Hussein Bharmal on the Future of Digital

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Hussein Bharmal  (HB) on the Future of Digital.

RK: I am so happy to have you on #360Mentor Hussein, how are you?

HA: Thank you Sir, I am so happy to be here too.

RK: Husein is a 21 year old who is graduating this Thursday. What have you been studying and from where?

HA: For the past three years I have been studying a BA Information Technology at the International University of East Africa in Kansanga, Kampala. My programme was mainly software development.

RK: Let me ask you this question, after you have graduated, then what?

HA: That’s a profound question I keep asking myself and a lot of people ask me. When I finished my exams, I had some time on my hands and I decided to do something productive with it. I have been doing a bit of freelance work in web development and digital marketing and helping digital businesses run ads and improve their digital presence online. Around the same time, I participated in Tetrics which has changed my life and now I have many options which I can consider.

RK: You said earlier that you were very shy and timid, how did you overcome this fear, and how did you deal with it?

HA: I have always liked going on the stage. From a young age, at school concerts. I used to like participating in plays. That helped me with my confidence. When I was still in primary school, I used to love debating. And there was a programme on public speaking that I signed up for. I participated in debates throughout school. I joined Kabojja for A’ level where I became the president of the debate club. There was no single moment for me, it was a gradual process.

RK: You then joined IUEA, why that and not the usual universities we know?

HA: When I finished high school I was thinking of doing something in the line of biotechnology  or something with a biological aspect to it. But, the subjects I had chosen at A levels did not match with the subjects that universities needed for the courses I wanted. I didn’t meet the criteria at Makerere. And I did not know much about the other universities. Also most of them were far away. When I visited IEA, I felt it was the right place. And it encourages a lot of innovation and tech, so I decided  to go for my other passion which is technology.

RK: How has that experience been?

HA: In my earlier days, I used to feel very nostalgic. The campus is what used to be the Wonder World/ Didi’s World before.

RK: Memories from childhood. Did you drive those cart vehicles and the  boat?

HA: The last time I sat in that boat, it was a very bad experience. I promised myself not to do it again.

RK: What’s the most memorable experience that shaped your stay at IUEA?

HA: There were quite many but the most outstanding one was meeting students from various backgrounds I had not met. IUEA is like a true representation of Africa. There are students from all over the continent. Hearing all these students and learning about their backgrounds was very interesting for me. It really opened my eyes to the world and why they choose to come to Uganda to study.

RK: Why did they choose to come here? 

HA: Uganda is one of the best countries in Africa in terms of security and education. And I think, also students want to get new experiences.

RK: Your parents, how have they influenced your approach to life thus far?

HA: My parents have played a huge role in nurturing me and setting my mindset. My dad has taught me a lot of business skills. And they have exposed me to a world of many languages. I speak eight languages. I am so fluent in Hindi, Gujarati and hoodoo and English. The ones which I am not so fluent in are Luganda, Kiswahili, French and Arabic.

RK: But you have a functional knowledge of them?

HA: Yes, I know enough Luganda to negotiate around with a boda boda.

RK: why do you think it is important to pick up on all these languages and the effort to speak them?

HA: I believe it is very beneficial especially when you are living in a country like this. It is important you learn the language. But it’s not become fluent at all. I follow a bunch of polyglots and what I see is that they build a solid understanding in a few and then build a conversational proficiency in others.

RK: And how important is  that?

HA: Learning languages has been found to help improve your brain structure. It also reduces the risk of diseases like alzamias and amnesia. In terms of health and science, it is very beneficial. In terms of culture, when you speak someone’s language you can open doors to their heart. It shows that you are one of them. That you are not an outsider.

RK: Let’s talk about the things you said you are passionate about. What is an urban young man like you doing being passionate about agriculture?

HA: Growing up in Uganda, shows you the importance of agriculture. In other developed countries, you go to the supermarket and pick your groceries. In Uganda, you can see a garden outside your window. That puts in mind where food comes from and why it is important to support farmers. That was my observation. Also in my highschool, I got a chance to participate in an essay contest organised by Uganda Bioscientist Information Centre. I got a chance to visit their research labs somewhere after Gayaza. That also showed me the research and science aspect of what scientists in Uganda are doing to get resilient crops. And what innovations are happening in agriculture. People were creating bags from cassava fibre, others had biodegradable fuel and all these other amazing things which inspired me a lot.

RK: What do you see as your possibilities in agriculture? What are you thinking?

HA: Personally, I don’t see myself being directly involved in the agriculture industry. I am mainly into technology lately. Maybe 10 years from now when I am a bit more established.

RK: I think there is a lot you can do even now. We shall have a conversation about it. You said you are passionate about youth and the digital future, why the two in the same sentence?

HA: I believe that access to the internet and access to technology can create a levelled field for anyone regardless of their background as long as we provide them with the background to these tools. Because a kid in Uganda who has the internet and a laptop will learn programming and become as good as someone from India or Mexico. There is so much knowledge and information out there that they can use and compete in the global economy. 

RK: Where are these opportunities? It is one thing to have the gadget and another to turn it into a work opportunity?

HA: The first thing is access. Once you have access to the internet, it is a big privilege. Even if we talk about the urban you. Like my classmates, who go to study technology at the university, those are like the low hanging  fruits. Even if we didn’t start the conversation of the kids in rural areas who don’t have access to technology. If we just talk about the youth in the cities, they are the low hanging fruits. What needs to be done right now is that there needs to be a mindset shift. A lot of youth do not realise how much potential the internet can open up for them if used the right way. I have classmates who are passionate about coding and all these things. The majority of the youth do not recognise the power of the internet. If we can inspire them to have  a mindset shift, if we can show them the opportunities online, that you can create content on twitter or instagram. If we can show them that instead of wasting time online, I think that can help us leapfrog to what the people in the west are doing.

RK: You talk about mindset change, as a young man in that space, in that category, what do you see as the limiting factor that you see that needs to be changed?

HA: I feel there is a lack of enthusiasm among the youth. They want to find quick ways of making money without first establishing themselves, building the skills and then making the money. Many of the youth are thinking the opposite way where they feel entitled to getting a reasonable income when they get the degree. I think these days, there are so many talented people. There is a lot of competition here. If you don’t differentiate yourself from the crowd, I think it’s very hard to stand out.

RK: How have you been able, at this age to understand this but also to differentiate yourself and stand out?

HA: One needs to be proactive. There’s this phrase I learnt from youtube called proactive serendipity. It means you have to put yourself in a situation to receive work and opportunity. Chance and luck play a big role in determining the trajectory your life is going to take. You have to be proactive and make yourself able to receive these opportunities.

RK: pSeaking of being proactive, tell us about your involvement in those debates and competitions you recently won

HA: From High school, I used to participate in debates and in essay writing competitions, which was fun. I didn’t participate because I just wanted to win, no. I enjoyed researching on the topics that used to come up and researching about biotechnology, GMOs and all those things. They really used to intrigue me. Then, when I reached university, I always tried to seek out opportunities so I found out about this contest called Halt Prize which is  an entrepreneurship competition. They hostrounds on different campuses around the world.

RK: What do they look for in these competitions that attracted you to enter?

HA: One philosophy the Halt Prize has is social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is about businesses solving a problem in the community while generating money at the same time. That year the theme was: solving unemployment for 10,000 youth in the next 10 years. That was in 2018. This social entrepreneurship aspect got me interested in taking part. I was supported by the university to organise the competition at IUEA. We got students and trained them. They made teams which pitched their ideas to a panel of judges.

RK: What was your project?

HA: I did not participate as a competitor, I was the organiser at campus.

RK: Where did the contest  take you? How did you end up on the world stage?

HA: After completing the campus rounds, the Halt Prize asked for the results. They took on two teams to compete on the regional level. That year we took two teams to Nairobi. I travelled along too which helped me to build connections which have been so helpful.

RK: How did you end up in Brazil?

HA: That was the Tetric Challenge , a contest for university and recent graduates. It is organised by a public company called VITEX. They are a unicorn. A unicorn is a company whose validation is more than $ 1 billion. They have been organising this contest for the last three years. tThe first year it was only limited to students in Brazil. The second year, it was opened to Latin America and this year, they decided to go global with it. One day I was on instagram and I saw an ad where they were asking people to register. I didn’t have a lot on my plate and I decided to give it a try. The first round had 1554 students. I made it past the first three rounds. I was among the 24 announced to be part of the semi finals. Those were to be covered to be taken to the VITEX office in Brazil to compete both in the semi and final rounds.

RK: What was your idea?

HA: There were quite a number of questions. We had to answer 15 questions. Then we also had to solve a business problem and pitch our idea with our team.

RK: What was the business problem you were solving?

HA: My team and I were looking at having digital inclusion for everyone. My teammates were from South America and they shared that their grandparents felt like they had been left out by digital inclusion. We came up with an idea to pair this old person with a younger person to train them back into the workforce.

RK: What was the outcome?

HA: From the 24, we were divided into 6 teams. They selected one person from each team, three of the finalists were from my team and the other three from other teams. In that round, what is it that you were supposed to come up with? it was not about anything digital. It was just two simple questions. The judges wanted us as individuals.

·         What would you say to yourself 10 years ago?

·         What would you leave for yourself 10 years from now?

RK: I am curious, what did you say?

HA: The judges wanted us to respond to those questions from the heart. Nothing written.

10 years ago, I would be giving myself advice on what I should have realised at an earlier age. I was talking to myself and advised myself. I expressed gratitude for the things I have had in my life and promised to continue pursuing knowledge.

For my future self, the future is very unpredictable. It can be anything. It can be good. It can be bad. The advice I gave myself is this too shall pass.

RK: Say that again.

HA: This too shall pass. This is something that can either make you happy or sad. When you are enjoying and you are in a happy stage, you are headed for a sad stage. They become memories.  If you are at a sad stage, the same phrase can evoke hope that you are headed for happier times.

RK: You have had vast experiences. Who are the people, apart from your parents, you look up to and say, I admire these people. And I am not one of them.

HA: You are one of the people that come to mind. When I was younger, I used to read Toto magazine and I knew you’re the CEO. I remember the first time I saw you, I wished I could speak to you.

RK: Now it is me picking your brains. Things have changed.

HA: Our religious leader. He is a sea of knowledge. He always teaches us that whichever country you live in, whichever community you live in, always contribute to that community in a positive way and that is part of my guiding principles. Trying to create positivity, to help as much as I can in my capacity.

My family has been quite inspirational; my grandparents, my uncle, my friends. In the Ugandan digital landscape like Solomon King, Lucy Biteete, Canary Mugume. These are some of the futures that come to life.

RK: How was the idea of you coming to host the TEDX at IUEA?

HA: The TEDX idea was something brewing in my mind since my first year when I joined university. I had a chance to discuss it with the Vice Chancellor. In 2020, I felt that the TedX idea was due.

RK: How did you arrive at it?

HA: While in high school at Kabojja, I was part of the Ted Ed club which is for the high school level where my friends and I used to admire TED. We used to share Ted Talks. They call them ideas worth spreading. In 2020, I applied for the license but the pandemic happened. The license was valid for one year. When things relaxed a bit, we decided to execute it.

RK: Which speakers did you host?

HA: The whole TED event was a huge collaborative effort. I couldn’t have done it without the team at IUEA. I can mention a few, Ojok Okello, Solomon King, Canary Mugume, Aziz Kafeero, Racheal Aye, Raymond Malinga, Nada Anderson, Daniel Masaba and so many others.

RK: The choices of the future, where are you headed?

HA: Before I got the opportunity of winning Tetric, I was considering upgrading from a freelancer to starting something. A company that I could slowly scale up. From being a freelancer, I started getting a lot of confidence in digital marketing.

But after Tetrics, I realised that there is a lot that can be learnt and improved in terms of skills and knowledge. I realised there is a lot out there that can be learnt and brought back to Uganda.

I felt that that was something I could consider. I have a number of options I am looking at and will consider in a due course.

RK: Are you confident with what the future holds for you?

HA: Definitely. I feel that whatever happens, things will tune out well. I am pretty confident that I can always make it work out in any situation. And the rest is destiny.

Comrade Otoa: Imagine I was a 20 year old, what advice would you give me? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

HA: I am not the best person to talk about this. I am not an entrepreneur myself yet. From the principles I  have observed and I am trying to learn so far, young people should innovate and think critically about  the kind of businesses we  start. We are one of the youngest countries in the world. We need to think outside the box. We need to see what the market wants. I have had a chance to see what young people are pitching and the same ideas keep coming up. create businesses which address the market demands.

RK: When you talk about innovation, a lot of people have ideas, when do ideas become innovations and when do innovations become businesses ?

HA: One thing about ideas is that when you come up with a good idea, you have to validate the idea. That is something I have seen a lot.

RK: What does validation mean?

HA:  Validation is rationally and logically figuring out the problem you are describing, the problem that the market has.

Let’s say boda bodas are not making enough money, we have to validate that idea. How true is it? After validating, you have to create a strong business model to back it up which can generate revenue and sustain business in the long term.

Funding is not a problem. If you have the right model and idea, and you can put the idea out through pitches and venture capitalists, funding can be found.

RK: What does it require of you to say you are innovating effectively?

HA: The first thing is having an insatiable urge to learn. You always have to keep up with what is happening in the world and differentiate yourself from that.

The second thing is courage. I recently read that it is not enough to be smart.  You must have courage. You might be the smartest person in the world, but if you don’t have the courage to execute you are not going to go far.

RK: How much do you read?

HA: I have not been an avid reader in my life. I have been trying to change that. A friend has been inspiring me to read more books. I browse a lot through websites. I watch a lot of youtube videos, I enjoy the video format a bit more.

RK: You also said that you talk to a lot of people, how can people know that talking to people is another learning experience?

HA: I have experienced this quite  a lot. I like attending events, especially on tech. Anything I find interesting, I like to jump on it and try it out. You meet people and build connections with them. What people get wrong is always wanting to receive from the other person but I guess the best way to build a long lasting relationship is asking what can I give. When you give, it is easier to learn that person.

RK: What are your thoughts on marriage?

HA: In my culture, it is encouraged to get married at a younger age different from what is usually the norm. It has logical reasoning behind it and I think it has its benefits too. So around 24, 25, I will be married.

RK: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to your siblings?

HA: Yes. Being the eldest, I feel that. Being the oldest, even your parents have a lot of hope in me on how I can take the family forward. I am grateful to my parents, they have always supported me to do things. They have allowed me to discover and do things on my own within limits of course which has given me a sense of self responsibility and self awareness.

RK: Speaking about self awareness, how widespread is this among your peers?

HA: From what I noticed during my university days, a lot of people still lack the sense of self awareness or self responsibility about their life. They are still in a very youthful state where they still want to have fun and enjoy themselves which is okay but at the end of the day, you have to be conscious of what your life is going to be like. I think if you do that, it saves you a lot of trouble later on. It is never too late, even if you are 40 you can always turn your life around. But it becomes more challenging with the more baggage that comes with life. I think if you figure that out early, it can improve the trajectory of your life.

RK: What would you do to persuade old guys like me to join tech?

HA: This is an important question especially in our Ugandan context, the older generation needs to realise the importance of tech for the younger generation and foster that. The next generation is ready for digital transformation. Technology is moving very fast, if we don’t keep up, we shall be left behind. If the cost of the internet and the cost of the devices can be subsidised, and made widespread throughout the country, this can really accelerate knowledge and tech inclusion for everyone.

RK: Thank you Hussein for opening our eyes.

HA: Thank you for the opportunity to be on this platform Mr Kabushenga.

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