Give us a bit of water and some sand and we will build the Empire State building. It amazes me how innovative people in Africa can be. Natural born entrepreneurs. I know we have loads of issues and problems – and our own baggage to carry as well. But some of the things we do when we get our hands on something new is just “awesome”. (I have been in the US for too long! Picked that one up from my daughter…) The way people in Africa use mobile phones and the Internet in Africa is way beyond what any of us (or foreigners) predicted or dreamed of.

I know. I said that we in Africa are staying disconnected from the world. But that is just part of the story. Yes, we struggle to stay connected but don’t give us half a chance or we will rule the world. Once we get off World of Warcraft or Facebook. Boy are you lucky we don’t use that too often. Imagine people who like being connected to each other having the opportunity to do social networking while in different places! World here we come! I wonder if we will ever get off the Internet and still live and interact with each other if we were given that opportunity? Thank god for staying disconnected – it allows us to stay connected.

But I have two other stories about us and our version of web 2.0 to tell you about. The first one starts in Zimbabwe…

Yes. Zimbabwe. The country that is going through hell at the moment. And it has been going on for the last few years. But give someone a mobile phone and see us fly. OneWord Africa (one of my favourite sites – hidden agenda, I worked with them for a while a few years back. Hi Patricia!) reported on how people are using mobile phones to go hi-tech in campaigning for the upcoming election. It is not that easy to campaign in Zimbabwe at the moment. Crazy Uncle Bob isn’t what he used to be. Democracy isn’t what it used to be in Zimbabwe. He isn’t allowing much freedom for people to campaign for anyone other than him. And he instigates violence and riots against the opposition. So what are people to do?

Well. He made the mistake of allowing people to have mobile phone. And when you have some water and sand… We campaign. The people in Zimbabwe text each other left, right and centre to get the message across. But not just personal messages. No way. They do it African style. In a way to make sure people know where it comes from and who they all support. A group with no place to meet – but a group none the less. They text a message that identifies them as a supporter of a specific party or person. A simple “Vote for Simba” to highlight support for Makoni and a longer “Have you not suffered enough? Morgan is the solution” for Tsvangirai’s faithful. Simple, but beautiful and genius. Bob – you control the radio, television and newspapers, but you can’t control the keypads.

But they don’t stop there. No way. They go further. Ring-tones. Here it is more about opposition to Crazy Uncle Bob than support for an individual. The opposition play a local song, which asks in Shona: “How long will you vote for ZANU-PF?“. Pure genius. People phone you and others hear. One snag. Run when the phone rings and you are close to the police! Pure genius for keeping democracy alive though. I almost gave up hope on Zimbabwe, but the people proved me wrong again. And I like being wrong in cases like this.

My other story comes from one that was told to me by Martin Feinstein a few years back. He used to run Proudly South African, but now runs Enablis that tries to help entrepreneurs use the Internet to enhance their business – and support them financially and with management support. (I can’t vouch for them. They have good methodology, but I don’t know how effective they are. Just haven’t been keeping an eye on them. So this is not a plug for them.) He was telling me about this guy in Soweto who found a brilliant business idea – a pure win-win (almost). And all he needed was a computer and a shipping container for an office and storage. His plan? So simple. He used to go to one of the markets every single day to buy his stuff. And there were hundred, if not thousands, of women selling their goods. But they closed every single Monday to go to the wholesaler to buy their stuff they sell. They all got into the taxi’s and travelled into the city to buy their goods.

And what a loss for their business. No discount because they bought little amounts at a time. Loss of business for the day they were closed. And money for their travels. And the wholesale had to deal with so many people at the same time. His idea? Why not get them to place their order with him and he logs it into the computer and sends one order (with separate packaging) to the wholesaler. The wholesaler then delivers because it is a huge order and gives him 15% discount for the large order. That is his cut – the 15%. The women didn’t pay anything more than the usual and actually saved because they didn’t have to pay the taxi. And they were open on Monday’s for an extra day of business. Genius isn’t it? Everyone won. Okay – the taxi guys lost out, but less sympathy there with their driving skills… The plan was not rocket science, but still genius by the guy to see the opportunity. (Sorry – never got his name.) And what did he want from Martin and them? Just help to get a container and a computer. Less than $2,000 and bam you have a highly profitable business. I love that story – it tells us so much about the entrepreneurs hiding away all over Africa.

Okay, so it is not the typical web 2.0. But we are not “typical” in Africa either. We take technology and turn it into something that helps us make our society better – and ourselves better. The fastest growing mobile phone users in the world? USA? UK? Maybe India or China? Try Africa. We have few landlines. No problem – we’ll go wireless. Yes, we are disconnected from the world. But we are so connected between the ears.

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