Monday, April 7, 2008

Interview: Erik Hersman (

Erik Hersman is the Cornucopia of compelling Africa-oriented web content. He has offered insightful anecdotes and perspectives on the place "where Africa and technology collide" for years (quote from Erik's blog).

He has experience in Web strategy as a technologist, and experience with the juxtaposition of "developed" and "developing" regions--as a past or present resident in both.

This combination makes him an ideal spokesman for The UI Thread's ongoing inquiry into the 'how' and 'why' of Bespoke UI for Developing Regions.

Erik was kind enough to answer our questions over email, offering a tenured voice and interesting perspective.

Interview with Erik Hersman

UIT - The topic has to do with the current state of affairs of 'home grown' User
Interfaces for Africa. Everyone knows there's lots of hype around mobile these
days...but there are surprisingly few stories about local African innovation
with mobile systems.

We are trying to assess the need for more attention being given to 'home grown' solutions. E.g., are 'Western' systems sufficient for the largest anticipated user base in the world??

We've read some discussions on your blog about a similar topic (i.e. web
development coming out of Africa).

As a Web Technologist, how do you cope with the fact that less than 4% of Africans have Internet access?

Erik - I see this as a starting point. It’s not as if that percentage is ever going to decrease, we’ll continue to see greater adoption. We have to think of the future with a long-term perspective on integration into everyday African’s lives.

We also have to weigh the value of traditional computer-based internet access versus mobile forms. As more developers think creatively on how to get information and data to the mass amounts of mobile users in Africa, the need for internet access via computer will decrease for certain functions. I think there is a huge area of growth that is lying virtually untapped in the mobile market right now.

At the same time, I think we need to distance ourselves from the thought process of mobile versus PC. We’re basically talking about data flow and personal interactivity. Creating applications and services that work equally well on both platforms is where we should be placing our focus.

UIT - Who is better suited to develop interactive systems for Africa: Africans or non-Africans? Why?

Erik - Africans generally speaking, or if non-Africans, then ones that have lived significantly long enough in Africa so that they can understand the cultural nuances. This goes across Africa too, there’s no one “right way” for all of Africa. It’s too diverse.

Though there are many features and standardized practices found around the world, I still wouldn’t expect to see too many of the top web apps in the US built by people not from the US. This applies to Africa as well. Indigenous people, whether in Europe, the US or Africa, have a better handle on their culture and what types of services and features are needed.

UIT - Do you think "Western" developed software should be localized for African users beyond language, or is translation enough? (E.g. McDonald's doesn't only simply translate their menu, they adapt their food offerings to be culturally sensitive.)

Erik - It looks like I jumped ahead and answered this question in the one above. Basically, translation is not enough. There are certain platform features that can be standardized across cultures, but thought has to be given to cultural norms and sensitivities when the detail work is being put into an application.

UIT - When do you think Africans will shift from primarily SMS based systems to richer interactivity offered by e.g. Java or mobile web browsers?

Erik - Interesting question, and one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I don’t have a source to back it up, but I was at a conference this summer in Kenya where a couple people mentioned that the penetration of Java enabled mobile phones in Africa was around 30%.

That’s not critical mass by any means, but I believe it’s a trend. We’ll continue to see the use of SMS as the primary means of communication, but as more companies build rich Java applications that are actually useful and save people time and/or money, the number of adopters will increase.

So, if I’m making a mobile phone application for Africa starting today, I would seriously think about making it a Java app.

However, something that needs to be discussed is the level of service and bandwidth capabilities for data on the mobile phone networks right now. In some countries there are some serious limitations in that area.

UIT - Given unlimited resources, which single technology would you deploy alongside or within mobile phones and why?

Erik - This is the part where I get to dream right?  Okay, I would build a Java-based application that decreases communication costs and provides for greater interactivity than is generally available through SMS-only phones. I would likely use an open-source solution that allows for lower cost initial outlay and scalability.

UIT - Which features on your current mobile phone would likely need adaptations if to be used by the "masses" in, e.g., Nairobi, Kenya?

Erik - I use an iPhone, so that’s a bit harder to answer. It doesn’t have some of the features that I’d really like it to have, like the ability to load 3rd party applications.

UIT - What are the 3 biggest road blocks encountered when trying to innovate from a typical developer or designer in Africa?

Erik -
  • Funding – everything tends to be done out of the developers pockets on their own time. Few non-Africans will fund any African technology initiative, incorrectly thinking that it’s too risky and that it wouldn’t make enough money. Too few wealthy Africans will fund projects like this either, or if they do, the developer is left with no meaningful equity.
  • “Old Boys Club” – young innovators come along all the time. Many of them smash into the opposition of some entrenched bureaucrat or Big Co. executive who knows the right people and squashes the innovation. Or, more likely, the big company ends up stealing the idea and making the money while the young innovator gets nothing.
  • Bandwidth – as more and more development projects deal with data flowing across the web and mobile networks, there is a real need to increase the bandwidth provided in most African countries. Any real popular mobile phone application that requires data to flow constantly could quickly run up against a bandwidth wall that is not quickly overcome.
UIT - How do you think developers, designers, etc., can best help non-literate "users" of ICT in Africa?

Erik - For any text-based application on a mobile phone, you have to have some type of literacy. As user-friendly as you can make the device’s interface, people still need to be able to communicate using it. If they’re communicating primarily via text, then a basic requirement is that they need to be able to read at a certain level.

However, there are still some ways around the traditional text user-interface that could be done. Use of icons and voice could open up some communications areas that allow a broader audience to participate.

Follow-up message from UIT:

We thank Erik for shedding light on the under-explored domain of interactive systems in Africa. We appreciate Erik's sensitivity to segmentation within the African market. Africa is hugely diverse, and different people will find different information useful through different delivery mechanisms. This will definitely drive innovation in delivering culturally and regionally accessible information services and applications.

The UI Thread team has synthesized a simple Venn diagram illustrating an important concept of technology harmonization. Such harmonization, when developing services and applications for Emerging Markets, is critical to mobile information accessibility. The UI Thread will introduce more thoughts on harmonization later, but for now, here's the simple Venn diagram:

For more on Erik Hersman, the Cornucopia of compelling content, we highly recommend you visit or or any other one of Erik Hersman's other sites.

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