January 11, 2018

WordCamp Harare 2017

In November 2017, Caspar from our customer support team traveled to WordCamp Harare in Zimbabwe as a speaker. He seemed extraordinarily impressed, so we thought we’d ask him a couple of questions about his journey.

Q: Why did you apply to speak at WordCamp Harare?

It’s true, when you’re based in Central Europe and used to attend WordCamps in your own neck of the woods, speaking at a WordCamp in southern Africa might seem a bit “off track” in geographical terms. Getting from Berlin to Harare took almost 2 days of air travel and layovers and required quite a travel budget.

So why Zimbabwe, of all places?
Out of professional curiosity, in my case backed by personal passion.

Ever since I co-funded the first WordPress meetup in Germany in 2011, I’ve had a passion for “grass-roots” community endeavours—probably because I’ve had a chance to learn first-hand how empowering it can be to get involved in a local community.
Hearing Thabo Twsana talk at WordCamp Europe on how the Harare WordPress community had started out only one year before, simply fascinated me.

Professionally, I had had Africa on my radar for years—kind of loosely, though, without getting really invested in deeper research.
When I had the chance to chat with Thabo after his talk in Paris, I was able to back my somewhat vague ambition with actual facts about what making websites means—and therefore: what a WordPress community looks like—in Zimbabwe. More fascination!

Last but not least, I love to travel and speak at WordCamps, and WP Media has been so generous to support that passion with funds and paid time off.
So I kind of ended up as a happy winner of life’s lottery here: talk proposal accepted, company travel budget approved—ready to go!

Q: What kind of talks did you see?

Confession: WordCamp has never been about the talks for me. 😊
I usually spend more time in the “hallway track” than attending presentations. When I go to see a talk, I’m usually captured by the presence of the speaker more than by what they’re actually saying. So apart from bits I may be tweeting out, it’s often hard for me to remember details from a talk later.

That being said, I attended all the presentations at WordCamp Harare, I liked all of them, and I particularly loved the great variety of topics.

From content strategy and digital marketing to developing with Docker, from mobile app integrations to e-commerce, from creatively building your own freelancer business based on WordPress to problems with inappropriate behaviour of men towards women (a.k.a. sexism) in client relationships—there were tons to learn about what being a digital freelancer is like in Zimbabwe, where WordPress comes into the picture, and where it empowers people both, professionally, and in their community.

Q: What motivated you to talk about website speed and performance optimisation?

If someone said Zimbabwe’s economy runs on mobile phones, that might be only a slight exaggeration. Pretty much everyone I met seemed to own a smartphone or feature phone, and used it to access the internet. Probably up to 98% of internet connections in Zimbabwe happen on mobile devices.

Data can be expensive, though. The average mobile website on the internet weighs almost 3 MB. For a mobile internet user, 3 MB can translate into anything between $0.03 and $0.10 (USD).

More importantly: heavy pages occupy bandwidth.
General infrastructure in Zimbabwe currently is in a shape that causes serious problems for the economy. Landlines are scarce, fibre optics pretty much non-existent, mobile data tends to be expensive, and ISPs sell WhatsApp bundles cheaper than data plans that would let you access the open web.

If the World Wide Web has become to heavy in page size to provide a business model for ISPs in countries with lower bandwidth availability, the inevitable consequence is that corporate platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp practically become “the internet” for people in said countries.

The open web empowers freedom of expression, yet many mobile internet users in Zimbabwe don’t even get a taste of it—which seems ironic at best when you consider the country’s political history.

All this reads like a cry for faster website in my book.
It’s not hard to build a fast WordPress website when you avoid some typical mistakes at the beginning of the process, so I focussed my WordCamp talk on “Fast websites and how to make them”. Needless to mention, I’m a huge fan of J.K. Rowling. 🙂

Q: Should an open source plugin company give back to the WordPress community, and why?

I’m tempted to pull out the often cited equation: Yes, because being able to build a business model on top of open source software means we have received something at no cost in the first place; something that has been built by other people who form a sort of community, and it’s only fair to give back.

While that may all be true, personally I believe in a different nuance of the same paradigm which is: self-interest (not: selfishness).

Any company must invest in the ecosystem they’re operating in, otherwise that ecosystem will eventually end up exploited and go away. Obviously, this is equally true, with even faster consequences, in the world of open source software.

While most WordPress product providers from Europe and North America seem to cater to a worldwide audience, it’s probably safe to say only very few of them really develop for markets outside their geographical and cultural comfort zone.

Try a paid plugin in a WordPress install with right-to-left text direction, chances are you end up with a visual mess more often than not. Try a paid theme with dummy content on a 2G network connection, chances are the home page takes more than 10 seconds to load and puts quite a toll on your monthly data.

While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a WordPress product company focussing on a more regional audience first when they’re starting out, I do believe that particularly smaller companies from Europe or North America can largely benefit from visiting communities in Africa, Asia, South America, or any continent or country outside of their own inherited socio-economic context.

Opening your mind as a company for the needs of WordPress users in other countries literally can open up business opportunities that may not exist in your (often saturated) markets back home.
If you’re hiring remotely, hiring talent from those countries can add to the diversity of your team, thus empower more inclusive (i.e. more successful) product development.

That being said, I obviously don’t advocate for entrepreneurial imperialism.
A learning attitude is key! Ninety percent of what you think you know may not work, or be irrelevant for the people you’re getting to know.
However, if you invest yourself honestly, and learn, your company might eventually be able to help solving some real problems—which is what I believe good business should be about in the first place.

Q: Is there a key take-away from your WordCamp Harare experience?

I was blown away more than once by how friendly Zimbabweans are. I felt welcomed at any time, anywhere, and I don’t believe that’s because I’m uniquely awesome.

If you can afford the cost of travel, I’d like to encourage you to go to a WordCamp outside of your cultural bubble. Be humble, learn. If there’s opportunity, put your knowledge and experience to work for the people you’re visiting, and take home some fresh perspective for the development of your own company.

Two of the WordCamp Harare organisers, Thabo and Thelma, with WordCamp attendees

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Comments 4

We love how passionate you are about the WordPress Community. It’s people like you that inspire me and the rest of us in Harare. Come back soon!

Oh how exciting to read through your experience!

The internet situation in Zimbabwe is very like what it used to be here in India a few years back. Having a first hand experience of the situation reinforces our core mission to make the internet faster and better for everyone.

Very impressive Caspar! *hat tip*

Thanks, Thabo, planning for it! 🇿🇼🙌

Arun, since we’re teammates already, I feel we should have a chat soon … 😉