Our Top Chef interview series aims to pick the brains of top business and media experts to find out how they learn, work and innovate. We turned to Limbikani Soul Makan, a technology entrepreneur working tirelessly to build a vibrant start-up culture in Zimbabwe. He founded Techzim in 2009 which has become a widely read news blog focusing on IT news, product reviews and internet services in Zimbabwe. Limbikani chats with us about exploring new technologies, ICT services, internet products and how he sees the internet playing a vital role in Africa’s success story.
Tell us a bit about your background:
My full name is Limbikani Soul Makani and I was born in Malawi. I came to Zimbabwe as a kid in 1987 and have been in Zim since but visit Malawi from time to time. Before Techzim, I was a local IT manager at CARE, an international NGO with operations in Zimbabwe and that is the only other organization I have worked for.
What publications or blogs do you write for?
Besides Techzim, I also have my personal tumblr blog (kabweza.tumblr.com)
How did Techzim come about?
I started Techzim in October 2009 when I was still at CARE. I was slightly bored with my routine day job and it was the perfect time to spice up my life with a tech project. I had dropped another personal tech project a few years earlier and the choice was to rekindle that or start to work on a new venture.
My first project, Zimlyrics, was basically a local music lyrics website which I started in 2001 and the plan was to have a place where music artists (both independent and those signed by labels) could share music lyrics with the world. I was fascinated by the richness in the poetry of local songs and wanted to have a space for it online. The site was online for a few years and it generated quite a following. I had to take it offline eventually because of cash flow problems.
I had been talking to friends in tech for a couple of months about an ICT platform for news and blog posts. The platform would provide space for Zim tech entrepreneurs to showcase their work and would also act as an enabler to fostering a start-up culture in the country.
Of the two projects, I chose what has now become Techzim and in my spare time started blogging about ICT issues in Zimbabwe on posterous.com. I focused on connectivity in the initial days since this is a central issue for any internet and tech entrepreneur.
What role do you see technology playing in Zimbabwe?
I think that going forward, economic entrepreneurs will play a vital role in Zimbabwe. The politicians can also play a part, but in the end, the real economic advancement will come from entrepreneurs who take it upon themselves to improve their lives and those of the communities they live in. ICTs, especially at the internet and mobile device level, are unique tools for entrepreneurs because of the low entry barrier. The opportunities exist for local solutions. Tech entrepreneurs can therefore play a central role as they can export internet level services and attract foreign direct investments into start-ups.
Another local problem is unemployment. Tech entrepreneurs will play a part in dealing with this both in terms of giving talented individuals the chance to actively contribute to the economy as well as in creating new employment.
Tell us about smartphone issues in Zimbabwe:
The main challenge to smartphone usage in Zimbabwe is cost. While mobile penetration has risen rapidly to about 70% from a mere 25% in 2009, a lot of people can only afford basic GSM mobile phones or at best, feature phones that have basic GPRS internet access. What I find remarkable though is that most people don’t really need smartphones. There are a lot of apps now that can turn java internet enabled mobile phones into ’smartphones’ as far as accessing internet content. Take Snaptu or bjNu for example, with just a basic java phone, gmail, Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds are all available in a neat package almost identical to the way in which content in delivered on smartphones.
We have also written a lot on our blog about an application called Message Optimiser developed by ForgetMeNot Africa. It allows subcribers to have basic mobile phones without internet access (a Nokia 1200 for example) to update their Facebook wall, chat with friends on gtalk, MSN, Facebook and even send emails all via SMS. These technologies are exciting for a country like Zimbabwe and I am sure that is the case for other countries in the region as well.
What are the most exciting technology developments you have recently written about on Techzim?
For us, the focus has really been on fostering a start-up culture and we are very excited to see how things are starting to happen. On 3 August, we held Zimbabwe’s first BarCamp event, where techies and business people met for a day to discuss, share and network. We received some generous assistance from local tech companies to host the event.
From the BarCamp, the Sart-up Challenge was born. In the challenge, start-ups pitch their technology projects and out of 30 companies, 5 will receive prizes ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. The event was sponsored by one of the largest local internet providers, ZOL.
We believe that this is forming the foundation for a healthy start-up community in order to create solutions to local and global problems!
How do you see the internet playing a part in Africa’s success story?
By and large, most of Africa is similar to Zimbabwe. We are starting to realize that we ourselves can create solutions to our problems. Be it corruption, agriculture, mining, social development, or even politics, technology is playing a central role. For us, seeing the developments regarding start-ups in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and especially Kenya have been inspiring. Take the Open Data Initiative in Kenya for example. The possibilities it makes available to Kenyan economy and start-up culture is amazing!
What is your current passion project?
I left my full time job for Techzim. That is where all of my focus currently lies.