Beyond speaking truth to power, Jamii Forums was one of the precursors of a wider digital transformation in Tanzania that has seen a growing number of people connected to devices and internet services.
This is having a profound impact on the country’s social, cultural and economic spaces, and has improved productivity and efficiency across many economic sectors.
Mobile phone technology is at the centre of this transformation, with around 42 percent of the population subscribing to a mobile service in 2018.
In January 2021, there were 50.15 million mobile connections in Tanzania, an increase of 2.6 million (or 5.5 per cent) between January 2020 and January 2021, making the number of mobile connections in the country equivalent to 82.7 per cent of the population.
Mobile internet penetration has nearly quadrupled since 2010 to 18.5 per cent, with more than eight million new mobile internet subscribers added over that period.
The country has seen a number of hubs sprouting, with 35 to 40 active hubs, including Buni, Jenga and Habari, and the government is keeping a keen eye on the sector.
Techprenuer Isaya Yunge understands the importance of innovation. “Being informed on time, staying connected globally, getting access to information, building ideas ̶ the opportunities are limitless when one is able to connect with like-minded people and has access to different solutions to challenges.”
He has high hopes for local solutions from the country’s young innovators still trying to find their way in a new and still changing ecosystem.
“I believe Tanzania should envision the future now, especially in the tech and innovation ecosystem; a bigger future that is impactful and sustainable for all. Our young innovators can produce technologies that can win wars, cure diseases, save lives, change industries, and create jobs for our growing young populations.”
The youth factor
The future of Tanzania’s economy might well rest on that youthful population. Young people are moving away from the traditional business model. They are comfortable growing their side hustles and social media presence.
Praxeda George is an accountant at a medical company in Dar es Salaam.
She is a typical example of her generation. She makes extra money selling shirts, shoes, handbags and other products that she advertises on WhatsApp.
“It started with my friends. I used to buy stuff from them because I am lazy about going to the shop. I soon saw this as an opportunity. People would say ‘I need this’ and they would pay for the product and its delivery,” she says.
Jessica Mshama is a youth trainer and motivational speaker who, at the age of 26, is managing five businesses.
The CEO of J Sisters company and managing director of Assumpter Digital Schools says she has seen youth work with whatever they have in hand. Lack of capital is no longer an excuse for inaction.
“If you have Instagram and a good WhatsApp network, you are ready to go,” she says.
With the rapid spread of smartphones, electronic gadgets, content and digital apps, social media is abuzz.
People walking around with their phones in their hands and earphones plugged into their ears as they watch videos or make local and international calls are a common sight.
Michael Mallya, co-founder and chief operating officer of digital media agency Serengeti Bytes, says social media has overturned the traditional way of communication and now everything operates on send and/or click.
Digital apps, and content and social media platforms, allow people to get any information they need. A click on a website, a visit on a profile, and a scan of a code offers you books, songs, news, and even an international video call.
“Social media is cheaper because there is no extra cost. If you have access to the internet, you can get any information you want at a relatively affordable cost compared to traditional means,” says Mallya. He credits media platforms with spawning the phenomenon of social media influencers.
“If you have a huge followership on social media and you can influence people, you can get paid.”
According to him, another advantage is that artistes can monetise their content on digital platforms, build their brands, and protect their work from copyright infringement and piracy.
But it will be a while before whatever businesses grow out of the digital arena overtake tourism, which is one of the mainstays of Tanzania’s economy.
It is also one of the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic because of its high dependence on foreign visitors. With the ongoing restrictions on travel, it is likely to take a while to recover and return to its pre-Covid levels. This has affected the livelihoods of the people in the industries that depend on it.
But some Tanzanians are not waiting around for a dramatic rollback of Covid-19 and a return of the glorious past conditions, to bring back foreign visitors. Previously, it was common to see only foreigners aboard tour trucks visiting local attractions, but things are changing.
It is now common to see a busload of local residents, perhaps many of them unable to travel comfortably even around Africa, instead heading to tourist destinations. The Magoroto Forest of Tanga and the Pugu Hills of Dar es Salaam are favourite sites for local visitors.
Frank Charles is one of the new entrepreneurs taking advantage of the situation to organise tours for both local and foreigners through his Wakanda Safaris. He insists that tourism is the new frontier for Tanzanian youths.
“Many people are now making a living through tourism. People have seen the opportunity and that is why they are making documentaries to encourage visitors,” he says, adding that Tanzanians like getaway weekends, safaris, and camping.
“I believe Tanzanians have decided to contribute to the tourism industry themselves.”
This bird’s eye view exploration ends where it started; on the streets of Tanzania. They are full of surprises. Many hardworking and enterprising residents are making a living out on the streets from tiny businesses. For some, the only space they have is a table on which they pile their wares, but they still are conducting profitable businesses there.
Mariam Saidi’s table at Buguruni Market is loaded with cassava, bananas, pineapples, and mangoes, as she quietly and confidently waits for her clients.
The mother of one is happy with her business environment because she is sure of getting a loan from her local council if she needs credit.
Tanzania’s local government authorities are required to set aside 10 per cent of their earnings for interest-free loans for women, youths, and people with disabilities. The loans have given the beneficiaries capital to start businesses and help their families.
“My business has helped me buy a house and send my daughter to a private school,” Saidi says.
She has good things to say about the environment for small businesses in her country.
“I watch the news and I have seen unstable countries. I know how business can be hard for the people. But, in Tanzania, I am sure to close my shop and find it as I left it in the morning.”