Build for the world

Not (just) Africa

Timi Ajiboye
Jun 21, 2020 · 9 min read

There are a lot of very serious, seemingly insurmountable problems in Africa. I live in Nigeria, a place that’s now considered as the poverty capital of the world.

The thing I find the most ridiculous about that assertion makes the situation feel even bleaker — we have no idea how many Nigerians are in Nigeria. Incompetence is one thing, but worse still we’re led by people whose entrenched interests have prevented us from an accurate population estimate. And if you know anything about Nigeria & its leaders, you’d know that chances are we have more poor people than we think we do.

There are many, many things wrong with Nigeria and I don’t think I’m capable of providing an exhaustive list. However, from my own (admittedly privileged) corner of the world, it seems as though there’s something different about the time we’re living in:

We have the internet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that not everyone is privileged enough to have internet access. I’m also aware that the internet (alone) won’t solve our problems. But still:

Millions of Africans have the internet.

The presence of the internet is changing things whether we’re satisfied with the speed of those changes or not. Communication & the spread of information has changed dramatically. How we work has also changed in ways that we often take for granted.

  • Think about the process of getting trad sewn by your tailor without the ability to receive pictures from them.
  • How do you think the people at Computer Village learn how to change the screens of some relatively new Android phone? — YouTube & iFixit
  • Your mechanic no longer has to go all the way to Ladipo to find out if any of their guys have a hard-to-find car part. They can just send a picture.

There’s an endless list of examples. It has undoubtedly affected our lives in many many ways, both big & small.

One other way it has affected us is that there’s a seemingly sustained “explosion” of software development talent. There’s still a lot to be desired per our entire tech ecosystem but things a markedly different from how they were just 10 years ago.

  • It’s far easier to learn how to become a software developer.
  • The barriers to deploying & sharing software have dropped dramatically.

As such, we’re starting to produce a lot more software than we ever have. There’s always news of a new founder or app, at least in my immediate environment. On social media, there is a running joke about how we have way, way too many consumer fintech apps.

Some of us have started to see the ability to build and share software as a way to solve some of the problems we have. A few of these efforts have shown immense promise. The relative successes of these startups (e.g Interswitch, PiggyVest, Paystack, and many more) have understandably inspired many more people to give this path a shot.

That’s a good thing. Generally, the more (useful) things we build, the better. However, one thing I’m starting to realise is that a lot of us are focusing too much on the African market. This happens for a few (non-mutually exclusive) reasons:

  • Sometimes, it’s simply just wanting to fix a problem that pertains specifically to us.
  • Other times, we look at products that are thriving in other more mature markets and yearn to duplicate similar success here.

The motivations above are perfectly reasonable and as I said earlier, they’ve (in some instances) already starting showing very desirable results. In fact, my own startup (BuyCoins) is as a result of those two motivations (and more).

My point is that they’re not bad motivations but somehow, we’re so disproportionately laser-focused on them that we might be missing a budding huge opportunity.

Let’s take a look at the applications Nigerians use the most these days. In no particular order: WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram etc all come to mind. None of these applications were made with “Nigeria” in mind. In some cases, popular apps such as these eventually factor in specific optimisations to work better in places like Nigeria, but the first version of Facebook was not built for Nigeria. It was built for Havard, in the US (where the creator lived).

However, there’s a huge difference between the market in the United States’ ability to sustain a product like Facebook to profitability (in the way that it eventually did) and Nigeria’s ability to do the same. Nigeria is a poor, uneducated country.

This applies to a lot of other apps & tools we use that are nowhere near as big as Facebook, that many (often more privileged) Africans use (and pay for). It’s possible to build an app that’s focused on something like “managing your calendar” (Calendly) or make a delightfully weird game about optical illusions (Monument Valley) and get paid millions of dollars. There are many, many more examples. From Candy Crush to TikTok to I’m being very intentional about using examples that Africans (I know) have paid for to make a point.

The fact is that there just aren’t up to 26 million Africans able to spend $4 on a game like Monument Valley. There isn’t any immense market for people who have a hard time managing their digital calendars here.

Even our current success stories are quite visibly handicapped by this and I’m certain that the founders are aware that they’re playing the long game of helping create the market. (At least, I’m aware). It took Interswitch (a legend on these streets), almost 18 years to get to a $1bn valuation. This is relatively very small compared to startups that do similar things in more mature markets. It’s not for lack of ambition either, the market just doesn’t exist. There are entire value chains that do not exist here.

I digress. Anyway, we’re in a relatively special era. There’s a confluence of occurrences that may give us an alternative path:

1. African developers can build the first versions of any of the apps I just mentioned

It’s important to look at the first versions of anything when having conversations like this. Current iterations of successful software that we may use today are often the result of years of resource-intensive improvements. Iteration, bug fixing, adding features and all other things that come with growth costs money & time. Everybody had a relatively shitty first version and I know many people who look like me that can build really impressive first versions.

Without a doubt, it’s still relatively easier for the white American man to build, deploy and share software on the internet. Access to education, electricity, capital and the internet is far more available to them. However, the gap is closing, not necessarily in terms of access to those things, but the “skill” gap is definitely closing. The best African software developers are some of the best software developers in the world. There’s, of course, still a huge gap in terms of the sheer number or proportion of people with those skills, but yeah, you get my point.

It’s useful to note that these other resources (capital, electricity etc) are very, very important but because of growing internationally exportable skill, a new generation of Africans that can afford these things is starting to slowly emerge. People in Africa are aggressively learning how to create software (and content) that’s immediately usable by pretty much anybody in the world. We’ve been exporting those skills for a few years now, and as I said, have generated the kind of wealth & comfort that might make it possible for us to build and export our own whole products.

2. International markets are more within reach than ever before

The infrastructure required to actually publish software to the internet is far, far more accessible (and cheap) than it was 10 years ago. Everything from mobile app stores (for distribution), social media (for marketing), to payment methods like Paystack and even cryptocurrency (to get paid), has brought us to a point where one can realistically live in Lagos, Nigeria but build for anyone, anywhere. In a similar way to how people in Norway, Oslo can build a browser that millions of Africans use, you, reading this right now, can build something that people in Norway might be willing to pay for.

One really good thing about such markets is that the sheer number of people privileged enough and willing to actually pay for software is GROWING really fast. It’s possible to launch a somewhat meh-looking, bug-filled but still useful tool and get thousands of downloads with the minimal marketing cost because there are people out there actually actively looking for such solutions to whatever problem.

Those users (be it hundreds or thousands of them) are also a growth data gold mine. You can immediately engage a good amount of existing users/customers to find out what you need to do to make your service better, thereby increasing its appeal to more of those people.

3. We already have good ideas, we just don’t realise we can build them

I often run into issues while working and end up really wishing that an “app for that” already exists. Sometimes, they don’t exist. Sometimes they do, but not quite exactly the way you think it should work. That right there is a product idea. There are other people in the world doing your job and chances are, they have that problem too.

Sometime in February, I wanted GUI to view & manage my Bull.js tasks/processes, so I did some googling and found I signed up for the 15-day trial and by the end of that I was hooked — I ended up paying for a year’s subscription.

Taskforce is far from perfect. I don’t particularly care for it’s UI and it’s quite obviously super scrappy, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that because almost all things start out that way & it gets the job done. There are also are many more people with the same problem I had, who are also willing to pay (they’re just not likely to be living in Africa).

I can build Taskforce. You can build Taskforce. And if the problem is one that you really wish someone, somewhere else in the world has built, it’s worth considering building it yourself & selling access to it. Building something as useful as Taskforce and earning a few thousand dollars a month from developers across the world isn’t a bad deal at all, especially considering the always descending value of the Naira.

While this article focuses a lot on software development, I strongly feel that pretty much everything applies to any field that requires heavy use of software to perform and distribute your work. This includes any kind of digital content creation. We already see it happening in music with artists like Cruel Santino, Burna Boy and Mr Eazi. Eazi himself has spoken about intentionally targeting certain other markets on multiple occasions. There’s no reason it can’t happen with a YouTube channel or a podcast, for example.

But what about Africa(n users)?

Like I said in this article about getting started in tech:

Earning foreign exchange and spending it in Nigeria does good for Nigeria

You’d be directly adding value to the economy. Paying salaries, and generally making the people around you wealthier moves us closer to the market that has those value chains.

Furthermore, it’s important to take a look at the software companies that have the biggest presence in Africa. Facebook, Google, etc

The reason they can bet heavy & long term on a market that doesn’t yet have that many paying customers is that they’re making so much sustainable profit from the market that can pay. Instagram isn’t making any (significant) revenue from their African users, but it’s still one of the most used apps on the whole continent. They make their revenue elsewhere, and there’s a near-zero marginal cost to provide their services to us.

On the flip side, I’m not saying that we should completely ignore the market at home. There are still many, many things to build specifically for here. I have dedicated a huge chunk of my life to one of those things. I’m just trying to implore us to look at another (non mutually exclusive) way to achieve things.

There are many ways to skin a cat, and this way was never possible until now.

If you can be successful at building for the world that’s already willing to pay, then maybe you’ll have way more resources to build for the world that can’t pay (yet).


Timi’s rants, thoughts.