Sam Meets the “African Tech Scene” for the First Time

Two weeks ago, the Masoko Team sent a request for volunteer programmers to one of Dar es Salaam’s leading tech incubators, TANZICT. We are hoping (read: begging, praying) that a group of developers will help us design and build a system to record the crop prices and volumes that flow through the Kariakoo Market and make them available online. The KMC’s statisticians already records the prices and volumes for 120 crops every month, but they record them by hand in notebooks. In a feat that would make Sisyphus proud, last year’s 2Seeds team entered all of the prices for 2008-2011 into excel, and built this awesome macro that pulls them into graphs for a single crop:

Thank you Aly Breedlove, Ellie Campisano, and Alex Cabot!

I held our first two interviews at the end of last week; the first two interviewees were very impressive and encouraging. Both were very bright, willing to join the team without pay because they want to help Tanzanian farmers, had insightful ideas for the project, and spoke fluent English (making my fluent, eloquent Swahili unnecessary).

I met our first candidate, Benedict, at his home, which also serves as the headquarters of his startup tech consulting firm. Benedict runs a five-acre farm on the side, an investment he hopes will yield large returns with the help of hired labor and modern agricultural technology. He became interested in the Masoko Project because he himself was looking for more price information while designing this season’s crop planting schedule. His recommendation to us: make the raw data available through an API and let the online community take care of the data visualizations and apps.

I met our second candidate, Dickson, in my office in Kariakoo. Dickson has already built an app for farmers who use greenhouses, which allows them to share tips for growing high-end produce. His advice also seemed, at least from my inexperienced perspective, very wise: the key to the project will be understanding the needs and wants of the KMC employees who get the data from sellers and record it. If we can build a system that works well for them, the technical aspects will be manageable.

“Your request to transfer 3,000 shillings…” Also, if anyone’s curious, this is taken from my balcony, and that is my Tanzanian cell.

Meeting such good programmers is consistent with the rough outline of the “African Tech Boom” that I have gathered through conversations here and online news. The high-level points seem to be:

  1. In the last 5-7 years, an emerging group of elite/well-educated African computer developers have built successful businesses increasingly often.
  2. The center of this innovation is Nairobi, and it has spread from there throughout East Africa.
  3. Programmers focus on mobile, because cell phones greatly outnumber computers. The most famous success has been a mobile payment system, M-Pesa. In fact, the three countries with the highest percentage of adults who’ve used mobile payments in the world are in East Africa: Kenya (68%), Sudan (52%), and Tanzania (23%) (source).
  4. The tech ecosystem is organized around “hubs” or “incubators,” which offer startups office space, high-speed internet, advice, and community in exchange for an equity stake in the company.

I am visiting TANZICT on Tuesday, and hoping to make a connection to Dar’s other famous incubator, KINU, soon. I am excited to learn more about the tech world here, and hope that we can divert a small part of this creativity to the Masoko Project! If any of you reading this are programmers who want to help or advise, email me… I beg you.

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About Sam Steyer

Head of Analytics, Station A
This entry was posted in Team 2012-2013. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sam Meets the “African Tech Scene” for the First Time

  1. Stephen Williamson says:

    keep writing Sam- love the updates- I am rooting for the farmers to get better info, make better decisions and make more for their efforts

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