From Internet cafes to 5G, Bodas, AI, Blockchain and beyond in Africa

~ Wakanda via The Verge

I have been a consumer Tech blogger for almost a decade now. My enthusiasm about Tech started way back in 2006 while I was working in an internet cafe in Kampala as I waited to join University. As curiosity and adventure about this new internet thing overshadowed me, I started to connect the dots about what Technology really is and all its possibilities.

In that cafe, we had a dial up internet connection from Uganda Telecom of about 64Kbps. Of course kids of these days wouldn’t understand the hustle. But back in the day, this was really fast internet and I was among the privileged few who had access to the internet almost the whole day. People walked in for all sorts of reasons; some just needed secretarial services such as photocopying, document typing, scanning all of which could be done offline and this was really very lucrative business.

Most teens walked in to find penpals (people who regularly write to each other, particularly via postal mail ~ Wikipedia) and this was really the early days of social media. The older guys walked in to check and reply to email. Yes. Imagine someone leaving their home perhaps even 20 Kms away just to check email.

My job was to collect money, assign customers computers equipped with a billing software called “butterfly” which by the way was developed by a local software company called digital solutions. This desktop app was so good it made us more money than we had paid for. In fact, we didn’t even pay for it, the company used to make money via display Ads on the screen while nobody was using the computer. Almost every internet cafe around town had this software installed on their computers.

Then boom. 3G came upon us.

Mobile 3G changed the course of information and communication technology in Uganda forever…for good or for bad.

At the time, I was probably in my 3rd year at Engineering school in Makerere. France-based Orange Telecom had opened shop in Kampala a few months ago and they had a USB 3G dongle for internet access. A few month after, MTN Uganda launched their 3G network in most parts of Kampala. This was the start of the mobile internet data bundle revolution.

~ Dignited.com

The first thing that happened is Internet cafes started to die as I wrote in 2011. That guy who used to walk 20 kms to the internet cafe to check his emails suddenly could do that on their phone which by the way wasn’t yet smart. He simply needed to have buy a 3G dongle and hook it up to this computer via USB or if they had a slightly advanced Nokia phone, download Gmail app from getjar, ovi store or just install offline. At the time, I had the Nokia 5310 which was what you call a mid-range device back then.

~ Nokia 5310 via CNET

3G internet had democratized access to internet in Africa. Internet was no longer restricted to big corporations or institutions, it was now a commodity that anyone could afford. It really was the means through which most people came to access the internet for the very first time.

But while the data pipes had started widening, the software and hardware to truly grasp the full potential of the internet was still lacking. I used to use Opera Mini which thanks to its caching and proxy technology could strip webpages bare to the level that they could be processed by phones. Web pages were not even mobile optimized then. The internet on mobile was still for geeks like me who could stand all its shortcomings for the long term benefits.

You still needed to have a laptop or desktop to truly do anything useful on the internet. Most people didn’t have one. I didn’t even own a laptop myself even at University.

Then the smartphone revolution ensued.

Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 and then Google followed suit with Android the following year. Just four years down the the road, I got to own my very fast smartphone for about $150; the legendary Huawei Google Ideos. Holding this phone after ditching my Nokia 5310 felt like I had time-travelled 100 years into the future. What was this thing even? A phone, browser, MP3 player, camera, email client, recorder, e-book reader all in one device. What?

The legendary Huawei Google Ideos

I knew this was it. And then 4G LTE happened.

Smartphones + 4G LTE was like driving a Bugatti Veyron Super Sports car on a super highway alone. Yikes! Whoa. Nothing felt better than this. There was no looking back and indeed Tech has never been the same again.

Smartphones and fast mobile internet connectivity brought more people online because of new possibilities that were previously impossible on a desktop computer. Social media became a thing. Facebook was the internet for most people in Africa and probably still is. Ride sharing services such as Uber, Taxify, Safeboda became another thing. OTT tax? Another very terrible thing apart from fake news. And authoritarian African governments are making it normal to simply completely or partially shutdown the internet without consideration of the consequences.

It’s 2019. I am still a Tech blogger. Not much has changed about me except I have celebrated more birthdays, married and consequently developed a tummy. I still love roasted maize, eat lots of bananas and drink coffee with friends at cafe Javas. I am actually considering growing my own maize and bananas to cut down on costs.

But the world is changing real fast like it did a decade ago; new frontiers are ahead of us. Artificial Intelligence is no longer a buzzword and a SciFi thing you watch in the movies. Machine Learning, Deep learning and big data analysis are now incorporated in most apps we use even though this could be hidden from you. My keyboard knows what I am typing next and my Gmail automatically writes accurate replies for me. I just have to hit send. Driverless cars are hitting the streets and so are self-driving grocery delivery robots. Meanwhile someone believes your TV should talk to the wall clock, wireless speakers, lights, doorbells, cameras, windows, window blinds, hot water heaters, appliances, cooking utensils. They are calling them IoT or Internet of Things, or Smart Home depending on who you listen to. Elon Musk wants to save the world from fossil fuels with his grand vision of clean energy and autonomous transportation on earth and outside. 5G is the new big fat wireless data pipe that should make all these things a reality. The digital fabric that connects and brings it all together.

Being the Tech enthusiast that I am, I have to justify new freaky spending on new gadgets to my wife. To her, perhaps buying a shoe rack makes more sense than shipping that $150 new smart home camera by Netgear. My old battle-hardened Toyota RAV4 needs constant maintenance thanks to Kampala’s pothole filled murrum roads and is already due for servicing. However, I am thinking an upgrade to new electric Tesla Model S3 fully loaded with autonomous driving could save me a few Shillings on fuel. But would it work on Kampala’s roads? What about the charging infrastructure?

If you have read up to this point, congratulation and thanks. But before you go any further, just watch this video “Live and Die in Afrika” by Sauti Sol. The song is a “celebration of the African continent coming of age, flaunting the richness in cultural diversity , talent and resources”. I would even recommend a rewatch of Black Panther if you haven’t already watched it. I hope the message is clear; with all its challenges, I am not leaving Africa anytime soon for a more advanced utopian futuristic high-Tech country somewhere. It has to work here.

While mobile technology could be responsible for getting us to where Africa is today, it might not be the thing that propels it to the future.

Mobile penetrations is at least over 70% in most countries in Africa. There’s a Mast everywhere, even deep in my Village where there are still grass thatched huts. Telcos aren’t investing anymore into infrastructure than they already have. They are now aggressively looking at recouping back their moneys. Almost every Telco now has 4G LTE coverage at least in Kampala, but it’s not speed that consumers what. They want higher data volumes at lower rate. The age of capped internet aka data bundles aka MBs must now be superseded by true unlimited fast internet plans mostly for homes. Perhaps Fiber-to-Home solutions should now be aggressively rolling out in Kampala and its suburbs the way that Safaricom has done in Nairobi.

Today I spend about $30/month for about 30GB for home internet. But it’s never enough even though at 2-5 Mbps speeds, it’s fast enough for casual browsing and Youtube watching even on a smart TV. In most cases I find myself loading data twice or even thrice a month when I have guests at home. That’s a cool $90/month. Frankly speaking, the average Ugandan middle class family is not willing to part any more than Ugx 75,000 or $20/month for just internet.

Just like dial-up internet and later better but still slower 3G internet and clumsy phones that impeded the explosive growth of certain internet services a decade ago, this data “MBs” economy will keep certain new possibilities at bay in Africa. For instance Video-on-Demand and live-streaming services have struggled to take off in Africa. DStv is still enjoying a monopoly over premium entertainment and they are not even moved a bit about Netflix except in South Africa. Econet’s Kwese meanwhile in a very absurd strategic move ditched their satellite TV offering opting to go fully into streaming with iFlix.

Africa has a terrible habit of leapfrogging stages of development much later to its disadvantage. Of course you won’t hear that at your favorite Tech conference. You’ll only hear of praises; how Africa leapfrogged landline telephony straight to mobile and then traditional banking to mobile banking. But lets keep this for another day, shall we?

Four years ago, Mwesigwa Daniel wrote “Why are we still hacking mobile apps — and not boda bodas?”. No seriously why? He writes;

“The vacuum created by unreliable public utilities, high public demand for alternative services and ease of acquisition of better services birthed two products every African is quite conversant with.

The mobile phone and the motorcycle”

You see what these Boda bodas or Okadas or motorcycle taxis did is decentralized and democratize public transportation in the face of unregulated sector and significantly rugged road infrastructure. The Boda boda is the proverbial “killer App” for transportation in African cities. It’s agile, fast, cheap and easy to maintain compared to cars and trucks. More importantly they are privately owned by entrepreneurial semi-literate youth who use them to run errands, transport people and products from point A to B.

The Boda is now being used by ecommerce sites like Jumia to make last mile timely deliveries to customers. The Boda is sorting out logistical nightmare of moving physical products from one point to another within cities. There’s even now a massively successful “Uber for Bodas” by Safeboda, Taxify and Uber itself in Kampala, Nairobi and Lagos. This is evidence that the Boda Boda has a story in future of African cities.

Now let's talk about 5G and AI. One is not feasible — at least not within the next 20 years for reasons I have already discussed above. Mobile users need volume, not speed to repeat myself. The other is well, mostly a good thing. And that’s not because AI is directly going to happen in Africa. It’s affects are going to be mostly indirectly felt.

In Uganda, at least 70% of the population is offline — offgrid. They are like your friends who are not on Facebook — invisible — forever. It’s like they don’t even exist in your “real” world until you visit them or grab coffee at a restaurant. AI needs at least a digital footprint or vast amounts of data to make any significant impact. It’s the 30% of the elite population that can’t live without Silicon-valley Big Tech AI-driven services that might feel the effects of AI in their lives — for good or bad. For good perhaps via improved services, and for bad perhaps because of massive surveillance or that the AI might take their jobs.

Africa of course doesn’t have much manufacturing, so the picture of an autonomous robot in the assembly lines doing everything isn’t familiar or even remotely terrifying enough for most people as it is in other countries like Mexico, China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh. Vast majority of rural population engages in Agriculture as the main economic activity. They are not even using tractors and other mechanized equipment yet. Automation is way too expensive for the vastly subsistence population to afford. So the idea of a robot autonomous tractor mowing the fields somewhere in Kumi district east Uganda is way too “Wakadan”.

In the urban areas, most African economies are very much service-driven and it’s not very intuitive to see how AI could affect these service-orientated jobs. But AI could subtly replace a good number of white collar jobs. For instance customer care agent at a bank or telco call center could be replaced by a more advanced chatbot. A lot of accountants get loose their jobs to intuitive AI-driven accounting Apps. But we are talking only 30% of the population here.

What about Blockchain? Bitcoin, Cryptocurrency? Well my head starts to spin and ultimately hurt when this topic comes up and to contextualize to Africa is even a bigger burden. Arvind Narayanan has an interesting thread on Blockchain and the utopian permissionless decentralized trustless world it promises to bring us.

The arguments for and against blockchain are more philosophical than they are practical and so I want to stay clear of those debates to avoid flame wars. The merits of blockchain technology are obvious to anyone curious to know especially in Africa. Supply chains can easily be managed. Imagine being able to trace the cup of coffee someone in San Francisco is taking right from the mountains of Elgon in Mbale East Uganda to a cafe in Starbucks. We can eliminate lots of middlemen and their nefarious business dealings while ensuring the farmers get the most value out of the chain.

~ sunrise.ug

What about smart contracts? The cancer that corruption has become eating away tones of wealth from the economy could finally be eliminated. The arguments for blockchain get even more compelling when you consider how the electoral process is marred with irregularities and rigging in Africa. Finally we can get rid of dictatorial regimes with rigging-proof blockchain based election system. Once a vote has been cast, it can’t be changed, the results are visible to all parties concerned. But what is the cost of running blockchain or Crypto system in Africa? Currently it takes lots of energy to maintain for the value it creates — energy we barely have. Cryto mines are located in economies with access to cheap energy. And because we don’t have it, we are once again consumers of technology rather it produces of it which begs the question; Can we truly control our digital future?

So now my fingers hurt from typing this lengthy post. It has possibly cut on productive time I still have left on this earth. I am in my early thirties now. I still want to blog about Tech for the next decade at least. What will Africa look like in 2030? My son will be 11 years then and I am curious to know the Africa or Uganda he will be living in. I am a very optimistic person, so I tend to believe that the world will be much better place then.

Transforming Africa into a country, one line of code at a time. Dev blog http://davidokwii.com/