IndifferenceListen to this audio file
Our first panel member to share his story is Akin Omonde, the somewhat controversial but wildly successful serial tech entrepreneur. I’m sure you will agree that his first 50 years reflect a story of a life lived in interesting times!
My youth largely coincided with the late teenage and early adult years of the 21st Century and those were heady times. Across the country many young people struggled to find jobs, but within the circles in which I moved, young Indifferians were innovating and creating their own opportunities.
There was competition to see whether a local platform could be developed that would prove a real competitor to the FANGs and BATs (the dominant tech superplatforms at the time).
The willingness to test new ideas and take risks was enabled by the Government’s adoption of a wait-and-see attitude to regulating the digital world and its complexities. Looking back, it’s clear they weren’t sure how to create appropriate legislation and enforce it, but at the time if felt like they were tacitly supporting anything new.
I started GiMi when I was in my early twenties, and it was a struggle. Even then, suppliers didn’t understand that selling online meant that people expected delivery within a couple of days at the most.
The delivery guys and their ride-share scooters were a constant headache and the road conditions contributed to accidents and breakdowns. It was almost impossible to deliver anywhere outside of the largest cities during the rainy season.
Sometimes there were connectivity issues that resulted in customers abandoning their goods during the checkout phase of the transaction. Security breaches meant buyers were occasionally scammed. Furthermore, although digital payments had been embraced by those in the middle to upper classes and by city dwellers, a large portion of the population persisted in using cash.
Increased sales meant growing opportunities for local entrepreneurs to supply or deliver goods and we created hundreds of low-skill jobs in our order-fulfilment centres. Tempted by the success of their peers, some young people abandoned their studies to start a business supplying goods or services to GiMi. But, just when we all started making real money, the first signs of what I regard as the great stealth became apparent.
Most of our customers purchased goods on their phones and those conniving network operators and handset manufacturers had been monitoring each transaction and every message – text or voice. With margins under pressure from drastically reduced call volumes and an inability to fully profit from messaging platforms, the mobile network operators were always on the hunt for additional revenue.
This information was sold to Warehouse, the ecommerce superplatform that emerged in Asia in 2020 and proceeded to make rapid inroads in other markets. The superplatforms had the technology to ensure that search phrases were analysed in almost real-time and the customer intelligence was layered with data from non-phone surveillance.
Warehouse quickly identified the most profitable consumer segments and before long, the most active users of GiMi started having trouble accessing the GiMi platform. Untrue rumours about overpricing and counterfeit GiMi goods were widely circulated on messaging apps, and a Warehouse product alternative was offered at every turn.
Their ability to source cheaper goods from outside of the country also meant that many of the products sold on GiMi were no longer competitive. Complete automation of their order fulfilment and logistics centres, and the deployment of a vast fleet of delivery drones (which bypassed the traffic jams in our overcrowded cities), meant that buyers received their goods in record time. Warehouse compelled buyers to switch to digital payments. Initially the consumers who switched from GiMi to Warehouse were happy with the cheaper goods and turnaround times.
Gradually however, the extent to which consumers every online twitch was being monitored became apparent when Warehouse began bypassing standard ecommerce ordering protocols.
Viewing a particular Warehouse product for more than seven seconds was interpreted as a desire to purchase and as a signal to the logistics centre to dispatch the delivery drone. The purchase price and delivery fee were then immediately docked from the unsuspecting browser’s digital account. Hapless shoppers who left the Warehouse app open their devices soon started receiving (and paying for) dozens of the same items.
A class-action lawsuit was brought by a group of outraged citizens. They hired lawyers to challenge the collection and resale of the data, the processing of digital payments without authorisation and the excessive online monitoring, which they argued they hadn’t consented to in the first place.
The lawsuit failed quickly and spectacularly – Indifference didn’t have comprehensive data protection regulation or the legal jurisdiction to intervene in the operation of foreign-owned platforms. Furthermore, the Government either lacked the means to act against the tech giants or were too compromised to risk antagonising them.
It later transpired that tech giants and their armies of data pirates had been collecting a lot more than financial information and purchasing behaviour of consumers. High-ranking government officials, numerous judges and prominent business people were succumbing to blackmail when threatened with exposure of the very things they had regarded as private. Data relating to search history, movements, length of time spent in specific locations, affiliations, on- and offline conversations, income and spending patterns was all collected and analysed.
In a few cases where the threat of exposure didn’t ensure censure, outspoken individuals found that they couldn’t access their digital wallets, or that their self-drive cars were remotely disabled. Having to rely on the overcrowded and inefficient public transport system proved too much for government officials used to air-conditioned convenience.
Hampered by inadequate or outdated legislation in the onslaught of this tech assault, the willingness of our leaders to make decisions requiring complex trade-offs dwindled.
GiMi limped along for a while but selling to Warehouse quickly became the only viable option. Two weeks after purchasing GiMi, Warehouse terminated contracts with 95% of our previous suppliers and fired all of our transport and logistics staff.
Obviously, I regret the collapse of the local supply chain and the bankruptcies of the logistics network that we had helped to create, but I doubt anyone in my position would have made a different choice. Many people struggled to reinvent their businesses to cope in the new competitive environment.
As always, the “fittest” survived – those that been deliberate about ensuring that they were “future fit” had armed themselves with tech skills and they were able to throw their lot in with Warehouse. The middle class who had made a living on the periphery of the local digital economy were the worst affected.
Two groups of people thrived in the parallel economy – those who were mobile and could cross the border to shop for alternative versions of products only available locally on Warehouse, and some of the former market mamas, who had spent years honing their ability to negotiate. It was generally easier for those in smaller rural villages where people had access to land or the means to grow food, and where community members knew each other and were more likely to trust each other.
However, as Warehouse and its affiliates gradually purchased or merged with government service providers, coupons for access to government services were deposited into people’s digital wallets. Accessing cash-based healthcare or finding transport providers willing to accept cash became more and more difficult in a city environment. Today Indifference is experiencing de-urbanisation of some cities.
You’ve introduced me as a controversially successful figure, but I deserved some reward for all my hard work in the early years and so I took my money and moved elsewhere to start over.
If there are any questions to be answered, then the Indifferian regulators of the time should be sitting here and answering them. I wish you luck in finding them – these days Indifference is more of a market colony than a nation-state and few of the national governance and political structures remain.