#InnovationSeries: No, Apps are not the answer to everything

by Ewin Okolo

This feature is a part of the YNaija Innovation Special – a set of insightful stories that dig deep into the spirit of innovation, enterprise, and creativity oft-talked about but seldom told as stories in Nigerian media.

The series which kicked off with the release of The New Establishment list, our annual 50-strong list of the new school of leaders, innovators, creative and entrepreneurs, will run throughout January.

Africa is mobile.

The numbers, (as much as 70% of Africa’s internet use happens on a mobile phone) suggest this. With Africa’s population currently estimated at 1.2 billion people and Nigeria’s estimated at 200 million, techpreneurs of Nigerian descent are finally looking away from saturated western markets and returning home to solve Africa’s social enterprise problems through technology and make a shit ton of money in the process. And many of these entrepreneurs are turning to apps to help them break into the African market.

In the battle for clicks and views, pushing your narrative through a native app makes sense. First off, the majority of African internet users use low end phones with minimal computing power. These low end smart phones are often simply ill-equipped to handle heavy data use or layered, interactive websites, the kind many tech entrepreneurs need to properly engage their customers. And making the sites simpler often backfire on programmers, globalization and access to first world entertainment has given many users unrealistic expectations. So Apps are a compromise, a dedicated platform that streamlines the user experience by dumping much of the data that the processes the techpreneur’s service will need to ensure that customers engaging their service have the least stressful time. A good application (like Facebook) allows you do everything you could possibly need within the native app without ever having to leave. Open web pages that contain extra information, watch videos and pictures, communicate via messaging, these are all functions that apps are growing to allow you do without ever closing the native app.

There is also the added perk of an app being able to save all important information so it doesn’t have input them every single time you need to access the service provided and the added and often hidden perk of being able to use the app to make advertising money. There are valid, necessary reasons even, to consider putting the kind of money and time needed into building an app. The problem is that none of these reasons are often valid when African startups dabble in app building.

As the vast majority of Nigerian tech startups are financial-tech, or utility start ups, there has been a race to build apps or clone pre-existing services under the umbrella of creating an ‘African’ version created specifically to cater to Africans. The biggest example of this is Linda Ikeji’s Linda Ikeji Social. If you’ve seen the video that announced Linda’s biggest reveal of the year, then you know the premise around which she clones the Facebook web app is that she meets two random women (the smallest case study in the history of humanity) who tell her they only visit two sites on the internet,  Linda Ikeji’s then blogger hosted blog and Facebook. If this story was true, there were many things to take from this, primarily that perhaps she could have created an ecosystem of websites that these women could live in, expanding to accommodate their tastes, but unique to voice of L.I.B. But Linda decided to do something else; she spent a rumored 4 million naira to build a buggy web based social network that thus far is proven success because of Ikeji’s massive influence. Sure people joined LIB, but no one left Facebook for her site. It never is that simple.

There is also Akoma.net, a crowdsourced blogging site modeled after Medium but ‘marketed’ to Africans. Tech Blogger Osarumen Osamuyi best explains why this gimmick of Pan-Africanized ideas simply cannot work if the quality of the work remains sub-par. That would just be a reach.

Apps (web based or otherwise) are the natural progression, not the start of the totem pole. A website is always the first prong in any digital strategy and often just as good for the service that is being delivered. There are questions that must be answered before any techpreneur goes dabbling in apps. There is the problem of widespread illiteracy in Nigeria, so pervasive that there are still stores that make good business from downloading free applications onto consumer’s phones. Then there are the expensive data costs, the reason why much of the internet use in Nigeria is done on mobile browsers Opera and UC Browsers that compress web pages and eliminate any peripheral add-ons. A fancy app is simply out of too many people’s data budgets. This doesn’t take into consideration the Nigerian government and its mercurial approach to innovation, as illustrated most recently by its crackdown on money transfer start ups. Add to that our bad networks and you already have the odds stacked against anyone looking to throw money into an app based on the ‘potential African market’.

All of that is eventually secondary to demand. If there is no demand for the product, nothing you do will miraculously drum up demand, not your advertising, not your influencer marketing, not your user experience upgrades. And if there is demand, then international startups will compete with you, because everyone wants a piece of Africa. And if your app’s major pitch is that is homegrown and not world class, it will fail, eventually.

Not every ideas demands or deserves an app. This should be a lesson we don’t have to learn the hard way.

See other stories from the #InnovationSeries below:

– New Establishment: Mr. Eazi, Ire Aderinokun, Arese Ugwu, and more… Meet the class of 2017

– #InnovationSeries: Nigeria and the year of the Buzzfeed clones

– #InnovationSeries: Social media can be a tool for self-censored advocacy

– #InnovationSeries: A snapshot into the life of a tech unicorn

– #InnovationSeries: Technology and my radical year of freelancing

– #InnovationSeries: Cafe Neo, stimulating a tech-centric revolution

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