One issue often mentioned in discussion about mobile and the web as platforms for technology entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe is the issue of an environment that doesn’t encourage innovation, and one that doesn’t reward on merit. It is no secret that Zimbabwe has fallen behind other top nations in Africa in harnessing the potential of these platforms for economic development. While adoption of mobile phones and the internet has significantly increased, we still just use these platforms to make calls, access emails, Facebook and, for the academics, some research.
Talk of technology entrepreneurship is therefore focused on mobile operators, internet providers and the traditional large software companies that do big projects for fellow large enterprise clients and the government. This, despite the fact that the much touted rapidly increasing mobile penetration and the resulting African mobile phenomenon (where low cost mobile devices are the new internet user’s first and only device of internet access) are, at the end of the day, a clear sign of the much talked about consumerisation of technology. We therefore miss the mark when we talk about ICTs as enablers of economic development while largely excluding the small mobile and web startup entrepreneurs in the strategy.
Besides being at the forefront of understanding and quickly adopting these new technologies (and therefore not slowed down by legacy issues) these new entrepreneurs are closer to the ground and understand more the basic use of these technologies by ordinary people. Fascinated and motivated by the successes of other youthful entrepreneurs in Africa and globally, the startup entrepreneur is ready to try new ways and new solutions to resolve their everyday problems. Large corporates on the other hand are slowed down by software and infrastructure legacy issues and struggle not ready to discard desktop computing as the main means of interface with system users.
The young geeks realize that, more than ever before, the same open source development tools and applications available to developers in the US, China, South Africa or Kenya, are now available to everyone at no cost with just a single download.
A healthier environment for tech startups can be cultivated and government can play a role to make this happen. Creating an environment where tech startups are included and encouraged will not only help the economy optimize new technology platforms but it will attract foreign investment as startups expand the business beyond our borders. In saying that, I don’t ignore the realities Zimbabwe faces with lack of consistency presenting the country as a secure destination of investment.
As a country we’ve already had enough talented and skilled professionals leave for countries where their skills are valued, economies predictable, and (speaking more generally) opportunities available on merit. We will continue to lose more if we don’t start to support them to be successful. If they can’t raise funding here because investment is hard to get and if they can’t belong to a healthy technology startup ecosystem where innovation and merit matter more than being connected politically, our software engineers, designers and entrepreneurs will go to countries where they can access a more supportive ecosystem.
The support can be anything from helping setup tech co-working spaces, creating favourable tax conditions for tech startups, making telecoms regulations more favourable for entrepreneurs to succeed, identifying social or economic issues and facilitating competitions where tech startups compete to solve the problems and get funding and mentorship assistance with setting up the business.
All in all the government needs to encourage and recognize tech startups for the role they play creating value from ICTs.