So yesterday while looking back at the year’s tech success, failures and gaffes we found ourselves coming up with stuff we couldn’t quite consider failures, because these haven’t been done. Done here means caring enough to commit to it. These possibilities just sit there waiting for the committed. The reasons are varied and we explore a bit of it as we go.
Like any startup idea being executed from Zimbabwe, this is likely not something a startup would grow to mega scale just focusing on the local market (even though this would be good and might become a target for acquisition by a regional/international player). But even if they looked beyond borders, nothing is as simple as it looks under the sun.
The fact though is that there’s still no one place to go to online or on your mobile phone where you are guaranteed to find Zimbabwean music the same way that, back in the 90s and early 2000s, one would walk into Spinalong shop and be guaranteed they’d get the latest album from whatever local musician they liked. The only platforms visible are the “caller ringback tone” type like Bozza’s deal with Econet. Bozza’s own platform, is a far cry from what one would expect from a goto music platform.
The digital music problem remains unsolved while artists continue to lose money to piracy. I suspect part of it remaining unsolved is we are characteristically waiting to first see the model somewhere first and apply it here. Problem with this is that our music industry (just as with film) is at a different stage of growth and we won’t find this solution ready made somewhere waiting for us to download and go into business. Some brains are needed to think what we would here and some tech skills are needed top build it.
Copying Spotify, Jango, iTunes or whatever is out there won’t cut it: a PC focused solution won’t work coz we’re mobile, an Android mobile app faces problems of Android penetration, any internet dependent app will fail in the face of our expensive internet, and there’s the issue of the many different internets to deal with (some people’s internet is just WhatsApp, some just Facebook, and some just Opera Mini!)
A digital music solution will have to be implemented by someone that understands these things or at least one who, even unknowingly, happens upon a special sauce that (seemingly) magically transcends these things.
E-Commerce remains elusive.
While there have been some notable plays like 10ngahh and Storefront.co.zw, these are still not stores you immediately think about when you want to buy something. The online shops don’t seem to have done enough to make themselves the preferred alternative to their brick mortar competition.
Also no one keeps large (~$300) amounts of money in their mobile money account or debit cards, so to buy most of their inventory, customers need first to top up their phones and wallets. using mobile money for any large amount is super expensive and going to a banking hall to top up a card so you can buy online (and wait 48 hours for delivery) is too much work if the alternative is to just take that money to a shop and walk out minutes later with a product.
If the online prices were lower though – low enough to make this extra work worth it – eventually people would keep money on their cards.
That said, we can’t ignore that Zimbabwe’s economy is not healthy right now. We’re busy with the political small mindedness we excel at. The politicians are the actors and we’re their ever faithful audience religiously and gleefully watching Zanu-PF do its thing! If only the actors and audience would stop the nonsense already and start working to fix this ailing economy. So, no, even if there was an aggressive e-commerce startup, there are things like a broke target market that they’ll have to face.
So there’s a painful process that every new person coming to into Harare has to deal with: finding a house to rent. Back some 15 years ago, would the buy daily newspaper as early as possible, flip through to the accommodation classifieds, pick out a few possible places to check out, and before folding the paper, also notice and jot down the phone numbers of “agents” who promise they can scratch that itch for you. After checking the houses from the paper and realising that close to zero of those convert into decent accommodation at a fair price you turn to the agent. For his services you instantly make him $20 richer from your fast depleting reserves. All on a promise that he’ll instantly find you something. Soon enough you realise you might as well have had thrown that money down the drain – the chances of this guys leads converting are as low as the paper! No refunds!
Today, 15 years later, the situation is pretty much the same. Why then do we have more than 100% mobile penetration and more than 50% internet penetration. Surely, this doesn’t make sense. Can’t tech disrupt this?
Zimdancehall never came online
Like the few years before this one, the Zimdancehall phenomenon continues to outpace all other of music genres in growth. Problem is that the consumption of this great music is not organised yet. Discovery of the biggest hits, the downloads for those hits, the live shows, the user driven content (sharing music, discussion, ratings, comments) are happening all haphazard, only the extremely passionate about it can tell what is going on, who the next star, what track is going to take the country by storm, the Zimdancehall charts etc… these passionate ones bubble new stars to the top every month or so.
It’s a problem needing fixing because Zimdancehall is now mainstream and ordinary people would likely want an easier way to discover and consume the content.
Where are the obvious startups?
Ok, nothing is obvious. Everything looks simple before you start it. “To start a food delivery business, i’d just need to sign up a few restaurants, build and make my app visible enough, get the story out there and be swimming in startup success in no time,” we all think. On the ground its a harsh story.
It is said Mike Tyson spoke of the first punch that upsets all plans. In the world of startups, most quit at that first blow. Some soldier on though, but they proceed on more faith and less planning, so much by the 5th round, their face is so swollen they now clearly “know” they are in the wrong profession.
But there’s a third type that Steve Jobs is quoted to have preached about:
When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop… But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.
We lack this third leg to the startup journey. There are many obvious problems waiting to be solved. Yes, they are not obvious, but no one is committing beyond that initial simple plan that’s almost sure to fail at the first market test. Whether it’s food delivery, marketplaces (cars, rentals, produce) or shared economy startups solving transport problems.
Which things did you expect startups to solve in 2014 which you just didn’t see, or whose solutions didn’t deep enough to solve the problem?