In last week's paper, I was delighted to come across a profile of Abdu Ssekalala, a young and upcoming software development engineer at Makerere University's school of Computing and Informatics Technology (CIT). The article credits Ssekalala with developing nine internationally recognized mobile phone applications. His most successful application is Wordbook, a dictionary application that provides its user with a randomly chosen word of the day, including definitions, examples, and a selection of related words. The app costs the equivalent of $1.25 per download, and it's been downloaded over 300,000 times on the Nokia Ovi store.
I spent last fall taking courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I couldn't help noticing the relative paucity of African tech developers there. Most of the non-U.S. students came from Asia. During my stay in Cambridge I was also struck by Soledad O'Brien's October show on CNN, Black in America: The New Silicon Valley. It followed eight African-American tech entrepreneurs who are trying to build names for themselves in Silicon Valley. The show sought to explore why black tech entrepreneurs haven't featured much in Silicon Valley's success story.
It reminded me of some of the discussions of similar topics back home. We, too, have been asking questions about the lack of innovation in Uganda and the support for such initiatives. Stories like Ssekalala's show that once young tech brains get the right training, support, and opportunities, they can compete ably with their counterparts in the rest of the world.
Here's a passage in the article that caught my attention:
Sekalala got his break when Nokia, an international mobile phone company organized a special training session to help software developers hone their skills. The training in April and May last year presented a major break for the young man, whose application has crossed quarter a million hits so far.
While Sekalala's success has excited his colleagues and trainers at Makerere, the challenge is where he will manage to control the excitement and keep focused. Sekalala says this is exactly what he is gunning for. Software development has lately become an a global hit to make dollar millionaires and billionaires with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg founder of the social networking site Facebook, which he founded with colleagues while a student at Harvard in 2004. At age 27, Zuckerberg is already worth $17 billion (one and a half times bigger than the entire Ugandan budget for last year) [sic].
Can Ssekalala become Uganda's Zuckerberg? I don't see why not. The market for mobile phone apps is huge and growing. Over the past decade the number of phone owners in East Africa has exploded. Creating software for these phones is a business that knows few borders. And programmers like Ssekalala understand the needs of this market and how to meet them.
Not that long ago we would have been relying on other parts of the world to provide us with such services. But Ssekalala's story shows us that Ugandans are now doing this themselves.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.