Digital Nomads: In Somaliland where 95% of the country has internet
By Olumuyiwa Olowogboyega
It’s past the close of work on Friday evening when I receive *Richard’s email. It’s a few minutes after we publish Martha’s experience across five African cities.
Richard, a business and tech journalist tells me he would like to share his experience of living in Somaliland for a year. He has also visited and worked across Ethiopia, Ghana and Togo. Needless to say, he had me at Somaliland.
When I think of Somalia, the horn of Africa, Al-Shabaab, piracy and violence come to mind. Richard’s experience is a good place to dismantle the danger of a single story.
Richard is not a newbie. After interning at the Nigerian Television Authority(NTA), he was ready for other opportunities.
He tells me: “I was excited to leave and see the other side of the world. Though, still in Africa, the excitement to try other places was overwhelming.”
His sense of adventure saw him take up a role in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
“In Hargeisa, Somaliland, I was a part-time journalist, majorly anchoring the Youngfrica TV Show, aired on most East African TV networks. We covered stories of young East Africans doing amazing stuff in art, science, education, tech, business and politics towards building their local communities. The bulk of my stay was, actually, spent in the classroom as a language and communication teacher with QETC, Hargeisa.”
Here’s what a search will tell you: Hargeisa is the capital city of Somaliland. Somaliland is a self-independent country that broke out of the bigger Somalia in 1991.
How does one prepare to visit one of the most volatile regions in Africa? You apply for a visa at the Somalian embassy.
But Richard didn’t have to go through all that. His visa came with the job.
“That’s the best shot to work and live in Hargeisa. There are loads of foreign guys working and living there courtesy of one job placement or the other, usually NGOs.
Otherwise, you might have to begin lobbying at the nearest Somalian Embassy to enter the country. And you know how frustrating visa processing can be.”
When you figure out your visa, what does one pack? Richard says journalists have to “go with their head.”
“For a journalist, you are good to go with your head to deliver, and a camera if you must. Your phone can serve well. For a teacher, textbooks you trust and won’t forgive yourself for not finding in your new space.”
Now that our bags are packed, we head to the airport.
Egal international airport is small but snappy
The Egal international airport might be half the size of the Murtala Mohammed International airport, Lagos. But whatever it lacks in size, it makes up for in efficiency.
According to Richard:
“The immigration process at Egal international is quick and snappy. You can walk through the process, at a stretch, in Somaliland. Go from one officer to another without even opening your mouth as long as you smile”.
When you’re visiting a country for work, the next thing on your mind is getting a SIM card so you can go about your business.
Here again, Richard is helped by a proxy who buys a SIM Card for him and registers it with his details. But things got serious when it was time to open a bank account and he would soon discover that in Somaliland, mobile money is everything.
Mobile money runs the Somaliland economy
“The economy runs via mobile money accounts. You pay every little thing with it. From a haircut to buying biscuits, paying house rents, receiving salaries and even paying the taxi man.”
“With your regular mobile number, you can stock up your wallet and live the on-the-go life as cashless as possible.
Telesom, one of the two network providers, runs the mobile money service, ZAAD. The other telecom provider in Somaliland is Somtel.
How popular is mobile money? Richard tells me that every taxi cab you take has their ZAAD number on it, so there’s no need for cash. This report says 78% of the people in Somaliland use ZAAD.
“On ZAAD, people send and receive cash via their phone number. You only need to confirm the name on the wallet after pushing the USSD on your mobile.
For quality assurance, each ZAAD carries the owner’s name. My Zaad account will go with Richard by default.”
One of the things you pay for with mobile data is internet subscription and you know my favorite question already. How much data can you buy with $5?
“$15 is unlimited. Many of the working class are comfortable with this. That’s ₦6,000 or thereabouts.”
It’s one of the best deals I’ve heard of and I’ve spoken to people in Kenya, Uganda and Mauritius. If you’re wondering where all the data goes, here are Richard’s top five apps in Hargeisa: Whatsapp, MobileVOIP to call Nigeria, Facebook, Zoom and Skype.
Now that he’s back in Nigeria, his most used apps are: Canva, Snapseed, Twitter, Voice recorder and Whatsapp.
Having spent a year away, Richard believes there are opportunities for investors in the education and engineering space in Somaliland.
Education is a big challenge in Hargeisa
“Quality education is a major challenge. There is a dependency on foreign engineers because of the gap created by educational instability. Mechanical and electrical engineers, as well as teachers are in demand”.
Despite the education gap, Richard thinks there is space for edtech startups because many of the people he met were dependent on YouTube.
“An average 15 year old somali from a middle class home has a mobile phone to stream his favourite YouTube channel.”
While this report by SomalilandBiz claims that 95% of the country has internet coverage, Richard believes that feature phones are more common than smartphones.
“Feature phones are more than smartphones by default. Even if you are too conservative to be online, everyone, including market people, need something to serve as their ZAAD device.”
In the end, despite the opportunities, new entrants will do well to know that Hargeisa leans towards monopolies.
“If Somalis say “Khayr”, which means good in Arabic, to a product, other competitors might suffer. While they love to test new stuff, like humans generally, winning their heart is a riddle you must be aggressively investment-ready to unravel.”
At the end of our conversation, Richard rates Somaliland a 6 on a scale of 1-10 for his tech experiences. But he agrees he’s biased and that the more realistic number is 4.