Ollie's Fellowship at Appfrica



On Lessons from Appfrica

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As I enter the last week of my time working as a Fellow at
Appfrica (
http://www.appfricalabs.com, http://www.appfrica.net), I wanted to take a few moments
to reflect on the experience and to recommend this amazing program to future
applicants. My experience has been nothing short of incredible, both on an
educational and a networking level. When first reading about the program
online, I immediately contacted Jon about joining the company as a Fellow, as I
was eager to learn about its for-profit approach and about his experiences as a
social entrepreneur in Uganda. Now, after four weeks in the country, I can
definitely say that I have learnt a lot and that this experience has helped
mould my identity as an aspiring designer for sustainable development and
social entrepreneur.

The fellows program is structured in a way to encourage the
sharing of skills, knowledge and ideas between members of the Appfrica team and
the visiting Fellow. I was able to learn a lot about the technical aspects of
mobile application development in resource-poor settings from the fantastic
team of programmers here at the office. This was a great opportunity for me, as
I get increasingly involved in the information and communication technologies
for development (ICT4D) space. I was able to bring my web/graphic design skills
to the table and contributed to the design elements of a number of projects
that were being developed by the other team members.

 

In addition to the graphic design work, I was also kept busy
coordinating some of the initial technical development for ResultsSMS - my
"baby project" during my time here as a Fellow. The first day after I arrived,
Jon sat down with me at the excellent Good African Coffee and went through the
current projects that Appfrica was working on. We worked together to figure out
the best way for me to contribute, learn and to have an overall valuable
experience during my time at the company. Due to my growing interest in the
application of mobile technologies in international development, I was
immediately attracted to the
 ResultsSMS project, which is an
open-source system for distributing medical test results, patient education and
follow-up information by SMS in resource-poor settings. As the project was
still in its very early stages of conception when I arrived, I spent a lot of
my time over the first couple of weeks researching on the technologies that would
make such a system implementable, and developing the system together with a
geographically dispersed team, through discussions and development of concepts
and visualizations. This mini-project management experience and the ability to
take control of a whole project during my time here was also incredibly
exciting and valuable.

 

Unfortunately, this control would only be short lived. The Fellows
program is of course transient in nature and I guess this would be the only
limitation I can think of when reflecting on my experience. Since this project
was largely managed remotely, I could have potentially continued to stay
involved after the Fellows program. Unfortunately, due to a number of larger
commitments I have waiting for me upon my return to Europe; however, this will
probably not be possible. Therefore, I recommend that future participants in
the program consider structuring their time in such a way to allow for
potential completion of a project after physically leaving Uganda.

 

I also want to take this chance to mention my appreciation for the
hospitality of Jon and Sarah, who got engaged during my stay in Uganda! They
were wonderful hosts, not only providing me with a very comfortable bed in the
guest room of their house 10 minutes from the Appfrica office, but also
introducing me to a number of their wonderful friends in Kampala and generally
allowing me to be a part of their lives in this very exciting city.

I came here to learn and to absorb everything I could from the
experience. I would, therefore, like to end with a number of notes and
observations I made throughout my time as an Appfrica Fellow:

 

For Profit Social Entrepreneurship

Social Entrepreneurship means many different things to many different
people. From
 Creative Capitalism to non-profit business
models with socially-oriented missions, the term is becoming almost as
synonymous as
 Web 2.0 or the Cloud. In my opinion, Appfrica's
mission "to identify individuals with talent, passion and training, picking up
where the university leaves off to help them improve their technical skills,
while mentoring their growth and solidifying their business skills", definitely
qualifies as social entrepreneurship.

After becoming increasingly interested in this concept over the
past couple of years, I was excited to learn how Appfrica Labs balanced its
socially-oriented mission with a for-profit model of financial sustainability.
I have learnt that this model works incredibly well in the software
development/IT space, where a lot of the company's clients come armed with
generous technology-oriented development grants or solid business models and
associated financial backing. Appfrica's clients range from NGOs to African
investment groups and start-ups, which creates an interesting mix of projects.
Some of these projects have more of a development focus than others, however,
they all generally align with the company's guiding principles of African
investment and the building of innovative solutions for developing countries.

 

Apparent Lack of Design Thinking/Training in Uganda

When mixing in with a lot of the IT crowd in Uganda, and
particularly with Makerere University students who are studying in this field,
I repeatedly heard comments like "I like coding but I don't like design" and "I
am not much of a creative thinker-I'm not good at design." It turns out that
there is also very little focus on design in the IT-related curricula at local
universities, and the general application of design thinking and the design
process is also pretty much absent.

Although I think this a real shame, I also think it presents an
interesting opportunity for the future. As the Internet starts spreading across
the continent and connectivity becomes increasingly feasible and affordable. I
think that the need for good web, graphic and UI designers in Africa is going
to grow significantly. When this time comes, I imagine that much of Africa's
design work will be outsourced to design studios in the continent's major
economies or abroad. I truly believe that there is a skilled designer in any
good coder/programmer. Good code logic and structuring is based on very similar
principles to good web-design; I think that there needs to be more focus on
developing and fostering these skills in university programs. Therefore, there
is an opportunity in trying to create this, support or simply help to develop a
solid web-design industry in Uganda. To anyone who is skeptical about the value
of good web or UI design in development projects, I ask you to re-consider. The
lack of a good interface and streamlined user-experience in a revolutionary
technology with a great potential impact, will simply act as an obstacle to its
widespread acceptance.

 

Open Working Environment

Another one of Jon's founding principles for the company was to
create an open working environment for businesses and entrepreneurs to
 "nest" while they are trying to grow. This makes for a
fantastically diverse and exciting work environment, where almost every day,
the office will be graced by the presence of an interesting individual who is
working on some form of ground-breaking project in Uganda. These "visitors",
who are all allowed to make use of the office's internet and power supply,
quickly become part of the Appfrica "family" and will often share experiences
or provide feedback on the current topic of discussion. Jon is further
developing this concept into what will be referred to as
 10K Spaces as part of Appfrica's 10,000 Hour Initiative. This is a truly inspiring
model for how to run an office of a small start-up.

 

Doing Well in Africa takes You Very Far

The point I am trying to bring across here is one that I have
discussed many-a-time with a number of young entrepreneurs in Kampala. The
continent is filled with opportunity and there is almost always a chance to do
things better, in whatever industry you happen to be working in. Therefore,
getting your hands dirty and investing your time and resources to put your
ideas into practice can take you very far, even with little experience.
Appfrica's team members are not 10-year industry professionals, but they also
don't need to be.

Wherever there is a lack of experience, there is determination and
competence, which has lead the team to be well-versed (or at least familiar)
with an incredibly large number of programming languages, technologies and
techniques. Therefore, building a start-up with minimal resources, experience
and a team of recent university graduates very much paid off in Apprica's case.

 

Providing Basic Resources

The office is theoretically equipped with what is considered one
of Uganda's better internet connections. I say theoretically, as their ISP
seems to have a lot of difficulties consistently delivering the speeds it
promises. Oh, and the power can drop out without notice as well! I quickly
learnt how to work around these limitations, however, and now I create two
to-do lists each day splitting my internet tasks and non-internet tasks. This
allows me to remain productive even if the power is out. When the Internet does
work, it is a vital resource for the company's operations. Every so often large
software development kits or programming guides need to be downloaded, along
with
 the occasional TED video for the day's source of inspiration. I have
learnt that investment into basic resources like good internet and computers,
although expensive in this part of the world, really pays off and creates a
more productive working environment overall.

 

No Shortage

Working for a software consultancy with a development focus in
Uganda has re-confirmed my original belief that there is no shortage of
passion, skill, creativity and unique opportunity in this continent.
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