As they say in India, “India is Great.”

India, February 2009

I’ve always wanted to travel to India.  I’m not sure why but perhaps it is their history which is so closely linked with that of South Africa.  We were both British Colonies.  We were both touched by the hand of the Mahatma.  And, particularly in my city of Durban, we’re both party to the food and culture of Indians.

I was invited to speak at the INDIASOFT 2009 conference by the ESC through their association with SmartXchange to which THUSA is a sponsor and partner organisation. ESC paid for the flight but because INDIASOFT was just the week before CeBIT, I had to arrange to fly from the host Kolkata direct to Germany.  This meant potentially forfeiting my dti sponsored flight to Germany for CeBIT so I requested my ticket be changed to allow Vulani lead developer, Colin Alston, to attend CeBIT as well.

At no extra cost, the Indian travel agent assigned to me booked me to fly into New Delhi a week before I was required in Kolkata.  The Indian capital of New Delhi and Vijay Prasad and his wife Ronita Das thus became my first official CouchSurfing experience; and what a way to start!

I landed in New Delhi via a tatty Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) and, as instructed by Ronita, caught a prepaid taxi to their apartment in Dwarka – a suburb alongside the new IGI Airport due for completion in time for the Commonwealth Games late next year.  I’m glad I was told about prepaid taxis because the Rs. 250 I paid was far less than the Rs. 1200 one of the standard cabbies offered.

Dwarka is large residential area, split into several sectors, with apartment block based housing projects going up in each sector and a metro rail station always nearby.  Dwarka is a product of the revitalised and rapidly developing new India and its inhabitants appear to me to be mostly of the rapidly growing new middle to upper middle-classes.

Ronita welcomed me to her home with a typical cup of “chai” (tea) in the traditional Indian style; aromatic, perhaps with some coconut in there – but not overwhelmingly spicy like the “Chai Tea” which one orders at facny schmancy places in South Africa.  Theirs is a humble little apartment with two bedrooms and a set of single beds in the spare/CouchSurfing room.  Ronita and Vijay have hosted many a CSer but have not yet themselves been hosted.  I very much hope to have that opportunity sometime in the future.

The day after I arrived, Sunday, a CS event had been arranged called a “Foodie Walk” which involved being led through old Delhi by well known New Delhi Intellectual and Travel Writer, Dr Ashish Chopra, and tasting the different styles and types of food on offer in this ancient part of the City.  More information and photos about this event are included in a previous post.

At the Foodie Walk, I met Shyam Singh, who would, the next day, be my second CS host in his and his brother’s house in the Corporate Part of New Delhi – Gurgaon (pronounced, as I eventually mastered, Gurr-goww).  Shyam is a call centre worker and works night shift at the plush “AmEx” (American Express) Customer Service centre in the larny part of Gurgaon, right next to the new and shiny Audi dealership.

It seems that call centre jobs are now very run of the mill and there is no longer much prestige attached – Shyam is biding his time and earning some money to travel as much of the world as he can before going back to his hometown in more rural India to take over the family restaurant and support his parents.  I’d like to visit him there someday and, yes, I’d love to host him in South Africa sometime.

One of the more “colourful” daily experiences in India is the normally normal task of getting from A to B, driving in a car or on a motorcycle.  But in India this experience is anything but normal; rather it is quite terrifying – a sustained lower ebb of terror, but terror nonetheless.  Saying there are no rules whatsoever might be a spot on the harsh side but certainly there is utter contempt for any rules. 

Traffic circles are traversed via the shortest route possible, overtaking is performed at random from any position, without indication and normally with only a few centimetres to spare, and driving between lanes is unusual – in fact there are signs on the highway which say, oddly, “LANE DRIVING IS SANE DRIVING”.  If you want to make money in India, I think designing a cheaper, longer lasting brake pad might make you rapidly one of the richest people alive.

Now my mother will certainly chastise me for this, but I did get out alive and thus will recount the story of the motorcycle ride that nearly scared me to death – let alone the more obvious proximity to the dark place.  One evening Shyam, another CS friend who shall remain nameless, and I went out for a drink.  Shyam was working that night so he left the two of us in the pub after a couple of drinks; I would be getting a lift home with the 3rd member of our party.  I was a spot worried that the other fellow might’ve had enough to drink so deferred when the next round was suggested, motioning instead for the bill and expressing and interest in bed.

We got up to go, and I could see from the sway and what I’d previously thought was just a very strong accent that my ride home might be a somewhat wobbly one, especially when I discovered we were to be travelling on his motorcycle as he’d recently had an oopsie with his car.  Splendid.  To add to the joy of the occasion, we weren’t quite sure how to get back.  What proceeded was quite possibly the longest single period of sustained terror I have ever experienced in my life.

My pilot proceed to smoke, talk excessively, and regularly turn his head to talk to me while driving Indian-style (read Kamikaze) on his Hero Honda all the while telling me the guest is god India and he would not let anything happen to me.  Thank goodness he told me that – it set all my fears aside and made me feel completely safe.  I think it took between 45 minutes and an hour to find home but it felt like a bloody week.

Driving in Kolkata was even more chaotic.  We bumped into other cars along the route but this was par for the course and nobody stopped to check damage or swap details – bumpers are there for a reason in India!  Give me cowboy-style South African driving anyday!

I have my life still.  I am blessed.  If there is a big bearded wise man played by Morgan Freeman living in the clouds, then praise be to him for keeping an eye out for me.

While in Delhi I got to watch Slumdog Millionaire and most of the Academy Awards Ceremony where it won a stunning 8 Oscars.  SDM is officially a British movie, but it was filmed in Mumbai with Indian actors, had an Indian co-Director, the music was written by Indian Composer Rahman, and many other key roles filled by Indians.  I think it is now in my personal top 10 movies.

This extract from the Slumdog Wikipedia article conveys perfectly both the relevance of the movie and the people it portrays: “Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy wrote Slumdog Millionaire based on the Boeke Prize winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize nominated novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup.  To hone the script, Beaufoy made three research trips to India and interviewed street children, finding himself impressed with their attitudes.  The screenwriter said of his goal for the script: ‘I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat, and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy.'”

Kolkata, where INDIASOFT was hosted, is a beautiful old City which was the Indian Colonial helm until 1911 when it was moved to New Delhi.  Everyone I had met before going to Kolkata had spoken fondly of the people, the place and the food; I was not disappointed.  Kolkata, or as many Indians seem to prefer calling it “Calcutta”, is known as the City of Intellectuals and places like College Rd with all of its bookstores (hundreds and hundreds of them) and the Coffee House – hangout of Indian intellectuals for over 300 years – are certainly testament to this perception.  This City has a soul – I could feel it, but my two short days there, with INDIASOFT taking up the daylight hours, robbed me of a chance of finding out much more about that soul.  I am going back the very first chance I get.

India is country alive with people, diverse in religion and culture (1.2 billion of them), energy, colour and progress.  Progress is being made, warts and all; corruption reigns, important technical skills are scarce, but they are progressing rapidly as a developing power.  This charging Tiger, however, and somewhat unlike our own Tiger, is moving swiftly with grace and humility – fighting to retain its cultural ethics and values in the face of rapid advancement.  I like India.  I like its people and their spirit.  I want to spend more time there.

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.