Vires in Numeris
I noticed during my first visit to India that there were so many small business locations offering technology training, they seemed to be a prevalent type of business in the cities I visited. I had at first thought that it was a byproduct of the outsourcing industry but later realized that technology training was a deliberate industry encouraged by the government through policy.
India’s march towards being a technology superpower was deliberate and backed by the government. There are several autonomous public institutes of higher education resulting from the Indian government’s Institutes of Technology Act passed in 1961. These institutes are the equivalent of other higher education establishments and were declared by the government as “institutions of national importance.”
The proliferation of smaller private institutions in Indian cities is a response not only to the external demand for skilled technology professionals but also an indication of the rapid growth of the internal market. India currently has over 400 million android smartphone users; that number is more than the entire population of the United States, and more than twice the population of Nigeria.
Recently, a new telecommunications network added about 70 million people to their network in just one month. The Android numbers alone indicate a substantial consumer market for digital products. With a population of over a billion people, India deliberately changed what could have become a liability to “strength in numbers” over time by being proactive.
It was some of these same Indian training establishments like “NIIT” that scaled beyond India to Nigeria to help provide training to many young Nigerians who helped to fill technology roles when there was a gap from brain drain. Some local technology training entities also sprung up afterward, but we never did it on the scale of India. It is interesting that while online training is typically preferred in America and Europe, the Indian model of learning through pedagogy seems to be more popular in frontier markets.
The term “intra-structure” is a neologism first coined by Locan Dempsey referring to the human structure behind peer-to-peer communication innovations. I have adapted it to mean the inter-personal connections that can drive business or technology-enabled processes by interfacing it with other businesses or customers.
While it was government policy that led to the licensing of telecommunications companies in Nigeria, the story will not be the same as it is today if MTN had not quickly realized that there was no need to build a new retail distribution network. The company adopted the existing hierarchical retail distribution network established by commodity traders.
Other telecommunications networks followed their lead, and the street retailers or hawkers who are the final leg of the distribution network became the primary vendors of airtime. The same commodity traders have also distributed other products like electronic appliances and even Nollywood movies; they have been the reason why computer hardware and even cellphones are so widely distributed.
These retail distribution networks are termed typically as “informal,” but they are in reality the network of connected people who make a lot of other “formal” consumer-focused businesses work. They are the “intra-structure” between companies and customers; it is their numbers that make all the difference as they close gaps.
The Trust Gap
Human interfaces are still essential in places where there is low trust, the retail networks have played a significant role in technology distribution in Africa, but their strategic importance is still mostly under-appreciated or even misunderstood. They have helped to increase the acceptance and distribution of all types of products from retail financial services to appliances and content in the case of Nollywood.
What India taught me was that our vast population could also be used to our advantage. What MTN and other telcos have proven is that it can also happen in new ways in Africa. What I believe is going to happen next is that these networks of connected people will continue to help with the adoption of new technology by closing infrastructure gaps. Maybe the motto of Bitcoin will be proven once again as African “intra-structure” becomes the network that will give cryptocurrency strength.
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