Web Applications in Africa

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I’ve tried to explain the web surfing experience in West Africa before.  Slow connections, power outages, viruses on the cyber cafe machines… did I mention really really slow connections?  Here in Accra, working above the poshest, most professional, and probably speediest cyber cafe in the country, we get a pretty good connection.  You still wouldn’t want to download a video or an application, and even browsing websites with lots of images (baby pictures from friends!) is slow.  But it is possible.

At work we are building a web application, and most of our clients are in Africa.  They experience all the same frustrations as us, and some times worse.  We built a web site using a leading technology (GWT) that, we thought, would allow them to have a great user experience.  Check it out: www.esoko.com There are not a lot of graphics, certainly no video, audio, or flash. We don’t have any problem with server load.   The site content isn’t heavy, and the site might seem fast in the US.  Yet some of our clients have been complaining of slow page loads… very slow.  As in… almost forever for a page to load.

One problem is that our servers are in the US.  Our clients, on their 56k modems are making requests that need to cross the Atlantic and come back with data.  It seems that the closest hosting company we can find to West Africa that meets our standards is in… London.  That is still pretty far away.  We need a professional quality hosting company here (and content distribution networks like Akamai don’t have servers in Africa!)

Another problem is that we wrote the code without making performance our top priority.  We wrote it as if our clients were in the US or Europe.  Most developers there don’t worry about sites being more than 100mb.  (I didn’t when I was there.)  But we see that we have to be very concerned.  We don’t have the luxury of being big and lazy.

We are hard at work improving the site, squeezing every bit of performance improvement out of the code that we can.  We are reading yahoo standards, facebook advice, looking at what all the big players have to say.  We are writing improved code, re-working what is slow, and looking hard at our numbers.

Despite all this, we can’t improve our clients’ connections. They will still be on 56k modems or similar.   Our objective is to have pages that download for most of our clients in 10 seconds or less, which hardly seems speedy outside of Africa.

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