The VICE Channels

    The African Emoji Company

    Written by Ben Richmond

    Image: Oju

    Android users worried about being left behind in the imminent em​oji-people-of-color roll-out have some options in the meantime. Even if Apple beats Android to a more diverse emoji keyboard, Android's app store still has the first set of African emoji.

    Oju has been in the Android store for about nine months now. The​ free app allows Android users to insert Afro-centric emoji-like images into chat applications like WhatsApp or social media. It's not exactly as convenient as just clicking over to another keyboard, but the app has still earned a four-star rating and over 35,000 downloads, CEO Alpesh Patel told me in an email.

    I emailed Patel to see if he was at all worried about Apple finally moving into his company's niche and he told me “not really.”

    “Apple have missed the whole point about diversity,” Patel said. “They were 'forced' to do this due to immense number of complaints on the lack of racially diverse emoticons, however look at their new emoticons—it's all about skin colour. Diversity is not about skin colour—it's about embracing the multiple cultures out there that have no digital representation.”

    For a four-person company based on the fairly remote island of Mauritius, 1,200 miles from the African coast in the Indian Ocean, the Oju team isn't hurting for ambition. In an ​interview with CNN before the app launched, Patel talked about how Oju, as a character, could be Africa's missing Mickey Mouse.

    “I mean if you can imagine an Oju cereal packet like Coco Pops with Oju collectibles, if you can imagine Oju nappies for babies, an Oju chocolate bar, an Oju toy—the possibilities are endless and this is what I believe really will help lift Africa,” Patel said. (It's funny how app makers worldwide are always sure that the proliferation of something that they own the rights to is the solution to the world's ills.)

    “We still believe Apple would have been much more better off had they simply used our Oju’s instead of what they have done,” Patel said. “Look at our Oju’s and look at Apple’s attempt and you tell me what resonates more?”

    Anyway, in OS X 10.10.3 and iOS 8.3 beta 2, Mac, iPhone, and iPad users will be able to choose from emojis with a variety of skin tones. It's not clear when Android users might get a similar array of emojis, but until then, at least they have another option.