Building digital products for African Markets? Here are three good tips

Kipkorir Arap Kirui
9 min readMar 18, 2021

Over the past ~10 years I have had the privilege of working with different organizations and individuals to conceptualize and take services and products primarily targeting African markets. In some scenarios, we were designing products/services from scratch while in others we were working on an existing product. The clients I have worked with varied from individual innovators to large corporates to impact organizations. I took on both individual contributor roles (such as UX research), worked in teams, or helped set up teams. Along the way, I have picked some lessons that would be useful for anyone designing products for African markets. In this post, I will highlight my top three. Let us get right into it then.

Caveat

Most of the lessons are specifically applicable to the Kenyan and East African ecosystems as I have drawn most of the lessons from this region. Africa is not one country but there are lessons you can extrapolate to your country if you are not from the mentioned region.

#1. There is an immense shortage of design talent

I started off as a software engineer back in 2009 and it has been amazing to see the engineering space grow in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. In Kenya, among universities, we have seen developer communities grow tremendously creating a smoother transition from school to the workplace. We have also seen a significant increase in the number of dev schools with the likes of eMobilis, Moringa School, and Akirachix developing a solid pipeline of developer talent. There many active developer communities such as Android254, GDG Cloud, Nairobi JS, and so many more. You can see a complete list by visiting https://devs.info.ke/. The above trends have been replicated across the continent with Nigeria probably leading the pack.

At DevCraft 2018 with some of the veterans in the developer ecosystem. My old team at iHub Consulting conceptualized and brought this event to life. Hoping to do something of the same magnitude in the product and design space. Photo courtesy iHub Nairobi.

Another significant event that led to a greater pipeline of developers was the establishment of Andela. Beyond the direct impact, it had in terms of the developers they directly trained, Andela created a lot of excitement and visibility for the developer ecosystem and as a result, contributed to the better pipeline of developers that we have now.

Unfortunately, there has been less movement in the design and product space. The number of designers(particularly experienced UX researchers and UX/UI designers) is significantly low compared to developers. The pipeline is way smaller and as a result, there are fewer senior designers and product managers. Why does this matter? It matters because it has a direct effect on what it costs to design and take new ideas to market or grow existing products. The laws of demand and supply come into play.

I will expound further on this point.

If you are familiar with the human-centered design process or the lean startup methodology, you will notice that at the beginning of the process, you will rely a lot on people who can conduct research, run design workshops, prototype, and test. This allows you to quickly and cheaply validate concepts before going into the development phase. The key to this process is fast turnaround time. You will therefore need access to talented designers. Beyond the idea validation stage, the same applies to the implementation phase with designers setting the pace and in most cases holding back the rest of the team.

In a scenario where there are few experienced designers, organizations will fight for the small number out in the marketing pushing up salaries across the board. It becomes more expensive to conceptualize and take concepts to market. I experienced this first hand running Made by People (a product design and development consulting firm). Recruiting mid-level and senior designers was not an easy thing and for those we hired their compensation was way higher compared to developers with commensurate talent. This ended up pushing our overheads higher and as a result, our quotes higher.

So what can we do about this? I believe in the long term it will get better as the demand increases and consequently, the funnel improves. Institutions such as Moringa School, Akirachix, and Nairobi Design Institute are also helping churn out more designers. The key challenge is that from these institutions you have junior designers entering the market. I hope more organizations are willing to onboard and upskill junior designers. Community is also a huge factor. The number of designer communities pales in comparison to developer communities. In Kenya, UX Kichen and ProductTank Nairobi are probably the most active design communities. Designers Craft by Dr. Kagonya is also active and a great place to learn more about the discipline. I used to run the Nairobi Design Community (NDC) but it got to a point where I couldn't juggle this with running MADE. Hopefully, we see more communities crop up and the number of activities increased. From my experience, communities play a huge role both in improving the number of people joining a certain space and in moving people down the funnel (junior to mid-level to senior).

#2. Working on your MVP? Don’t start with a native app

This might sound controversial but it is probably a point I am willing to die for. Over the course of my consulting life, I have advised many individuals and organizations not to test their idea by building a native app. To a large extent, I have been successful in changing the minds of the work I have worked with. How do I argue this out? I have three key points I use for such conversations.

Reason 1: App download & usage is still low

There is this assumption that because smartphone penetration has increased significantly across the African continent the rate of app usage has followed this trend in a linear manner. According to data from AppAnnie, an App analytics & tracking platform, this is not the case. While we have seen more people download and use apps, you should not take this at face value. On further interrogation, some interesting patterns begin to emerge.

A screengrab taken on 17th March 2021 of top Android apps in Kenya from AppAnnie

You can do a more detailed analysis by going to AppAnnie but from the screenshot shared above you can see a couple of interesting trends.

  1. In the top ten free apps, 7 are lending apps
  2. The only free apps in the top 10 are Opera Mini, WhatsApp, and MySafaricom. The three are all from large organizations
  3. The top 10 paid apps are all games

Let me share another screenshot to drive my point home.

This is how the free chart looks like past number 10

The trend I have noticed is that beyond lending, banking, social, ride-hailing, and betting apps struggle to gain traction. I can attribute this to two key factors.

  1. In as much as we have seen a huge improvement in smartphone penetration, the kind of smartphones out there are entry-level devices. With this, it means your app will be competing for storage space and RAM. Most users will delete your app before deleting WhatsApp/Tala/IG/their banking app in order to create space
  2. A large segment of people who own smartphones is not yet used to the concept of apps. This is surprising seeing apps have been around for a while. This is changing quickly especially in urban areas (look at the buzz about Spotify once they launched in Africa) but a large part of your target segment will not bother downloading your app. This is a behavior change problem

Reason 2: Ease of update and bug fixing

No matter the level of testing you do be it user acceptance testing or usability testing, you can never ship a perfect app. Something will always break (bugs), not work as envisioned (feature modifications), or need to be introduced based on user feedback or your product vision. During the pilot stage, you will have to ship a lot of updates to fix bugs or make improvements. This sounds fairly straightforward but it is not.

The Bell Curve is a good way to explain how new innovations are adopted

Let us assume you are based in the USA and you are building a new app targeting the US market. The ecosystem there is very mature compared to any other in the world. When you are running your pilot you have access to a large pool of innovators who are willing to try the new product before you even hit the early adopters. The innovators are more likely to understand the nuances of taking new products to market and will give you leeway to fix bugs and make frequent updates before they give up on your product. You will also have access to a large pool of early adopters who will probably be more understanding compared to the early and late majority. This basically gives you the time to experiment and figure out things. Time is one of the most valuable resources for new innovations.

Now let us assume you are doing the same thing in Africa. Our tech ecosystem is drastically smaller compared to the ecosystem in the US. We are still in the early stages so this is not surprising at all. However, it means your pilot will require a different approach. You have a very small pool of pilot participants who understand that early on apps are buggy. Your pilot participants will expect everything to work well and will probably ditch you when they encounter bugs. To make this worse, most of them are not used to updating apps (cost of data bundles is the main reason) so your frequent updates will be completely ignored. The users will then think your app doesn’t work and before you know, they will uninstall it!

Reason 3: It costs more to build an app

One of the biggest challenges working with the Android mobile ecosystem is the level of fragmentation. Unfortunately, if you are building for African markets (and by extension emerging markets), you always start on Android. You will notice that even in the USA, a lot of apps are first shipped on iOS before Android. It is because of the level of fragmentation in the Android ecosystem making it rather expensive to be experimenting on product/market fit and worrying about compatibility across different Android devices. You just don’t have the time and resources to do so.

So what should you do?

So what should you do? Start with a PWA or a web app, use the learnings from this, and when you have a more established product you can build an app (or not). When my old team at iHub Consulting was working with Sky.Garden, an e-commerce platform, we made this call and it was a good call. For the merchants, we developed a native app while shoppers accessed the service using a PWA. We made the wrong call working on Afriscout and ended up spending a lot of time figuring out how to ship updates and ensure our users downloaded the new version. At Made by People, we made the right call working with Twiga on Soko Yetu (we didn’t solely make this decision) and on Prosper. Both were PWAs and are still PWAs. We have made the same call on many other products and each time it was the right call.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to all use cases but generally, I have found it to be a good strategy if you are building for African markets. If for example, you need access to phone functionalities in an optimized manner only available on native apps then you have no option.

#3. No one has really cracked the B2C space yet

I will not dwell too much on this as it deserves an entire post by itself. Apps in the lending space (Tala, Branch, etc), banking apps, social platforms (IG, WhatsApp, FB, Tiktok, etc), betting, and on-demand platforms (Uber, Glovo, etc) have gained significant traction across the continent. This, however, doesn’t mean yours will be as successful. The space is still young and you will need to be more patient before you get to the same stage as the above. This is dictated by two factors. First, the nature of services offered by the apps above allows the apps to scale and capture more users or the platforms (e.g. banking) are building for existing customers. Second, these organizations have deep pockets and can afford to spend large amounts of money to acquire customers. In ecosystems like Silicon Valley, there are cheaper growth hacking techniques you can use to gain traction. As an example, content marketing and email campaigns work well there. It is not the case here. You will probably have to do physical activation campaigns to gain traction and this costs way more. In a future post, I will expound on this more.

In conclusion

It is an exciting time to be in the African ecosystem. We are finally seeing the liquidity and fundraising events we hoped for a while ago. We are seeing more tech startups go mainstream. However, what has not changed is that to succeed in Africa you need to adjust to how the market works.

What has your experience been? Feel free to share below.

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Kipkorir Arap Kirui

Ex-child, Reluctant adult, Experience Designer, UX Researcher, Design Facilitator, Senior Product Manager, Co-founder Made by People, Product at Microsoft