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“Tough Skin and Brains”: Nigeria's Apps4Africa Winner Talks Tech Innovation in Africa

Nigeria's Prowork was one of three winners of the 2012 Apps4Africa Business Challenge, a competitive funding programme for African innovators, start-ups, and businesses.

Prowork is a project management and real-time collaboration tool for businesses which facilitate teamwork via mobile (Blackberry, Android and Java supporting phones), Web, and API platforms. Fresh off winning the Apps4Africa award, co-founder Francis Onwumere (FO) chatted with us about Prowork, tech innovation in Africa, and how to make the most of Nigeria's poor infrastructure.

Nwachukwu Egbunike (NE): You are among the three winners of the Apps4Africa Business Challenge. How do you feel?

FO: We are very delighted with this award and very grateful to everyone who has made this possible.

NE: What is Prowork? When and how did it start?

FO: Prowork is a mobile first enterprise class project management and collaboration solution for businesses. It’s like Microsoft’s Sharepoint or Basecamp but mobile and easier to use, more powerful, with real time collaboration everywhere, anywhere. Prowork is available via mobile, the web, SMS and a robust API to allow developers to extend the functionality.

Back in 2009 I started collaborating with my co-founders Ope and Namzo on our IT consultancy business, we used several collaborative tools but somehow it just wasn’t working. Then we discovered that we were not alone. Many businesses faced the same loss of productivity by improvising project management and collaboration.

Prowork unlocks this problem by putting power of project management and collaboration on one platform and making it mobile first such that project management takes place where the actual project activities happen. So when Startup weekend came to Lagos we decided to build a prototype at the event and in June 2012 we went commercial.

NE: What makes it unique among the numerous apps being developed daily on the continent?

FO: We are solving a pertinent problem like the other joint winners of the competition. The value proposition of technology products has to meet concrete needs of people and businesses. There are many startups in Africa solving problems, competitions like the Apps 4 Africa Award help to encourage and showcase them. We’ll get to see other unique solutions enter the spotlight in future competitions.

  • NE: Is tech innovation Africa’s future?
(Prowork team) L-R: Ope, Francis and Namzo

(Prowork team) L-R: Ope, Francis and Namzo. Photo used with permission from Francis Onwumere

Technology innovation is the future of the whole world. It however presents a special opportunity for Africa to leap frog the gap between them and developed countries. In today’s world, every aspect of our lives and industry benefits from technology hence there is ample room to innovate.

 

NE: Some people argue that African tech innovators are not really innovators, that we clone or imitate tools that have been developed in the West already. Is that true?

FO: It will be difficult here to give a yes or no response. Education, formal or informal, gives insights for creativity. Hence the West and Africa have a lot to learn from each other.

NE: Why is it a challenge for African technology entrepreneurs to turn the apps they create into viable businesses?

FO: Entrepreneurship training and mentorship is missing in most of our curriculum, you can’t go very far with a trial and error strategy. There is then a need for people who have done it and been there to hand-hold the upcoming technology entrepreneurs in the continent.

NE: What, in your view, is the significant pros or cons of building a team among Nigerian tech professionals?

FO: Every technology entrepreneur that wants to do right builds a team around people they trust, work hard, share common interests, and ambitions – i.e. friends. Without friendship, teams will fall apart when the journey gets tough.

NE: Infrastructure is a bane to development in Nigeria. How much did it affect Prowork?

FO: Growing tech companies can be significantly expensive and frustrating in Nigeria due to the infrastructure gap. However the immense market potential can offer returns that undermine this business threat. At Prowork we strategize to circumvent obstacles from a lack of infrastructure in our operating environment. You’ll need a tough skin and brains but it’ll be worth it.

NE: What can African governments do to encourage innovation?

FO: There is an urgent need to improve infrastructure and education. Every government needs to take entrepreneurship seriously by creating a favourable business climate for promising local entrepreneurs and businesses.

NE: With this recognition and award, what are your future plans?

FO: Prowork will make the most of the award, cash prize and mentorship, to increase adoption among discerning businesses across Africa, primarily.

NE: Do you have any advice to young and upcoming tech entrepreneurs in the continent?

FO: Strive for excellence, collaborate, and don’t give up. Dream and your dream will fall short.

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