Taking note of Africa

Today, Evernote is the go-to tool for collaboration and research. Now it hopes to ride the wave of Africa's looming internet boom.

Read time 4min 30sec

Africa is verging on a growth explosion. At least, that's what many are hoping for. A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute predicts a $300 billion jump in the continent's GDP by 2025 - if the internet grows as proposed. Although McKinsey tends to fall on the optimistic side of the curve, it's not alone. According to Digital Africa, a 2011 Economist expose on the topic, back then at least a quarter of Mogadishu's residents accessed the internet once a week, a considerable number when you consider Somalia's perpetual state of war.

We are committed to having developers all over the world, including third parties, creating software specific to their markets.

Linda Kozlowski, Evernote

The point is that Africa clearly has a hunger for getting connected. Standing in the way are infrastructure shortfalls and political will, but those attitudes are changing. In 2009, one submarine cable serviced the continent; today, there are over 15. And leaders are waking to the possibilities: Rwanda has been prolific in providing connectivity to its citizens and all of the 19 countries profiled in the McKinsey report Lions Go Digital have policies towards pushing internet development. Google and Facebook are spending a lot digitising the continent and smartphone sales in Africa are on an unprecedented hot streak. Even though it's fair to be cautious around the continent's tech prospects, there is enough reason to keep that champagne ready.

So when one hears about a startup's plans for Africa, it may seem like a case of jumping onto the bandwagon. This was the first impression some got when Evernote's vice president of international marketing, Linda Kozlowski, made pro-Africa comments at Kenya's DEMO Africa late last year. Around the same time, the company revealed expansion of its business offerings to South Africa. This seems like a case of me-too, following the big boys like Facebook into Africa.

A natural match

But such impressions may prove wrong. While Evernote is a blue-blooded Silicon Valley firm, its outlook is very international. And Africa is a natural match.

"Helping people manage knowledge, store and retrieve ideas is an important part of what we're doing at Evernote," Kozlowski tells Brainstorm in a telephonic interview. "The rise of knowledge economies in Africa is a great match for what Evernote sets out to accomplish." For the uninitiated, Evernote is a digital notebook, the digital notebook service used popularly over numerous smart and computer platforms. Established in 2007, it has grown to become a global brand name and home to over 75 million users. The majority ? three quarters ? are non-US users, making Evernote a truly international company. And with this comes experience ideal for penetrating the African market: large chunks of Evernote's customers reside in developing regions like Latin America, India and East Asia. It also services several 'mobile only' markets, a boon among startups that often adopt the blinkers of First World tech infrastructure. Indeed, that multinationalism comes with a secret weapon.

"Emerging markets represent rapid innovation growth," says Kozlowski. "We don't change the functionality [of Evernote] for different markets. Instead, we're building a ubiquitous high-quality experience. But we are committed to having developers all over the world, including third parties, creating software specific to their markets."

Third-party apps have long been a part of the Evernote strategy and delivered richly. Kozlowski cites two examples: an add-on to use native Mandarin characters, designed by a Taiwanese developer, and an SMS-to-note system for feature phones devised by an Indian programmer. Such innovations have helped deliver market-unique experiences, and explain Evernote's overwhelming foreign appeal.

Blurred lines

Evernote bucks another trend: while many startups are pinning their financial futures on data mining, this company has quite the opposite idea: "Your information is yours. It's Evernote's job to protect it and give you access whenever you want it," says Kozlowski.

As such, Evernote has been successful at selling enhanced options of its services. The latest, Evernote Business, offers a collaboration environment for business that also supports personal users. Kozlowski notes: "The lines between work and personal life are blurring. So we recognise that you'd want to see both aspects at the same time, and that you don't always want a business to see your personal notes." Likewise, companies would like their employees to engage but not walk off with precious business intelligence. The goal with Evernote Business is to give both sides their piece of cake, all while establishing a knowledge ecosystem for a company.

But while Evernote has introduced this offering to markets like South Africa, it's looking for bigger things from the continent. The impetus is there. Kozlowski defines Evernote as a company that is led by its users: "We have over 800 000 users in Africa and that's without doing anything."

While other companies stumble to get their Africa strategy in order, Evernote already seems like a natural fit.

First published in the March 2014 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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