Why we don’t have hardware startups in Africa

Robot that can detect and disarm explosive materials designed by S6 students at Makerere University

The world is fast changing. The average urban sixteen year old in Africa particularly Uganda has either used or owned a mobile phone, a radio, a music player, a laptop, or subwoofers. There is likely a chance that one owns most or all of these. That is a sign of progress in the information age. There is no doubt that electronics have defined their place in the distribution of information, a great example being the tremendous adoption rate of mobile communications in Uganda – as in other African countries – and the equivalent socio-cultural changes it has sparked.

The question that we still barely ask and would answer with a “…well, uhm…” is that of the origin of these electronics flooding our market. Fifteen years later, we still import duplicate feature phones, radios and whichever electronics you might name from other countries. These gadgets are certainly never designed with the African consumer in mind. Our conditions are unique and our needs are only certain to us that there is hardly a question of whether we need to develop our own gadgets. What could possibly be lacking then that makes us shy from developing our own phones with Africanised ringtones. At all the hackathons I’ve attended or covered by the TechPost (Now Dignited), there’s rarely a project on hardware except one where a team led by Fixx Joe Lutalo came up  with a concept called hygienotronics — a robot that reminds users to wash their hands after visiting a toilet. So Why don’t we have hardware startups in Africa?

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David Okwii, Senior Editor the TechPost(Now Dignited) caught up in an interview with re-known software developer who’s published more than 9 Apps on several App stores, Abdu Sekalala on why he’s not had a hardware project just yet and he said;

It’s more difficult to work on a hardware project because the tools aren’t readily available in the local market. Software is more rewarding than hardware here. It’s more difficult to sell and hard to scale.

But Theophilus Kuhimbisa , a student developer with the iLabs@Mak project at Makerere University, also working on the smartphone, says;

Our problem is quite technical. To design a sophisticated electronic device requires electronics, software and firmware expertise. The problem is the firmware developers, we do not have them.

It’s always easy to argue technical skills in development. In fact, it is certainly an issue when it comes to product development because our education system has no place for such skills. The few hardware hackers I have met either learnt from the internet or friends as they try to make sense of various patterns and components on a printed circuit board. Firmware is the protocols that enable communication between software and hardware; if you were to develop a smartphone running on Android, you would have to buy the electronics components and then write protocols that enable them communicate with each other and android operating system.

Adiba Mark, a hardware hacker who has designed various remote triggered systems blames the flooding of the market with cheap duplicate phones and he says;

The market is shadowed and customers are quick to dismiss the possibility of genuine electronics from Uganda. They are convinced that the Chinese are certainly better and if their products are not to be trusted, neither should the Ugandan be. The government isn’t helping either.

A developer with the Center for Research in Transport and Technology who chose anonymity blames the elite of the universities. He argues that professors have become money gobblers, caring less about true innovation. These are the best placed people to convince the masses that local designs are to be trusted and are achievable. They prolong the incubation of projects and often fail to finish it in the end once the lead developer loses interest or leaves, often due to frustrations.

A walk to Katwe, the hackers den of Kampala, shall open your eyes to so much skill wasted in repairing and tinkering with broken Japanese and European electronics. It’s hard to believe that many barely have an understanding of basic principles of electronics. None of them can surely tell you why they are not making their own line of woofers which requires very little skills. It sounds alien to them to even think of having a Ugandan Sony.

Even though I’ve attempted to try and understand, the question still goes unanswered –why aren’t we seeing any hardware startups in the computing sphere coming from Uganda just yet?

  • the biggest problem we have as a continent is that we are actually doing peoples work and in the end we are getting sucked into it more and more

  • The answer lies in what you saw in Katwe: There is hardly any demand for the kind of electronic tinkering you are speaking of. The demand exists largely in the realm of urbanite kids, some of whom are perhaps convinced its the ‘in’ thing.

    Katwe actually represents our home-grown brand of tinkering. When Kabaka Mwanga II(?) needed guns to fight the British, they were fabricated in what is now Katwe. When, today, you need a popcorn-maker, you can buy a Ugandan-made one in Katwe. When you need a Maize huller, yes, you know where to go. The point is, there is a need, there is a demand. Heck even the stuff you see them tinkering with, they do so because it has demand. Not because it is ‘cool’. We still don’t have widespread use of simple, carbon-neutral water pumps, and no one is trumpeting a new design that will save our people drinking dirty water.

    So for me, Katwe is to be celebrated. A robot that can detect bombs? I really don’t know… A ugandan-made car? Why? I just keep thinking “so what?” And “what for?” What is this obsession with trying to out-european the europeans? If we copy because there is a huge need, then that makes sense. But this copying for the sake of trying to prove we are as smart as them… Well at least lets not pretend that it matters to anybody except those who engage in the copying.

    Good luck to all the electronic startups. But lets maintain some perspective.

    • But then again Flashdancer, to come with a great popcorn-maker that’s well polished and meets international standards, you need great machining and maybe some embedded micro-controllers to add a little bit of intelligence in the product. Now the problem is, even basic electronic component like transistors, capacitors, printed circuit boards and micro-controllers aren’t readily available in the market. Tell me of any electronics store in Kampala that i walk into and buy components that suit my design?

      While i respect the ingenuity exhibited by the Katwe guys, partly because they just use whatever is within their means to just get something working, to produce a product that compete with the international market, you won’t do it the Katwe style.

      • The issue, David, is that a product must meet a market. Secondly, even with a good product idea, you must have some comparative advantage otherwise it’ll not get into market you are targeting. So the Katwe chap has a market for a popcorn maker, he also has the comparative advantage that he can do it cheaper, faster than if it came from Dubai. (Sure it is rather rudimentary and lacks the electronic whizbang that one made in Dubai might have, but that doesn’t matter at the price he offers it at.)

        What I am saying as that we are looking at this all wrong. We seem to think that because a Galaxy SIII looks so cool, we should be making our own Galaxy SII or we are not cool. Which I think is a dead end in terms of applying ourselves. Instead we should be asking “what do people need?” and not “what would be cool?” Because while the latter may amuse us, heck even enable us pick up a girlfriend, it really is practically not all that useful. When we say that we will never compete with Samsung, it is not that we are saying we are dumb. We are merely saying that the conditions do not exist: We do not have their scale, we do not have their historical imperatives (out of a major war in the 50s, all destroyed, the West weakened, the Tigers pushed into high end. It made sense.) Our conditions are different. Why do we not pay attention to the realities we are in and then plan appropriately? And there is so much opportunity! My point is that the Katwe boys do this far better than all we so-called educated. Which seems to me to be a shame.

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  • Kenneth

    There are some hardware startups like VNTS in Nigeria (http://vntsonline.com/) who do networking products.