The Curious Case Of Uganda’s Technology Ecosystem

I did something odd recently, I watched a movie so interesting that I watched another in succession. What the movies didn’t do to me was anything but pique my interest, and thus bred way for hard questions that have been lingering on my mind for a while.

Particularly interesting was this criminally underrated 2014 movie, United Passions. It’s about the centennial story of FIFA, how it started, the visionaries, adversities and triumphs and football’s evolution into a language understood in every corner of the globe. The subplot of this movie is what caught my attention, the footballing association was built by mostly hecklers and charlatans, and the organisation was firmly entrenched in a system of kickbacks. At the elusive middle ground of the organisation were a group of executives very passionate about football, and they had good intentions at heart.

What confounded me, however, was the prophetic nature of the script. Whereas it came out in 2014, the story was manifested in 2015 following the corruption scandals that rocked the global footballing association. The movie exposes foul activities in FIFA from cold politicking to vote rigging, to bribery right from the time it was founded to present day. The epicenter of the movie is FIFA’s current president, Sepp Blatter. In the last quarter of the prophetic story, Sepp Blatter, just like he did in 2015, vehemently refuses to resign amid external pressures of legitimate concern, playing along Machiavelli’s quote in The Prince.

It’s better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.

It would be pedestrian, careless, naive and a bit arrogant of me to put world football and the tech space in Uganda on the same pedestal. Actually, it’s contemptible to even try to forge a comparison between the two. But to me, I see distinct relationships between the two and how they build up in the miff I am about to drop. Before you chortle at leftist or rightist allegories, allow me to tell the story.

Information technology, just like football, is about people; bringing joy and promoting unity and changing the world. The differences are insurmountable but if there is a silver lining. Tech is a science and football is an art. To use a pithy example, of advertising agencies; Facebook is the biggest Ad agency online in the same way FIFA is the biggest Ad agency offline.

The relationship is not black or white but one that fades gracefully from one gradient to another.

Uganda’s tech ecosystem, especially the startup scene, is such a mess. It looks bright, just like a child who’s been smeared with lots of baby (petroleum) jelly, but on close inspection, is very dirty.

The other day I came to a sombre realization about the inner workings of some ICT Association in Uganda, whose members I highly respect and look up to. The board of members is well connected to the high end and seems to be using the platform for good intentions, but good intentions don’t pay bills, perhaps that’s why they have become a conduit of personal gain of sorts; be it through endorsements, partnership with foreign development partners, speaking engagements, name it.

This reminds me of Sepp Blatter’s predecessor, João Havelange. When he took office in the 1970’s he knew that football was no longer a preserve of Europe or the Americas. His vision to spread out to emerging markets in Africa and Asia is arguably, the biggest milestone of his twenty-four-year career at the helm. That’s why he had romanticized affairs with presidents of African football governing bodies.

Joao Havelange with Mandela 12 January 1996, L-R: Joao Havelange (FIFA President), Nelson Mandela (South African President), Sepp Blatter (FIFA General Secretary) | Walter Dhladhla

In the movie, president of CAF once wryly complained that he was being spoilt too much during one of the executives’ meet in Zurich. It wasn’t for fanfare, the pampering wasn’t out of love.

Well, same for global tech giants like Microsoft, Google, IBM et al. They certainly know and believe that Africa is the next frontier and they’re not only willing to invest substantial resources but are also competing among themselves to grab the biggest piece of the pie.

Local organisations in Uganda such as the aforementioned are situated to tap into such opportunities by acting as liaisons and local chapters. No wonder, the innovation hub model has moved quickly from good hands to boxing gloves. The model of being on the receiving end is not sustainable and doesn’t endure. Perhaps divesting redundant and extravagant interests would curb the troubles, or maybe getting a critical mass of paying members would sustain these hubs.

Nay.

With the possible exception of South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt and to a less extent Kenya, startups (and innovation hubs) are barely making any money, I am sure the stratospheric mortality rates are ones the World Health Organisation would be interested in looking into.

It’s absurd!

Yet we continue to see government and privately funded agencies and associations touting mother Uganda as the garden of entrepreneurship Eden. They use startups that hit the global news five years ago as poster children at every opportunity they get — yet these startups are defunct today. They were African unicorns then, they were outliers. And outliers don’t set a good example simply because that model is not scalable.

For countries like China where the media is highly censored, and in Rwanda where the media is not that vibrant, enormous efforts are made in marketing the countries. Through trade, for China, and attention to ethics, development and detail for Rwanda.

Uganda, at the moment, is such a hard sell. The media is lacking, we don’t have the clout to manipulate the global narrative. Instead, we thank heavens for Ctrl C + Ctrl V. The habit of copying and pasting, much as it’s our greatest finding, is our weakest link. When you don’t produce anything original, you’ll always consume whatever comes off the assembly line.

We forget that the system from time immemorial works like a Rube Golberg machine: there is always a cause and effect relationship.

On one end, there is an enforcer and protector of interests and on the other end is the questioner. Well, I don’t mean to sound Marxist but if there are no wake-up bells being sounded then the current establishment is poised to run for eons.

When journalists and bloggers don’t query the status quo, then people won’t really have a voice to take a stance, and neither will policy makers get uncomfortable enough to know that things are not right, notwithstanding the power of the brown envelope.

In the USA, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a foundation that is at the front of protecting fundamental human rights regardless of technology through innovation litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism among others. It’s not a lone wolf. Many others are doing the grunt work to see the complete elimination of repressive legislation such as SOPA and PIPA which on face value, look good yet are like wolves waiting to prowl.

I don’t think for something to win, something has to lose, from a values system point of view. Take this instance, there is a Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) under the stewardship of Uganda Communications Commission and then there is another CERT under the stewardship of National IT Association of Uganda.

Uganda CERT

Basically, both are legitimate but one is a mirror of the other. I don’t know which is the evil doppel and which isn’t. It’s highly conspicuous that these two will be heckling for a favorite wife status, instead of rendering service.

Money is at the center of it all.

The national budgetary framework allocated a measly UGX 20.8 billion (about $5.8 million) to the ICT sector for the year 2015/16 and it won’t be a surprise to find no accountability or rather surgically inflated figure because, well, we had double expenditures in one agency, in different organisations.

There are a furore of oddities of the same kind, but their order of magnitude is less forgiving if they are messing with people directly. Most of these are in the corridors of power, that’s why an infamous incident like Uganda's Members of Parliament iPad procurement deal which cost an arm and leg only got people screaming their lungs out in protest yet were quick to forget as fast as they could spell the name Jack Daniels.

Last year, the Netherlands Trust Fund launched a project to enable easier export of Uganda’s IT services. When you see the list of firms that made it to the pilot programme, one thing strikes you, they are either well connected or have been in the game for long. They’re also well placed in the associations I have highlighted.

Where are the startups CNN and BBC loves to pull by the yoke of their mouthpieces, I mean technology provides sufficient ground and capacity for all to compete, right?

The current environment that these companies are operating in, doesn’t favour the kind of establishment they signed for. The overtones of despair can be smelled in the air. Business Process Outsourcing is firmly entrenched in the skills pool available and enabling infrastructure. So here we are, with no or poorly developed infrastructure. Infrastructure transcends from roads and hospitals and academic institutions.

The absence of locally based data centers add that unwanted slag that hinders effective trade and exchange of services.

What makes us think that the Netherlands wants to use our services over theirs which are much more superior and polished?

Price.

Our services are priced at subsistence levels and are an incentive for many who are either unemployed or earning below that. It’s not a privilege of some well-tucked firms to benefit from this, the unicorns of our league, it should be as collective as it individualist as possible. A company in the Netherlands should be able to contract an independent consultant from Uganda, in the same way it should be able to contract a small firm.

It’s all about scale.

The growth of the startup movement in Uganda has raised a few eyebrows from Angel investors and Venture Capitalists alike. I can confidently say the future looked bullish four years ago, now it’s all charity. The money is given out for experimentation, no worries about losses. I am constantly amazed at innovators who want to take on the government, God bless your hustle.

With the help of financially strong donors, they want to disrupt education, health, power generation, name it. A social innovation is not going to build thousands of kilometers of rail or tarmac roads, or airport runways. A social innovation’s method of testing for malaria will need many years of successful tests and iterations for them to be allowed into the mainstream, a social innovation won’t do much other than give tablets for educational material to some school not in close proximity to an electricity grid, and oh, did I say the tablets would be solar charged and connected to the cloud?

Wow.

“I’m concerned about what I see is the fetishization around entrepreneurship in Africa. It’s almost like it’s the next new liberal thing. Like, don’t worry that there’s no power because hey, you’re going to do solar and innovate around that. Your schools suck, but hey there’s this new model of schooling. Your roads are terrible, but hey, Uber works in Nairobi and that’s innovation." — Ory Okolloh at Quartz Africa Innovation Summit.

Ory Okolloh adds.

"We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad leadership. We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad policies. Those of us who have managed to entrepreneur ourselves out of it are living in a very false security in Africa. There is growth in Africa, but Africans are not growing. And we have to question why is there this big push for us to innovate ourselves around problems that our leaders, our taxes, our policymakers, ourselves, to be quite frankly, should be grappling with."

Suddenly we feel we should reward ourselves for apparently taking on problems bigger than humanity.

Remember the tablets for education I talked about earlier?

Yes, MTN Uganda, through its Ad representative, MetropolitanRepublic was awarded a $1 million Loeries award for disrupting education in Uganda. It’s said that the innovation’ was a digital library platform meant for rural schools that didn’t have access to reading and revising material, but as it turned out, the project was still on paper and up to date has never seen the light of the day.

What a con!

MetropolitanRepublic executives banned from Loeries

The budding travesty of this case is that many similar events go undetected and that’s the sad truth. Those that win awards or competitions mostly blow away that money and make Vegas seem like a small town square. Incidentally, some awards’ organisers strategically include blue chip companies on their nominations for reasons we need no prizes to guess.

This year alone, Uganda has seen the highest number of award ceremonies and galas, it’s disturbing and nauseating because in whatever angle you see it, there is a bunch of hungry fortune seekers planning for the next. It’s an unorthodox business model being implemented. This model needs to be quarantined and burned before it spreads out.

Long Live Technology In Uganda, Rest In Peace Technology In Uganda!

When you realize that the biggest advancement is that that allows you to communicate in 140 characters or less, you get to know that simple is sophisticated, perhaps it’s time we did some soul searching. It’s not the complex things that only positively change the world but also things that promote unity and empathy; things simple like football and products of technology like bread slicers.

Even when such revelations are glaring right in front of our eyes, we don’t really care, there is nothing much we can do. The best we have are hopes that we’re innovating and building something bigger than ourselves, we are the modern day slaves.

Let’s forget it; we’re never going to build the next Facebook or Instagram. We don’t need to and neither do we have the resources anyway. Code is never going to do anything for us if the structures are not enabling. The western forces are simply pushing for an agenda that will see all of us tucked onto the internet and the cloud, but that’s another red herring. I only hope that we’ll make tastier sausages in the techno-corporate chum machine, because we have chosen a path of resignation to fate and growing comfortable in discomfort. We deserve the cynicism.

We deserve the admonition.

We deserve the hopelessness.

Cover Image, A lone walker on a country road in Uganda | Jake Stimpson

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