Nyanga Tyitapeka (@kapetatyi) is the founder and director of Infonauta, Prestação de Serviços, an Angola-based startup company specializing in customer loyalty solutions. I met Tyitapeka at Strata New York last September and was struck by her background in energy and environmental analysis, political science, and economics.
The chance to hear about technology innovation in Africa from a personal perspective is rare, so I asked Tyitapeka to share her thoughts on the Angolan tech scene.
Give us the 10,000-foot view of the technology industry in Angola.
Nyanga Tyitapeka: Today, Angola is certainly not a bountiful country when it comes to tech goods and services. The industry is only just starting here — Angola is one of the last frontiers for big tech giants.
However, the industry is expanding at a fast pace, pervading societal interactions and becoming a source for change in the lives of many Angolans in a significant way. It will be extremely difficult for Angola to stay immune to the wave of technological development that has hit the rest of world in the last decade or so. There’s a concerted effort by the government to lay down the regulatory foundations, and it’s also investing in infrastructure that will allow for faster development. Fiber optic cables, for instance, are being installed, and we expect to have a telecom satellite by 2013.
Large tech companies have, in the past, adopted a wait-and-see approach toward the Angolan market, either opting to not come or to use middle-men; this scenario is definitely changing. Companies like Google, which held a conference in Luanda during the first week of November, have recognized that this moment is propitious for serious investment.
It’s not surprising that telecommunications has benefited the most from tech innovations. For decades, civil conflict was a de facto bottleneck in the flow of information. Once peace came and the right conditions were set, it was as if a can of soda had burst open. Angolan telecommunication companies, with the help of Siemens and Portugal Telecom, along with business leaders (both men and women) who turned to Brazil, Dubai, the U.S., the UK, Portugal, and China as suppliers of mobile phones and computers, all moved fast to respond to the demand of the market for telecommunication goods and services. The number of newly installed landlines dwindled, pay phones never took off, desktops are mostly confined to the office setting — yet communication soared.
What are the biggest challenges facing Angola today?
Nyanga Tyitapeka: Low levels of literacy, in general. There is not enough brain power devoted to the tech industry and, consequently, there is little to no production capacity. Development issues are the biggest problems for Angola and for a significant number of countries on this continent. There are other challenges, but those are minor in the face of basic needs. Literacy is obviously a prerequisite to achieving reasonable tech-literacy.
Where are the biggest opportunities?
Nyanga Tyitapeka: Like in many other African countries, Angola will soon experience vertiginous growth in mobile tech applications. Mobile platforms and the introduction of GSM, coupled with some interesting payment options, have allowed a war-torn country to bypass huge infrastructure investments. Here, both individuals and businesses rely heavily on USB modems to browse the Internet and on cell phones to stay in touch. An Angolan with a bank account can conveniently check her account balance by sending an SMS, bypassing traffic and long queues at the bank.
Some predict that in the next few years, services like buying a movie ticket, downloading an MP3 file, or using a vending machine in Africa will not require cash nor a credit/debit card, just a cell phone. Cell phones as wallets work well because while an illiterate person may not know how to read and write, she can count and use numbers. Therefore, she can learn how to send an SMS, so long as the message is a number. The possibilities are endless — think about it. When a business can receive mobile payments from a customer, everybody wins: the business’s bank, the customer’s bank, the telephone services provider, the business, and the client.
What is fascinating about Angola and sub-Saharan countries in general is that they compensate for weak infrastructure and overcome major obstacles by embracing solutions that are nearly grid-free and simple to use.
There’s also plenty of room for growth for some device makers who want to establish a presence in the region. Angola, in particular, imports virtually all of the tech devices it uses. Creating regional industrial subsidiaries would greatly cut down the price of imported devices, which sell well here, in spite of the fact that they are extremely expensive due to low supply.
You founded your own company recently — how would you characterize the startup environment in Angola?
Nyanga Tyitapeka: The startup environment is heavily skewed toward restaurants, beauty parlors, corner stores, and small fashion boutiques. Angolans are known in the international business community as entrepreneurial; however, the success rate of startups is still very low. Starting up a business is relatively easy and cheap. I did it in one month’s time. However, maintaining it is a whole different game. Some 60% of businesses fail within the first year. You want to start out as lean as possible, say by running a home office by yourself. But working from home is often looked down upon, and working alone can be extremely hard — running administrative errands around town with heavy traffic and without the support of an assistant is a nightmare here.
More troubling for the startup environment than dodging heavy traffic, avoiding high rents, and overcoming cultural barriers is the small pool of enthusiastic people who are OK forfeiting a salary in order to join a startup.
Are you working on any new projects?
Nyanga Tyitapeka: I am currently building Infograficus. It’s a hobby platform and a place for Angolans who want to start using the data I’ve been tracking to make their lives a little easier.
I’ve started playing with the data I’ve collected to get some visuals, mostly mapping how prices of the same product vary in different areas of the city. I am also interested in using the information to visualize the economic geography of street vending and to understand the civil response capacity to an emergency situation. It is one way I can help people who face the same problems I face on a daily basis.
Is big data having an impact on the work you do? Where else are you seeing its influence?
Nyanga Tyitapeka: I am not aware of how companies and governmental agencies are harnessing the power of big data, but it is out there, especially in the energy, financial, telecommunications, retail, travel, and public and health sectors. The truth is that Angola is at a stage of the evolutionary process where data itself is a product. Companies and government institutions are, knowingly or not, collecting loads and loads of data.
Data is a natural resource that can assume many forms — from cash transactions to video footage in a store. I call it a natural resource because it is a byproduct generated almost automatically in every business transaction. My hope is that aside from just storing data and running the risk of losing it, economic agents will start looking for companies like mine to figure out what to do with data they already have: how to get better data, how to analyze the data by asking the right questions, and how to turn data into actionable information and a competitive advantage.
This interview was edited and condensed.