Travel notes and chronicles from a community tech conference and Android development workshop held in Guinea, West Africa.
This project was a joint effort between Google Developer Group (GDG) Conakry, Word Consulting, and Button.
It had been 10 years since my last trip, and I was long overdue for a visit. Memories of friends, culture, and country were all starting to fade. As the years went by it felt like I was starting to lose touch.
It has long been a goal of mine to find a way to give back to the place and people who had given me so much. Learning the music, dance, history, and culture of Guinée has enriched my life in many ways.
The Republic of Guinée is rich in natural resources, yet remains one of the poorest countries in West Africa and in the world due to mismanagement, corruption, and the legacy of colonialism. However, there is no shortage of energy, creativity, passion, and grit. If only given the right tools and access to opportunities, the sky would be the limit.
When I decided to return this year for the first time in 10 years (my last trip was in 2008), immediately I set out to find a way to reach out to the tech community. Previously all my contact had been either with the drum and dance community or with Peace Corps volunteers stationed there.
This was going to be a new chapter.
Entrer en Contact
As an Android engineer by trade, I have long been involved with the Google Developer Group (GDG) community here in North America. I was a founding member and organizer of GDG Philadelphia (Android Alliance), and a current member of GDG NYC and New York Android Developers. This seemed like as good a channel as any to begin my search.
After some amount of searching, I managed to find a page for GDG Conakry on the Facebook, although it had been about two years since a new event was posted. There was however, a recent post about several members attending GDG DevFest Abidjan in Ivory Coast, so I assumed the group must be at least somewhat active.
I decided on the following plan of action:
Step 1: Create a Facebook account (I am not a regular user)
Step 2: Send a message to the GDG Conakry group
Step 3: ?
I can only imagine how a random message out of the blue from some engineer in New York with terrible French and a newly minted Facebook account looked to the organizers of the group.
Hello! I am an Android engineer in New York and I have worked with GDG NYC, GDG Philadelphia, Droidcon NYC, and Droidcon San Francisco. I will be in Conakry this April for short stay. You can contact me via email or LinkedIn.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a reply !
Ok, you are welcome here among us
We will prepare for your arrival
The response I received was from M. Kouame Kan Romeo, Assistant General Director of Word Consulting and co-organizer of GDG Conakry. This was the beginning of a lengthy email correspondence over which we formed a partnership planning upcoming meetings and events that would take place during my stay.
We settled on a two primary events. First, a community tech conference and panel discussion, or La Conference, which would be an open discussion about the value of technology training and entrepreneurship.
The conference would be followed by La Formation, a two-day hands-on training workshop where students could learn the fundamentals of Android development.
The events would be a joint effort of GDG Conakry, Word Consulting, and Button. They were to be hosted at the University of Simbaya in Conakry.
It was also decided that since the majority of attendees would not speak English, the panel discussion and tech talks should all be in French. While I was somewhat conversational in the language, I had never before used it for my work in tech. This was going to be a challenge.
My first impressions upon arriving in Guinée was that many things had changed since my last visit in 2008, but also many things were very much the same.
Things that were new
- Traffic in Conakry is a big problem
- Motorbikes are everywhere (as a workaround to the traffic problem)
- My money did not work anymore (there was a new currency)
- Stuff costs a lot more than it used to (inflation is a big problem too)
- The exchange rate had more than doubled for USD to GNF (see inflation)
Things that were the same
- Basic services like water, electricity, and internet are still not reliable
- Despite higher traffic volume the roads are still in terrible shape
- The people are some of the most warm and welcoming in the world
- The music, dance, and cultural arts are unbelievably powerful
- It’s still very, very hot
The night before the La Conference, M. Kouame and the other organizers came to meet me at the house where I was staying to make all the arrangements for the next day. Every detail from transportation to previewing the presentation was covered and accounted for.
This was the first time we had met in person, and it was also the moment when all the things we discussed and planned over the previous four weeks started to feel very real.
The next morning we arrived at the University of Simbaya in Conakry around 9am. The power grid in Conakry is not strong enough to supply the whole city with power at the same time, so electricity rotates from one neighborhood to the next throughout the day.
When we arrived the university, there was no electricity and a generator was running for backup power. While this was strong enough to power laptops, microphones, and ceiling fans (Dieu merci), it was not strong enough to power the elevator. As a result we got to walk up the seven flights of stairs in the heat and humidity to reach the room where the conference was to be held.
Upon arriving, we met with several new faces including the M. Keita, the head of the Computer Science department at the University of Simbaya. M. Keita explained that even though the university was open, the students were on break due to the Vacances de Pâques (Easter Vacation) and classes would not resume until the following Monday. Many of the students were away visiting family in the village, so we might have a lower turnout than originally hoped.
After a brief discussion about whether to postpone the event until the following week, we decided that would be unfair to those attendees who did show up (and maybe cut their vacation short) so we should proceed as scheduled.
As we moved from the meeting room to the conference room, despite the previous conversation the room was packed! I did not know what to expect and I was blown away. There were no shortage of attendees and in fact there was standing room only.
After a lengthy introduction for each member of the panel, it was time for me to deliver my first French tech talk on the topic of Quoi de neuf: Android P or What’s new in Android P.
I had been rehearsing for several weeks now, but once the time had arrived imposter syndrome was kicking in strong. For a moment, I seriously doubted if the attendees would understand a single word I said.
The hardest part of preparing for this tech talk was knowing what to keep in English and what to translate into French. Especially at the code level, Android APIs are all in English. But many of the higher level technical concepts had very different names in French.
Judging by the faces in the audience, most of what I said was understood. Also based on the occasional fits of laughter my pronunciation of some words was apparently very entertaining. Either way, we made it through it.
After my tech talk, several of the other members of the panel spoke about how its important to invest in learning and technology as a community, as well as the power of entrepreneurship. Then we opened the floor up to questions.
Questions et réponses
The Q&A session was enlightening. In addition to the usual questions about the subject matter, there were some that were completely unexpected. Several questions were about technology in general and Google as a company. Also a number of the attendees had legitimate reasons to be angry with Google, and given this event was organized by GDG Conakry, saw this as an opportunity to air their grievances.
Some of the questions asked were things like:
- Will my apps stop working on Android P?
- Do you have any recommendations for building apps that cache remote data offline for when internet is not available?
- What is the relationship between GDG and Google?
- What other projects are currently being worked on at Google?
- Why did Google take away the Student Ambassador Program in Guinée?
- Why aren’t there more Google servers in Africa?
- Why doesn’t Google Maps work better in Conakry?
- What is the difference between Android and Firefox?
- What is Android?
There was even one individual who, once getting the microphone, went on at length about his broken Android tablet that should have been covered by warranty, but Google had refused to fix it.
Unfortunately since we are not official representatives of the company, we could not do that much to help other than to explain the difference between Google and GDG.
The conference concluded with a sales pitch for the upcoming training workshop during which, in typical Guinée fashion, an argument broke out over the cost, and consequently the fee was lowered from 250,000 GNF ($27.50) to 150,000 GNF ($16.50) for the two-day class.
At the end of the day, despite the sometimes intense debate, everyone was in good spirits and I was grateful for the experience and excited for the training workshop, which was just two short days away.
The following Monday, we returned to the University of Simbaya for La Formation, a two-day hands-on introduction to Android development. For some of the students, it was their first time ever doing Android development or any sort of programming at all.
The biggest challenge of the entire workshop was downloading and installing Android Studio.
The biggest challenge of the entire workshop was downloading and installing Android Studio along with the required platform components to get started. The IDE is not small, and with unreliable electricity and internet connectivity completing the setup process proved to be rather difficult.
It’s things like this we take for granted sometimes, but actually have the biggest impact on what is possible with technology education in developing countries.
Most people have low-end devices with metered data plans and limited access to wi-fi. This makes things like data caching and offline mode extremely important, which we spent a large amount of time covering in the workshop. In addition, we covered topics like building your first app, fetching data from a remote server, creating an interactive UI, and populating a list.
At the end of the second day, every student received their certificate of completion which was well deserved after all of their hard work.
Plans are already underway with GDG Conakry and Word Consulting to hold more tech events in Guinée and across West Africa. In 2019, we hope to host the first major two-day tech conference based in Conakry with local and international speakers.
In order to reach that goal, there are several milestones that we need to address along the way:
1. Basic infrastructure must be improved.
Without reliable access to electricity, water, and internet it would be very difficult to accommodate a large group for a major tech conference.
2. More local community events need to be held on a regular basis.
Building a tech community is much easier if you have regular events that can help individuals grow their network and their skills.
3. Financial and logistic factors mean that a traditional computer science education out of reach for many people.
One of the best ways to improve technology training around the globe is to focus on boot-camps, workshops, and code labs, as this will allow more people to take advantage of larger tech events and maximize their opportunities.
I am very grateful that Button is supporting this project, and I am hopeful for the future of technology training and the software development community in Guinée and the across all of Subsaharan Africa.
If you are an individual or organization who is currently or interested in becoming more involved in international technology outreach, please get in touch — it would be great to hear from you!