I — Kölbigk
“By the leafy wood rode Bovoline,
With him he led the fair Mersewine.
Why are we waiting? Why don’t we go?”
On Christmas eve in 1021, eighteen people were gathered outside a church in Kölbigk, Saxony, a small town in 2nd-century eastern Germany. (Some accounts say twelve ). They formed a circle by holding hands, and clapped, and danced, and chanted with ‘wild abandon’. The priest could not perform Mass because of the noise, and so he begged them to hold their peace.
But — the fools — they pressed on until he became cross, and cursed them that they should keep on dancing for a full year after.
And so, they danced ’til the following Christmas: one year, like the curse said, without rest or sleep (“Why are we waiting?”), without food or drink (“Why don’t we go?”), day and night and day again. When the curse was lifted they fell on the ground, exhausted and repentant, into a deep sleep.
Some of them never awoke.
II — Questions
“It is to be hoped you are not ‘intellectual,’ which is an unpardonable trait”
― Mary MacLane, I Await the Devil’s Coming
Early last month, the unstoppable force of the ‘internet / smartphone penetration’ story collided with the immovable object of economic reality. IDC published a press release announcing that smartphone shipments to Africa in Q1 2018 were down 6.3% quarter-on-quarter and 3.9% year-on-year. Slide 6 of Mary Meeker’s 2018 Internet Trends report painted a similar picture:
But in fact, anyone paying attention would have picked up on this trend a while ago (see: this piece from February 2018; this one from March 2017; this chart comparing smartphone vs. feature phone sales in Africa up till 2016).
Smartphone sales in Africa were once increasing rapidly, but since 2015 — three years ago — that stopped being true. The problem, of course, is that the dancers of Kölbigk cannot stop dancing. The intelligentsia -- elite founders, investors, developers -- are stuck saying and doing the same things (“Hurrah! The people are coming online!” “Smartphone penetration is…penetrating!”). Everybody playing the same game of musical chairs, in the hope that when the music stops, they will have secured a seat.
Each player is unable to exit the game because nobody else will; nobody else will, because nobody else will. But reality stares us in the face, so now what? What’s the bull case for internet startups in Africa? Why should we be excited to spend our days and nights building products for a market that some say is not ready?
What does it mean that global tech companies have recently taken an interest in African consumer markets? Where will they succeed? Where will they not?
How should local startups with much less funding, access to talent, and little control over their own distribution position themselves to take advantage of the — yes — opportunities this creates?
It has become fashionable to say that African markets are ‘special’, and that ideas imported from Silicon Valley or other more developed tech ecosystems cannot work here. Is that really true? If it is, then what ideas work instead?
W̶H̶O̶ ̶H̶A̶T̶H̶ ̶T̶H̶E̶ ̶B̶E̶S̶T̶ ̶J̶O̶L̶L̶O̶F̶?̶
These are the kinds of questions I spend my days considering, and I want you to listen in while I think out loud and try to work them out.
III — Announcement
That’s why I’m pleased to unveil The Subtext: the most compelling tech/media stories from across Africa, curated for you, with commentary from me, and published as a newsletter.
Why does this project need to exist? There are many sites chronicling the stories of the people building tech and media companies on the continent — and I’m grateful to be able to rely on their coverage.
But there is little commentary that asks what each piece means, how it affects the next, and why you should care. These times require a unique perspective; a sense for surfacing important patterns in the news, organizing them into collections [see image below], and working out the themes — the subtexts — that lie underneath.
The Subtext is my attempt to lay the foundation for such a perspective.
My aim here is to learn as much as I can about the innovation ecosystems in these emerging markets: the people, the players, companies, and the cultural factors that drive consumer behaviour, and expose that information to people who trust me with their time…and their email addresses.
To be clear: I still have a day job which takes priority, but I’m committing to sending out at least two editions every week.
The first one goes out tomorrow, so sign up below, follow thesbtxt for links to posts, and skweird for a director’s cut. But *most importantly*, sponsor or contribute to The Subtext by emailing me directly: [email protected]
With love in my heart and small chops in my belly,
- Source: Robert Mannyng, The Cursed Dancers of Colbeck (Translated from Middle English by Lee Patterson)
- “The Cursed Dancers of Colbeck”
- I find this story is hard to believe, but there’s nothing in it medieval people found improbable. Dancing mania like this one were well-chronicled from Erfurt and Maastricht around 1247, to Aachen in 1374, to Strasbourg in 1518, and other documented cases from Switzerland to the Holy Roman Empire, consuming hundreds — thousands — during the 16th and 17th centuries.
- The Lancet, ISSN: 0140–6736, Vol: 373, Issue: 9664, Page: 624–625
- Midelfort, EHC. A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Stanford University Press, Stanford; 1999
- Dancing Mania. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dancing_mania
- “…across Africa” here is for convenience’ sake. I am still too ignorant about large swathes of the continent to hold strong opinions, so I will first focus on startup ecosystems in Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. Each one of those countries is complex / nuanced enough that I do not need to pretend to be “Africa-first”, whatever the phrase means. Where I have something valuable to say, I will cover other countries as well.