Bridging a cultural divide: How Tunga mobilized coders in East Africa (and built a community in the process)

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In areas where connectivity is becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity, it's up to innovators to find ways to utilize an emergent, hungry workforce. We caught up with Ernesto Spruyt, Founder of Tunga - an online social network that connects young African programmers with tech companies looking for help with software that appeared in our 16 Innovations from 2016 briefing in June - to talk us through community, culture and restoring the confidence of consumers. 

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What was the inspiration behind Tunga? And what have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced while both developing the idea and establishing yourselves within the market?

I am an experienced social entrepreneur and was facing a problem that many software companies face: flexible access to affordable software expertise. Not being satisfied with the available solutions, and as someone who is always looking for opportunities to create social impact, I teamed up with social innovation studio Butterfly Works to create what is now Tunga.

In the year 2000, Butterfly Works had set up NairoBits - a digital design school in Kenya, providing youths (50% female) from disadvantaged backgrounds with relevant technical, creative, business and social skills. The concept has been replicated across East Africa and South Asia under the name of Bits Academy, resulting in a community of more than 7000 trained youths of which 80% now have a job or is a business owner.

My idea from the start was to open up the market for African software programmers by developing a new kind of marketplace, one that includes social network functionalities: a market network. From the outset it was easy to find clients and also to mobilize coders from Uganda and Kenya with sufficient programming skills to successfully complete assignments for them. Our real challenge was to bridge the cultural divide in communication and working methods, as not many African developers have a lot of experience working in western environments.

What is your top tip to other professionals who seek to better understand, and stay ahead of, consumers’ changing expectations?

Tunga has tackled the challenge I just described in a number of ways: providing training & workshops, community building, and most importantly, by constantly translating feedback and experiences from the pilot projects into functionality on its online platform. And as far as I’m concerned this the best way to stay on top of changing customer behaviour: to literally stay on top of the customer. We are in constant contact with our clients and developer community, track user data, engage with stakeholders and have a policy of continuously introducing, testing and evaluating features.

You’re featured in our INNOVATION CELEBRATION briefing, falling under our ENTREPRENEURIA trend - showing how businesses that dive into and fuel this endless rush toward entrepreneurialism will attract love and attention from all consumers, not just those they help. Where do you see this strand of consumer behavior and expectation heading?

I think marketing and advertising in the past have gotten a bad reputation because they have been misused to deceive consumers instead of to serve them. Now, there seems to be a whole new generation of entrepreneurs that are once again putting the consumers’ needs first. In the end brands are about trust. So in the longer run, entrepreneurs who are able to create a customer-centric and consistent culture within their company are definitely bound for success.

What was your favorite recent innovation and why?

In the end, I believe that the best innovations come from trying to address real problems of real people in a way that business-wise makes sense. That’s why I love BitPesa, a company that uses blockchain technology to provide Africans with easy and affordable access to international payments. They really seem to succeed in putting a new technology as the blockchain to good use for both business and society.

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