Tale of Zanzibari woman who found fortune on the Internet

Saturday June 6 2020

She is possibly retired now, having handed the

She is possibly retired now, having handed the business to a grandchild who ran it down. Can’t stop wondering though; who was that pioneer digital entrepreneur in Zanzibar? FILE PHOTO | NMG  

CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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This is the 31st anniversary of the Internet globally, but these things often arrive late on Africa’s shores.

Hard to imagine, but it’s only the 20th anniversary of the Internet’s “proper” arrival in Africa, although some early adopters on the continent got there before that. Barely a dozen newspapers on the continent at that time had websites.

After the Internet arrived, coinciding with the beginning of the wide spread of the mobile phone, they took off with a fury.

However, it’s only about 10 years since we started seriously thinking of making money online. The memory of the first presentation I sat in about using the Internet in Africa to grow business is still fresh in my mind. I had been to places outside Africa where people were making noises about it, but not here at home.

It happened in Mombasa in 2000. A then fairly young UK Department for International Development and British Council organised a workshop there and invited a couple of people in East Africa who were known to be tinkering with the Internet.

There was a smart, but sweaty and twitchy lad who had come from London to present.

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Perhaps sensing bored expressions on some people’s faces, he decided to bring it to East Africa. He told us the story of a woman in Zanzibar, a leading maker of handicrafts for tourists.

She had a small good business going. Every year tourists came, and every year she sold pretty much the same quantities of handicrafts and was happy.

One day in 1998 or 1999 someone from the British Council who was searching for people to work with, approached her and told her she could grow her business significantly if she used the Internet. She had heard of the Internet in idle talk on the island, but never paid attention.

Fortunately, she listened. You couldn’t yet sell stuff on the Internet at that time, but she was told how she could get a computer, a dial-up modem, get on the internet, and find out about colour and other style preferences of the people from countries that sent most tourists to Zanzibar.

Straw hats

If British women were in the mood that summer for short brimmed hats with yellow bands, she made straw hats with short brims to sell to them when they came to Zanzibar. If the Germans liked bigger-brimmed hats with purple bands, she would make a few of those too.

She became among the first small business women to use a computer and the Internet on the island, and her business exploded. At the time, her name wasn’t important. A handicraft woman in Zanzibar was enough.

Today, of course, we would have asked for her Facebook and Pinterest pages, and checked her out immediately. She is possibly retired now, having handed the business to a grandchild who ran it down. Can’t stop wondering though; who was that pioneer digital entrepreneur in Zanzibar?

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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