African (Tech) is King

Africa can be the source of something new, smart, innovative, responsible, safe, and secure — Jessica Chivinge.

Photo Credit — Kwaku Alston — Disney Enterprises

Beyoncé is right — ‘Black is King’. But this isn’t an article debating how successfully Beyoncé represented this continent. To the Beyhive, rest easy — I stan. What I appreciate most about Black is King is that she’s reminded me to celebrate what it is that makes me “King”. How it is I am “King”. She’s opened the door for us to represent ourselves to the most aspirational of our abilities in our respective fields. So apologies folks — this won’t be an assessment of the (amazing) cinematography or a long article of me waxing lyrical about the slightly convoluted storyline… Instead, I’m going to share how Bey’s ‘Black is King’ is a philosophy we’ve been embodying in our business to date.

So get comfortable and settle around the proverbial campfire folks, I’d like to tell you a story like the stereotypically story-loving African I am. To share how the African business we are growing exudes the same power, vivaciousness, boldness, kindness, exuberance, creativity, and strength as the imagery in ‘Black is King’. Now for the rest of this article to make sense, first things first — go ahead and mentally replace ‘Black’ in the title with ‘African’. African is King. Secondly, I see you thinking about googling me to see which online African fashion brand I’m referring to when I speak of my business, and while those are awesome and I highly recommend https://www.tongoro.com/shop, this story isn’t about that.

And it’s all quite timely really.

Not long ago, an email landed in my inbox which would normally result in an excited yelp from the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of any startup. But I had to check myself because we’re an African startup — and I’m no stranger to the double standards that might apply to us. Luckily, years growing up as an immigrant child in the diaspora had aptly prepared me to temper my excitement. To be suspicious of unsolicited praise. But back to the e-mail….It was from a relatively well-known journalist — let’s call her Emily (I’ll give the Karens a break). Not unreasonably, Emily wanted to know how our web-based health-tech platform and app epione.net works. When it was launched. What technology is used. But then the questions got a little more interesting. Emily asked which other companies had been involved in building the app (none) and whether we have any partnerships with government agencies (no).

She wanted to know whether the app requires permission (of course). Finally, when Emily asked, “what is the purpose of collecting data about coronavirus symptoms?”…when actually it’s clearly stated that the app enables a person to track their own COVID-19 symptoms for themselves, and empowers them to be the ones to grant access to their doctor to view them as well if they so choose, I suspected the questions might not be so innocent after all. Weary about the spin a journalist from Europe would put on an African health tech start-up business ironically named after the Greek Goddess of health, I called our Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and then my personal advisor-in chief who is not uncoincidentally my fellow co-founder, and we decided to do a little investigating of our own.

Having been through enough dating woes to be somewhat decent at internet stalking, it didn’t take us long to confirm our suspicions about Emily and her potential angle on African tech start-ups, and the “regulation free, cowboy country environments within which they operate” (**sigh** not true, and yet another misconception about how African countries are managed despite them often being the frontrunners in innovation and tech).

Despite the above, you might still wonder why I would be so weary. Look at #BLM you cry! Things are changing, you insist. Why I am I being an “enemy of progress” and taking such great pains to figure out “the angle”? Why didn’t I just wholeheartedly embrace the “any publicity is good publicity mantra” that really probably only works for …the likes of Donald Trump? (well it wouldn’t be an article written by a millennial without the obligatory hey boomer/ Trump dig). You may be affronted by my apparent lack of trust. Or …you might know exactly where I’m coming from because you’re equally wary. Is it totally unfair to ask why else a journalist from Europe would reach out to an African startup if not to try to “catch” us out? To use us as the pawn in a hastily put together narrative that is sadly still quite common in today’s journalism? To exaggerate the extent of our ineptness. To confirm long-held stereotypes. And most infuriatingly- to deny our excellence.

To deny that Black is King. Sure, people recognize that kneeling on a neck until someone dies is awful, but in my books, you’re only a certified ally if you can believe that something amazing can come out of Africa — and I’m looking at the African diaspora too. We’ve got our own skeptics, also probably called Karen because…well, let’s face it — they needed to increase their chances of their CVs being read (just ask Dr Boulé Whytelaw III). No matter how woke the liberal or progressive the thinker, let’s be honest — it’s still pretty rare to get the world to recognize that this continent can be the source of something new; smart; innovative; responsible; safe and secure…and not in fintech or agriculture. But in a sector as old as time — health. A sector where the US, UK, Germany, and maaaaybe on occasion India, still seem to hold the IP on just about everything. And on top of that, they remain the countries that many still regard as the default innovators and experts in the healthcare sector.

So hopefully by now you’re suitably entertained, somewhat intrigued, or have simply been emotionally guilt-tripped enough by my complex, conflicted response to Emily’s “simple” request to stay with me to the end. But let me finally get to the point (that said, any African worth their salt knows this story could very well go on for another few hours — I haven’t even gotten to the head-scratching riddles yet!).

I’d like to use the rest of this article to talk about how our ‘African-ness’ is at the very core of our epione.net platform and app design. Sure, there are the very real practical problems we are solving for — the siloed provision of healthcare on the continent resulting in fragmented and expensive care with the patients often suffering the most as a result. But there’s also the aspiration behind it. The reason why we do what we do, and the very African reasons why we have chosen to do things the way we have. And before the woke brigade that I’m a part-time member of myself (but am taking a break from in order to write this article), readies themselves to chastise me for constantly referring to “Africa” and not being specific about any one of the 54 countries, it’s because we are a pan-African team, with pan-African experiences and pan-African influences. Permission to sing kumbaya, granted.

But let me break it down anyway to show you how it is precisely that diversity in lived experiences, that's enabling us to design a truly African app that can be used by us, and anyone else looking to revolutionize their healthcare experience.

From the South Africans, we learn about the spirit of Ubuntu — that’s why unusually for a heath platform as comprehensive as ours, it is free and will always be free for all individuals and GPs (terms and conditions apply to the doctor's cough cough). I must also credit the hardworking “Boer maak n plan” (a farmer makes a plan), spirit of the Afrikaners — it’s that quintessentially South African motto that we lean on for our ability to never give up and to be creative about how we get the job done.

From the Tanzanian, we learn that it takes a village to raise a child — so we’re including a module for dependents — we know we have to take care of our elders, parents, extended families “here” and those “back home”.

From the Zimbabweans, we’ve recognized how crucial it is to empower the individual who might not always have access to the state resources, company resources, or personal resources required to solve pressing healthcare issues. That’s why we made available the covid19 self-screening and symptom tracking and monitoring features of the app there as soon as we could, even before the rest of the features of the app were ready for that market.

From the Kenyans, we learn to be bold, unapologetic, colorful, carefree, and purposeful. This is the spirited energy that influences our logo, brand design, and corporate identity…and is also evident in our user interface design. If you reaaaaally want to get into it you can google why the colors green and blue feature in so many African flags, and why they’ve been incorporated so heavily into our color scheme (yes, I’m training to be the kind of African Aunty that will assign you homework mid-story. And then also maybe that story isn’t true…but hey, now you know what the colors of the flags mean).

From the West Africans, we learn the importance of shared responsibility and the fact that sharing information responsibly with each other really can be for the greater good, and is often the key to shared success. So actually, why not enable users to share their electronic health records with doctors of their choosing? Sharing (encrypted) information also encourages community-based decision making which is why our platform empowers health payors like governments with the population health insights they need to guide nationwide population health-related interventions. And before you gasp in horror at the potential for data security vulnerabilities, ponder over the ethics of data collection, or use this as further proof that 5G gave us the coronavirus and other conspiracy theories… read on.

The app is safe because well…what African doesn’t value safety?! That’s why we have built it in line with the strictest local and global IT security standards (hello GDPR!). And also because our fierce product owner Aimee and our development team wouldn’t have it any other way.

So as you can see, we purposely designed our app for Africans by Africans. And not just the practical stuff like making sure it can work offline; can be used in both private and public health systems, and is compatible with a broad range of devices on operating systems as old as we can allow without compromising safety. I mean the very essence of its inspiration. Its design. Its intent. In the team of young Africans working hard every day to create and enhance it. And guess what? After we’re done bringing it to every African, we’ve got our eyes set on the rest of the world.

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Aaaaaaand that’s the end of the story! Whaaaat? You say. Well I’ve cut it off as abruptly as the uncle who usually tells it seems to fall asleep. Hopefully the point was made — if it wasn’t, please feel free to… not email me your comments. Now let me see if I’ve riled myself up enough to draft my response to Emily. Opening line? “Hi Emily! Guess what? Black is King.”

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Signature Journal Afrika

Signature Journal Afrika

(SJA) is a platform that gives a voice to Africans in areas of Governance, Health, and ICT.