On Hackathons

Over the weekend of 12th – 14th May, I was privileged to be a mentor at the 2017 MTN App Challenge. The App Challenge is an annual hackathon organised by MTN Uganda. As a mentor, my role was to basically help steer the teams in the right direction.  It was genuinely heart warming to see the levels of enthusiasm on display in the hall over the 3 days. Here are a few reports from the event. Congratulations to the winners, especially the JustGo team (quite a few of us mentors felt they were on course to win as soon as we interacted with them).

Unfortunately, no matter how fired up participants feel during and immediately after a hackathon and no matter how warm the glow of victory is for the victors, the reality of tech innovation in this country means that only a handful of the ideas from such events will ever gain meaningful traction. Contrary to many people’s opinions, this is not always because the ideas are not business worthy or because they “don’t solve real problems” (as an aside, I truly hate that phrase). If Facebook or Google had been born in Uganda with exactly the same initial features/capabilities, neither would have grown to become the huge behemoths that they are today. If anyone thinks otherwise, I’m afraid they might be a bit high on something. The biggest challenge is the almost complete lack of suitable funding but there are many other challenges such as cost of connectivity, tiny local market, access to markets beyond our borders etc. As a country, we need to collectively look at all these issues comprehensively and start fixing them. Given our dismal employment statistics coupled with an exploding population, we desperately need successful ‘tech-preneurs’.

All said however, it was amazing to see how much work the teams managed to squeeze into 48 hours. I’ve always firmly believed that it is unrealistic to expect developers to complete working products in such a short time and that hasn’t changed. In fact, I hope that the participants got to see exactly how hard it is to develop real solutions and they now know more than ever that developing commercially viable solutions is a painfully hard and often lengthy process. I also hope that they got to properly appreciate the non-technical (business) side of product development – acquiring partners, motivating staff, raising capital and most importantly, convincing would-be users. This stuff is super hard and anyone who decides to plunge into it should be ready for a hard, long slog. Interestingly enough, a few days later, I met a few of the participants at Outbox where we were preparing for UCC’s ACIA event. And we were in the same boat this time as competitors despite the age/experience difference. If anything, this illustrates how long the struggle to build a sustainable business is – you just have to keep going.

BUT – and if you’re to take away anything from this post, let it be this: I also hope that the participants got to see how much they were able to achieve in the limited time. Yes, it might have been hard going but they all actually created something from scratch. Creating stuff is hard but it can be done – it is not rocket science (just close). And given enough time/effort, you can refine your creation into something many people will want to use.