[BLOG] Meet Africa's Mark Zuckerberg: Uganda’s billionaire student & tech guru
17-07-2012 05:22:24 | by: Administrator | hits: 4101 | Tags:

He’s been described as the Mark Zuckerberg of Africa: Twenty-two-year-old Ugandan IT student Abdu Ssekalala has made a fortune from mobile apps, benefiting from Africa's fast-growing telecoms market. His applications have rivaled some of the world's most popular platforms in downloads.

He's only 22 and already a billionaire - at least in Uganda where he lives. The Computing and Information Technology student at Makerere University in Kampala, develops mobile applications.

So far he has developed nine internationally recognized applications including Wordbook -- a dictionary app with a "word of the day" capability that includes definitions, examples and synonyms. "We have word book which is a dictionary and the Tutu translate which is basically a translator and then there is world sports which is a sports application for soccer fans,” he said.

Wordbook is among the most successful. The app, alone, makes him about 1.25 US dollars per download from Nokia's Ovi store and has been downloaded over 300,000 times, earning the young entrepreneur around 375, 000 USD (907 million Ugandan Shillings) so far. The highest downloads for Wordbook was in Asia. His other applications 101 Romantic SMS, nLightFlashlight and Tutu Translate, among others, also earn him a fortune through advertising deals with an elite Indian advertising network called Vserv.

With a hefty $500,000 (about Shs 1.2 billion) in savings, Ssekalala will probably rank among the richest - and humblest - Ugandans next year, when he wants to make a million dollars.

"Friends now call me 'Billionaire' and all sorts of flattering names but I am not letting it get to my head because in the first place, I was not targeting the money," Ssekalala says.

"I still go to class, greet friends and prepare my own breakfast. I live a normal life."

Software development has lately become a global phenomenon with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the social networking site Facebook, which he founded with colleagues while a student at Harvard in 2004. At age 27, Zuckerberg is already worth $17 billion (one and a half times bigger than the entire Ugandan budget for last year.

The market for mobile phone apps is huge and growing. Africa is the world's fastest growing mobile market, and is the biggest after Asia. The number of subscribers on the continent has grown almost 20% each year for the past five years, the GSM Association report on Africa says. It expects there will be more than 735 million subscribers by the end of 2012. Analysts say bad and expensive landline connections in Africa are responsible for the high mobile phone usage. Creating software for these phones is a business that knows few borders. And programmers like Ssekalala understand the needs of this market and how to meet them.

Abdu Ssekalala got his big break last year when mobile phone company Nokia held a training session in Uganda to help software developers expand their skills in building applications. He went through the course and when he developed his own application, Nokia was willing to adapt it for its online applications offerings. The mobile phone giant now sells Abdu's Apps in its specialist store, Ovi.

The Nokia Ovi Store is the firm's application store. In 2010, Nokia rolled out a platform that allows developers of data to sell it easily to its intended users worldwide. And now, bloggers, online publishers and website developers can use Nokia's Ovi Store to sell their graphics, music, movies, ring tones, text, software, digital assets and document formats.

Agatha Gikunda is Nokia's Head of Apps in East Africa, based in Nairobi. She says developers like Ssekalala have a unique opportunity through Nokia to access an international market and make money either from advertising or from revenue share per download. Ssekalala makes money from both.

"Africa is definitely the next frontier,” Gikunda says. “Developers here have a huge opportunity that they have never ever had before to create businesses that require very little startup capital. They are already trained in development so we then take them to the next step to train them in the development for a mobile phone and all you need is your computer and your idea, you publish your application for free, you select which countries around the world and that is it."

Nokia shares roughly halved last year as the company struggled to keep up with the pace of smartphone development while also losing ground at the cheaper end of the market to Asian brands.

But officials at the company say that their strategy to focus on the next billion customers will put their products in more hands than anyone else, thus giving developers like Ssekalala a wider market at a time when the demand for applications to access the internet is at a peak.

Ssekalala is still studying IT at Makerere University and is now mentoring others. He already owns two companies; Gogetta which employs eight people and Foo Technology with seven employees. Both companies focus on mobile and website development.

“Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to do something with computers and my biggest motivation has always been a desire to innovate and leave a mark that says I was once here,” he said.

He’s been described as the Mark Zuckerberg of Africa: Twenty-two-year-old Ugandan IT student Abdu Ssekalala has made a fortune from mobile apps, benefiting from Africa's fast-growing telecoms market. His applications have rivaled some of the world's most popular platforms in downloads.

- Erika Amoako-Agyei, Africa Business Review.

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