Skill is important for success but, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is often not enough. An economically demanding market, lack of political will, and intense foreign involvement make it hard for local digital entrepreneurs to succeed in DRC.
Back when Europe did not yet have a Covid-19 app, Samy Mwamba, a Congolese-based ICT entrepreneur, was working hard to create one for his country in the days after the Democratic Republic of Congo reported its first case in early March 2020.
The app was built to inform users about the official case numbers and provide the option to alert the government to any symptoms. It worked in all the national languages: Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo, Tshiluba, and French. “I have seen how foreign digital products imposed on us in the past lacked the needed context to be useful and I wanted to change that,” says Mwamba, the founder of Itot Africa, a youth-led company working to create jobs in Africa through digital training.
After word spread through social media, Mwamba’s app caught the attention of the government, which expressed interest in working together. However, the government’s interest soon shifted to an organisation with more investment, active technical support, connections with national entities, and, crucially, strong foreign involvement. It’s another example of how companies with foreign connections can more easily access national opportunities, leaving local digital innovators overlooked.
Covid-19 digital solutions and foreign involvement in DRC
During the pandemic, both local and foreign companies have been trying to develop digital solutions. There have been successful local innovations – such as RDC Track-Covid, which became the main data provider for the DRC chapter of the Africa CDC – but such examples are rare.
This is partly because the DRC, a country with over 90 million people, has nine million internet users and one million users with mobile connections – the lowest overall ranking in the world, along with Chad and Yemen, according to the 2020 Network Readiness Index. Sharing information with a large population in a geographically diverse area is difficult without existing digital infrastructure and skills. In this environment, newly established domestic businesses struggle to compete with the powerful international players – from French-based mobile telecommunications company Orange to British-owned Vodacom to the Gambian Africell or Indian Airtel, to cite a few – that have carved up this limited but growing digital market.
Stop Coronavirus, the platform chosen over local digital entrepreneurs, including Samy Mwamba’s product to deliver Covid-19 statistics, offers fact-checking, data-monitoring on hospital capacity (ICU beds, ventilators, medicines, etc.), anonymised contact tracing, and real-time information on hotspots. It works closely with state and international institutions attached to the pandemic response. While experts agree that the platform has useful features, many others did not have the chance to prove further the value of their solutions.
Stop Coronavirus is a product from Kinshasa Digital, a company that has technical and financial support from Congolese government institutions, international donors (including GIZ from Germany, the Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation, and Internews), and private-sector players like Orange, the British-based GSM Association (GSMA), and Belgium’s Texaf. While the programme used Facebook’s Free Basic plan to fight growing Covid-19 disinformation in DRC, partnerships with foreign telecommunication companies made it possible for Stop Coronavirus to conduct epidemiological surveillance through anonymised and aggregated collected data.
Foreign stakeholders help other companies fight Covid-19 in other ways. For example, data monitoring projects are being funded by the French Fondation Merieux and the American USAID, the Korean enterprise consortium Congo Development Global, the World Bank-funded PFCGL and more.
Foreign vs. locals
In the DR Congo, the local digital entrepreneur is put in a bind: either create a solution accessible and usable without internet or develop the needed digital infrastructure for targeted users to access your solution. The two options would therefore entail cooperating with foreign telecom companies or engaging in additional charges to set the needed technological infrastructure.
While cooperating with foreign telecom companies might seem like an option, it is not easy for local and newly established companies, with a small budget and less impressive profit generation history, to prove themselves enough in order to gain trust from the giant private telecom companies.
“The competition is fierce for local digital innovators,” says Serge Mbela, a Congolese consultant with expertise in digital solutions, and most locals, “don’t get [support] easily at their early stage.” As a result, local digital entrepreneurs still depend on their limited private budgets to scale up their products. In such a situation, foreign competitors with vast experience and the ability to use their acquired financial and social capital are therefore given access to national opportunities, leaving locals behind.
Hervé Lisoir, coordinator for Africa, Asia, and Latin America at the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), financed Stop Coronavirus through Kinshasa Digital. He had several calls and emails with Kinshasa Digital leaders before he and his team decided to fund the organisation.
In general, Lisoir is in touch with hundreds of local social entrepreneurs in the DRC, he explains. But “we are bound by our limited resources and our private donor preferences on budget allocation, depending on the field and the region of their main interest,” so the foundation ends up funding fewer than 100 projects. “Furthermore,” Lisoir adds, “though we are extending our scope in Africa, our objective is not to create a long list of partners but a few that we can support with less long-term administrative work.”
The remaining avenue available for locals to succeed could be the government’s active involvement through either protection measures or subsidising local digital entrepreneurs in the form of grants or tax exemptions. But the lack of programmes that provide local digital entrepreneurs with access to government funding makes it harder for them to play this role.
In interviews for this article, RDC Track-Covid data scientist Nelly Mabeka, several DRC-based digital entrepreneurs, and a local journalist who asked to remain anonymous commented on the lack of political will. The government lacks trust in innovations by local entrepreneurs, they say, and focuses on foreign technological solutions because they consider these more secure and technically advanced. Government officials also claim that the applications and software developed by local entrepreneurs fail to conform with the technical standards of systems already used by government agencies. Local entrepreneurs, on the other hand, say they need clearer guidelines and more transparency. Having better information about the systemic requirements of government agencies would give them the chance to adapt their products.
The government does understand that something needs to be done. Paterne Kadiat, the technical advisor to the Congolese Ministry of Telecommunications and New Technology, indicated that a programme to support domestic digital entrepreneurs has been on the president’s agenda since 2019, but has yet to officially launch. The delay is a lost opportunity for the local digital entrepreneurs who are waiting for that help to step up their play.
The list of obstacles for local innovators is long. However, Itot Africa—led by Samy Mwamba, who initially created the local Covid-tracking app—recently received a grant from the King Baudouin Foundation. Through Itot Africa, Mwanba is launching more programmes that could help create digital jobs in the continent, starting by being actively involved in DRC. He is waiting for the next opportunity to contribute to his vision of a DR Congo where local digital entrepreneurs are the ones leading Congolese digital solutions.