Publish Date: 6 August 2017

Stop talking… and listen

Have you ever stopped to look at what we have achieved as a nation since becoming independent from South Africa in 1990?

Since independence we have flourished into a truly brave nation. With more than 10 different languages and cultures all living within the same borders, we’ve managed to take our weaknesses and limitations and transform them into opportunities.

After stepping out of the shadows of South Africa we have worked hard to build a unique culture and nation and it is amazing to observe how businesses within Namibia build their brands, products and services to serve the needs of the nation.

You see small street stalls popping up selling food to construction workers, we see small areas within Windhoek populated with “braai” stands where they sell “braai meat” to the public – and on a Friday night that place is booming. Windhoek is home to Namibia’s very first stand-up comedy club and on the first Thursday of every month you can enjoy the comedy of local Namibians at the Warehouse Theatre.

There are small examples of such adoption all around us, but when it comes to the internet and technology adoption it seems like we leap past certain crucial moments in the technological growth of our country.

I would like to use this article to take you on a journey through Namibia, Africa and the world looking at examples on how businesses and ideas succeeded in local markets and how certain businesses and ideas failed on international levels. At no point is this meant to look at failures, but rather at how we can succeed online by thinking outside of the box, but making sure that you first cater to local needs. 

Stop talking and Listen

Proudly Namibian

In the past two decades we’ve strived to break our own limitations and boundaries. Below are a couple of truly astonishing examples of inventions that were encouraged by local circumstances.

In 2009 the Namibian reported on a young gentleman from Ondangwa who was encouraged to build a satellite dish to strengthen the internet connection in his village.

This invention was encouraged by the rural circumstances Joshua Nghaamwa was living in with his family and friends. Each day was a struggle to get a strong enough internet connection allowing the community to tap into the vast pool of information available on the internet. Instead of giving up Joshua collected scrap bits of cell phones, radios and other electronic devices to build a satellite that boosts internet connections.

In 2016 a couple of students from the Ohagwena Region invented a mobile phone that does not require a SIM card to operate; basically the boys invented a mobile device which allows you to make free calls. Again, seeing a need in their community they looked to their inner pool of knowledge to take global invention and adopt it to satisfy their local needs.

I bet that these are just a few inventions that made it to the national newspapers, I am sure that there are hundreds of Namibians who have invented small devices or solutions to solve every day problems faced. 

Proudly African

Stepping outside of Namibian borders and over to other African countries, we can see amazing inventions that come from each country and in many cases the inventions are aimed at solving problems citizens feel are unique to their own country – and in many cases that is true.

In 2013 Richard Turere, from Kenya, explained how he saw his family struggle with Lion attacks for years, after observing the problem he came up with a self-powered solution that would keep the Lions at bay and his family and their livestock safe. While Richard’s invention might never be mass-produced or could have been found on the shelfs of Wallmart in America, this simple idea changed their lives.

In 2017 Ugandan engineer Brian Turyabagye was shortlisted for the 2017 Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize. He has designed a biomedical “smart jacket” to quickly and accurately diagnose pneumonia. This medical device was encouraged by the 27,000 Ugandan children under the age of 5 that are killed by pneumonia per year. This invention will not only help Uganda but can be used on a global scale.

In 2009, 14 year old William Kamkwamba from Malawi built an electricity-producing windmill from spare- and scrap- parts after he dropped out of school due to poverty. His windmill did not only provide electricity, it also provides water to his home in rural Malawi. Since then he has also built a solar-powered water pump that supplies the first drinking water in his village and two other windmills. While these are not ground-breaking inventions, they were all encouraged by the living conditions of individuals throughout Africa.

When you start considering the range of inventions and solutions that were not only built in Africa, but that made it across national borders is truly astonishing. What is even more amazing is if you look at the people building these inventions, they are not well-educated PHD holding individuals but every day people. People looking to look past their limitations and environmental situations and rather look at what they can do to improve on it. 

Stop talking, and listen

In 2012 Ernesto Sirolli hosted a TED talk in which he explained that he worked for an Italian NGO, and “every single project that we set up in Africa failed”.

At the age of 21 he thought that Italians are good people and they are doing well in Africa, but everything they touched was killed. The first project they tackled was to teach Zambian people how to grow food. After arriving in Zambia with Italian seeds they choose the best land and started teaching the locals to grow zucchini and tomatoes. The locals showed no interest at all, and the Italians could not understand why the locals had no interest in agriculture.

Instead of asking the locals why, they continued with the project. When the tomatoes were nice and ripe a herd of 200 odd hippos came and trampled all over the vegetables. Ernesto was shocked and upon telling the locals about what had happened, they turned to him and said: “That’s why we have no agriculture” upon hearing that Ernesto asked, “Why did you not tell me?” and the locals replied “You did not ask us.”

Another example of a large international corporate tried to penetrate Africa. A couple of years ago Google introduced Gmail for SMS in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya first. The main aim of the product was to allow people to access the email via SMS. While it seemed like an amazing break-through, the product was eventually canned as it brought with more problems than was anticipated by Google.

Both of these examples hold with them great examples when releasing a new product or solution. Instead of blindly adopting a solution and releasing it in an industry, town, and country or on an international level it is important to consider your target audience and their surroundings, limitations and struggles. 

How do others succeed?

Facebook wasn’t an overnight success as many believe; Mark Zuckerberg first wrote a program called “Facemash” in October 2003. The main purpose of the platform was to allow Harvard students to rate whether other students are “hot or not”. After the failure of the first platform, Mark developed another platform called which was still only open to students, but instead of only including Harvard he extended the target audience to include universities of Columbia, Stanford and Yale. It was only in 2006 that Facebook was opened to everyone at least 13 years old with a valid email address. Since 2006 Facebook continuously adopts and changes to host new technologies and satisfy new target audiences. Facebooks development has never stopped; it is a forever changing online platform. 

Google, the largest search engine in the world, was not an overnight success. Google began in 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In 1998 the first funding for Google was received and it was only in 2004 that Google’s initial public offering took place. As with Facebook, Google is also ever changing and adopting to ensure that it upholds to international trends and markets. In fact since opening to the public Google has launched several products which either turned out to be a success or ended up in their product graveyard. Google’s primary search has also been amended in several countries to better cater to the needs of the local market, in fact if you perform a Google search with your location on compared to your location off you will be amazed by the difference in your search results.

Some of the products included in Googles failed product graveyard is: Gmail SMS, iGoogle, Google Talk, Google Health, Google Buzz, Aardvark, Google Notebook, Google Dictionary, and Google page creator to name but a few.

What are we doing in Namibia?

After taking all of the above into consideration, it is important that we now take a step back and look at the approach it seems we are taking in Namibia. While Namibia has been the home to many amazing things, it seems that we take an adopt-first-questions-later approach.

The first example that jumps to mind is the blind adoption of HTML 5 within the country. HTML 5 was first released in October 2014 and the main aim of the language was to provide developers with additional animation features to replace the outdated Flash function. While the language made it easy for developers to develop a responsive website, the downside to this new language release was that it was not compatible with Internet Explorer 8 and lower (with some compatibility issues with IE 9 even). While this does not seem like a problem, the real problem lied in the fact that a large percentage of our population was still using Microsoft XP and Vista to access the internet. If a website developed in HTML 5 was viewed on an incompatible browser the functionality of the website would seize to function properly causing rendering problems. Today this is no longer a problem.

One of the biggest international adoptions we are struggling with in Namibia is e-Commerce that only offers one form of payment and that is via Credit or Debit Card.

While there is nothing wrong with e-Commerce in Namibia, it is just important that the entire nation is considered instead of a small percentage. In 2012 FinScopes Consumer Survey reported that 66% of the Namibian population receives their income cash-in-hand while only 29% makes use of bank- and Nampost accounts.

Now while this information is old, it is important to consider payment options, limitation and fears before setting up a full e-Commerce site that only allows for one form of payment. Click here for more information about e-Commerce challenges faced in Namibia.

As mentioned earlier, HTML 5 was adopted before the nation was truly ready for the technology, the same goes for Smartphone adoption. In July 2013 I gathered information from Facebook to present to a client in a website proposal and at the time there were only 280,000 Namibians using Facebook of which 62% were accessing Facebook via Featured Phones and 38% were using Smartphones.

While so many individuals used Featured Phones to access the internet, almost no businesses catered for these individuals. Companies like MTC and Telecom (internet service providers) websites were not Featured Phone compatible, meaning even their websites were eliminating a large percentage of the population.

For the purpose of this article, the same data was pulled again on 24 May 2017 and the results were astonishing. In less than 4 years Namibian Facebook users has grown from 280,000 to 580,000. In addition to this the number of people who access Facebook with Featured Phones dropped from 62% to 3%.

As illustrated in the graph below, South Africa and Namibia both have a 3% Featured Phone penetration, while Tanzania is on 15% and Zambia on 28%. This graph clearly indicates that each country within Africa adopts technology at their own speed, thus we cannot assume that a solution that works in one African country will automatically work in another.

In addition to this, we looked at the Featured Phone penetration of a couple of continents and according to the information found (graph below) indicates that Africa still has the largest Featured Phone penetration of 6% - meaning both Namibian and South Africa is below the average.

Country Specific Adoption

The main reason so many solutions and international adoptions fail in Namibia is because we were trying to implement a solution that was not created for the environment it is being used in. For instance when Steve Jobs first released the iPhone he had to make major investments in ISPs to ensure that his customers would be able to use the phone with the full features.

There are many companies that change their products and services to suit the needs of a specific country or culture. A perfect example of such industries would be the fast-food industry. KFC Namibia and South Africa only recently (2016/2017) started serving rice as part of their meals; however in Thailand rice has been served as part of the meals since before 2012. Another example is McDonalds in Thailand compared to South Africa. In Thailand you can get rice with your meals; however in South Africa this is not possible. One of the main reasons rice was added to these popular fast-food chains was due to the culture and their staple food. 

There are several brands that even change their name depending on the country they are in, making the brand or product more relatable to the local community. A couple of examples that jump to mind are Burger King and Hungry Jack, Coco Pops and Choco Krispies, KFC and PFK, and so many more. 

Final Thoughts

So to conclude, it is true that Namibia has grown-up to be an amazing country and while we see individuals and businesses trying to implement new innovative solutions we also see these same businesses and individuals fail. This is not because it was a bad idea, or because it would never work in Namibia. Their failure in most cases is due to the fact that they did not consider the actual physical, economic and social situations of their target audience.

I will never discourage anyone to take a first-world or even African solution and implement it in Namibia, what I would recommend is not blindly adopting the solution but rather working on building a long term plan to not only ensure the success of your solution but also to ensure that your customers have enough time to adopt to it.

I want to encourage Namibian businesses to peruse the adoption of e-Commerce, creation of apps, solutions, platforms, etc.; however before trying to make a success on a global scale ensure that you can satisfy the needs of the local public. If you can succeed in your own country with all the challenges and limitations faced, nothing is stopping you from succeeding on an international level.

Succeed locally first in order to grow globally.