Thursday, December 26, 2013


Hi there, and welcome to my blog!

This is a blog about developing information technology products and services, targeted at users in developing countries.

Let me start with a legal disclaimer: I work for Google. However, this is a personal blog, and everything on this blog represents my own personal opinions and insights only and has absolutely nothing to do with Google.

I have spent the better part of the past decade working on developing technology products for developing countries. I always work on the road - my strong belief is that a product manager needs to be where the user is - and I have adopted a life of a “corporate nomad”. I spend 90%+ of my time traveling around in developing countries, and very rarely show up at a corporate office, at least not one that employs me. I have worked on the ground in over 60 developing countries - about 25 of them in Sub Saharan Africa, and the remainder in South East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Caucasus and the South Pacific. I have worked in countries on the more developed side of Emerging Markets, such as South Africa, Thailand or Georgia, and I have worked on countries that are struggling at the bottom of many metrics, such as Afghanistan, DR Congo, Somalia and Ethiopia. I have worked in countries that wrap you in their tranquility and harmony, such as Laos, Bhutan and Mauritius, and I have worked in countries and regions that keep you on your toes in fear of your own personal security, such as eastern DR Congo, Kashmir, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali.

My lifetime travel map, as recorded by Trip Advisor 

In all these places, I have met and spoken to thousands of tech entrepreneurs, thousands software developers as well as mobile operators, ISPs, governments, universities, IT companies, local investors, international aid institutions, and local and international NGOs.

The technology industry is perhaps one of the most globalized industries out there. Mobility of workers across borders, shared technical standards, flow of investment capital internationally and continuous daily flow of communication across national borders at all levels of a technology organization are probably unparalleled by any other industry. 

Chatting with tech entrepreneurs in Tbilisi, Georgia 

One would expect that with this free and open flow of communication globally in the technology industry, a shared understanding of how to go about developing technology in and/or for developing countries would arise. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. I am finding that I am spending more and more of my time attempting to bridge the gap in both directions: On the one hand, software developers and entrepreneurs in developing countries often have a very skewed view of how the global technology industry operates, and as a result they are ineffective in their attempts to connect or integrate into it, and on the other hand, multinational technology companies as well as international NGOs often have a complete misunderstanding of the needs of the regular people in developing countries, and as a result, either focus on solving the wrong problem, and/or fail to get their technology products adopted by their target users.

This blog is written in order to try to help with the latter of this problems: it will attempt to bring some insights and observations from across the developing countries to an audience of Western product managers, designers and software engineers working on information technology products targeted at end users in developing countries (also known as Emerging Markets in corporate lingo).

I will make the point of doing this in a manner completely devoid of romanticism and idealism, I will not present heart-warming inspiring case studies, and completely avoid discussing dire situations and how a product saved the day. The reason is that the literature on this subject is fill with this kind of stuff, because sensationalism sells, or more to the point, raises donor funding. However, it creates a completely incorrect view in the West of developing countries by focusing the attention on the exception rather than the norm, and results in billions of dollars spent on useless products, while the most obvious needs of regular users that can be easily served, are not met. So I will stick to the grey, boring, sensation-free reality, that once understood, can lead to good and useful technology products.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife, Channe Suy, whose ideas and critique are invaluable for this blog. Channe is a technology entrepreneur, born and raised in Cambodia, that runs one of most successful Technology NGOs in South East Asia. She started her early childhood as a girl in a poor family in a village during the Cambodian civil war, often hiding in a hole in the ground to avoid the crossfire between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers. From that humble beginning, she made her way up to becoming one of the prominent leaders of the technology ecosystem in Cambodia, picking up a Master’s degree in Computer Applications on the way.

Channe and me, at Pakpasak restaurant, our favorite hangout place in Vientiane.
In Laos, you can get any beer you like, as long as it is a Beer Lao 


You can also check out my other posts:

Developing Technologies for Developing Countries - Introduction to my blog

Technology products for rural people: Why do they almost always fail

Languages: How to decide which ones and how many?

Access is solved, so where are the users? Part 1

Access is solved, so where are the users? Part 2

Copyright (C) 2013. Divon Lan. All rights reserved.