As part of my current exploration of opportunities for Mifos in Africa, I’m building out two different business plans. The first, detailed here, would create an Institute for Open Source and Software Entrepreneurship (IOSSE – just a working name) based in Accra, Ghana. The second, which I’ll outline in a future post, would create an investment organization and R&D lab (loosely modeled on MPOWER Labs) based in Nairobi, with an initial focus on building a Mifos company that delivers a mobile-centric experience.
For the IOSSE in Accra, the primary goals will be:
- Work as part of the global Mifos community to foster further software development and innovation in Mifos and to work closely with Mifos specialists and MFIs in sub-Saharan Africa to maximize the positive impact of Mifos for the poor
- Work as part of the local software community to develop and nurture software entrepreneurs in Africa
- Support the development and impact of open source software in Africa
The core idea is to build a small organization that is actively working with real customers, initially focused on Mifos but later expanding to other open source projects, and that partners with local organizations (such as Ashesi University and MEST) to provide opportunities for local software entrepreneurs to gain real-world experience, learn from more experienced software developers and entrepreneurs, and contribute to open source projects that have an impact in Africa.
Depending on what happens with the global Mifos community (for example, will a global independent organization be created to continue to foster Mifos worldwide?), the IOSSE could play either a leadership or a contributing role to the oversight of Mifos. Our primary objective will be to advance Mifos’ impact in Africa, but doing that effectively will require a strong global community.
In the local Ghana software community, the idea would be for the IOSSE to work actively with other organizations like Ashesi, MEST, Google, and others who are working on strengthening the software community and industry in Ghana. I think that this will take a lot of collaboration across entities. It may involve creation of an iHub-like environment in Ghana (perhaps hosted at IOSSE?), or may take a different direction (less co-working space, more mentorship?). I’ve heard that conferences are very popular here in Ghana, but often end up with the same topics and speakers time after time. I haven’t spent enough time here to know what the right things are to create in order for the software entrepreneur environment to improve, but I imagine there are people working and living here who do.
The IOSSE organization itself would likely be quite small:
- A handful (3-5?) of developers, including at least one senior developer/architect and one with strong QA experience
- A product manager doubling as the Mifos community liaison
- A business/sales person who focuses on both partnerships with Mifos Specialists and direct MFI customer work
- A managing director or equivalent – although in this small an organization, that person may double up on the business/sales side
- Depending on how the organizations activities shake out – for example, will the org do cloud hosting or direct customer implementations and support – we may need to add support/services staff and sysadmin types
With that staffing level, and an initial focus on Mifos, the org could contribute to ongoing software development of Mifos (primarily around features relevant to African MFIs) and (hopefully) further the adoption of Mifos in Africa through both Mifos Specialists and direct MFI relationships.
From an overall talent development perspective, IOSSE could offer mentorship to emerging local software entrepreneurs and exposure to real-world software development and entrepreneurship practices. For example, by exposing software entrepreneurs to what it means to ship production software or to develop a customer-centric product roadmap and customer development process, IOSSE could augment raw business and coding talent with the skills needed to make a successful software company.
Beyond that, IOSSE might work with local educational organizations to develop co-delivered courses that bridge the gap between purely academic computer science courses and on-the-job experience. One idea that Patrick Awuah at Ashesi and I have brainstormed is the creation of an “Applications” course that would include both business and computer science students and pair them – one-on-one – with counterparts in IOSSE who are working on Mifos features, marketing, implementations, or whatever. The course would provide conceptual instruction on practical software entrepreneurship topics, and the 1×1 work with mentors at IOSSE would put that learning to immediate work and provide field experience to students.
Over time, IOSSE would look to branch out to other open source projects that are relevant and active in Africa (perhaps RapidSMS?). The IOSSE team will need to evaluate those opportunities once the organization is reasonably well established and has its first project – Mifos – well in hand.
There’s a lot more to learn, challenges to overcome, and big questions to answer before this can get off the ground:
- Can we find the talent to build the organization? This is probably the biggest challenge faced by everyone in Ghana. For IOSSE, having strong software architecture skills and experience in-house is critical to both the Mifos goals and to talent development overall.
- What are the local market needs for MFIs who might be using Mifos?
- How could IOSSE contribute to the local software entrepreneur community most effectively?
- Will the global Mifos community thrive independent of Grameen Foundation?
- Can this be done in a cost-effective way? Can it become financially sustainable over time, and is that important?
- The goals need to be refined and focused. Is this primarily a center for entrepreneurship, about advancing specific OSS projects, or spawning software companies?
The business plan itself needs a lot of work, and I’ll be focusing on that in the next couple of weeks to understand more specifically what the IOSSE would do, the resources needed, and what we’d have to get right to make it work effectively.
What am I missing? Can you help me make this stronger?