Technology is inevitable. This is even more so in a continent like Africa where digital adaptation is really low and the potential for growth is tremendous. In the last three years, Africa’s tech space has witnessed explosive growth in various ways.
Internet penetration rates continue to rise across the continent, arming a generation of tech-savvy youths with the most basic requirement for creating and accessing technology. In business, the number of startups born in Africa has continued to increase, most of them solving problems that have plagued the continent for decades.
2021 witnessed the best year yet in terms of startup funding, with the continent realising $4.3 billion in total funding. Experts expect 2022 to be even bigger. The early signs are really fantastic with large rounds already raised and one mega-round already recorded.
While 80% of that funding was raised by startups in the Big 4 ecosystems in Africa; Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya, startups in smaller ecosystems also recorded some impressive feats. Startups from Ghana, Senegal, Uganda, and the likes.
But one country nobody expected to see on the list was Sudan. And when Alsoug, an eCommerce platform out of that country raised $5 million, it turned out to be the first investment into the economically isolated country in almost 3 decades.
Taking a look into the isolation that has stagnated technological growth in the country, Alsoug CEO, Tarneem Saeed told me that it is so bad that the average Sudanese doesn’t know how to use Google.
“You’re having a conversation with someone and you realise they haven’t used Google before. And you say, ‘how do you search for stuff?’ and they reply ‘I asked someone or I saw a post on Facebook or a message on WhatsApp’. But the ideal going and doing a search on Google is not something everyone just knows here which is crazy because the first thing in this internet age is people know how to search.Alsoug CEO, Tarneem Saeed
She said that even those who know of Google don’t necessarily know how to use it effectively. “And unlike other countries where students are taught how to do certain things like using keywords and the rest, young Sudanese people don’t have resources like that”, She also said that while Facebook and WhatsApp remain the most-used platforms, their usage is very shallow.
How Sudan’s economic isolation crippled the tech space
Recall that Sudan suffered an extended period of economic isolation following several sanctions by the US, the EU, the UK, the UN and of course the AU mostly due to the conflict in Darfur. By 2017, the sanctions were gradually lifted, the latest being the removal of the country from the US terrorism watchlist in 2020.
Regardless, the country is still reeling from all those decades of retrogression, a situation made worse by the recent overthrow of the civilian government Tarneem told me it’s really hard to put the extent of damage into words as one needs to see it and experience it to actually believe it.
“It’s really hard to explain the impact of this isolation you have to come and see it for yourself. I grew up here but I left (to the US) when I was 14. Then I came back about 6 years ago. And I remember just being struck by how everything was broken down. People had mobile phones but you don’t expect to see the fanciest of mobile phones,” she said.
She also noted that so many services were blocked. Some basic educational platforms like Coursera were blocked. Oracle services or anything of the such was blocked too. As such a lot of apps were not accessible because there was a restriction on the underlining technology. In the startup space, there are a lot of software tools that people find basic everywhere else that wasn’t available in the country.
“It’s like we are in the 21st century but then all these 21st century things that you just can’t access because of the isolation,” she concluded.
The most fascinating twist is how the young people in Sudan are becoming gradually excited about innovations coming from outside Sudan. Tarneem believes that this excitement is powering the drive towards recovery.
Building despite the odds
Because technology is inevitable, people would still build solutions to problems in the larger society. And Sudan clearly has a lot of problems. The challenge, however, is that they are grossly lacking the basic technology infrastructure to build solutions on.
But, innovation is the child of necessity and when faced with these necessities, Sudanese tech builders simply innovated. Tarneem said.
“That’s actually what we became very good at. We basically learned to build technology to get around the limitations. We built a lot of stuff ourselves. We couldn’t rely on other software solutions often because they weren’t working. We just kept building more and more workarounds and more and more of our own things. even things like SMS gateways, in most countries a startup will never bother about building its own SMS gateway as they will just probably plug in to something. But here we built our own. So we just had to be ingenious about that,”
The internet is the major driver of technology. According to the CEO, although the telecom infrastructure in Sudan was very good until many years ago, it started declining as the international sanctions tightened.
One of the impacts of the sanctions was that telcos were not able to upgrade their equipment and carry out maintenance. The result was that the grids continued to decline.
Sudan’s internet penetration currently stands at about 30% as about 14 million of its population of 44 million people are connected to the internet. The country also has the cheapest internet data in Africa and one of the cheapest in the world as of October 2021.
Tarneem says this internet connection is still very weak and hardly able to effectively anchor the tech solutions. Thus, builders have been forced to build on light internet.
“Even if the internet is accessible in most parts of the country, it is very very weak. So we had to make sure that the technology we build really worked on a very light internet. This is quite difficult when you’re building a classified (ads platform like Alsoug) because we have lots of user-generated content obviously. There are tons of images uploaded by people, they rejig them so that they are lighter and still look good when a buyer is looking at them. We have to build things to help users post ads when they don’t have internet and it automatically uploads when there’s connectivity. All these little workarounds we had to come up with just to try and manage the environment,” she said.
She noted that while the country has 4G network, most of the connections, especially in the cities, are still running off 3G while in the provinces there are mostly 2G. She. however, expects this to change quickly because of the huge investment made into the sector by the overthrown government.
Not enough female players
The conversation around female participation in business and in tech is one that will always be had in the foreseeable future. The number of small businesses owned by women has continued to grow in countries around Africa.
In Nigeria for example, 40% of businesses are owned by women as of August 2021, according to a Guardian report. For South Africa, only 34% of small and medium-sized enterprises are women-led, according to a Facebook, World Bank and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development joint survey.
For Sudan, the number of women-owned tech startups is way smaller. But, Tarneem Saeed has the honour of being the only woman leading a tech company of any real significance in Sudan. And this, according to her, is a ‘shame’.
“Generally, even in the corporate space, there is just not a lot of women actually. And it’s a shame because Sudanese women are very strong, they are very independent, they participate a lot in society. So we have them in senior roles but both in government and in the corporate world, there is not enough of them in the final decision-making positions,” she said.
This is a situation that needs to change. It is hoped that Tarneem would serve as an inspiration to many Sudanese women to take up the challenge and fight for gender equity in management and decision-making positions.
Education plays a huge role in the development of societies. The quality and direction of this education usually determine the direction the future of that society would follow. So a society that places an emphasis on STEM education for instance is likely to develop into a powerhouse in technology.
In Sudan, however, the educational curriculum has for long been focused on religion, learning the Qu’ran and basically teachings that are hinged on Islam. This has played a huge part in grounding the average Sudanese and severely limiting their technological exposure. However, this doesn’t mean they are without promise.
While she admits that catching up with the rest of the world would probably take another generation, she, however, expresses a great hope that the Sudanese society and people are ready for that journey.
“What I find very inspirational is the fact that notwithstanding all of this, when you speak to young Sudanese, they are incredibly keen to access the outside world. Wherever they are able to, they are doing it. Even though things like games platforms for example, if they get access to them, they play them. Their capacity to learn tech and start using tech is crazy.”
She also said one of the advantages of the Sudanese society, in general, is that it is quite an egalitarian society filled with people who are very entrepreneurial and incredibly energetic. This makes them always ready to take on new challenges.
“We have a good entrepreneurial spirit and now that the ecosystem is being improved, I think that entrepreneurial spirit is going to mean that change is going to come very rapidly,” she said.
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