A DIGITAL STORYTELLER

A coder, a poet and a cultural technologist, Keneilwe “iDLE”  Mohutsiwa talks about his ongoing creative crossovers with writer Bakang Akoonyatse.

Language stands as an integral aspect of any culture. Through its use, societies are able to create, share and preserve not only their story, but their identity and way of life.  As the world moves forward though and we find societies blending with ease (Online and offline) that former generations could only dream of, we realize that blending and creating a “global community” means diluting cultures and more often than not, the cultures of People of Colour.  

App developer Keneilwe “iDLE”  Mohutsiwa and his team at Intellegere Media saw a gap in the market and sought to pour their effort and ambition into creating an interactive language app – BW Lingos. Since its launch at the Botswana Innovation Hub in 2017, the initiative has garnered millions of downloads and been so well received that the team even created a version that works to translate and teach both Setswana and German. Over the years they’ve also covered Sekgalagadi, Sheyeyi and Kalanga, all in an effort to push Botswana culture out to the rest of the world, through technology.

A man of many talents, Mohutsiwa is also an artist – a poet to be specific – and recently released an EP titled A Dummy’s Guide to understanding iDLE to follow up his ground breaking mainstream debut on hip hop artist Frost Legato’s Intro. The EP is a collection of Setswana spoken word compilations and continues to solidify his affinity for the southern African language and his commitment to its preservation. 

Following his recent talk at the SEAfrica Botswana education conference, where he spoke alongside  heavyweights such as Karabo Senna of SAMRO (Southern African Music Rights Association), George Beke of GeoBek Entertainment and rapper-songwriter Game “Zeus” Bantsi of D.I.Y Entertainment, I sat down with him to discuss culture, coding and what he thinks an Afrofuturist future might look like.

At the core of your roles as a poet and app developer seems to be your identity as a Tswana man and your commitment to the culture. Please give us some background information on your upbringing. 

I was born in a place called Kanye in the Bangwaketse tribe. I was an inquisitive child and constantly questioned things – how they worked and why. I was a smart kid at school if I may say so myself. I have an uncle who used to teach Setswana, so our house had a collection of language books, and I did a lot of reading, so it was only natural for me to immerse myself into them. The creative side of me sometimes saw me making wire cars with actual light bulbs on them and I dabbled in drawing as well. I still do, but currently we can put that as a hidden talent.  

‘I performed along with all the Botswana renowned poets, from TJ Dema to Moroka Moreri and earned my respect’

Take us through your separate journey as an artist as well as an app developer. What led you on these paths and what inspired you to place Setswana and Botswana at the centre of your creative process in both disciplines?

As a kid I used to draw, read and play a traditional instrument called moteteisane – a type of violin. We made them ourselves and used to freestyle songs while playing. I used to write heavily as a kid, and did a bit of performing, but always hid it. I only started fully showing it at 12 years old. The books at home also included psychology, so that influenced the creative aspect of me. I used to rap too with my friends, and I became part of a crew out in Kanye. When I came to Gaborone I started hitting open mics and honing the writing and performance skills. I built a name for myself and started working with other artists and featuring in poetry shows. I performed along with all the Botswana renowned poets, from TJ Dema to Moroka Moreri and earned my respect.

When it comes to Tech, I wanted to be an engineer and make music as a kid. So coming to varsity, I wanted to do sound or industrial engineering. I also knew though, that I wanted to work with computers. I applied for all of them and software engineering came in first so I went with that. I was only taught programming at varsity and taught myself how to create apps, my modules did not cover that. So, I used to juggle being a poet and coding, I could never balance the two as they’re both very time consuming. I decided to fuse them by developing a Maele Le Diane language app to act as an archive of idioms I could use. It was originally made for me by me until my friend discovered it and decided to put it out to the public. So we did. It was not getting any traction on Nokia Ovi until the store closed. I made an Android version which ended up passing a million downloads. 

The Botswana government often declares it’s support of all things “Brand Botswana” and your work in the arts and Tech places Botswana at centre stage. Have you found the country and its leaders or gatekeepers to be receptive to your contribution to its cultural climate? 

They are aware of the apps but to be honest I have not received any form of support from any government entity. All these apps have been from our own budget. 

With regards to the language apps you’ve developed specifically, what have the analytics and consumer feedback reflected over the years? 

The apps have been doing great for something that’s self-sponsored. Learn Setswana alone has gone over the 10 million mark on Google Play. That’s a wild milestone for Botswana. The app is mostly consumed in South Africa, UK and USA. An NGO in Madikwe SA discovered the app four years back and started using it as a crash course tool to teach their German volunteers Setswana. That’s in groups of 100 to 200 every year. We have since developed a Setswana-German upgrade of the app. Pretty cool. 

The growth of the tech industry in Africa, one would assume, would be greatly dependent on access. While online coding academies and other free resources exist, even they require a certain level of privilege for one to access and utilize them. As a young African person in the tech industry, what challenges have you faced when it comes to funding, if at all, and how have you navigated them?

Funding is not easy to get, or rather, it’s not easy to get any form of money from another person. I have been trying to get funding for different apps since I started in 2011. I sent countless proposals. Some got stolen and got turned into tenders. It’s annoying and it will mess with your psyche. So I stopped looking for funding. We can’t all learn how to code. Online coding schools might be there and accessible to a lot of people, but someone has to be able to sell whatever was coded to the next person, so they need to learn the business end of coding. Currently Botswana has close to 27000 ICT graduates. It’s a market that is getting concentrated. 

‘We are already head to head with Western Superpowers, in my opinion in terms of innovation; we just lack funding to fully execute the solutions’

I’m curious as to your thoughts on “Afrofuturism” and it’s depictions. Is it realistic to think Africa will be head to head with Western superpowers in a future that’s focused on and powered by AI?

Africa has a lot of untold stories. The Apps coming out of the continent are mostly solving each region’s problems and that’s been interesting to watch. We are already head to head with Western Superpowers, in my opinion in terms of innovation; we just lack funding to fully execute the solutions. AI tools are expensive to set, maintain and run. We are slightly left behind on that as it’s only now we’re getting working internet, and even that’s still expensive. However, we are making awesome apps with fresh content. I saw an app from Nigeria with just Nigerian hairstyles, I believe a couple of painting apps with African portraits are on the way. But like I said, each region is solving its own issues like the case with M-PESA. 

An ongoing conversation in Botswana is that of marketing music online in a country where most people have limited access to the net and barely the kind of disposable income that allows them to spend money on buying music. Artists such as Han Cand Frost Legato however have attained commendable streaming stats and given hope to some. As someone at the crossroads of both industries, what are your thoughts on this conversation? 

I get stuck in this conversation because I’m at the forefront of it. We are really trying to build a culture of selling music but it all stems from the artist’s standpoint on their own brand. Botswana has the highest device penetration numbers with almost everybody having two or three active phone numbers. They buy music online. Don’t let artists who are not selling tell you about something they have no idea about. Streaming is the new measure on the quality of product you’re putting out and the tenacity of your fanbase as an artist. From what I’ve gathered, some of the artists still expect cold hard money in their hands from this and don’t have that patience, so there’s that as well. 

Whose work in art and Tech have you found intriguing lately?  

To be honest I’ve been out of touch because I’ve been writing a new book after losing four complete manuscripts. I always vibe with what [musician] Ntirelang Berman has been up to though. The visual artists are churning out WORK! It’s crazy … 

What’s the wildest or most ambitious project you’d like to work on?

Now I should leak what I want to do? Without giving too much away, it’s the app for my album and an app for my home village Kanye. We have crazy history as Bangwaketse, so I’m still trying to package it nicely. It’s going to be a virtual reality product. 

All Keneilwe images were shot by Bakang Akoonyatse.