When you receive an e-mail from Nigeria mentioning a business proposal and the intent to wire funds to you, the reaction is positively pavlovian:
Oh, that again. How many millions do I stand to make now?
This one, however, was different. The client on the other side of the wire really did contact me because he had trouble paying.
Looking into this account, I saw that he had succesfully paid before (through a friend abroad, as I found out later), he just needed a new connection this time.
It crept up on me how odd this was - A client who had gone through a good deal of trouble paying me before asking me what trouble he could go through now, to pay me again.
Not odd in itself, but in comparison to other requests:
Part of my job consists of trying, over and over again, to reassure prospective clients that it is a worthwhile investment of their time and money to go with my software.
Often times, the reaction is not curiosity or goodwill, but something ranging between the aloof and the mocking.
Alright, buddy, so you seem to think your software is good? Well, you better make sure I'll be happy on the other side of this transaction or I'll be seriously angry with you.
None of that was to be seen here.
I decided that instead of figuring out what byzantine process we'd have to go through to get his funds to me, I would extend his membership in exchange for a promise of forum participation and a chance at investigating this story a little further.
While fighting half a dozen urges to include 419-related puns in my reply ("You kindly forgot to include the number of millions you need me to take care of."), it hit me that I really don't know anything about Nigeria. Except that it is a country in Africa and quite different compared to where I live. And, yes, they are somewhat infamous for what is known as 'advance fee fraud'.
This lead to one of those predictable wikipedia sprees during which I found that I was at least correct so far, but that there is a ton that I simply don't know.
"Cifatake" CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V.
The most astonishing thing about Nigeria, to me, was the scale.
Being brought up in the 80s, I'm used to the old-style world maps, where everything south of Europe and the US was conspicuously warped in its size and one could have reasonably concluded that the United States are en par with the entire African continent in terms of land mass.
(Africa is of course a lot larger than that, so much larger in fact, you could fit the US in there, comfortably. And then India. And Europe. And Japan. And China.)
So I already knew that I could expect Nigeria to be larger than I had imagined - but I wasn't prepared to learn that it is actually the 7th most populous country in the world, beating Russia by a cool 20 million, making it twice as populous as my own country and just above half as populous as the US.
"Fahrt nach Kaduna" CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V.
Next Eleven & Old Vices
Still - At 0.459 points, it ranks 156th on the Human Development Index.
Or: Just 31 places away from rock-bottom.
It is a fast riser, though - so much so that it is considered one of the "Next Eleven": one of the countries that may lead the world with the largest economy in the 21st century.
This suggests two things: raging inequality and tons of wild tales.
Like the one about how they would drop 40% in their HDI rating if it was adjusted for income inequality (still beating the US in terms of inequality, though, but that's not really much of a challenge).
Or the one about poverty being still on the rise, with more than 60% living on less than $1 a day.
How their president - a Zoologist by the name of Goodluck Jonathan - was the first ever head of state to announce his re-election on facebook.
Or how their country is in the top 15 in terms of fertility (averaging more than 5 children per woman), making every fourth African born a Nigerian.
And so on and so on.
"But what about the scams?", you might ask, "How come they still keep those going?".
First off: They were never restricted to Nigeria, with early scams (carried out by physical mail, dating back decades) being initiated from a wide variety of countries - although African countries are indeed a common source.
They became a prominently 'Nigerian' issue in the 1980s during a period with an exceptionally corrupt government bankrupting the country, leading into a temporary military dictatorship (one of many, unfortunately).
With the possibilities of the Internet drastically reducing the cost, the scam was picked up again in various places.
Second: The reason why they still keep going - from Nigeria or elsewhere - is, as determined in a recent study, one of evolutionary self-selection: the scam being so commonly known, only profoundly credulous people bite these days, meaning that the people who do bite are by definition a rare, yet exceptionally exploitable commodity.
"Fahrt im Norden Nigerias" CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V.
As with all wiki sprees, my mind was spinning as I went to bed that night. There were tons of interesting facts to know about this country, but here was an actual person I was in contact with, who could help me navigate the facts and put them in context.
And he liked my software!
Making a deal with my head to finally go to sleep after this, I resolved to ask him for an interview the next day. (Not that that really helped... Dangit Wikipedia, why do you always ruin my life?!)
A week passed without a reply and I started getting a little anxious.
After all, a request like this could easily come across as exploitative - conducting an interview dripping with cheritable greed, exploiting my own ignorance (and that of potential readers), providing colorful stories of a different, exotic life for my own benefit. Also - hadn't I read, just a week before, that Ethiopa (en par with Nigeria in terms of HDI) had straight out made using skype illegal? (A story that, it now seems, was blown out of proportion.)
I had mentioned skype in my email, could I get somebody in trouble with that?
It turned out to be a lot simpler - Internet and Power supply simply aren't that steady in African Suburbia and an outage had cut off the connection in bits and bytes for a couple of days.
(My wife gleefully remarked how beneficial such a thing could be for my own mental health.)
Three days later, I confirmed our appointment with a regular cellphone text message - because Internet is something that you switch on when you need it in rural Nigeria.
You know - instead of being always on in four devices around you, simultaneously.
Furthermore, Babatunde had to make sure he was in his office and had the generator running for reliable power supply. (I told him that I hadn't even seen a generator in my entire life.)
First, we tried Google Hangouts, but couldn't get the sound to work. Thinking it a technical problem, we switched to skype, but even there - no luck. Turns out the connection just couldn't support audio - but video worked ok, somehow. The video quality was better with Hangouts, though, so we will probably go with that next time.
Trying to establish a video connection
While I was sitting comfortably behind my high-speed DSL line (that really annoys me because I only get half of the potential 16mbps at my apartment!), landlines aren't even available where Babatunde lives, so he has to make do with a set of two cellphone modems that he has to swap if one of the networks drops out completely.
Which happened twice in two hours.
He was working on a used Compaq laptop with 2 gigs of RAM that he got three years ago. While we were developing this article and he was uploading pictures for me (at their original quality, one 2MB image can take up to an hour to upload), he upgraded to a new laptop, which you can see in the picture below.
The best thing about that? Up to 8 hours on a single charge, which means less noisy generator time.
Since a voice connection wasn't an option, we sticked to text chat via Google+ (so actually, technically, XMPP) and seeing eachother through the video in skype - which dropped out every ten minutes due to bandwidth issues.
At work in the office - CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 by Babatunde K. Akano
Of course, even this level of connectivity places Babatunde in the circle of a select few and he made no secret of the fact that being related, by family, to members of the political class puts you in a position of such privilege. But while some may take that as an invitation to buy into the systematic corruption, he was tired of that and anxious to help make a difference in his country, his main port of call being education.
One of the central issues we discussed was, predictably, trust - Babatunde explained to me that while it certainly was a problem when dealing internationally, it's similar within the country.
Trust has a lot to do with what's at stake for the people involved - We tend to trust people when we know abusing our trust simply isn't in their interest, or at least not worth their while. So to an outsider, most developing countries are by default less trustworthy because they think themselves as having more to lose.
Babatunde had to deal with his own trust challenge: Payment by credit card or even bank wire transfer does exist, but access to it varies wildly, making the request and tracking of payments a bottleneck to many businesses who want to operate beyond city or town borders.
Working with universities, he needed to figure out a way to efficiently manage payments from students coming from a wide variety of social backgrounds, few of them with access to electronic payment.
If you don't have the option to ask students to wire the funds, you would have to have them come to your offices and pay in cash - one by one. A logistical nightmare, especially when the information infrastructure is lacking.
The solution was simple but clever: Using a combination of AlphaUser Points and AEC, he has created a miniature system of legal tender where Points are equivalent to one Naira and can be used to pay for services within AEC (a recent feature I had added in a flight of fancy, not thinking much of it).
To get those Points to students, he uses the Coupon feature in AUP to create vouchers at fixed values that are sold to street vendors at a 20% discount - each 80 kobos worth of coupons you buy, you can then sell for one Naira to students.
Street View from Tunde's Office - CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 by Babatunde K. Akano
Web of Trust
In a way, this is similar to the Web Of Trust approach: The university sell coupons to merchants who have trust that there is demand and that they will be able to sell them at a profit. Students buy them from merchants because they can trust in being able to use them - to establish that trust, every student who signs up at first is granted 150 Points to be used on courses.
Trust is also often related to proximity: We trust the people close to us, both in terms of personal relation and in measurable distance, cherishing family and the local community around us.
In a country with such large discrepancies, a street vendor next door may be somebody you have known for a long time, so the local bonds accumulate trust - trust that simply doesn't exist when you find yourself in another town, trying to sell a promise of services.
Thus, trust is hard earned, but also subject to network effects - Obviously, the students don't have a direct personal relationship with a university before they go there. But maybe they have somebody in their family (or the family next door) who went.
Similarly, sending money to another city may be strange, but buying coupons from a local vendor that you can reimburse in that city later on taps into that web of trust.
A sample of coupons - with an outdated domain name.
Bottlenecks & A Plan
Still, this approach was a little cumbersome in its execution: The coupon codes have to be generated by hand, exported into a spreadsheet, copied into a printable coupon form, then be printed and cut.
I instantly got hit by a rush of "I need to optimize this process".
The best way of building trust if you have little frame of reference is by building it step by step.
We ended up making a plan for a couple of very simple additions to AEC - Since he only needed the tracking of points, not the additional functionality, we would migrate that from AUP to AEC and offer a virtual payment processor dealing with coupons and points exclusively. Second, we would work on an automation for the generation of physical coupons.
All of these were additions that I had either pondered or already half finished, but always seemed a little too out-there for me.
Seeing such a direct need made them suddenly very real and concrete.
Plus, in exchange for a little work, I would get a good story to tell.
Works for me.
The view down the street - CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 by Babatunde K. Akano
Postscript: Demographic Adventures
Particularly in our conversation about the difference in demographics I managed to crack Babatunde up a couple of times (and from the video, I could tell that he really meant LOL when he wrote it).
Compared to Nigeria, Germany is quite literally dying out, with many young people finding themselves having to financially support the older population who unfortunately have little left to contribute to the economy.
("Now that's what I call inequality", he quipped. Touché.)
We resolved that an exchange program was needed, trading sunlight and young Nigerians for Internet and power connectivity. (Try selling that to the old folks around here, though...)
In any case, he found my tales of 'First World Problems' (Never seen a generator! My way to work takes almost a minute - from the bedroom to the room next to it! Being so used to steady power and good Internet that I get pissed when they don't work!) about as entertaining as I found his tales of the challenges he faces fascinating.
As we were talking, though, it became apparent that if you were to remove all the filters of our cultural differences and the individual struggles, a lot about the work we do was very similar, just informed by different requirements.
Street View from Tunde's Office - at night - CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 by Babatunde K. Akano
The world is small when your job is "the Internet"
We concluded that we both fit the term of a "knowledge worker" quite well, even if on completely different levels. In a way, he distilled the universal truth about knowledge workers:
...even if the more fortunate of us living in developed countries don't even see "Power" as a thing to have a desire for.
Similar to other countries, in Germany, it is required by law that every household needs access to electricity and moving into a new apartment means that power will already be there - you just have to claim the account and pay for what you have used. And if you can't pay it, the government will.
I suggested that moving to a bigger city might at least give the opportunity to have a landline for a better connection, multiplying his capacity to carry out his work. (He also works on a per-job basis as an internet researcher - with often terribly outdated libraries, it's a popular service to offer to others.)
He was particularly fond of walking to work (he lives about a 15 minutes walk away from the office he works at) and he mentioned that that would be one of the qualities he would miss in a bigger city.
When I inquired whether the problem was because it was too crowded? Or too dangerous? Or just too boring? He said - Yes. All of those.
(Also, the power supply issues are similar in larger cities, so the only real difference was the Internet connection.)
Tunde visiting his aunt (plus his wife and one of his sons) - CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 by Babatunde K. Akano
Post-Postscript: What's up next
We will of course continue to follow Babatunde as I implement some new features for him, this being the first post in what I will try to make a recurring series - highlighting interesting uses of AEC and other instances of where my software brings 'power to the developers'.
As this is kind of new territory for me, I would love to hear some responses to this post - so if you have comments, please share them below.
If you have an interesting story to share yourself, do not hesitate to contact me. You might just trick me into developing stuff for you for free!
Article Written by David