INDIASOFT 2009 Speech: “Looking Ahead – From an African Perspective”

Delivered as part of Panel Discussion, 27 February, 2009 – INDIASOFT, alongside:

  • Her Excellency Madame Ana Vilma Albanez de Escobar, Vice President, Republic of El Salvador
  • Her Excellency Mrs Lamia Chafei Seghaier, Secretary of State, Computer Science, Internet and Software, Tunisia
  • Mr Rene Mangin, Vice President in charge of Economic Affairs, France
  • Mr Siddharth, Secretary to the Government of West Bengal
  • Mr N Krishnan, Director General, Software Technology Parks of India
  • Dr Pradeep Ganguly, Director, Department of Economic Development, Montgomery County, Maryland, USA
  • Dr Peter Del Fante, Chief Executive Officer, Adelaide Western General Practice Network
  • Mr Oshim Somers, Director, ESP Enterprise Solutions Provider Pty Ltd, Australia


Transcript of the speech follows, with the visuals used in delivering the speech available in Microsoft PowerPoint format here. The text is included in the notes attached to each slide:


Honoured guests, delegates, I am here today to outline my thoughts on the opportunities presented to the Indian IT and software development community by the developing economies on my continent of Africa. 

I live in Durban, South Africa, which, aside from the Kingsmead cricket ground and beautiful beaches, is known for several things, but two of them noteworthy to this audience are:

1. the fact that Durban’s population includes the highest concentration of Indians anywhere in the world outside of India; and

2. an interesting culinary invention called the “Bunny Chow”.  A Bunny chow is a half or quarter loaf of bread, with the centre removed and the resulting cavity filled with a generous helping of mutton, chicken, beef or bean curry. 

South Africa was also home to an early friend and participant in the liberation movement in South Africa, the Mahatma – Mohandas Gandhi.  Gandhijee arrived in South Africa in 1893 to practice as a lawyer and was virtually immediately a victim of the racial discrimination that became the oppressive nationalist regime of Apartheid.  For the rest of his time in South Africa, he fought for the rights in the many Indian nationals living in South Africa.

Africa’s post-independence history is possibly one of the greatest tragedies in the history.  From the first post-colonial era independence of Ghana in 1957 to South Africa’s final transition to democracy in 1994 and beyond, the opportunities of a free Africa have regularly been dashed by a plague of what the world has come to refer to as “failed states”.  Even in 2009, well into the 21st century, Zimbabwe provides the most recent example of failed state.

There is however, promisingly, a growing commitment to democratic rule, good governance, clean governance, service delivery and ultimately economic growth on the continent.  The current spell of liberalisation in governments and leadership across a range of African states is reminiscent of Indian efforts during the 1990s to stimulate the growth of your economy.

From the early 1990s, the leadership of Prime Minister Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, now your Prime Minister, is credited with the starting the liberalisation of the Indian economy which finally produced the growth rates needed to begin lifting your nation out of poverty and developmental stagnation.  Since then India’s Economy has blossomed, driven by a hard working, technical and intelligent workforce who are all the more relevant in the information-heavy world economy of the 21st century.

This history is relevant, but I was not invited to INDIASOFT to deliver a history lesson – I am, instead, here to talk about the opportunities that the growth being experienced in African economies provides to the Indian IT and software development community.

One of the key sets of the challenges facing African governments in the early 21st century is the shortage of skills available to the growing economies.  Most serious is the shortage of technical skills, such as those in engineering and technology.

I don’t believe Africa’s problems are uniquely complex.  Like so many such cases in the past, the problems are almost always simple but the people involved make can them complex.  I believe Africa’s problems, when broken down into manageable chunks, are simple problems which need to be approached in a well considered and practical fashion and in the overall context of a liberal market economy.

Build relationships with your African clients; consult, build trust, consult, communicate and then consult again.  Consult with your client on a regular basis to ensure the solution remains relevant to the local requirements.

Creating practical solutions to simple problems is a key factor in producing sustainable advancement and development.  This means deploying the right solution, not overselling and not deploying solutions which produce an unrealistic skills requirement for maintenance post deployment.  Skills development and skills transfer are two key priorities for Africans in any engagement with professionals brought in from other parts of the world.

Another approach to the shortage of skills, and one which my business has based an entire product on, is to design solutions which reduce unused functionality and flexibility – or bloat – in the interest of keeping the skills requirement low.

I think of the 80-20 rule often used by economists to describe phenomenon such as 80% of conference delegates are listening 20% of the time, and suggest that when it comes to software, at very most, 80% of software users utilise 20% of available functionality – though I think this might be more like 95% of users utilise only 5% of functionality – think of all of that functionality in Microsoft Word which you have never touched.  Why not then cater to that 80 or 95% by delivering software with less bloat and more simplicity and practically lower their costs of deploying and managing what would otherwise be a complex, and possibly multi-tiered solution.

Since I have mentioned the concentration of conference delegates, I should tell you that this morning, while trimming my beard, I was thinking of the recent success of Slumdog Millionaire, and decided to trim my beard such that I best resemble Anil Kapoor – I hope you approve and moreover, I hope I absord some of the Slumdog success as a result.

Speaking specifically of South Africa, it is important to understand that while South Africa is fairly unique in Africa by virtue of its wealth, infrastructure and peaceful transition to democracy, we also share many common challenges with the rest of the countries in Africa and indeed the rest of the developing world.

My business, THUSA, based in Durban, South Africa has already a growing partnership with a software development business from Gurgaon, Haryana and I have little doubt we will in time built further relationships with other such businesses in other parts of India.  One of our personal challenges, however, and one not yet solved by your offering, is access to specific niche resources which are no doubt difficult to find anywhere in the world, but the development of said resources in any country can only be an asset to that country.

Specifically in my case, I am talking of rare resources such as developers skilled in the same language used by Google, called Python, and with an intimate knowledge of open source network systems running on the Linux operating system.  This sort of resource would require:

1. not only a knowledge and experience of software development and a specific language, but;

2. because they are not simply developing a pure application atop an already prepared stack, but an interface between a wide range of open source network systems, the operating system and the user, they are required to have a working knowledge of

a. those systems

b. platform

c. how to present to the user

Additionally, I firmly believe that open source software has a cemented role in supporting the growth of developing economies the world over and I know African governments are legislating for the use of OSS where it provides a practical and sustainable alternative to proprietary software.  Not only does using OSS provide opportunities to reduce foreign outflows of capital, but it increases openness, freedom and flexibility.  By this I mean that as a function of the open availability of the source code, solutions can be freely customised, extended or focused to the requirements of the government, state, corporate, small business, or even individual involved.

So, in summary, Africa needs the significant wealth of skilled resources in your IT-focused economy:

1. to provide sustainable solution and software development with a focus on local resource empowerment though skills development and skills transfer – you must create a win-win scenario;

2. to provide solutions which achieve a balance between functionality and maintainability – vendor-lockin through the tactics of fear, uncertainty and doubt – FUD – are a thing of the past.  Build a partnership with your African clients and deliver solutions which meet their needs and empower them to maintain those solutions themselves.

3. to provide specific niche technical skills which would otherwise only be available from the USA, Japan or European countries; and

4. to provide open source-based solutions where you are certain they can be provided and truly lower the total cost of ownership while getting the job done.  The opportunity save costs and improve openness which are presented by OSS can only be realised if the deployment is done in a manner which is sustainable.

In closing, I would like to say that this, my first visit to India, has been a truly wonderful experience.  In India I have found a people proud of their achievements and invigorated by the pace of progress, yet at the same time filled with humility and friendliness.  During this trip, I chose to stay with Indians in their homes here and in New Delhi over the past week and have been privileged to be a guest and recipient of the most generous hospitality I have ever experienced.  

A new Indian friend of mine recently said that Indians, and specifically, Bengali’s, will feed you until you are fed up.  Literally speaking, I cannot disagree – I have been significantly fed on this trip – but figuratively I must disagree – I am most certainly not fed up; my eyes are opened and my spirit soaring.

India, thank you for your spirit.  Thank you for hospitality.  India is great.  I will be back.

Book Review: “The State of Africa – A History of Fifty Years of Independence” by Martin Meredith

The State of Africa - Book Cover
The State of Africa - Book Cover

Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence is an unbiased chronological record of failed leadership in post-colonial Africa.  The book tracks the continent’s journey from the euphoria of liberation in the 1950s and 1960s, through the violent darkness of dictators and civil wars until the 1990s when the path to true democracy and good governance began to be cleared.  Meredith’s journey takes the reader from Ghanaian independence and leader Kwame Nkrumah in the late 1950s to South Africa and its second post-apartheid president Thabo Mbeki, and builds a substantial body of evidence of mistakes and abuse which should provide all Africans with examples of how not to lead.

At the height of post-independence euphoria, Africa’s new leaders and their cronies were looting their countries at an unprecedented rate.  A 1964 study of 14 francophone African countries showed that the cost of imported alcoholic beverages outweighed that of fertilizer imports by a factor of six, and imports of luxury cosmetics and perfumes cost twice as much as imports of machine tools.  The ‘platinum life’ lived by so many of Africa’s new elite in the 1960s came at the price of proper economic management and the total neglect of the majority of Africans living in the newly independent states.

By the 1980s, for most African countries, per capita wealth was down to levels of the 1960s; governments were reliant on loans from the IMF and World Bank to finance their debts and feed their people and corruption was so entrenched that deals were struck in the knowledge that amounts were to be budgeted for payoffs.

Nigeria provides a unique example of tremendous potential prosperity, in the form of vast oil reserves, squandered to the detriment of the people of Nigeria.  Hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenues were channelled to corrupt politicians and businessmen instead of the Nigerian people.  In many cases, tribes or populations have been forcefully removed to make way for pipelines and oil rigs with no compensation for the loss of land or livelihood.  The people of Ogoniland have, since the discovery of oil in their area in 1957, been forced to abandon their land, often without compensation, to make way for oil infrastructure.  The violent backlash and kidnappings which have taken place in the Niger Delta since 1992 are a direct result of grassroots dissatisfaction with corruption and abuse at the hands of those in control of Nigeria’s government.

Most of Africa’s leaders were forcefully ousted from their positions as a result of a groundswell of dissatisfaction with poor economic management, corruption, expedience, nepotism, cronyism and violence.  Political opponents and military officers who inevitably assumed the roles of ousted heads of state promised sweeping changes and economic prosperity but seldom delivered on their promises before reverting to self enrichment and political protectionism.

Meredith skilfully weaves multiple, and often simultaneous, stories of failed states and their corrupt leaders into a seamless and easy to read exposé devoid of unnecessary airs and graces.  This mammoth digest serves not only as a clear and detailed record of the failure of African states and their leaders but also as a resounding warning to Africa’s new leaders to take care of their people.  Meredith also makes it clear to the reader that colonisers can be held accountable for much of African countries’ ills: early abuse at the hands of colonisers and their hasty exits upon liberation wrought havoc in many African states.  Slavery, murder, rape, torture and other human rights violations at the hand of colonisers served only to further motivate liberationists to oust their colonial masters.

Whilst colonisers and their poor treatment of Africans was clearly a contributor to the state of the continent, the book shows also the fierce desire of African nationalists to take power and implement their poorly conceived and untested African socialist ideologies.  The influence of communist powers, most notably the Soviet Union, was central to African socialism and communist support for dictatorial regimes may well be the single most debilitating factor described in the book.

In Africa today we need competent leaders with integrity and passion to deliver economic growth and improve the quality of life of their people.  Meredith shows us that not all of Africa’s leaders were corrupt and greedy when they assumed their roles, but with the notable exception of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, almost all were by the time their rule was ended.  Since independence, Botswana has averaged over 9% economic growth per annum and boasts one of the fastest growth rates in per capita income in the world.  In a few other cases, leaders like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, while well intentioned, were ideologically and economically irresponsible and pursued expensive large-scale socialist projects which were by and large failures, leaving their countries poorer and less developed than they had been under colonial rule.

African states and leaders have spent more than 50 years building a deserved reputation for backwardness, greed and violence.  The African people all the meanwhile have suffered through wars, famine, poor or nonexistent educational and health systems and little opportunity to break out of their situations.

Closer to home, we’ve frequently heard the fear that “South Africa is going the way of Zimbabwe!”  More accurately, one might say “South Africa is going the way of Africa!” and Meredith’s book leaves no uncertainty as to what the “way of Africa” was, but The State of Africa makes it clear to the reader the overriding consensus that Africa is moving forward and leaving its dark and treacherous history behind it.

South Africa, regardless of the many problems we have to overcome, is unlikely to trace the path of the many failed African independences which came before it.  The African tide is turning and the stories of leadership and development emanating from this continent are gradually changing for the better.

The last decade has shown overwhelmingly that the voices of the African people are being heard and leaders principally good and democratic are coming to the fore, a significant deviation from the greater history of this continent.  Leaders like Zambia’s Levi Mwanawasa, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Mozambique’s Joaqium Chissano and South’s Africa’s Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela have broken the mould of Africa’s “big men” who preceded them. Their belief in democracy and economic growth as drivers toward improving the lives of their people signalled a departure from the African nationalists who came before them.

African leaders are being called to account more frequently by more organised opposition and democratic institutions.  Peer review has become a crucial aspect to good governance in the African context and African Peer Review Mechanism is the core machinery used to help African states monitor one another.

At home, even leaders like ANC President Jacob Zuma are subject to democratic institutions and the rule of law.  Recently, suggestions that Thabo Mbeki may have failed to influence the judiciary and ensure the conviction of Mr Zuma are testament to the strength of the pillars of democracy in South Africa.  The recall of the President of such a young democracy and the intervening strict adherence to and ultimate survival of the Constitution are again indications that South Africa’s democracy is more many orders more robust than Africa has experienced in the past.

Our neighbour Zimbabwe provides another very recent of the victory of democracy in the face of the most trying of enemies: Robert Mugabe, President and virtual dictator of Zimbabwe since 1980 was forced to compromise on his previously immovable stance by a groundswell of grassroots democratic activism in the name of the Movement for Democratic Change.  The MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai managed to achieve this forced-compromise despite mass intimidation and gross human right violations at the hands of Mugabe and his supporters.

Africa’s renaissance may truly be underway, but it will only be through an in-depth understanding of the mistakes we’ve already made on this continent that we will truly move forward and join the rest of the world in the global conquest against poverty, disease and under-development.  Martin Meredith’s greater contribution to this collective understanding has been significant, but in this single book, he has chronicled the most important mistakes and atrocities made in Africa to date and anybody interested in Africa and the future of this continent should read this book.