Anthony Kiplimo chats about how Covid-19 is affecting developer relations in his home city of Nairobi and more broadly across Africa.

Transcript

Matthew: Okay Anthony. Hello. Thanks for joining me. Where abouts in the world are you?

Anthony: I am in Nairobi, Kenya.

Matthew: Cool. Okay. And tell me about your role right now. So I understand you’ve been involved in setting up something pretty big. So let’s hear about that first before we get into the coronavirus stuff.

Anthony: Awesome. So late last year, we had this really cool idea with one of my mentors Graham Muhanga, and the idea was that we’d seen the African developer ecosystem get fragmented so much. There are not that many developers. So attention is being drawn in so many areas, yet no one speaking in one voice, like, “Hey devs, this is the stack you need to be able to learn, these are the tools you need, and this is how you build stuff.”

And that’s what we decided to, we came up with the idea of Decoded Africa that kind of like cemented that. Over time, it’s evolved into so many different things. But at the same time, the core of it has always been our developer communities, how do we provide infrastructure, tools and training for them.

So we set up our first space here in Nairobi, former Africa’s Talking headquarters. So we converted it into a meetup space basically. And we’ve been supporting communities for the past, now, four months. And as you might imagine, our business also took a massive hit simply because of this corona situation.

But the goal of it was to basically, as time went by, we realized really the need that we were trying to solve was that startups and companies always complain that they can’t find talent, and developers always say they can’t find work. So can we create this physical manifestation of both their desires and bring them together?

And we’ve seen, like, some really fantastic results and a lot of learnings from it as well. Just realizing how the different, the missing pieces for businesses and the missing pieces for developers. The developers have a little bit of professionalism, have also been professional with their work, and then, for the business side, like, being open to the idea of building custom software and actually solving their customers’ needs.

So yeah. It’s been a pretty fun journey so far.

Matthew: Great. Great. So how can people find out more about that?

Anthony: So we can find us at our website decoded.africa, and you can also find us on Twitter Decoded_Africa. Yeah. And you can reach out to any of the founders. So we are actually eight guys who came together to build this. And one of the ideas behind it was that it’s really expensive to hire talent right now, especially in the teams that we were looking at.

But right now, by having founders with very specific skills and toolsets, it allows us to kind of like create this very unique company that many people hired, but at the same time, still is able to achieve its goal.

Matthew: Okay. So tell me about the coronavirus situation in Kenya. How’s it developed? Because I think understanding that is really crucial to understanding how, you know, developer communities have been affected and so on.

Anthony: So in Kenya, so far, it’s been… we’ve had about now 200 infections. Last time I checked, on Saturday, the exact figure was 186, and we’ve lost 9 people so far to corona. The government has taken drastic measures to kind of like curb this.

So for example, we can’t meet anymore, no one goes to work, everyone has to either work from home. So that has definitely had a massive economic impact on our society simply because we are also a very informal society in how we transact money. So that has really affected our markets and all that.

But at the same time, we’ve also seen a very interesting rise in business, especially for specific companies in the tech sector. The government has also implemented a couple of interesting things including we are mass producing masks within the country. So that is being provided by the government everywhere.

So you walk around, everyone has a mask on. We’re also watching malls change how they, when you walk into a mall, they’re handing out masks, they’re handing out gloves, and it’s also interesting to see how quickly we’ve accepted social distancing as well. I thought Kenyans would have a big issue with that, but people are quite comfortable with the idea.

And it’s nice to see that togetherness in trying to prevent the Covid from actually causing too much damage to our society.

Matthew: Well, actually, let’s dive into developer communities a bit and how, you know, you’re heading up, or one of the founders of Decoded Africa. So let’s talk a bit about for people who aren’t from Africa about how developer communities work in Africa.

And I know that I’m talking about a continent of many, many people in different countries. But, you know, you have Decoded Africa as something targeting the continent. So can you take me through some of the bits that might be different from how things work in the Bay area in, you know, California or Western Europe for example?

Anthony: I think developer communities here still have a very strong base in universities. And the reason behind this is that there are not that many professional developers. Statistically, about 60% of developers are basically students still in school, and we’re watching a lot of them struggle right now simply because the school environment provided so much for them.

The space infrastructure, the ability to meet all these other people. But now, the community is kind of hurting, but I can still see growth happening online. Now, it’s hard to predict what this will do generally to the developer community here in Africa because apart from the universities, we’ve also seen a lot of them revolve around specific big tech companies.

So Microsoft, Google especially. Now, support from Google and all these guys often used to come through monetary support for events. Now, it’s kind of changing how that model should work, and that is really, it’s something they’re yet to see how to kind of deal with.

We’re noticing a lot more webinars happen to try and, like, keep people up to date with what’s going on. But still, there’s challenge of internet for example in Africa. Kenya is very lucky. Kenya, I mean, there’s 4G across the country, the president announced they’re working with Google to fly out internet weather balloons across the country just to make sure everyone’s connected.

But in many other African countries, that’s simply not possible. And you notice a drop-off in developer activity online, people now have to, they no longer have the universities and all these communal spaces where they could access the internet. So that’s kind of shifting the dynamics of how we are looking at approaching things which is something I guess in the next couple of months, we’ll be able to figure out what would happen.

We bank a lot on Africa’s Talking technology which is heavily based on offline access. So we built up this tech stack at Africa’s Talking where you can access information via SMS, via voice, via USSD, and a couple of other technologies. So what we’re trying to see is is this, still on the Africa’s Talking side, trying to see if this is possibly a way of us being able to help the African continent still remain… have access to online, to the internet, and information while still being able does not mean spending so much money on data and probably having to upgrade your phone just to be able to, like, watch webinars.

So yeah. We’re still in that space where we’re kind of trying to, like, piece this Rubik’s Cube together because even getting information out of particular countries is all ready really hard. But we’re working with what we have for now. Yeah.

Matthew: It doesn’t sound a million miles different from what’s happening elsewhere, you know, switching to webinars. I think other than you’re mentioning an offline first approach in trying to get around certain infrastructure difficulties, perhaps. Particularly in Kenya then, would you say that the interaction between developers and companies, other than the modeling you mentioned with the universities, but would you say it’s often a case of people like Africa’s Talking who are looking to sell an API to developers, or is it more of a, like an open source communities coming together, what tends to be the main model?

Anthony: I think right now it’s more of API companies winning. We haven’t seen a large, like, so much activity on the open source side. And I genuinely think that is also because of what we call, me and my workmates call the lack of surplus talent. So there’s not enough talent in the continent to just, for someone just to be sitting down and coming up with all these random things.

We have seen that happen in a couple of instances, but in regards to, like, a mass scale of adoption and contribution to open source, that we haven’t seen that much. However, in regards to API consumption, that is in fact, right now, the best place to be starting an API business is in Africa. It is so much that hasn’t been built out yet. There’s a lot of infrastructure, base infrastructure that hasn’t been built out yet.

Yet when we start looking at the companies that do have APIs and are reaching out to developers, they’re doing really well. So Safaricom for example with their Mpesa APIs, they’re doing extremely well right now.

Matthew: That’s a payment system.

Anthony: Yeah. That’s a payment system. And what we’re seeing is that people are, the government has this directive where we ought to go cashless completely, no cash whatsoever. So that has forced developers to start integrating Mpesa into the, all these, or payments basically into the applications. So that has driven that up.

Then, there’s also the question of the last mile delivery services. How do you get things from a shop all the way to somebody’s house, and that is being done by motorcycles. Now, motorcycles, we call them bodabodas, really a couple of fun articles around that, and what that has done is that there’s a company for example called Sendy that offers an API that allows you to integrate their services into their app and you can actually make deliveries of your products to your customers quite seamlessly.

Same thing, we’re just watching so many API, companies releasing APIs now because they’re realizing, oh, for the first time, people have to be using stuff online, and the only way that can happen is if we have all the right building blocks and just the APIs. So for now, I think APIs will have a massive adoption for now. And then, over time, we’ll start seeing open source become a lot more accepted in the developer community simply because of that surplus talent that exists, that will now be existing.

Yeah.

Matthew: So if you were, if you’re going to look forward to, say, six months, a year from now, can you imagine that things might be different as a result of coronavirus, or is it too early to tell? Because here in the UK and, you know, if I look at what’s happening in the U.S. and so on, things are changing for now, but it’s hard to make predictions obviously about what’ll happen in the future, but it seems like people are willing to do more online, you know.

Events are moving online. I mean, you and I have spoken in the past about a DevRelCon taking place in Nairobi, you know. You’ve got to wonder if things like that will ever happen again right now because, you know, things have changed so much. So what do you think might look different in a year’s time in your tech scene?

Anthony: Well, the way I kind of see things panning out, as you said, it’s still super early to kind of say what’s going on, but taking different things into consideration. So Microsoft announcing that they’re canceling all the events all the way to 2021 meaning that they’re viewing, there’s something they’ve seen and they’re like, “Okay, we need to manage this.”

And even looking at getting a vaccine for corona might take a bit of time, maybe a year from now or so. And within a year, I think there’ll be significant enough changes for life to look a bit, well, quite different. I mean, for the tech industry itself, I think we will see, in Africa especially, I believe we’re going to see a large, a massive growth in regards to the number of developers.

Developers will have, people will have a lot more access, people will have a lot more time to play around with these APIs. When you just think about, like, Nairobi is pretty big and sometimes, we, right now, I’m realizing how much time I used to waste on transit in commutes, and now, I have all this time back. So now, I’m getting essentially to learn a bit more, to do these different things, to do all these things.

We are watching, I generally see probably in a couple of years from now people will be working from home and I think this maybe solidifies also the developer mentality of, like, work from a comfortable place and be in a space that actually allows you to be creative and actually solve problems. So that will kind of catch on over time. We’ve also realized that, maybe appreciate a bit more, if we are going to have events again, maybe there’d be a bit more insistence probably on the social aspect, the human aspect, of what we’re doing compared to previously where it was, you know, a whole three days of, like, running around, sessions have to be done.

We’ll have to make, any human-to-human interaction has to now become very meaningful and we have to draw something out of it. And I see our events maybe changing slightly, but I’m not sure to what extent. Like, if we literally have 100 people events from now on or will we be able to go back to the 3000, 5000 kind of people events?

But, especially for here in Kenya, I generally see this journey, a massive growth in regards to the number of developers and the number of startups that also come out in spirit. Also, they’re going to, I’d probably also see certain very specific cultural shifts especially for the African context that will change how we’ve kind of, like, been viewing our place in the general tech society.

I mean, it’s a good thing as well where the influence from, because Africa’s tech industry for a long time has been heavily influenced from the West. But now, in the past couple of years, we’ve seen a lot more home-grown solutions, and what we’re going to see is that happening a lot more, uniqueness and actual solutions that actually help people.

Matthew: This sounds great. But with that, bearing that in mind though, I’m interested in asking you what should non-Kenyan companies bear in mind if they want to work with developers in Kenya?

Whether that’s that they’ve got an API to sell or whatever it might be, you know, what would you recommend? And what does someone need to know about the Kenyan developer scene?

Anthony: Yeah. So for any company coming in to Kenya right now, certain things have to be very clear about the developer community here. It’s still very young. There’s still a lot of very young developers coming up. The talent is ridiculous sometimes. You get some really young developers in university pulling off some really ridiculous projects, just really fun stuff to be able to see.

So it’s reaching developers here also requires you to have a particular appeal, and the appeal mostly is driven around how can I use this thing to help my people now, build a business now?

It has to be, like, jotted down to that point. That’s when we start seeing the usefulness of your product, and you can actually get proper feedback, because on the other hand, you can have developers sign up on your platform and all they’re doing is checking out, making a few demos and bouncing which may not be as useful. You also, I guess from my experience so far, I think really well-documented APIs if you have APIs.

I think that really shifts how people use your platform. And partnering with already existing players. African developers, especially Kenyan developers, are very… So Truecaller for example launched a couple of APIs the other day for the African markets, but adoption is generally pretty low simply because for Kenyan developers, they’re asking “Why do we need this tool?”

We all ready have Mpesa’s solution, or we have this other solution that all ready works. But if you come together with… So we’ve seen a couple of companies band together, Safaricom and a couple of other companies banding together to do particular things reaching developers. Same thing that Africa’s Talking, we’ve also been thinking about how can we get partners together to sell particular APIs.

Because at the end of the day, what you want to do is to fit yourself in the picture of the African context. It’s not to impose your picture but to fit yourself in the picture of how things work. So I guess for me, that would be kind of the advice, where do you fit in the puzzle? That’s what really matters.

Matthew: Okay. That’s really interesting. Thanks. All right. Well, look, I hope you stay well. I hope you stay safe.

Anthony: Same to you.

Matthew: Thanks very much for your time.

Anthony: Yeah. Pleasure.

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