Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Debating the African Internet Industry with Kachwanya

proudly nigerian3A couple of weeks ago I posted my response to a conversation that started on Techmasai as a blog post. I called it “Clone Wars: The Prelude”. The gentleman who started the conversation brought the discussion over here by posting a response to it. I tried to reply his comments, but the commenting system said my reply was too long. So I decided to make it a blog post again. The commentator, a Kenyan blogger and software consultant who maintains a very nice looking blog over at www.kachwanya.com, wrote his thoughts:

I followed you here. The point here is not about the ethnic group or what we popularly call our own, the point is based on the interest of the nation or the continent for that matter. I hope you heard several times when they talk of National interest, basically it has to do with protecting the locally based products and services and even people. Let move a way from the web a bit and take the piratical example of textile industry in Africa or the farmers in Africa, the outcry out there is that American or European farmers production get subsidized while at the same time one expect the same farmers to compete with Farmers in Africa where God love us all but each man for himself. When Obama came to Kenya back in 2006 when he was still a senator, he was asked about the same and the answer was, him and the government of US have to protect the interest of the local farmers. You see the bigger picture here is when a local company grows , it help the locals, expand the local economy, expand the economy of the nation, while when you insist in growing Facebook which at the end take everything back to US..you are not helping Nigeria to start with.
Take for example in Kenya a local company Safaricom currently running promotion or advert called Sakata Ball which appears on the sites like NYTimes, Mashable, and the question people are asking is, what is the relevant in that, why can't they advertise in the local blogs or websites since the competition is taking place in Kenya. The answer they will tell you is they want something better just the way you are arguing..it doesn't make sense at all.
You have tried to discredit China example but it was based on the phones, i wonder why you did not take direct comparison of the China websites which are thriving, because the locals embrace them. Facebook might be the king out here by design and usage but in China it is nowhere to be seen, according to this article http://www.technama.com/2009/top-10-best-social-n... Myspace is the closest but still at number 5. Now that is what i am talking about, Chinese are embracing what is made in China and through that the world is looking at their direction while back here we are discrediting the efforts of the locals.

My response is:

I appreciate the time you have taken to make your thoughts known on my blog. I also appreciate your passion for Africa in general and African internet industry in particular. I feel the same, but my perspective on how it can grow is different. Let me address your points.

I do not discredit China. Their products are cheaper and have more features than the so-called "better" products built in the West. That is how they are pushing ahead. That is how Japan and Korea rose to the place they are. China competes and grows on providing value that the West cannot. They are at the point that a Lenovo can buy up IBM’s PC business or an Huawei can muscle in on the telecoms industry. The same applies to India. India provides better quality in IT services and expertise, again at a much cheaper price. You can evangelise “National Interest” all you want, if you do not provide something valuable enough in your product that makes people want to use it, then you shouldn't be patronised whether by your own citizens or by outsiders. Even if you are patronised, better quality products will eventually get ahead and stay ahead.

This is one of the things that led to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. They were producing goods for internal consumption that everyone was forced to use for “National Interest” not because they were good enough for the purposes. The quality continued to deteriorate until the point that Russians were standing in line for bread. The areas where the Soviets excelled were where they competed against the United States in military investment, sports, the space programs, and such. 

Talking about subsidies for American farmers as the reason for the poor prospects of the African textile industry doesn’t make sense. Not when the governments of Africa don't provide the necessary infrastructure to enable competition be feasible. When everyone is spending most of their resources on providing their own electricity, water, transportation and security how will they be able to compete against the Americans, subsidies or not? Increased taxes on imported rice, cement or other imported goods has not led to an economic boom in Nigeria. National interest is served by enacting and enabling laws that drive development and investing in infrastructure.

With regards to Chinese internet business, again your example breaks down. To start with, China poses a significant barrier that does not exist in Africa as a result of using a different script (Chinese characters). A lot of Western technologies do not translate well into Chinese text hence the Chinese already had the head in producing natively compatible technologies. Secondly, the way their government runs their country makes it difficult for anyone who doesn’t not submit to their complete control of the environment to get a leg in. When your internet service can be blocked by the Great Firewall of China at someone’s whim it is hard to do business. This is similar to the way that foreign businesses who were not willing to cooperate with corrupt African governments found it hard to make any progress in Africa. Those who did prospered.

However, even if we ignore all that, you have not shown that Chinese internet businesses are providing less value to Chinese people than international providers. The government did not mandate that Chinese people use Baidu, but it is extremely popular in China because they provide the value that Chinese people are looking for and Google so far have not been able to provide. I had an IM conversation yesterday with an African entrepreneur who is exploring making his social network available in multiple Nigerian languages looking to add differentiating value. Startups Nigeria just did a story of a Nigerian medical recommendations website (www.dokitasays.com). It is a question and answer site where people can post medical questions and a set of volunteer doctors provide answers. Simple. Valuable. That’s what I ask every internet business to offer. “Made in Nigeria” is a useless assertion without those things. A Nigerian events management site, Kilonshele.com has generated a lot of buzz that Eventful.com and Eventbrite.com have not generated because it provides a local ticketing solution that these well established international sites do not. They also provide a custom experience for their partners that cannot be obtained with these international sites.

I do not want to trivialise the difficulty of challenging well-known international brands. It is hard. Extremely so. It does require building up a core base of loyal users who can evangelise your offering (which is no easy task). That loyalty grows from people believing in your product, but that only happens if your product is worth believing in. That’s how Google took over from Yahoo and Facebook unseated MySpace. That’s why, despite its constant crashes and outages, Twitter grew to be what it is today.

As a continent that has received the world's castoffs for too long, we owe it to ourselves to demand of ourselves to do better. The yam seller with the cheery smile, the clean stall, the boy to carry the tubers to my car, and the occasional price incentive who happens to hail from the other side of the country will always get my custom over the surly one from my hometown who imagines I owe him my business on that basis alone. One will prosper, the other will fade.

Even as we debate, I am building an internet product and I do not expect anyone to use it unless I can make it of good enough quality and provide a compelling feature set. I have no sense of entitlement that people should use it just because a fellow Nigerian made it. If they do use it, it will be because I have given them something worthy of their time and resources that will make their lives richer.

Feel free to join the conversation.


Image taken from http://afamatik.com