According to the Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009 report prepared by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2008 there were 11 internet users out of every 100 inhabitants in Zimbabwe. 2009 itself saw more Zimbabweans connecting to the Internet owing to the introduction of mobile Internet by telecoms operator Econet. Even more connections will be made over the next several months as the economy stabilizes and ISPs & mobile operators take on more subscribers.
While more and more Africans are plugging in to the net every day, the ridiculously high cost of international bandwidth has imposed a bottleneck on connections to web applications hosted in the US, Europe and the East, resulting in frustratingly sluggish connections. For Zimbabwe, being a landlocked country naturally worsens the situation, making it last to benefit from high speed undersea fibre-optic cables that have landed on the shores of the continent.
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These global web applications are great for many communication needs but they fail to address some needs that are unique to our environment. Africa has a unique setting well understood by its inhabitants. We have our own business situations and business language, unique business processes, unique medical problems, traffic problems, generally our own priorities and state of mind. Our children have African games they play, our streets have a unique language, and we have our own music, our own culture etc… This here has created an information communication technologies void that calls for local fillers.
African (and indeed Zimbabwean) developers have a chance to monetize their skills through building localized mobile and web applications. It is only true that homegrown solutions that fit the local environment will be in high demand. The beauty of web application development is that developers do not need a heavy investment of resources to start up; Internet application development tools are available for free download on the Internet. So armed with a decent computer and your average Zimbabwean connection, a developer is set to breathe life into creative ideas. The bottleneck shifts from resources to imagination; the developer’s imagination is the limit.
It’s easy to argue that Zimbabwe doesn’t have the capacity to become an information society, what with the brain drain that hit the country hard these past few years. Easy to say that our strength is in agriculture and mining, so time and effort should be channeled in that direction. But again, information communication technologies enable smoother processing in our everyday operations. Web and now mobile applications are built to make the foundation of our economy even stronger in a homegrown and therefore inexpensive manner. Faster processing and communication of information is critically required for these core sectors of the economy to flourish.
Local developers can also take advantage of common web applications’ Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to localize and build solutions atop already established web applications like LinkedIn, Facebook, Google Maps and Twitter. The APIs can help developers rapidly localize globally available information stores. They can avoid reinventing the wheel and concentrate on localizing the application. A great spinoff from this would be open sourcing our solutions so that more people can benefit and the small but brilliant ideas can grow from the input of more great minds globally. A win win!
So far the trend has been to change the person to accommodate and make do with Global (read Western) Internet solutions. The time has come to change the solution to accommodate the person in his home environment.