Q&A TED Fellows

By Africa, for Africa: Fellows Friday with Jon Gosier

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Tech and social entrepreneur Jon Gosier launched the Apps4Africa competition in 2009 to reward and jumpstart African innovators and entrepreneurs. As the competition enters its third year, Jon is finding ways to help provide long-term, holistic support for winners, helping to scale sustainable businesses across nations and the continent.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your path to software development and social entrepreneurship.

My own path to technology was one that I think informs my desire to help younger technologists. I grew up with a passion for computers, but very little in my surroundings reinforced that passion. I didn’t have mentors or role-models in technology to look to, and it never really even occurred to me that computer science was a career choice until much later in life.

So I was self-taught and eager to learn, but blissfully unaware of the opportunity in the space. I moved to Uganda in 2008, where I kept meeting hard-working, talented young technologists who were doing everything right but still faced a lot of difficulties. They mostly taught themselves to program, many had gotten into good local universities and were at the top of their class, and they were proactively developing applications in their spare time as well. Yet they were entering a job market with 80 percent unemployment for youth.

Their only options were often to take non-creative, non-entrepreneurial jobs with banks, multinational telecom companies, government or non-governmental organizations. Those are fine careers, but I feel they should be options and not the only path to success. So I decided to invest my resources and time in creating paths of opportunity for African technologists across the continent.

I like to say that talent is spread evenly across the world, opportunity is not. I founded innovation company Appfrica to address this problem.

How many years has the competition been running?

Appfrica launched Apps4Africa as a way to support Africa’s young innovators and technologists, and it has been running for three years now. It was conceived in late 2009 when some colleagues and I realized there were few initiatives that were in direct support of the solutions to local problems coming from Africa’s innovators — though there were plenty of resources available for foreign solutions. Over time, it’s become much more about much more than just app creation. Our goal for the future will be much more about scaling sustainable business ideas and investing in startup growth.

Appfrica is responsible for planning and managing the competition each year, along with our partners the U.S. Department of State and World Bank. We also mentor and advise the winners to help them take advantage of new opportunities for media attention and funding.

Why does Africa need this competition? 

That’s an interesting question that we ask ourselves each year. Now that we’ve run the competition for three years, we recognize that Africa doesn’t just need another competition. Africa needs opportunities for structured mentorship and training beyond the competition model. The feedback from previous entrants has been that they need more support past the competition itself: once they’ve received the initial investment, our entrants want to stay engaged and connected to an international community of experts they can continue to learn from and have the opportunity to connect with for follow-up support. We’re working really hard to create a “competitive program” model, instead of another competition. The competitive program would engage entrepreneurs throughout the year, providing mentorship, training, and additional access to funding. This model would also have a strong research and evaluation component, so that we can better identify ways to serve these tech entrepreneurs in order to increase their success rates.

Can you tell us about any of the particular apps that have come out of the competition? Any particular success stories we should know about?

Wow, there have been so many. I’d say the biggest success stories have been iCow, by TED Fellow and Apps4Africa 2010 winner Su Kahumbu, and Farmerline, by Apps4Africa 2011 West Africa winner Alloysius Attah. Both weren’t just successes in terms of impact, but for the individual entrepreneurs and teams behind them as well.

iCow is a simple mobile app that helps farmers to time the most optimal periods for impregnating or milking their cattle, which in turn improves efficiency and yields, resulting in more income to the farmer. Su shared the other day that using her app, farmers have been able to generate anywhere between $100 and $500 dollars per month in additional revenue!

Farmerline is a software application that delivers agricultural information to farmers through voice or text messages to their mobile phone. Since winning Apps4Africa, it’s been piloted by over 200 fish farmers and as won many other awards.

A full list of past winners and their contact details can be found here.

How do you choose your winners, and how are they awarded?

To be honest, Apps4Africa has evolved every year because of what we learned the year prior. This year is no different. We’ve come to understand that the “app competition” is a fun, interactive way to discover people with great ideas and solutions — but the real benefit isn’t the competition itself. It’s what Appfrica is able to offer in terms of follow-on support and scale.

That said, this year we will select winners based on two main criteria. First, have they considered how to make their solutions scalable as a business? And second, what is the potential for growth and wider impact of their solution, either locally or continent-wide?

What are Knowledge Partners and how does that component work? 

Our Knowledge Partners contribute to the Apps4Africa knowledge community in various ways, and we look for ways to provide value to them as well.  Right now, our partners are mostly US- and Africa-based organizations that see the value in supporting African technologists. Many of our Knowledge Partners work or have worked with successful African technologists, whether application developers or hardware engineers. We are creating a robust ecosystem where our Knowledge Partners can interact with Apps4Africa’s technologists on multiple levels, whether through social media amplification, or as competition judges, or by providing insight on their successful processes as a mentor.

Tell us about your partnership with the US Department of State. How did this come about?

The US Department of State (DOS) is Apps4Africa’s main supporting partner. The DOS has expressed keen interest in engaging African entrepreneurs in meaningful ways, and has recognized that the local solutions in Africa deserve additional investment. They identified Appfrica as the best vehicle to co-create and manage the Apps4Africa competition, and they’re now interested in supporting Appfrica’s mission to work with additional high-level sponsors to build the competition into the competitive program I mentioned earlier.

What are the challenges involved in running this competition?

The biggest challenge is actually before the competition begins. Each year, prior to the competition, we select several target countries where we host brainstorming sessions. These events are an opportunity for the app developers to hear from the various stakeholders about what types of solutions are actually needed. This includes government officials, NGO representatives, university faculty, the local and multinational private sector and so on. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for all involved to have a dialogue that helps the app developers design solutions that are actually needed.

These events are great, but a challenge to take on organizing. In 2011 we organized 15 such events in 15 countries in just six months! That was the most challenging and ambitious undertaking Appfrica has pursued thus far.

What’s your hope for the competition in terms of its future growth and influence? 

The next step is for Appfrica to turn the A4A competition into a more holistic model that creates a programmatic feedback loop, so that winners and finalists can benefit even more from our knowledge community year round.

We want to create more access to resources and funding to help winners continue to scale their solutions and businesses after the competition.

Apps4Africa is just one of many initiatives that we’ve been able to launch and scale over the past few years, others include our in-country innovation hub and co-working space HiveColab and Abayima, which is our initiative to empower people in developing countries to communicate when oppressive governments disrupt mobile networks.

As a fully bootstrapped African headquartered organization, Appfrica relies upon pubic-private sector partners to make each of our programs a success. With Apps4Africa, we’re forming relationships with corporations and enterprises who see the African market not only as a place for philanthropy, but for investment and economic growth.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We’re already planning Apps4Africa 2013, so if you have an interest in getting involved, please reach out to us!