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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Enyo Kumahor on Frugal Innovation and Technology in Africa

Enyo Kumahor on Frugal Innovation and Technology in Africa


1. Good day, this is Shane Hastie here at Agile Australia 2014 and I’m with Enyo Kumahor. Enyo welcome and thank you very much for taking the time to come to talk to InfoQ today, would you mind very briefly introducing yourself for the audience.

Sure, I’ll be happy to, thanks for having me Shane. So my name is Enyo Kumahor, I am from Ghana, from West Africa, my role now is at ThoughtWorks, I am the managing director for PanAfrica as we call it.

Shane: So that’s north to south, east to west covering the whole of the one billion person continent and everything that ThoughtWorks is doing there.

That is definitely the intent, so at ThoughtWorks one of the things we are kind of proud of ourselves, is part of our identity, is ensuring that we are humanists and we are internationalists, and so as PanAfricanists we want to make sure that we are covering the entire breadth and depth of the continent, and so yes, it’s very much PanAfrica whether it’s North Africa, SubSahara and Africa, East West, North to South.


2. What about Africa, “the dark continent”- as you said in your talk this morning, in 2001 it was written off, a basket case. Now it’s coming back, it’s emerging and there is certainly a lot of innovation coming out of Africa. What’s driving that innovation and what’s different about innovation in that part of the world?

But I know you’ve seen a lot of this because you have a lot of experience with Africa as well. In my view what’s driving innovation is need, quite simply I think that Africa is very exciting place to be because people really want to move forward and they want to change their fortunes, for them as well the last 30-40 years has been a time of tremendous change and hopefulness and sort of opportunity and so I think everyone is sort of thinking about what’s next and how do I make it and how do I produce, but still they are very real challenges. It’s still difficult in many places, probably most places, to get electricity, and so there are people who are doing very innovative things in music being able to create music without electricity, and so yes, how do you work around all of the challenges and how do you use technology to work around those challenges.


3. What are some of the things , you mentioned something that really resonated with me - the concept of Frugal Innovation, how we do Frugal Innovation?

So that’s sort of innovating out of need using the little resources that you have, and so you know for instance one of the products that we’ve had the opportunity to work on that I think is really great example of that is something that’s called mPedigree. Most people knew as that and we build this platform called Gold Keys, and this was really trying to identify the challenges with counterfeit medication because you’ll find that across the continent there is such a tremendous sort of proliferation of medication that’s either substandard or larger or more than that, and so you’ll find that across the continent about 50% of all of the medication that is not really fit, either it’s actually got harmful substances in it or doesn’t have enough of the most important ingredients.

And so with a simply use of a feature phone and SMS, you can actually contact a number with the scratch off sort of number that is on the package that you get, even do it may have been through many sort of intermediaries, so you SMS that number and it tells you whether that package has actually been intercepted at some point or not, and so that’s an example of Frugal Innovation, it doesn’t require anything fancy to do it, it really just with an SMS and a simple backend system that you are able to verify if your medication is safe or not.

Shane: Hugely life-saving.

And hugely life-saving because we estimate that we lose anywhere about 700000 lives to come to fit medication.

Shane: That’s making a difference.

It is.


4. We are at the Agile Australia Conference, how does Agile fit in Frugal Innovation and leading change in Africa?

The great thing about Agile is that is really about building technology right, that we understand what the users need, getting a minimal viable product out, testing the market space and so it isn’t, it’s getting away from all of those heavy practices that even on the continent have been used for many years before, and so it’s just the right time for Agile on the continent and figuring out how we can build faster and more effectively the technology solutions that we need. And so it’s a pleasure to be at Agile Australia, because one of the things is I think we need to also figure out how to get partnerships with software developers and practitioners in other parts of the world also understanding what’s happening on the continent and bringing in some of these practices and working with companies organizations and governments on the continent to start getting more of these solutions out faster.

B>Shane: You use a wonderful term in your session this morning, “By Africa for Africa” in terms of the context and you told what about a great story about your uncle - would you mind telling that story again? It really resonated in terms of that these are some of the real challenges that people have to deal with.

So my uncle it’s a physician in New York and he comes from a particular region in Ghana, called the Volta Region, and so after several years in the United States he decided it’s time to go back and do something good and so one of the challenges he knew was that people did not have enough information and education around family planning, so that they could actually learn how to space out their children and no get so stretched trying to make sure that they could get the right education and healthcare. And so was great intention and then he actually get a lot of people who were interested in helping him, other nurses and doctors, and they were actually able to raise quite a bit of money and go back to Ghana and to several villages around where he grew up to actually go and train the women on how to use breath control.

And they planned it out very intricately and even planned to go to each man to ask the permission for their wives to actually go to a two days sort of workshop, and all the men said yes, and so they had permission from the household to actually do that. They took them out and get them very detailed training and explanation using people who spoke in the local language so they could understand everything that was happening. All the right things and everything he knew about sort of ways he was from, they had put into this training and then they take, and so they leave and then about a year later they come back only to find that the incidents of pregnancy and child birth has grown up, the exact opposite of what they were supposed to see, and they started investigating what had gone wrong and they ask the women, you know: “Was it ok that you came out for two days, yes it was fine, it was fine!

Did you understand everything that was explained, “yes we understood, it was a very good explanation, we got understood everything” and no matter where they try to dig, they couldn’t seems to find out and they said: “So what happen when you get home, was your husband ok that you’ve had learned all of this information? “Yes, they even wanted to know all the information”. And what did they say: “That was the thing the husbands said I am the man of this house, if anybody is going to take the pill it shall be me”. So my poor uncle, he’d done all this planning thought he understood his people very well and had planned to the nth detail but had missed that little part.

Shane: When we get the context right, when we bring in to Frugal Innovation, how does information technology then lead that change.

It’s quite powerful, it’s very empowering, that’s the way I think of technology when it applies. So I talked a little bit about sort of mPedigree which is just one example, is being able to make the right purchasing decision and knowing that what you’ve got is authentic. Another example like is ShopAfrica which is Herman Chinery-Hesse’s product, and with that product it actually enables anybody who is living in a village who has some product that they want to sell, so perhaps they have a drum that they want to sell. With Herman’s product they are able to have a picture of that uploaded to a website and accessible to anybody in the world who wants to have that purchased and picked up by distribution centers that they have, they receive the money through mobile payments on their feature phones, so doesn’t require smartphone and now you had a drum, you are able to sell it for 10$ or whatever the case is, you have the mobile money on your phone and now you can use that to pay for education, to pay for electricity, to pay for healthcare, all of that. And so it’s just incredibly empowering from somebody who may have been sitting on the roadside for months before somebody pass by to have hopefully by that drum, to now all of the sudden being able to sell 5 or 10 of those over the course of a year on the website. So when it works it really is incredible what it can do to someone’s life, its life changing.

Shane: How do we make sure that that technology, how do we make it simple enough for an environment where you don’t have power, I suppose is an interesting challenge.

It is an interesting challenge because I think often times when people are thinking about how to build technology that usually thinking about what is the newest sort of technology that they can use to apply to the challenge and sometimes is not the newest technology you need, is the technology that is more robust, more tried and true, more simpler to supply well, and so those are the some of the things that we have to think about.


5. Another thing that I know you are interested in and passionate about is women in technology, you quoted a scary statistic about the take up a woman in technology in Africa and certainly globally if this is an issue – would you like to comment, how do we get more women engaged?

So in my perspective I think of it really less as a technologist and more as a woman; I think about, I also want to be in part with technology and I want other women who like me to have the opportunity to have the technology solutions that they need. And statistic that I was giving was that in Africa it’s about 51% women, and in South Africa in particular was the example that I use where the percentage of the population is 50% black women and so this is not even counting other races just one in two people is a black woman and good percentage of those who have their whole families that they have to raise and children that they have to influence, and yet the population of black women represented within the IT sector is less than one percent, and so I worry about who is thinking about the challenges of the black women in the IT sector and who is building the technology solutions that she or I will use.

And so where am I going to get the technology solutions that I need and for that to happen, more of us need to be in the IT sector, need to be working with the IT sector and need to be working with technology so that we are understanding those as well. And so that really does need to change and to your point, women in technology are challenge over the world and a particular challenge in Africa where we haven’t had women involved in STEM in general enough at all through up many years and so it’s going to take a while to kind of turned around and because women are the backbone of Africa, that’s all we say a lot of the time, who are raising the next generations. I worried that we are not doing enough sooner.


6. From a practical perspective who are some of those things that we can be doing?

I mean I can tell you for example some of the things that we were doing right off the bat, so we’ve taking the program that’s “black girl’s code” which actually within the space of four hours teaches girls from the edges of seven all the way to eighteen actually some basics of sort of computer programming and the important thing about that is sort of understanding logic and all of those construct, so even if they don’t necessarily go on to become programmers, it’s definitely adding to the experience from a STEM perspective. And so within four hours they are learning how to build websites, sort of understanding the basics of programming, and it’s amazing the ideas that they come up with.

Yes, some of them have to do with fashion and beauty, but some of them have to do with sharing books, how do you share books with one and other, and so it’s great to see and how do you speak to one and other and kind of share across different cultures and how do I pick up a phone and learn a different language. And so yes there is some wonderful ideas that are coming out of that and we do quite a number of other programs, we have a young African technologist program where girls are also part of that, we have Rails Girls, we do that Level Up, and so there is some great educational programs like that, but will say that one of the biggest opportunities we have is really to give an opportunity to a woman and give her the space within a job to learn because there are women who are eager and a lot of times it really just takes encouragement and time to say that and giving that opportunity. Actually I have a great story about that as well if we have the time.

I remember we were once interviewing a woman for a position at ThoughtWorks and one of the interesting things is very early in interview process she kept asking about will she have a desktop or a laptop, and of course it was starting to create impression that why are you here because of the technology that you are going to be using or really the laptop technology that you are going to be using.

And it really took sort of a woman speaking to her to understand that the reason she was asking that was not because of the technology but the fact that where she lived was not safe to go to an evening, and in her previous job where she had a desktop, she wanted to diligently make sure that she can get her work done, and because she didn’t have enough time to read and practice how to use a computer, it will take a little bit more time, and so she was always having to leave home very early when it was not safe and leave work very late when it was not safe to get back, and so the laptop was really just the requirement to be able to spend time to learn how to kind of use the device well in enough time to do her job to the fullest extent. And so yes, sometimes it takes having that different perspective to really kind of be able to ask questions well in an interview process and understand where somebody is coming from and empower them with what they really need to do well.

Shane: Enyo thank you so much for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today, it’s been really interesting and we look forward to see where things go!

Lovely, great, look forward to following up with you!

Aug 05, 2014