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Catalysing Africa’s app economy

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South African developers have the big ideas and funding necessary to catalyse the app economy revolution across Africa, but a cohesive approach is needed if SA is to deliver on its potential as the continent’s app hub, says Indran Naick, IBM Master inventor, IBM South Africa.

The so-called ‘app economy’ is expected to create trillions of dollars of opportunities globally over the next few years, including in Africa, where a highly mobile market is poised to leapfrog directly into the era of apps.

With organisations already starting on their journey to become fully mobile, digital enterprises, the opportunities for app developers are endless. In South Africa, Cape Town is already making a name for itself as a hotbed of social app development, while Gauteng is evolving into a centre for enterprise app development. IBM is working increasingly closely with incubators and innovation hubs across SA to create vibrant developer ecosystems offering the infrastructure, support and tools start-ups and innovators they need to take their innovations to an increasingly app-hungry market. With a primary focus on enterprise apps, IBM is enabling the rapid development of innovative enterprise apps, by offering developers a strong portfolio of tools and infrastructure that enable them to move quickly and innovatively, without having to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when it comes to app development. With our goal of helping big ideas to succeed, IBM sees immense potential for local innovators to develop apps made in Africa, for Africa, with Africa’s unique constraints and circumstances in mind.

On a continent where mobile is ubiquitous yet few have PC-based internet access, markets are already primed to see mobile as a primary interface with enterprises, and mobile value added services as the natural evolution of this. Mobile money has taken off significantly in markets such as Kenya; mobile public service apps are rapidly being rolled out in a number of African countries, and telcos have long since made mobile VAS a key focus. As more private and public sector organisations see the benefits of mobile-based service delivery and interaction, the opportunities for app developers will increase exponentially.
However, South Africa is not the only region in Africa where innovators are moving to capitalise on opportunities in the app economy. As a global enterprise solutions leader, IBM has long seen the potential for growth in this space, and works closely with innovators all across the globe. In Africa, we are also witnessing a surge of app innovation out of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Egypt. To compete with equally innovative development hubs across the continent, South Africa needs to address a few crucial challenges in its developer ecosystems.

One challenge is the unlikely ‘problem’ of a significant amount of enterprise development funding being available to support South African developers, in this case too much money weakens the app ecosystem. While funding is crucial to take an app from idea to implementation, funding in South Africa is currently available through a variety of dispersed funding mechanisms, with little control to ensure that only truly worthwhile ideas are supported through to completion. Enterprise development managers are not usually equipped to evaluate the viability of mobile applications, leading to lots of investment with few good outcomes. One solution to this challenge would be to include venture capitalists or VC thinking into the decision making to ensure that only the best ideas receive the necessary support. It would be even more effective if somehow the scorecards could be linked to the success of the applications.

Another challenge in South Africa is the skills shortage in this arena, which will become more pronounced as the app economy grows. More developer skills will be needed, and we can expect to see new coding schools springing up across the country over the next few years. But these are not the only skills needed in this new app ecosystem. Designing user experience is an art, and demand will grow for people skilled at building intuitive, user-friendly interfaces. In addition, successfully taking new applications to market will require business acumen, so there will be growing demand for business and management skills in the developer ecosystem.

Developing the necessary skills; incubating start-ups with potential, and ensuring South African developers are positioned to capitalise on Africa’s app economy opportunities would be best achieved through a concerted, collaborative effort by enterprises, incubators and accelerators, government, academia and developers themselves. A good example of this, albeit on a local scale, is the Tshimologong ICT business incubation precinct now being developed in Johannesburg, where stakeholders such as the Department of Trade and Industry, the University of the Witwatersrand, and major ICT companies are collaborating to boost ICT innovation in Gauteng. IBM alone will invest R700 million on an ICT research lab as part of this project.

We believe similar collaboration on a national scale could position South Africa as the development hub that catalyses Africa’s app economy.