Tag Archives: Technology

Are African Tech Companies Really Tech Companies? – The Answer is Complicated

The word “Tech” has increasingly been used in recent times to describe some startups in Africa. This is because Africans are starting more businesses around digital technology. We have many African startups like Jobberman, OXL, Jumia, Tolet, etc. that are referred to as Tech companies, some have been categorised as edtech (Tuteria‎, Prepclass), fintech (FarmDrive, BitPesa), healthtech (Ubenwa. HealthThink), nuerotech (Koniku), agritech (AgroData, Farmerline), etc.

But when you put these companies side by side with prototypical tech companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Google; the differences may make you want to check the meaning of the term “Tech company”.

So what type of company is really a tech company?

The Definition of a Tech Company is Complicated

Marli Guzzetta, Research director of Inc. Magazine complied some definitions of Tech company as defined by some big players in the tech industry in her article, Why Even a Salad Chain Wants to Call Itself a Tech Company.

“You are a technology company if you are in the business of selling technology–if you make money by selling applied scientific knowledge that solves a concrete problem.”

– Alex Payne, Co-Founder, Simple and an early Twitter engineer.

“Tech means more than just producing hardware or software…It is synonymous with innovation, research and development, long-term thinking.”

– Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“It’s generally a company whose primary business is selling tech or tech services. A more nuanced definition is a company with tech or tech services as a key part of its business. It’s a hard question.”

– Todd Berkowitz, VP of Research, Gartner.

“A tech company uses technology to create an unfair advantage in terms of product uniqueness or scale or improved margins. Ask the question: Could this company exist without technology? If the answer is no, it has to be a tech company.”

– Greg Bettinelli, Partner, Upfront Ventures.

“I think there’s a false dichotomy in the idea that a company either is or is not a tech company. I think it’s possible for a company to be a hybrid if tech is giving it an edge over incumbents.”

– Hayley Barna, Venture Partner, First Round Capital.

Hard Tech and Soft Tech Companies

To make the definition of Tech company less complicated, I divided tech companies into two categories: Hard Tech and Soft Tech companies.

Companies that meets the descriptions of the first three definitions made by Alex Payne, Mark Zandi and Todd Berkowitz can be categorised as Hard Tech companies. These Tech companies are mainly into electronics, computers and scientific research.

They are the foundation of digital technology and are the prototypes of tech company, and Software, hardware, (of recent) wetware production and sales, and internet services are the core of their operations. Examples of these companies are Oracle, Microsoft, Apple and IBM.

Some startup companies that deliver food to your door with operations that have nothing to do with making of computers or phones or software have also been labelled as Tech companies (Foodtech) because they use (digital) technology in their businesses.

The same can be said of Uber, that helps you get a ride in a car using an app on your phone. Like Greg Bettinelli said, these company uses technology to create an advantage in terms of product uniqueness or scale or improved margins.

however in today’s world most business use one form of digital technology or the other. For instance, newspaper publishers have from print to digital media and their businesses are now structured around computers, smartphones and the internet.

But while companies like the newspaper company have been around before the advent of computers, many of new companies like Uber or the food company wouldn’t exist without the development of smartphone apps and ubiquitous Internet access.

Therefore, a Soft Tech is a company that doesn’t have production or sales of (mainly digital) tech as the key part of its business, cannot exist without the use of (digital) technology, but depends mainly on (digital) tech to create value, and an advantage over incumbents.

This category of tech companies can be referred to as a hybrid. They have two sides; Uber for example can be called a transport company or tech company depending on side you are looking at it from.

African Tech Companies are Mostly Soft Tech Companies

In Africa, our tech companies are very much on the soft side. We have not built a known ingenious business that invests heavily in scientific research and creates technology, but we have built many businesses that uses digital technologies to create valuable products and services.

Much Ado about the Label ‘Tech Company’ and ‘Tech Start-up’

While many startups are in a rush to identify with the label, the label may not mean much in the near future. There will come a time when there will be so many tech companies (especially Soft Techs) that the label Tech company’ and ‘tech start-up will not be necessary. According to Alex Payne in 2012,

“‘Tech company’ and ‘tech start-up’ are over applied labels that have outlived their usefulness…Calling practically all growing contemporary businesses ‘technology companies’ is about as useful as calling the enterprises of the industrial era ‘factory companies.’”

Well, in Africa, we just started applying the label and we are obviously enjoying all the goodies that comes with it.

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A-29 Super Tucano Fighter jets

Why Militaries of Developing Countries Prefer A-29 Super Tucano Fighter Jets

Apart from United States which purchased 20 A-29 Super Tucano fighter jets in 2013 for the Afghan Air Force, A-29 Super Tucano fighter jets can only be found in the military service of developing countries.

I noticed this when I decided to find out about the aircraft after Nigerian government decided to buy 12 A-29 Super Tucano fighter jets from the United State government to aid its military in ending the eight-year-old Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east of the country.

The Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano, also named ALX or A-29, which is a turboprop light attack aircraft designed for counter-insurgency, close air support, and aerial reconnaissance missions in low-threat environments, and as well as providing pilot training, according to Wikipedia, is currently being operated by 6 South American countries – Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras and Brazil (the home country of Embraer Defense and Security, the company that produces the plane); 5 African countries – Angola, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal; an Asian country – Indonesia; and a middle Eastern country – Afghanistan (courtesy the US government).

While the US private military company, Blackwater is said to have one Tucano for pilot training, US Navy leased one for testing, and the US Air Force using one for military experiment, the A-29 can’t be said to be part of their fire power as it seem US interest in the aircraft is to make it available for use by its partner countries.

The US is supplying up to 20 aircraft to serve as counter-insurgency trainers and fighters for Afghan pilots and they have agreed to supply Nigeria 12 aircraft. The USAF also plans to buy 15 aircraft to serve as trainers for its own pilots, who could then be assigned to foreign “partners” fighting insurgents or terrorists.

It is clears that this preference for this type of aircraft by developing countries is solid, as almost all the countries that have shown interest in purchasing this A-29 Super Tucano aircraft are also developing countries.

Why do these countries refer A-29 Tucano Super Tucanos?

The first reason is cost

The A-29 is specifically designed for countries with relatively little money, infrastructure or trained manpower to hand small fights like insurgency and train combat pilots.

This jet fighter was designed by Brazil, a country that understand what it means to have little money to spend on military, airport infrastructure or trained manpower and yet still should be ready for a fight at least the small fights.

Inexpensive to buy ($9 –14 million/unit in 2011) and with lower operating costs than any other light attack aircraft, the A-29 is the right aircraft for cash-strapped countries. The aircraft which is relatively simple and sturdy is propeller-driven and therefore easy to fly and maintain.

The second reason is performance and design

The aircraft can operate in extremely rugged terrain, in places with high temperature, moisture, and precipitation. The A-29 is highly maneuverable and has a low heat signature. It was designed to have long-range and autonomy, to operate night and day, in any meteorological conditions, and land on short airfields lacking infrastructure.

The A-29 which is in service all over the world with 13 air forces and has seen nearly 40,000 combat hours over a wide range of environments is easily reconfigurable.

It carries advanced electro-optical sensors, modern avionics, a laser target designator and a wide variety of precision munitions. A Colombian general disclosed that the side-looking airborne radar can locate ground targets smaller than a car with digital precision.

Now, you know why!

Biafran Amoured tank (the red devils)

The Engineering Feat of Defunct Biafran Research and Production Group (RAP)

The Red devil and Genocide Armoured tanks, and the Ogbunigwe bombs are some of the greatest indigenous military engineering that has come out from Nigeria and the Biafran Research and Production group (RAP) is the greatest indigenous research, development and production organisation ever established in Nigeria.

They Red devil, Genocide, and Ogbunigwe are war weapons that were locally fabricated by RAP of the then Biafran Republic during the Nigerian civil war also known as the Biafran war (July 6, 1967 – January 15, 1970), a war the Nigerian government fought against Biafra to counter Biafra’s secession from the Republic of Nigeria.

Biafran Research and Production group (RAP)

According to the article, The Making of Arms in Civil War Biafra, 1967-1970, published in The Calabar Historical Journal, the Biafran army started the war with just reconditioned Mauser bolt-action rifle, supported by small quantities of machine-pistols, sub-machine guns, light and heavy machine guns, and pistols. Mortar barrels and bombs, artillery pieces and shells.

The duty of making weapons and other machines needed to win the war was assigned to RAP. The RAP group led by the renowned Professor Gordian Ezekwe was comprised of men and women with scientific and technological background, formal and informal, who invested their devotion and patriotism to conduct research and fabricate essential material for the prosecution of the war. They were saddled with the task of technological innovation, copy technological creativity and improvisation under extreme privation.

The members of the RAP were teachers from the Universities, Colleges of Technology and Secondary Schools; research scientists from research and technical establishments; scientists, technologists, and craftsmen from various public services, such as Railways, Ports Authority, Electricity Corporation, Petroleum Refinery and Geological Surveys; engineers and technicians from the private sector such as Shell BP, United Africa Company (UAC) etc; and ordinary artisans, craftsmen and mechanics.

In the beginning of the war members of the RAP group operated as two distinct independent groups – the Enugu Group and the Port Harcourt group. The Enugu group was dominated by university scientist from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and the Port Harcourt Group was led by engineers and technicians from Shell-BP and other industrial establishments around Port Harcourt. The group came together when Enugu fell to the Nigerian army.

The Biafran Red Devil Amoured Vehicles

RAP fabricated armoured vehicles nicknamed the Biafran Red Devil and Genocide from agricultural tractors, bulldozers and harvesters. The Red Devil were fabricated to suit operational difficulties – types A1-A5, B, C, and D, but the armoured vehicles could not endure the heavy stresses and strains needed for a challenging military operation demanded in warfare. According to Professor Kalu Uka of the University of Uyo in an interview, they lacked speed and suffered frequently from overheating.

Biafra Red Devil – TYPE A was the first armoured vehicle built by RAP

Biafra Red Devil – TYPE B is an Amoured Personnel Carrier

Biafran Amoured tank (the red devils) Type C (saladin)

Biafra Red Devil – TYPE C: The idea behind type C was to make it function like the popular Saladin armoured vehicle. Saladin is a type of armoured vehicle that can shoot and rotate at the same time. This attempt to copy the Saladin was unsuccessful with the TYPE C.

Biafran Amoured tank (the red devils) Type D (saladin)

Biafra Red Devil – TYPE D: the attempt to imitate the Saladin was still unsuccessful with the TYPE D. RAP then came up with an idea to put holes by the side of the armoured vehicles, and had soldiers shoot from those holes to give the enemy the impression that the armoured vehicle was rotating.

Ogbunigwe (Mass Killer)

The most outstanding innovation of the RAP group was the Ogbunigwe (literally translated to mean mass killer). Ogbunigwe was based on the physics of the “Monroe effect“. It killed and maimed by wave effect percussion and dispersal of shrapnel.

The Ogbunigwe was fabricated in various shapes and sizes to act as rockets, hand grenades and mines. The shape of the Ogbunigwe was determined by the military objective to be achieved. As such, the Ogbunigwe could be deployed as a hand grenade, a land mine or a surface to air weapon.

Biafran Grenade Launcher

Biafran Grenade Launcher

The different types of Ogbunigwe included the Beer Ogbunigwe (hand grenade), the Foot-Cutter Ogbunigwe (land mine), the Coffin Box Ogbunigwe (land mine), the Bucket Ogbunigwe, and the Flying Ogbunigwe (surface to air weapon).

Flying Ogbunigwe (surface to air weapon)

Flying Ogbunigwe (surface to air weapon)

Some argue that war induce men to stretch their technological limits, force states to restructure social systems along lines most conducive to producing and developing weapons.

The RAP group however, researched, developed and produced powerful bombs, grenade launchers, petroleum refinery, mobile artillery machines and armoured vehicles in just 30 months, with little material and low-level of government attention (in terms of capital investment), in a hostile environment.

This feat of the Biafran RAP group is a good example of creativity, innovation, productivity and effective management that is lacking in Nigeria today.