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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Enyo Kumahor on Bringing Frugal Innovation Out of Africa

Enyo Kumahor on Bringing Frugal Innovation Out of Africa


2. [...] What are the types of things that you look at and what are some of the challenges that you are helping organizations deal with it?

Shane's full question: You gave a really inspiring Keynote yesterday evening, in which you were talking a lot about what’s happening in Africa at the moment. So I’d really like to delve a little bit deeper into some of those things if we can. The areas that you are working in, Cobalt Partners, the organization that you head up, is an advisory organization, helping organizations, helping businesses grow in Africa. So what are the types of things that you look at and what are some of the challenges that you are helping organizations deal with it?

So the Cobalt Partners really started, currently with 6 partners, and all of us have had experiences on the African continent where we see that more can and should be done to help businesses figure out sustainability and how to grow and how to leverage what we have available in technology today. So certainly core to what we do is helping businesses understand technology, we’ve also added on some design thinking, so making sure they understand products and how to create those products, but also how to build product system services architectures, and then we also add in productivity and organizational productivity in particular and how to grow that and then underpinning of all that is understanding the context, and so we have a research and analytics wing that helps understand data and make sure the decision making is applicable and relevant.


3. What is different about the use of technology in Africa, for instance?

Many, many things. Africa it’s just a hugely divers continent, depending on who you ask, there could be 54 countries, there could be 63 countries, there’s over 2000 languages and dialects, and so trying to understand all the different personas that exists is a challenge and there are very different personas than what we’ve traditionally seen in areas where we’ve been building software. And so we have to spend the time to really understand how to use technology.


4. Can you give us an example of the use of technology that is different in Africa?

You know for instance I was taking yesterday at the talk where we are talking about how people use mobile phones, and we know mobile phones are prolific, we know that probably about 80% of the continent now has a mobile phone and one of the things that tends to surprise people is that people actually have this thing and it’s actually a meme really that when people are making a call sometimes they hang up before the other person picks up and there is actually means to the other person, “call me back, I don’t have enough credits to call you”, and so in software technology people have actually started using that, modeling that behavior and using it to actually create software that works, so there is a technology where if you want to vote for a particular petition, people can actually do that miss call ring and it actually records as a vote, and it doesn’t cost them anything.


5. Are you seeing any uses of technology and applications that have come about in Africa that could be extended to other parts of the world?

Absolutely, I think a great one happens when it comes to medicine counterfeiting. Counterfeit medication, so in that area we are seeing in some countries that up to 70% of the medication is actually counterfeit. And so there is an interesting product that’s been developed by companies such as Empedigree and Spoxal, where what they do is they actually get a scratch code actually put on to the medication boxes and at any point in time that code can be scratched off, SMS to a particular number which will then validate whether that box has been tamped within any way or it’s actually the original, so then you know the medication that you are receiving is actually not counterfeit. And it’s interesting because with those technologies we are actually finding counterfeit medication and over the months they’ve actually been running it, they find that the medication is going down. So just the awareness that there is a way for people to now check is actually reducing the amount of counterfeit medication that’s actually out there.

Shane: That saves lives.

It does save lives.

Shane: Seen another drug counterfeiting is an issue worldwide.

Yes, it is, and so this is something that is very simple technology that can be applied everywhere, and I think that’s the key about African technology, is because there are a lot of constrains we are actually finding easy, cheaper ways to solve challenges and that’s all Frugal Innovation, and so Frugal Innovation means if the same problem exists in another country, it should also work, the solution should also work, it’s a lot that people can learn from Africa Software Development.

Shane: What are some of the constraints that are driving this very Frugal Innovation and some of the things that African people struggle with that perhaps most of our audience would not even consider.

There’s many, one of them for example would be power, power is not consistent, there could be periods where you have two whole days without any power, so even if you have a mobile phone finding ways to make sure that that stays on, even that can be a challenge and can be expensive for people. There are things like how much cash you actually have available, so you may be able to barter for your food with somebody who’s actually doing another service for you, but you may not necessarily have the cash to go to a market to actually buy all of that cash, so things like in technology what we’ve learned to do is to come up with a low cost of entry for everybody who has to use a product and most cases the successful ones have zero cost of entry.


6. If it’s zero cost of entry, how people make a profit to actually build the product?

Yes, and these are some of the innovations that are happening as well, so how do you create these monetization schemes, so it could be a monthly fee that you add on, it could be pay as you go scheme that you add on, it could be building a product that actually has multiple sorts of users or interaction groups, and having one of them that can see the value and has the funds, actually fund for the whole products ecosystem. So yes, some very interesting things happen in there as well.


7. One of the things you mentioned, and there was a bit of discussion after the Keynote, was people getting involved; how can, if our audience wanted to make a difference in Africa, how could they help, how can people get involved?

And I’m excited about that, because I think up until now we haven’t really been doing as much as I think we need to do in the software game, and before it was really about sort of connectivity and sort of mobile and I think Africa versus the rest of the world was slightly apart on that, it’s difficult to kind of collaborate around that. But in software it’s a whole lot more easier, especially given that now we have connectivity and so I’m excited about the possibilities and the collaborations that will come out of that, and the cros- information that will happen, so people in Africa learning about Software Development in the rest of the world and people in the rest of the world learning about some of these Frugal Innovation techniques we use.

And I think the easiest way to really get involved is Mentorship, because right now there is a number of organizations around the continent that are really looking at how to build capacity and how to help software engineers recognize this as a profession and as a field and to grow. There is some 101 Tech Hubs last time I checked, it was just one month or two ago, 101 Tech Hubs that are on the continent, so these are physical buildings where people are going with their laptops and with mobile phones to actually learn how to do software engineering. And so plugging in to that network becomes quite simple and there is a lot that you can do, even an hour or two to answer questions that software engineers have, or to go on and give a talk from your Google Hangout or your Skype, is immensely impactful and helpful.

Shane: So what will do is make sure there is a link to that as part of this article.

Yes, certainly, and people are always welcome to contact the Cobalt Partners, we actually have a full list of all of the Tech Hubs that we are happy to make available, and the thing in Africa as well is that it helps to know somebody to connect you in. It is a relatively large network, of course it’s a large continent, but it’s a relatively well connected and small network, so just plug in with us and we will get you connected.

Shane: Enyo thank you, it’s been really good to talk to you again and we look forward to see how things grow!

Thank you!

May 19, 2015