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Zimbabwe: Applications development, nothing new under the sun?


startupsI am enthused by one author who sells the proposition, “Throw away your NDAs out the window”. He stresses one major point that I agree with, that is, what you thought was a unique brilliant idea might already be out there doing the rounds but what’s critical is how speedily and effectively you can implement it. The adage goes, there is nothing new under the sun. To be more specific, I have dreamt many an application development dreams only to wake up and realise that another application that has the exact features and business setup I was envisioning has already been designed by an Indian company or American blue chip firm and has already been downloaded by five hundred thousand users from Google Play. That’s just me. I have no doubt there are many of us who have had a similar experience.

So are we doomed them, especially being a third world country and most likely lagging a few to many paces behind the developed countries? Does this mean we become a supermarket of non-indigenous innovations and technologies? Is our role then, simply to syphon the technologies and developments that have already been developed by the foregoers and sell them to the local market? How does Zimbabwe (and Africa) place itself strategically so that it also becomes not only a consumer but a producer of ICT goods and services, in the broader sense?

I personally have pondered over these questions. I have always fantasised of some kind of Silicon Valley boom in Africa. Kenya has done quite superbly with their M-Pesa, recording some of the world most acknowledged tech successes which are only now starting to be implemented in some first to third world countries. Because of these successes Kenya becomes a fertile ground for ICT investment to such an extend it becomes the “gateway to the Sahara”. IBM has just recently launched a research centre in Nairobi in response to identified opportunities in Africa (here) Microsoft Corp and Google Inc have shown their interest too.


From looking at these scenarios I am met with notions that I cannot deny. Firstly there is need for those within our own environs that have found opportunities and capitalised on them to plough back into the community. I am not talking about book donations to the local primary school or building a community hall, neither am I talking about water tank reservoirs at the University of Zimbabwe. While these are important, more specifically to the industry, what we need are industry based stewardship, mentorship, apprenticeship or protégé programs through which actual skills and business is imparted directly into smaller companies and startups in order to build within them capacity to construct the next business idea. I call this the big brother approach. Econet should fund the next forum on enhancing the usage of data services in MNOs, MTN must develop the next mobile applications laboratory, Telecash must see to the development of a home grown agency management solution and so forth, just as ZOL is hosting the ZOL Startup Challenge annually.

Secondly, at the grassroots level, we as the younger brothers need to be organised. We need to develop within ourselves mechanisms through which together we can get and sharpen skills through cross exchange and cross pollination of ideas. We cannot wait until the next applications Challenge or Startup Bus. Nor can we afford to hog onto our “crippled” ideas shielded from perfection by an irrelevant NDAs. We need to develop a community that meets regularly to strategize on how we can develop our own industry.

Thirdly, we must acknowledge and benefit from the international setups that exist. We need to learn from the neighbouring WASPA, we need to follow the Applications Developers Alliance way, we need our own venture capital network and the sort. There is no reason we should not benefit from how MSDN or XDA developers have done it. Moreover, these are the same partners that we need to create strategic alliances with, the same alleys through which some of our own products can be internationally launched.

Fourth, we do need budget allocation in the national fiscus through the Ministry of ICT through which non-conventional methods can be used to reaffirm the industry. We need new policy direction in terms of new and emerging technologies, their opportunities in alleviating poverty and unemployment through structured industry building and support and the use of these various technologies in diverse sectors of the economy including in health, education, farming, mining and commerce to mention a few.

I believe coordinated efforts in all these respects goes a long way in trying to setup and develop this seemingly small industry that has put the face of Kenya on the world and built conglomerates such as Microsoft, Google and Samsung.

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