I attended the last two days Tech4Africa conference in Johannesburg. I was very excited about it. Last year, it was canceled due to lack of sponsors (iirc). So seeing that the event would be happening this year was a very good news. The subtitle of the conference was ‘web and emerging technologies’ and the moto “bringing global perspective to the African context”. So this is exactly our focus at the Web Foundation, and I was eager to learn and see what’s happening… I will try not to hammer the organizers too hard, but honestly, I was quite disappointed.
Let’s start with the very good things. It was very well organized, very well managed, with high quality speakers, and usually interesting talks. It was very well attended, I would say 400+people the first day, and a bit less the second. I was slightly annoyed by the way the program was built.
The lack of theme in the different sessions was surprising. You could have in the same session a talk on low-cost infrastructure followed by one on cloud computing. Then few talks and panels on could computing where split between the two tracks and split over the two days. Surprising. The level of the talk was also not really homogeneous. What I mean is that the audience was not well defined. We had a session on how to access VC firms really focusing on business aspect and so on, and e.g. a session on how to be a jquery ninja, targeted at developers. I personally prefer conference that focus on one type of audience instead of trying to be too wide. If this is a developer conference, great! If this is more for entrepreneurs, project-manager, etc, great too. But both at the same time is a bit difficult.
Now, let’s move to my major disappointment: the lack of African context. There were 2 great talks (the one from Steve Song, and the one from Erik Hersman) and a panel driven by Steve Vosloo which were really talking about stories of entrepreneurs in Africa, working in the specific African context. All other talks and panels could have been part of a conference in New-York or London. Again good speakers, good talks, but I don’t want to hear how great designers design a mobile application in London. I don’t want to hear on how people are making catchy Websites in San Francisco. I wanted to hear about the impact on design of the fact that people know the Web only through their mobile (for a vast majority now and in the future). I wanted to hear how you design Websites for people who have been using the Web for one or two years, and not a decade. Are long discussions on HTML5 vs Flash, or the burden of supporting IE5 because of so many people didn’t upgrade, relevant to the African context? i I really doubt it.
I wanted to hear how people are supporting non-Latin languages, and what kind of issues they are experiencing. I wanted also to hear about emerging technologies such as voice technologies might provide content to people with low literacy levels.
There are tons, really hundreds of great people all over Africa who have great stories to tell around these themes and others, that have doing incredible things… I don’t understand why in a conference on technologies in Africa, on the African context, people from London, New-York or San Francisco should speak.
I believe that there is still a hole, a place for a conference in this area. I’m still dreaming about a conference that will bring people from Africa, discussing how they are using the Web in their specific context, how they are solving the issues they identified, what are the technologies that are particularly working well, how people are designing applications and content all over the continent etc.
Again, I don’t want to hammer the organizers of Tech4Africa. They did a great job. That was just the first instance, and I will keep an eye on the next instance. But I really encourage them to focus on the African context in the future.