produced for African audiences. One of the reasons is the lack of local producers. However, this is changing. More countries are becoming home to an African creative class who are producing film, television, and web shows locally. Can this be lucrative? I think so. As bandwidth falls in cost, eventually the demand for local content may not come from international viewers but the pan-African audience.
- Critical Thinking/Problem Solving Deductive reasoning. The ability to deduce conclusions and the reasons why they have occurred. To do this, you have to be able to consider all sides and all aspects of a problem…even the ones that you don’t like. You have to be able to challenge assumptions, this includes your own. It is a skill to be able to analyze the intricacies of why things happen or if someone’s argument isn’t grounded in reality, and to be able to explain your conclusions to others. This will make you a better anything.
There are companies all over the world looking to hire people with aptitude in these areas, but being in Africa puts you in a position of power because there will be as great a demand for you at home as there is abroad. Does this mean you’d have to relocate to another country? Not necessarily, many of these skills can be outsourced to you or your company.
In 2012 learn the things that are in demand so you can build firms (or offer services) that capitalize on these global trends.
Photo Credit: Ahmed Maawy & Apps4Africa.org
Well, it wasn’t a graceful relaunch. Our site went down, a web app we use called JotNote suffered at DDOS attack, and there were other complications, but after 24 hours of debugging and troubleshooting Apps4Africa 2011 is almost underway! Beginning October 1, 2011 the contest will kick off in 5 countries in West Africa, before moving to East Africa (October 20, 2011), ultimately ending with the Southern Africa competition early next year.
The press release from this morning:
As part of our engagement with emerging African partners in addressing the challenge of climate change, the U.S. Department of State will sponsor Apps4Africa: Climate Challenge, a public diplomacy program comprised of three African regional competitions to address local climate change challenges through the use of mobile technology.
In coordination with software developer Appfrica International, the U.S. Department of State will bring civil society, academia and private sector organizations together with African technology innovators to develop applications that address local climate change adaptation challenges. In doing so, we seek to raise African public awareness of climate change adaptation and U.S. involvement in Africa on these issues; support the development of civil society and private-sector networks; and highlight African solutions to local climate change adaptation challenges.
The 2011 competitions are linked to three African regional climate change workshops organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State. The workshops are part of the broader Adaptation Partnership, which brings together practitioners and policy-makers to address key adaptation challenges in their region. Climate change issues identified at these workshops will be used to inspire ideas for mobile applications for the competitions.
The Apps4Africa: Climate Challenge builds on the success of the 2010 Apps4Africa: Civic Challenge in which civil society challenged program developers to find innovative technological solutions to everyday problems on issues ranging from transparency and governance to health and education. The 2011 competition begins in Western and Central Africa in September, with Eastern and Southern Africa to follow. Winners will receive prizes, including cash awards. Private partners, including TED and Indigo Trust, are contributing technical assistance, prizes, and follow-on support for the new partnerships created by this platform.
This is really exciting for us, as with this contest, Appfrica and HiveColab members will visit a huge portion of the content, to answer your questions and help facilitate local events. Plus we’ll get to meet many of the great minds out there doing great work! Regional outreach events will be held in the following countries.
In West Africa/Central the outreach area will include: Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, DRC and Ghana. In East Africa the outreach area will include: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In Southern Africa, the outreach area will include South Africa, Botswana, Madagascar and Angola.
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In 2008, when I started about blogging about African technology, I had no idea where it would take me. I was just hoping to help draw attention to a number of inspiring stories and individuals I was learning about around the continent. Eventually, I was able to scrape up enough of my own meager funds to launch Appfrica as a physical place to incubate young technologists in Uganda. That went incredibly well, we evolved several times and eventually spawned several spin-off projects including the awesome Hive Colab and Abayima (which you’ll be hearing about soon).
Over the past few weeks I’ve been inundated with questions about what what’s going on with my own work, as well as Appfrica, Hive and my new venture, metaLayer. Well, I’m happy to say not much has changed. I had the dream opportunity to work with one of the world’s most revolutionary companies for a while leading the SwiftRiver project. What I learned from working with Ushahidi over the past few years is that my passion is technology, startups and big data problems. Eventually the pursuit of those passions was too strong to ignore. Again, it was a dream opportunity, a dream job, and they have a fantastic team so I’m really grateful for that period of my career.
I also had the opportunity to turn down several other dream job offers. But I had to ask myself why I was turning down opportunities I’d sort of waited my whole life for. The reality is, the only opportunity that I’ve been waiting for is the opportunity to control my own destiny and to empower others to do the same. I’m really grateful to still be able to do this. I’m also grateful for our team and friends in Uganda, who have all worked tirelessly in varying capacities to keep our in-country work going smoothly.
I no longer live in Uganda, Appfrica has evolved into an organization that funds HiveColab through its consulting work for enterprise companies and international NGOs. Our goal is to build capacity by engaging tech talent on the continent for the software projects we work on while directly financing philanthropic tech initiatives like Hive Colab. The more things grow and evolve, the more they remain the same.
Thanks for supporting us over the last few years so stay tuned, we’ve only just begun! =)
This blog has been uncharacteristically quiet over the past few months. Not without reason, I’ve been all over the world running SwiftRiver for Ushahidi, getting married, relocating to Washington, D.C., and with projects like Hive Colab and Apps4Africa. 2010 was a really good year for everything but it didn’t come without it’s challenges and hurdles.
I have to bite my tongue about some of the news coming up in 2011, but if you miss us, don’t worry we’ll be back! See you all in the New Year!
..As one of the most exciting and significant bi-monthly networking sessions for people in IT and Telecoms, The Innovation Dinner Series brings together decision makers and top-flight speakers to discuss burning issues in the ICT Industry.- ITNews AfricaContinue Reading...
Over the past few weeks myself, Solomon King of NodeSix.com, Joshua Goldstein an Appfrica Fellow, Jessica Colaco at the iHub in Nairobi, Philip Thigo and John Kipchumbah at SODNET (Social Development Network Kenya), and a number of very dedicated individuals from the United States Department of State have been working behind the scenes to put together a contest for African software developers called Apps Africa.