What’s Different About Enterprise IT in Africa

Anyone following developments in the African IT space from afar can be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about the consumer, and that applications and services for business lag far behind. That’s understandable — the growth of the consumer mobile market in Africa has been spectacular.

I have held the view for a while, though, that it is mobile enterprise applications, especially when adopted widely by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), that will set off the real IT boom in Africa. Recent tours in several countries have only strengthened this conviction, and made clearer to me how the coming African enterprise IT boom will differ from what has been seen in the West.

There are five key approaches and challenges that I think characterize African enterprise IT today. And while almost all the examples I cite are from West Africa, many of these ideas and innovations are well suited for emerging markets around the world. The rich fertility of ideas in even one corner of Africa show that the undercurrents beneath the veneer of calm in the enterprise IT space are fierce, and a whole range of industries could be disrupted when the emerging-market boom comes. Here we go:

1.       Enterprise IT with an ‘Infrastructure Patch’

In emerging markets, infrastructure is always an issue. Roads are often impassable, electricity is unreliable, fixed-line communications nonexistent. The savviest designers of IT services in Africa are often those who actually incorporate an “infrastructure patch” in the application itself. You can almost think of it as: “infrastructure inside.”

Take Herman Chinery-Hesse’s Hei Julor. It is a personal-security/anti-burglary/neighborhood-watch service in a box. It is also an enterprise application sold to private security companies and radio stations in Ghana, and soon elsewhere. Thus, the service has a consumer front-end and an enterprise back-end (a common architectural approach in emerging markets nowadays, and a subject to which we shall return).

The consumer grabs a starter kit from the local gas station or other shop, and “plugs in” by registering the location of his house (geospatial coordinates may be uploaded), “graphing” trusted neighbors (by, among other things, providing their mobile phone details), and setting some keywords. One of a number of participating private security companies is matched to the new user.

When a user is under attack from robbers or burglars, he just needs to hit the “panic button,” which is as simple as flashing a short mobile number or sending an SMS or pressing a knob on an app. Automated voice calls go to neighbors, the local radio station is activated to send announcements, and the private security company ‘zoned’ to the user send around a response team. The police are also alerted, for what it’s worth.

From the point of view of the companies involved — the radio station and private security company — Hei Julor is a tool they have integrated into their enterprise platform for allocating spare resources and airtime. For everybody, it is seen as offering a framework in which the lack of a credible police emergency system encourages different actors to consider wholly new ways of interconnecting. The creative binding together of radio stations, private security operations (usually available only to the very wealthy), and neighborly values achieves what only massive infrastructure build-out in terms of police stations, communication lines, response vehicles, and training facilities could enable in another context.

Another example of an infrastructure patch that has already gotten attention in the West is BRCK, the spin-off commercial service from renowned NGO Ushahidi. Billed as a “backup generator to the internet,” BRCK not only provides consumers with uninterrupted Internet services in unlikely places, but it can also allow telcos in emerging regions to monitor the health of their sprawling cell-tower networks by enabling the telcos to farm out the work out to multiple SME inspection companies.

2.       The Legacy Vacuum Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

One of the old tropes of the “African Tech Rising” narrative is the advantage posed by Africa’s lack of what technology vendors call an installed base — that is to say, the lack of pre-existing installations of enterprise applications. The theory is that this provides an incentive for African decision-makers to think more radically about leapfrogging than their counterparts saddled with baggage from a bygone era. Presumably, the same logic operates in places like Bangladesh, Nicaragua, and Papua New Guinea.

The lack of an installed base, however, also means that most enterprises in these places have limited in-house appreciation for the standard operating procedures so critical to deploying enterprise systems of any kind. In my personal entrepreneurial experience, some very large companies in emerging markets struggle to enforce the discipline of even the most basic enterprise planning and standardization techniques.

This segues rather well into the viewpoint that architects need to more forcefully blur the lines between consumer and enterprise for new corporate adopters, but it also points to another issue: training. Traditional training courses often fly into cultural walls of hierarchy and formality that prevent managers from falling in line. Techcom Visions, a West African IT company co-founded by Tsonam Cleanse Akpaloo, is turning corporate IT training on its head by offering personal coaching to top executives, very often in their homes, before bringing the thoroughly groomed big bosses into the same room with their teams in the office.  That way the big bosses gain the confidence required to reduce the “power-distance” between them and their usually much-younger IT managers (I reckon that the age-gap between IT top managers and general managers is wider in Africa than in most places). This allows for a much more open discussion about options, because the bosses don’t have to admit gaping inadequacies before everyone. The new approach is already showing some impressive results.

3.       It Takes Partners to Make Enterprise IT Work

In most emerging markets, the suppliers, partners, and sales force of an enterprise cannot be subjected to some kind of strict regimen imposed from the top, as is often the norm in more advanced markets. The types of compliance tools, CRM (customer relationship management) platforms, and supplier network systems a company adopts need to reflect this reality.

Some multinationals simply rely on ‘co-imagination’ partners on the ground to help them think this through. Nsano, a West African company founded by Kofi Owusu-Nhyira, supports one of the world’s top-five telcos in managing a sales force made up of independent, semi-educated and illiterate street-side vendors who sell the companies pay-as-you-go devices and services. The ‘street-CRM’ designed for this purpose is like nothing traditional vendors to this telco giant can deliver, as you might imagine. The application front-end runs on basic phones designed for the hustle and bustle of the African street. Its authentication procedures must work for people who can barely spell their names. And the reporting feature is designed to mimic the language of ‘online chat’ and SMS rather than that of SAP.

Another company, DreamOval, founded by the charismatic Derrydean Dadzie, developed a re-imagined SCM (supply chain management) app for Ghana’s giant state-owned cocoa company, Cocobod, so the world’s second largest national cocoa trading company could better manage the tens of thousands of cocoa farmers who supply it with the beans it sells to the likes of Cadbury. Here, farmers who can barely send SMS were equipped with an interface to enable them interact better with extension services through a collaborative system that adapts as the user’s learning improves. The traditional concept of the tutorial as separate from the application is turned on its head, as functionality is made to grow in step with familiarity.

4.       The Nebuchadnezzar Challenge

The public service agencies in many emerging markets have yet to take on service-delivery roles, and remain formal bureaucracies. This is due to the infancy of the welfare systems of these regions, and the attendant lack of experience in providing a wide range of services to citizens.

That also means that the public services, which in most of these countries command massive spending power, hate to specify their needs for vendors. Much of the corruption that vendors feel is inherent in tender, procurement, and public-private-partnership IT projects in emerging markets is not all due to unethical government bosses. It is inherent in the very lack of systems that define the problem to be solved objectively and comprehensively, creating misunderstandings and smokescreens easily exploited by actually corrupt vendors and officials.

It doesn’t mean of course that emerging market leaders don’t know what they want. Very often they have vivid (if not always realistic) visions. To be successful, vendors must go to the topmost echelons of decision-making and ‘show’ the bosses what the bosses are thinking about doing.

It brings to mind the biblical tale of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, who assembled his top wise folks and asked them to guess what dream he had the night before. “Only then would I believe that your interpretation is also true,” said the shrewd monarch.

One only needs take a look at MasterCard’s recent coup in Nigeria, where a deal has been signed to power the national ID system with MasterCard. Anyone who has listened to MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga speak knows that his notions of a ‘cashless society’ tie into the full panoply of public service delivery, a broader vision shared by Nigeria’s all-powerful coordinating Minister of the Economy. Any ordinary vendor mouthing jargons about servers and middleware clearly stood no chance in this game.

5.       ‘Opportunity Vectors’ Trump Verticals or Geography

When solution providers are planning to penetrate a new market, they can’t help but think about which industries in the country are ripest for harvesting, and which resellers, distributors, or integrators in that specific market have the heft to help them quickly build relationships with prime customers. This is fine. This is the lifeblood of the “leads” methodology.

However, the world of enterprise IT is being disrupted by the cloud, as everyone knows. Drilling deep into a specific market and industry was all you could do in the days when deployment had to happen on site and big machines had to be lugged from one place to another. Now enterprises can access the capacities they need over the internet and pay on a subscription basis rather than upfront. This is changing the way companies build relationships.

A “vector” in math is a quantity with a defined direction. In business it invokes notions of scale and trending. What an enterprise wants more than anything is to scan for insight, looking for pointers in one market that might point to massive opportunities anywhere. Sometimes, great potential partners don’t shine in their current markets because the catalysts for their growth may be elsewhere. A multi-national enterprise may be in a pole position to see this, and its partner choices and philosophy should be greatly influenced by such “opportunity vectors.”

All said and done, enterprise IT companies need to become more open-minded about opportunity. If anyone had predicted even two years ago that a company like Oracle would find great commercial success within the region it has zoned as “African Transition Economies“ in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), know-it-alls would have laughed at the very thought. But last year, Zimbabwe and the DRC were among Oracle’s fastest growing markets in Africa. So there you have it: Enterprise IT in Africa is never what it seems at first glance.

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