The proliferation and uptake of technological innovations in Zimbabwe have been riddled with challenges over the years. There is no question about some of the considerable progress we have seen. However, overall, the common occurrence is that many technological ideas in Zimbabwe fail. Others may germinate and remain standing, but their network effect will be small. I know many examples of good technological ideas in Zimbabwe that failed. This is disturbing in many ways, e.g. it dampens the spirits of other innovators. We must look at why good technological ideas fail in Zimbabwe.
Important To Note As A Technological Innovator In Zimbabwe
The operating environment in Zimbabwe is atypical. I often come across scenarios of Zimbabweans abroad who do not quite appreciate how things are in Zimbabwe. Then you also have local Zimbabweans who think what thrives out there should be automatic in Zimbabwe. It surely does not work that way. There are aspects of the Zimbabwean operating environment you should know:
Internet Infrastructure, Connectivity And Cost
This is a huge factor in technological innovation in Zimbabwe. If you take it lightly, you will waste time and money. Any technological innovation is directly or indirectly anchored on internet connectivity. You know how hectic internet connectivity has been lately if you are a local Zimbabwean. Even more hectic is that mobile networks are problematic too these days. This means challenges will still be there even if you resort to USSD. Incessant power cuts and other factors are to be blamed for this. The cost of accessing the internet is also a huge hurdle for many. Overall, most Zimbabweans cannot afford data, do not have internet-enabled mobile phones, and do not have reliable access to internet infrastructure. These dynamics are lethal to technological ideas.
General Mindset Of Zimbabwe
Remember that Zimbabwe is not your typical country. If you ignore the general mindset of a Zimbabwean, you will miss it. For one, the average Zimbabwean still has trust issues regarding technology. This is worsened by the fact that many Zimbabweans are not that tech-savvy. This is further worsened by a general culture of poor customer service or even being short-changed. A good example is eCommerce. How many people have you heard complaining about getting stuff delivered late, wrongly, or not at all?
How many people have you heard complaining about inefficient digital platforms? Have you noticed how many tech-based businesses are not proactive when dealing with people online? You probably have been a victim of some of these issues. Put these together, and more than you realize, you have an average Zimbabwean with trust issues. No wonder why it is typical for many Zimbabweans not easily warm up to tech-based ways of doing things. This is particularly so for mobile apps, web apps, and the like.
Zimbabwe’s Fragmented Currency System
One core factor driving technological innovations is the ability to accept online payments. After all, that is your avenue to realizing the much-needed revenue. In Zimbabwe that is stifled by shortcomings regarding local online payment gateways. Sure enough, there have been some improvements in local Zimbabwean online payment gateways. We recently discussed 3 of them: Pay Now, Pese Pay, and Steward Pay. The challenge remains that not all merchants are okay with accepting Zimbabwean dollar payments.
This means one must have a foreign currency account for a VISA card. The vast majority of Zimbabweans cannot do or even afford that. This puts technological innovators in limbo. Effectively you are put in a situation where you cannot quite enjoy significant revenues from local Zimbabweans. No wonder why tech startups in Zimbabweans tap into the diaspora pool. They know such prospects are better equipped to make VISA or MasterCard payments. The fragmented currency system in Zimbabwe is so disruptive to technological ideas taking off.
The other issue is that of competition. The Zimbabwean technological innovator is already riddled with so many challenges. This is then exacerbated by competition. For almost any technological innovation, there is a better alternative out there. For instance, I know people who source their stock from China via Alibaba. It is so efficient that they say they would never consider any other avenue. This means if a local alternative is set up and it is not efficient, it stands no chance. That is just one angle.
The other angle is that of brick and mortar – I am using this literally and figuratively. Many Zimbabweans still prefer the traditional approaches, e.g. walking in-store. I have noticed that many people still prefer to purchase electricity tokens in person. Yet there are many tech-based ways (other than directly on the EcoCash menu) to do this from anywhere. Thus you face stiff competition in that regard, i.e. competing with traditional approaches. That goes back to the mindset issue.
The Technological Innovator Is Also To Blame
Zimbabwean technological innovators are making some costly mistakes. For starters, they are not taking seriously the aforementioned issues we discussed. There is also a general rush to develop something without in-depth market research. In some cases, there is also little to no viability testing. Most are hung up on their product or service. They think it is so good that people will love and buy (or use) it.
However, just because you can develop a product or service does not automatically mean it will sell. You can develop a great one, but if there is no widespread need for it, there is no market. There is a need to take time to test the business model rigorously. There are also shortcomings in securing financing. The unfortunate thing about technological ideas is that it usually takes time to break even and start realizing a profit. Yet, in the meantime, you will need cash to burn. Most struggle to reach profitability because there will be no cash to burn.
There is so much more we can discuss on this subject. There are and have been good technological ideas popping up in Zimbabwe. Some thrive, whereas many fail. The sad thing is that most of the hurdles are beyond your control. Regardless you have to be creative and find ways to circumvent the hurdles. It is on you as a Zimbabwean technological innovator. To win, you have to grasp what you are up against.