Geniuses from a dusty garage who plan to take on Facebook and Google
When you mention the word Africa, 90 percent of Croats will respond with paprika. Some 90 percent of Croats associate Africa with starving children with bloated bellies, with AIDS and with war. I fall into the other 10 percent. Because I know, by chance, that Africa is a lot more than just poor roads and black people asking for a dollar.
As an aside, a dollar is in fact a synonym for the African daily wage… though this too is changing. Slowly, indeed, but noticeably.
Uganda is the country I know best, and I can confirm the following figures: the monthly salary of an employee in a good, strong company is about 200 dollars; the salary of a waiter in an average restaurant, work hours from morning to night, is about 80 dollars; for a university professor, about 150 dollars; for a hooker at a bar, about 1000 dollars, if it was a good month.
An education at Makerere University, the first university in eastern Africa, costs about 1000 dollars per semester.
It is not easy to pay for an education if you are a waiter, for example, but it is less difficult if you are a hooker, though the ladies of the night are not often interested in higher education. They don’t need a day salary, they earn by night.
Even in such a situation, there is always a spark that lights the surrounding darkness, there are always little geniuses that persevere, regardless of the situation… and who are not politicians or prostitutes.
In a garage on a dusty road…
In the capital city Kampala, towards the outskirts, where the asphalt stops and a dusty, pot-holed road begins, a small garage stands. Small, unsightly, surrounded by even smaller houses pressed closely together, resembling an anthill. This small and unsightly garage is a nursery for big ideas.
We are in Ntinda. In this garage, four friends spend their entire days, in deep concentration on their computers, programming, spinning ideas and daydreaming. Dreams alone, without hard work, dissipate quickly, and these men know this, and strive even harder. Their goal is a global system, a network whose main task is the spread of information and general education.
There are certainly many friends like these, in garages around the world, but rarely in places where the power cuts out at least ten times a day, and rare in places where corruption is so widespread and the standard of living so low, as in Uganda.
Their goal is to take down Facebook and Google
During my visit, the four men sat at their positions, deeply focused on a piece of paper stuck to the wall where they have drafted their work plan and vision. Their goal is to take on the world, and stand side by side with Facebook and Google.
Their project is called MyCampus, and it is exactly that! A great network of circling information.
“In its essence, the aim of Facebook is connecting people, the aim of Google is searching, and our aim will be to provide information and knowledge,” said Wamala Phillip, initiator of the project.
Their goal is to have information about a given city or country in one place, including service information and facts about the night life. The site would also include a wide range of “do-it-yourself” tutorials.
While we were talking, the power cut out, and the page disappeared, and the entire situation seemed a bit grotesque. But still… this is proof of the rapid development of the black continent, which also has the world’s youngest population. And young people have vast dreams and big ideas.
“Take a look at all the computer greats, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, they all started in a garage!” Phillip told me proudly.
When they’ve had enough work, they play guitar
And just like at Google and the relaxed atmosphere that reigns in that company, they too have decided to meld work and play, and every now and then, they sit on their desks and play guitar.
“We began in 2009 while we were still studying at Makerere University. We launched a student website because it simply didn’t exist. There was no accessible information about what was going on at the university, about affordable hostels, affordable restaurants around the university and others. Then we thought to expand the entire situation to the rest of Kampala, and then to Uganda, and ultimately, to the entire world! We have been working on the site for a full five years, developing it,” explained Phillip enthusiastically, as several small black heads from the neighbourhood peered through the garage windows.
Information and accessibility is their motto
They have opened their work to everyone! Whoever wishes is welcome to come into their workspace, and they have secured free internet around the garage for all, until the power cuts out again.
“Information and accessibility: that is our motto. You need to open up to people. The large companies should always receive people, take them on tours, and listen to their suggestions,” they said.
When asked about financing and how they really earn their living, they responded that they develop websites for various clients. They too are troubled by money issues, and they dream of a big investor who will sweep in with dollars and raise them up to towards the heavens.
“In Uganda, it is still difficult for people to comprehend what exactly it is that we are doing. People don’t understand abstract ideas. MyCampus is still an abstract idea,” explained Phillip.
Good business in the garage
In a country where only 10 percent of the population has access to electricity, where the government is autocratic, and the most lucrative jobs are in politics and prostitution, there is still a small sliver of common sense and a joy in the prospects of a better tomorrow.
My final question to Phillip was clear and simple, “Will MyCampus be a good business for you?”
Phillip responded, “Of course it will!”