The beginnings of TRUE Africa
Thursday, June 13th, 2013
The digital possibilities for professionals in Togo

My MIT colleague Matthieu Monsch (a 4th year PhD in operations research) and I arrived in my hometown, Lomé, Togo, last night, and we went straight to work this morning at 9am. The reason for our trip? Research and development as part of our ongoing True Africa startup project, which is benefitting from generous funding provided by an MIT Tech Dissemination Fellowship. (Thank you Laura Sampath!)

True Africa is a free mobile directory service for African service providers at the Base of the Pyramid. Our ultimate aim is to replace the Yellow Pages and White Pages and we will be targeting drivers, painters, carpenters, hairdressers, basically urban professionals who will rely on True Africa to establish effective connections with clients using their existing mobile phones. Mobile phones are now all over Africa, particularly those old Nokias with the gritty old school black and white screen, so our hope is that our True Africa platform will allow even those users with the cheapest phones to post their credentials and client ratings for free through GSM phones’ USSD protocol, providing a trusted venue for connecting, transacting and exchanging quality services. We want to help these service providers to attract more clients.

Dr. Madanmohan Rao of the Innovation Africa Digital Summit estimates that ‘by 2040, the African continent is expected to boast the world’s largest working-age population, and another 500 million children could be born by 2030, providing marketers a youthful, aspirational audience in the long term. Supporting these shifts is the move towards urban living, with an extra 15 cities in Africa containing a minimum 1 million residents emerging in the past 10 years, and a further 19 due to join this group by 2020, taking the total to 71.’

Lomé, with an estimated population of just under 2 million, is one of those vibrant capital cities. So this morning we enlisted my savvy nephew Ayité Zonor and headed straight to the Grand Marché, the old market located near the sea at the city center. Tomorrow being a national holiday, le 13 janvier, Matthieu and I found a trusted currency dealer on a street corned at the edge of the market and exchanged a few hundred dollar bills for fresh CFAs. Street peddlers ran after us, hawking fabric, underwear and belts featuring oversize Emporio Armani metallic logos. Thank God, as a native son, I was able to push them away. In Mina, our local language, and also French. Not before I parted with 15,000 crisp CFA (about $30) though. (Matthieu even managed to buy a small frameless painting for 5,000 CFA.)

 
togo lome

After we got sidetracked with the young Fulani and Anago merchants, who insisted that we inspect their goods even as we tried to walk away, Ayité led us to our first interviewee, the first of 100 Lomé professionals we plan to survey over the next 12 days. His name is Kodjo Kaiser, and he is a local tailor who minds a stall near the old Goyi Score supermarket my mom and sister and I used to shop in when I was a kid.

Standing next to Kodjo is Aicha Oukpedjo, who sold me a freshly cut 1.5 meter piece of dark grey fabric out of her wooded stall. I do intend to turn that grey fabric into a nice pair of tropical pants. (Current midday weather in Lomé is about 90 degrees in the shade.) Aicha, told me, through her seemingly innocent smile, that she is 46 years old and owns a cell phone. ‘Of course I have one,’ she replied in astonishment when I questioned her. I was a bit surprised, because she cannot read, let alone spell her name. Still, she told me, she managed to use her cell phone on a daily basis to reach out to her clients all over the city and also to stay in touch with her family. The secret of her dexterity and ingenuity? We will find out more tomorrow, as we continue with more interviews. We ended up interviewing 10 people today, not a bad result given that we are just getting started.

 

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