Software is eating the world
– about African innovation
“Why software is eating the world” has been the title of a famous essay by Marc Andreessen in the Wall Street Journal in 2011. Being in Nairobi, I have been heavily reminded on that.
While arriving at the airport, I buy a local Safaricom SIM-Card, put it into my phone – wow, a 4G Network – and open the UBER App. After having filled in my destination, I press the bottom. “Anthony” responds within seconds. He indicates where he will pick me up. In the car I feel save, knowing the driver is checked, had gone through some training and – in any case – our trip is traced. Some 15 USD is the fee, calculated by the system, no need for annoying negotiations.
It has been more than 10 years since I have been in this city. Things have changed dramatically, is my first feeling. A perfectly working digital communication system with access to the world. Everybody on M-Pesa, the easy-going mobile money system. A flourishing economy with many attempts to make life easier – verifiable digital addresses, new university teaching platforms or a lot of digital healthcare applications. And of course, the highly valuable UBER taxi system.
But, as I soon will discover, the traffic chaos is the same. When you get stuck in one of the traffic jams, it might take an hour to get just around the corner. (Google Maps helps, it indicates traffic jams accurately in real time and provides you with good estimations how long it will take.)
Only a few new roads have been built since and of course, not any significant public transportation system either. The majority of people still relies on Matatus, a sort of shared taxis. They are the backbone of African transport, but in inner cities their big number cause constant chaos and traffic jams.
I recognize, new African innovations are based on “software”. Digital communication systems allow more effective and efficient solutions for banking, transport, education or healthcare. With the same old and ineffective physical public infrastructure in place.
Software compensates for missing hardware …
… or – to put it differently – compensates for an ineffective public policy. It is the private sector which drives development, despite inadequate and insufficient state governance.
Meanwhile I have used the services of UBER more than 20 times. With one exception it worked perfectly well and I reached every point of the city where I wanted to go.
Every single driver told me how happy he is with UBER. Although the tariffs are quite low, the system generates constantly rides and an income well above ordinary taxi drivers.
Digital tracking and rating have also allowed women to become taxi driver. I went with a proud young lady who wants to escape her dependency from men. Up until recently unimaginable in Nairobi, a city with one of the lowest security records.
Obviously, when UBER started its services less than two years ago it immediately disrupted existing passenger transports. With a smart software system, all of a sudden existing resources could be used much more effectively. To the advantage of customers as well as suppliers.
An African innovation culture has evolved
So did the mobile bank M-Pesa, when it was introduced in 2007, and of course the mobile phone in the late 1990s. Meanwhile mobile banks have become an independent African domain with Kenya as the global leader in mobile payment solution.
Today, mobile communication and mobile money are basic technologies for a huge variety of other innovative approaches. An own African innovation culture has emerged, with Nairobi as one of its centers.
To learn more about the African innovation culture look at Global Innovation Expert, an international executive education program with seminars in Vienna, Nairobi, Shanghai and San Francisco. Here in Nairobi I work on the build-up of the African module.
von Hans Stoisser, Kösel Verlag, erschienen 2. November 2015 ISBN 978-3-466-37125-9