“Welcome home” said the President’s message on the Kenyan e-Visa. The feeling of African homecoming beckoned as Ankita, Hussain and I landed in the small hours of a nice and cool morning in Nairobi after an overnight flight from Mumbai. The drive to the hotel was my first experience of what Africa looked like. The highway to the hotel was clean, smooth and excellent and gave a first-world vibe. We could see greenery all around and tall skyscrapers long the horizon. The hotel itself, a small family run affair, was very well done. The floor was carpeted and the rooms were overlooking a nice neighbourhood (it was Westlands, an upscale neighbourhood), with very English looking houses. We were greeted with fresh mango juice and some samosas, beans and masala chai. Food, in Nairobi (and Africa in general) is very inspired by India. Home immediately felt good.
The week in Kenya and Tanzania was tightly scheduled. There was a training setup for Hussain at iHub in the day, and the rest of us were taken by one of our partners to the old town where I was surprised to find lovely Bauhaus inspired modern buildings. All of them were painted and the town was nearly free of litter. Our hosts, Chris and Mike at Pointers’ Hub then drove us to the industrial district where we met a few customers - a couple of them of Indian origin. 60% of businesses in Kenya are run by Indian entrepreneurs our hosts told us. The Indian entrepreneurs seemed sharp and hard working and it was great to see them make a name for themselves. Later we had lunch at an upscale chain and we were handed over to our other partner Muchai Gateru.
With Chris and Mike in old town Nairobi
Muchai has been the backbone of the Kenyan community for Frappe and ERPNext. Not only does he understand the ERP world well, he is also a true believer in open source. Muchai took us to visit one of the bigger customers, a venture funded company that ran a retail-to-farm operation in the fish industry. Housed in one of the glass towers of Nairobi, it again gave a very first-world feeling. Lucia, the project champion, gave us a low down of some of the issues they had been facing with scaling. Companies that have large amount of consumer transactions (retail or online) do not need all of their transactions hitting accounting ledgers. The transactions should be kept in a separate table and then a summary posted every few hours (or as required). This was a standard design pattern I had seen, though it is not intuitive when companies are starting small and scaling operations. I guess I will write a blog post on this.
At Victory Farms with Muchai and Lucia
During the day, I got an email from one of our oldest customers, Robert, urging me to take sometime and see the countryside. He was consulting in water distribution in the Naivasha region, a large lake a few hours from Nairobi. Since the next day was Sunday, we did not have any customer engagements but a partner meetup and the idea suddenly came for me to have a trip to the Naivasha region and the Hell’s Gate national park. So we found a local guide and booked a 10 seater van for the trip. I just hoped all the partners would be interested.
All of us met at 6.30 in the morning (Muchai showed up on Kenyan time, which is delayed by 30 minutes. I was told that Africans like to see the weather and sunlight to decide time, not the clock, so the sense of time can be very different for others. This was the first “quirk” of African culture that I noticed, there were others to come). A couple of hours ride took us to the national park. We drove through the poorer shanty towns on the outskirts of Nariobi (finally we saw what our guests called “real Africa”, though I thought the glass towers were as real) to pine forests which very much looked like the Nilgiris before descending down the hills towards the Savanna. The countryside was vast and empty with a few houses on the way. On the way we had a lovely chat talking about culture, business, politics, education and several other things. I found our African partners to be much more aware and confident than me. They were well travelled and world weary. I guess they were testing me as well.
Hell’s Gate National Park turned out to be everything you would expect from an African national park and more. It started with a wide valley of grasslands which you could go on in a bike. The air was fresh, with white cotton clouds floating on a crystal blue sky. The grass was green due to unusual rainfall the region had a couple of months ago. Immediate we were greeted by a bunch of giraffes walking a few hundred meters away. On the way we saw impalas, zebras, warthogs and wild buffaloes. At the end of the bike ride, the guide took us on a trek towards a gorge and a view point. The path on the return was uphill and hard. Somehow we made it back to our van and then we went to a local hotel for a well deserved lunch. I guess the trip was great in breaking the ice with our partners and knowing each other better. Too often business meetings take place in stuffy hotels and restaurants. The real way to know people is to have fun with them.
Hell's Gate National Park
The next day was our Frappe Local event at another upscale neighbourhood of Kenya at the “School of Government”. The venue was again lush and green and the buildings felt like I was in Kerala. The weather was nice and pleasant. Around 100 people showed up at the event where several customers and partners spoke. There was some lovely sharing of stories of how people used and implemented ERPNext and Frappe. Muchai spoke about how his relationship with Frappe as a partner had taken his business to the next level. The highlight of the event was a talk by Dr Tom Mwogi, a doctor and administrator at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, one of the largest public hospitals in Kenya. He shared how the hospital was 100% paperless on Frappe + ERPNext. They had done this completely on their own without any external help. They also shared how they used Press, the software that powers Frappe Cloud and setup their own multi-tenant cloud. They were 100% committed to Frappe and “Frappenize everything” as Dr Mwogi’s motto. It was incredible to see such a successful implementation of Frappe and it was a true testament to the power of the software and open source. The mandate for Dr Mwogi and his team is now to take this to every hospital in Kenya. All of this sounded too good to be true and I hope this becomes the reality.
Muchai and his team at Navari Ltd had done an excellent job with the event. The food was excellent and I had some lovely discussions with many community members. It reminded me of the very first ERPNext Conference in 2014, which had probably a fewer participants. In the first events, people are still just feeling their way in. I am confident after a couple of years, this community will form a solid core of the community in the region. In Muchai we also have found a great community leader who truly believes in the idea of community and sharing. It made me very proud to see what we have achieved in the last 15 years.
Frappe Local Kenya
Later in the evening we had a chat with Dr Mwogi and Peter Willy, one of our other partners from Kisumu (another city in Kenya). We were later joined by Dr Job Nyangena - the head of Digital Health in Kenya. We talked about the Kenyan government’s push on open source and I shared how Frappe and ERPNext became a catalyst for open source ecosystem in India. Again, I could see great ambition and intelligence in the people I met and just reconfirmed how wrong I was about everything I knew about Africa. In the book “The Challenge for Africa” by Wangari Mathaai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Kenya, Mathaai shares how wrongly Africa is portrayed by the media. There is always talk of civil war, poverty, hunger and malaria. The Africa I was seeing was much different. This felt like a place that was as civilised as any part of the world. Yes there were challenges like any part of the world, but I could see that there was will and capability to fix it as well.
With half our trip finished, we landed next morning in the hot and sultry city-by-the-sea, Dar es Salaam. Our Tanzanian partners (Mitesh) Choksi, (Mitesh) Khakheria and Vimal. They had come to pick us at the more modern looking airport and we drove to the old town. The old town of Dar es Salaam (Dar, as the locals call it), felt very much like a time warp of Mumbai of the 80s. A smaller, simpler Mumbai before the brands and the traffic and the malls. The old town is full of Gujaratis who have settled here for more than a century and are well integrated in the local ecosystem. The hotel was owned by the friends of our partners and while Ankita and Hussain freshened up, Choksi invited me to tea at his house nearby. The house could have been anywhere in Mumbai or Ahmedabad. Choksi’s mom made us lovely tea as we chatted about the Indian community in Tanzania and how they would feel totally out of context in Mumbai or Ahmedabad.
After visiting the office of our partners and a wonderful lunch at an Indian restaurant, we visited one of our biggest prospects, Toyota Tanzania, run by one of the largest business groups in the country, Karimjee (while Hussain did a training session with the engineers of the partners). We had a long chat operations head Amit who told us about the art of doing business in Tanzania. The region was reeling from Chinese debt and currencies were falling all over. The Western powers still controlled the region, exploiting it’s natural resources after burying them in debt and now the Chinese were doing the same. Most of the people who lived outside the networks of power and patronage had nothing to do with this. In several conversations people complained that the people in Africa were very lazy and the Chinese had to import their own workers to get things moving. I thought they had got it wrong. Maybe the rest of us were in too much of a hurry. The Africans were smart enough to realise that there is nothing to be gained by working hard. Good living conditions still remained out of reach for them and it might as well be fair to take it easy instead of being exploited.
The next day was parked for a partner meetup. Inspired by our amazing trip to Hell’s Gate, I opened Google Maps for things to do outside Dar. The island of Zanzibar showed up on the map and Google told us it was a 2 hour ferry ride. I immediately shared this with our friends and while they seemed initially reluctant, they all agreed to come. Khakheria made online bookings and the next morning we were on a ferry ride with all our partners including Nitesh and Rosemary from Softtech and Menrad from Ruti Services. Muchai was also there for a customer pitch and joined us as well. Again we had some great chats about life and culture while the beautiful blue and white coast of Zanzibar appeared in the horizon.
The island of Zanzibar is a fascinating blend of Arab, African and Indian culture and had become a big tourist destination during COVID, as there were no lockdowns and restrictions. We had a lovely breakfast by the sea and then went on a small boat to another small island in the archipelago called Changu island. The island is a tortoise sanctuary in a now defunct colonial prison surrounded by white sands, and blue and green water. It was steaming hot (summer in the southern hemisphere) by the time we reached there and a few of us also dunked in the water.
Later we came back to the old stone town for a lunch in a beautiful hotel with old world vibes. Choksi, Ankita and me also took a tour of the slave museum of Zanzibar. The town has a dark history being the capital of slave and ivory trade in East Africa. While the trade was run by the local Sultan and dates back a thousand years, in recent years it was expanded by European colonialists and also aided by Indian merchants. The scenes described immediately reminded me of the scenes in the A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) where the dragon queen goes to buy slaves (I had read the book, not seen the series). On sun-down, Choksi and Vimal took us to the local “Chowpatti” restaurant in Dar where we gorged on masala dosas. The cultural mix of Dar is something else.
The next day was our Tanzanian Frappe Local. Before the event, our hosts took us to the beach-side shacks to try some local Dar street food. We had some fascinating flavoured tapioca and sweet potato and an dish where you eat a tender coconut shell. The folks at Aakvatech and VV Systems had done a great job of organising the event. Again we heard some lovely stories of people implementing ERPNext and Frappe and developers showing love for the event. I shared my own story of starting Frappe and ERPNext and ended with Gandhi’s quote that “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, not everyone's greed”
On our final day, we met Harish Bhatt of Soft-Tech, a veteran of the industry. The drive to Masaki, a rich suburb of Dar was gorgeous. Lush green on one side, and white sands and blue sky on the other. Dar was Mumbai and Goa, rolled into one, only several times more pretty. Harish shared his story of starting Soft-Tech in the 90s when everyone in the hardware industry. The office of Soft-Tech was big and spacious and in contrast to the scrappy setups of Viva Towers (where Aakvatech and VV Systems were based, much like Frappe). Almost everyone I had met in Dar was ex Soft-Tech. Harish was a gracious host and took us for another wonderful lunch in a restaurant by the sea and he said he would be bringing a lot of government business our way.
Finally we were dropped by to the airport by Khakheria and Vimal. As we sat on the empty Dar airport, the three of us reflected on our experiences. It was one of the most amazing trips for all of us. Clearly Africa has an image problem. It felt like a wonderful time to be in Africa as well. It is not over crowded or fully capitalist like the West or what India is becoming. Time still moves slowly and not everything is valued in money. Wangari Mathaai talks of Africa being on the “wrong bus” of global capitalism or neo liberal economic model driven by global finance. Being a part of alternative communities gives me a unique insight into this. The idea of free and open source software is not about building financial empires but about creating a system based on sharing and collaboration where all of us benefit. It feels like the “right bus” to be in. I felt happy we are playing a small part in bringing FOSS and the spirit of community to Africa.