A BRCK Journey

We’re about to ship our first orders of BRCKs next week, on July 17th.

Tomorrow (Wed, July 9th) we have a launch event happening at Sarit Centre for our Nairobi friends and media, starting at 9am, where we take over our partner Sandstorm‘s store for the day. We’ll be there all day, so come on buy if you can make it. You’ll be able to use the devices and ask questions from anyone on the BRCK team.

A BRCK Journey - how it was made

The BRCK is a rugged, self-powered, mobile WiFi device which connects people and things to the internet in areas of the world with poor infrastructure, all managed via a cloud-based interface.

It is designed and engineered right here in Nairobi, with components from Asia, and final assembly done in the USA. Specs here.

the Journey

Most people heard about the BRCK a year ago when we ran our Kickstarter campaign that raised $172k. What a lot of people don’t know is that the journey started long before that, 1.5 years earlier in fact.

Back in November of 2011 I was in South Africa for AfricaCom, and it was in a discussion with my good friend Henk Kleynhans (the founder and then-CEO of SkyRove) that we started talking about routers. Knowing nothing about routers, I asked him why he didn’t build his own, to which I think the answer was something like, “that’s hard” and it wasn’t their core business anyway.

Later on that evening I was flying back to Kenya and I started pondering what it would be like if we built a router made for our own environment – something that would give us good solid connectivity in Africa. I started sketching out the first ideas around what would be in the BRCK, what it would need, etc. When I landed in Nairobi, I started talking to the Ushahidi team about this, and whether anyone wanted to try prototyping this with me in their free time.

My initial notes on the BRCK in the airplane, thinking through what it should be, basic features, and products I liked.

My initial notes on the BRCK in the airplane, thinking through what it should be, basic features, and products I liked.

Initial BRCK idea, drawn in my notebook in November 2011.  You can tell I hadn't a clue as to where things should go yet.

Initial BRCK sketch, drawn in my notebook in November 2011. You can tell I hadn’t a clue as to where things should go yet, it was just barebones features and simplicity was key.

With the problems we have around power and reliable internet connectivity in Nairobi, we all had an itch to do something, and so we did.

The 1.5 years between that point and the Kickstarter was filled with Jonathan Shuler doing a number of early prototypes, Brandon Rosage hammering out an early brand and design, and Brian Muita getting into the guts of the software. Then there was the entry of Philip Walton, volunteering his time to do the first truly functional designs that married the components and some customized firmware, throwing it all into an Otterbox case, held together by Sugru and tape, to make sure it worked (seem image below). Then Reg Orton came along in late 2012 and started volunteering his time and knowledge around case and PCB design, and started to professionalize our hardware production. All of this culminated in a working prototype.

An Early BRCK Prototype from mid- 2012

An Early BRCK Prototype from mid- 2012

We ran the Kickstarter in June last year to test the market, to see if there were others who thought this BRCK device was cool, useful and something that they would purchase. It worked out well, and we found out that there were a number of business types who wanted something just like this.

Then the real work began.

From Prototype to Production

It’s fairly easy today to prototype a cool new device, we did that for 1.5 years with many iterations even before we did our Kickstarter in June last year. When you go to production though, that’s a whole different beast, and we ended up spending a year from our Kickstarter until today going through more levels of prototypes before we finalized on our production-level hardware back in February. Keep in mind, that’s with people on the team, like our CTO Reg Orton, who have been in this hardware space for 12+ years.

There’s also the software integration issue that had a lot of unknowns which we couldn’t tell in advance. It’s not just hardware we’re building but an integrated software and hardware package that consists of hardware + firmware + cloud. Fortunately we’ve got some pretty amazing problem solvers who don’t seem to sleep on our team, between the heroics of our COO Philip Walton and cloud lead Emmanuel Kala, we were able to find workarounds and put together a robust BRCK management package.

What I’m getting at is this – software is hard to get done well. Hardware is harder. Software plus hardware is amazingly complex, and it’s easy to underestimate the level of difficulty in what seems like a simple device.

It’s been a battle, one with multiple fronts and many setbacks along the way. We’ve had our modem supplier go end-of-life on one of our core components, and subsequently had to find a new supplier and redesign our board and case. We’ve found crazy bugs in OpenWRT that took us weeks to figure out a way to work around. We’ve mixed in some fairly harsh testing of the BRCK in some of Kenya’s hardest environments, and we’ve seen it perform and change the way a business can do their work. We’ve also seen our earliest users loading up education materials on it for schools that aren’t fully on the grid.

Rachel running on a BRCK in Uganda, by Johnny Long

Rachel running on a BRCK in Uganda, by Johnny Long (more on their Education page).

We’re finally there, after many, many months.

Some Thanks

It’s with great gratitude to my BRCK partners and team that I say thanks for pushing through. I’m also extremely grateful to Ushahidi, especially David and Juliana, and the Board, for helping push the BRCK through, even in those early days of 2012 when it seemed so crazy. None of this could have been done without a few brave souls willing to risk some money on us, to our seed round of investors who came together and put in $1.2m, which meant we could hire more people and build an amazing team.

Finally, our biggest debt of gratitude goes to our early backers, those of you who over a year ago put some money into this little black box. You will have your BRCKs soon, and we hope that they live up to your expectations. After all this time, I can say I’m probably more excited about getting them into your hands than you are in getting them! :)

Maker Faire Africa comes to Jo’Burg

Maker Faire Africa was first held in Ghana in 2009, then Kenya 2010, Egypt 2011, Nigeria 2012 and now in South Africa 2014. It’s been an amazing thing to be a part of, and the best is to be there and see the local ingenuity, the practical inventions that are made by some of the smartest and scrappiest people in Africa.

Maker Faire Africa 2014 - Johannesburg

Makers from across Africa will join ZA Makers for 4-days of meet-ups, mash-ups, workshops, and seed-starting ideas for new collaborations in open innovation across the continent.

When: Sept 3-6, 2014
Where: WITS (University of the Witwatersrand), exact location TBD
Who: You + all the other Makers, just sign up

Pop-up Maker Space at MFA

Maker Faire Africa 2014 will bring together over 5,000 attendees, along with featured inventors, world-class makers, self-made entrepreneurs & workshop experts from South Africa, across the continent, and around the world, to manufacture real solutions for some of Africa’s most pressing challenges & opportunities in the areas of agriculture, health, education, power, and more. Whether your interest lies in technology, engineering, science, humanities, design or fabrication, you’ll find the best grouping of enthusiastic hardware innovators at MFA 2014.

At the heart of the Maker Faire Africa Community experience is our Pop-Up Maker Space – facilitated through a collaboration between local hackerspaces & volunteers and visiting world-class makers. Open the full length of the faire, it caters to all ages, skill levels, and interests. Visitors can organize their own impromptu maker projects using available tools & supplies, attend demonstrations such as 3D-Printing Indigenous Patterns, Light Up Your Gele, or Strawberry DNA Extraction, or participate in supervised workshops such as Learn to Solder, Solar Energy for Personal Power, Microelectronics 101 or AfriRobotics for Beginners.

MFA is structured to encourage visitors to actively make, not just observe. We integrate students and professionals alongside informal inventors in a way not happening elsewhere across Africa.

Some school girl makers in Nigeria 2012

Some school girl makers in Nigeria 2012

Handmade hydraulic toys at MFA 2012 in Nigeria

Handmade hydraulic toys at MFA 2012 in Nigeria

“Solutions for Africa’s economic growth must emanate from Africa to be wholly understood and integrated. Maker Faire Africa has the potential to be the birth- place of African invention fundamental to the continent’s development… these are Africa’s unsung heroes, as it is their understanding of what is needed, rather than what is simply cool, that translates into the most valuable economic asset on the continent today.”
- Deo Onyango, GE Commercial Development Director for East Africa

Handmade Fashion Glasses - MFA Kenya 2010

Handmade Fashion Glasses – MFA Kenya 2010

Builders and Talkers: The Fallacy of the Grant vs Investment Debate

A bunch of people are talking about where the money comes from that funds the tech startups and/or the ecosystem in East Africa’s tech community:

Most of the people talking haven’t actually built anything – they’re media, analysts, investors or grant-giving organizations.

A few are entrepreneurs – and I’m not talking about the type that thinks that is a sexy title and who wave around a CEO business card – I’m talking about the real entrepreneurs, the ones who are in the trenches, finding the right talent, securing funding, battling it out for clients, and shipping solid product. Too few of the voices we hear are of this type.

The debate is skewed. You’re told that money is evil if it is free (grants), that it’s only pure if it comes from an investor (angel, seed, VC). That if you get grant money that it will take you off focus and derail your business. Sure, this is a danger. It’s also a danger that you get a VC who gives you money, and who doesn’t understand the market, our region, or something else about your business and forces you to go off focus and derails your business as well.

The truth is, that as a leader of a company, your job is to decide what is the “good” money and “bad” money. This isn’t some academic or theoretical issue, it’s real life or death decisions that you stake your company on. When you can’t pay payroll and have to take a loan from the bank at 24%, you’ll take it to keep the business alive. When you’re starting up you might go for those piddly $15-25k grants that everyone seems to think grow on trees (but don’t). When you’re at that stage where you have real success, but now you need to expand much further, you’ll deal with the slick-talking VCs in order to work out the best deal for your future. It’s just how it works.

This argument of grant vs investment money is a false dichotomy – neither is pure. As a leader of my own business, if someone offers me free grant money that I believe is in our best interest, I will take it every day of the week. I measure it in the same way that I would if a VC wants to give me a dodgy deal – I refuse it.

If it was easy, everyone would do it

As a tech entrepreneur in our region, be objective and pragmatic. Be wary of pundits, analysts, investors, NGOs and anyone who hasn’t built something of their own. The entrepreneur life you’re signing up for means you’ll work harder, sweat more, stress more and feel both great euphoria and defeat. It’s hard, grinding work, and those who push hardest, longest and the most creatively win. And if you win, the prize is big, so it is worth trying for.

Everyone has an opinion, but few have tried, and fewer have built something that succeeds. Your job is to think bigger, and more creatively, and to boldly aim for success. Few have the courage it takes to go this route, so remember that and make sure the person you’re talking to actually has the qualifications worth your time to listen to.

However, do listen to those who have been there, they are the rare ones who have made it through the battle lines and won, seek them out. The best mentors are rarely found in the institutions that have the money. A few investors have been there and have the experience, not many. Even fewer on the NGO and foundation side.

Here’s a better idea. If you can build your company without taking investment money, do it. There’s a fallacy in thinking that you need investment or grant money at all. Instead, try to do as much as you can, get as many clients as possible, grow fast, build a great product, and then only when you actually HAVE to have it, should you go for any other outside money.

Remembering the Genius and Grace of Carey Eaton

Carey Eaton, with Isis Nyongo and Mbwana Alliy at PivotEast last year

Carey Eaton, with Isis Nyongo and Mbwana Alliy at PivotEast last year

Carey Eaton was one of the true sparks of genius in Kenya’s tech ecosystem… in Africa’s.

“It is with great sadness and regret that we announce the untimely death of Kenyan businessman Carey Eaton, who passed away in tragic circumstances after an armed robbery at a friend’s home in Nairobi in the early hours of this morning.” (more)

Carey Eaton was a friend. He grew up here in Kenya, went to Hillcrest and then bounced back to Australia to eventually become the CIO of SEEK. Back in 2011, when the iHub was just one year old, he came ambling into the space and we grabbed a coffee together. Right away we hit it off, as he mixed deep business instincts and experience with a humble and generous spirit. He started telling me of his plans to take on the Kenyan classifieds markets, the same as he and his partners had done in Australia.

While others talked, he built. And build he did, creating an empire of classifieds websites in Kenya and Nigeria that no one could compete with.

In the years ahead, he would build the powerhouse Cheki brand to takeover the Kenyan vehicle classifieds space (and also Nigeria and 8 other countries), through a combination of persistence, intelligence and a deep understanding of what businesses need here. He also had great success with his job classifieds sites BrighterMonday and Jobberman, and then went on to see an acquisition by One Africa Media and his empire blossomed. Through all of this, he was fair and honest, humble and generous, traits sorely lacking in so many business leaders of our day.

Carey Eaton sitting down with startups in Nairobi, passing on his experience and knowledge

Carey Eaton sitting down with startups in Nairobi, passing on his experience and knowledge

All through this he would carve out hours of his time for younger entrepreneurs. He was a perennial presence at PivotEast, not just to see what was next, but to coach some of the new guys. Carey gave 2-3 hours of a day for each group of Savannah Fund startups. In fact, that’s where I last saw and talked to him, last week as he spent a few hours at Pete’s Coffee with the 3 companies currently in the program.

Carey was a friend and peer, someone I could call on to ask questions and think through hard problems with. Today I have that feeling of loss, that untethered feeling that one gets when something you’ve always expected to see and be with you is no longer present.

We’ve lost one of the anchors of the African tech community.

Tributes from others

If anyone else would like to add a remembrance, a tribute, to Carey send it to me and I’d be happy to add it here.

“Carey was a wonderful, supportive friend. Kind, gentle and oh so brilliant. that we have been robbed of his presence in our lives is an inconsolable loss.”

Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi

“I could not sleep well last night knowing that we had lost such an inspiration and caring person in Africa.

Carey Eaton proved that with hard work, passion and big ambition you could build an Africa tech powerhouse. When I arrived moved back to East Africa , 2 years ago- one of the biggest challenges I had was to pick great mentors that could inspire young first time startups in the newly formed Savannah Fund Accelerator. Carey Eaton was quickly someone who not only agreed to give time, but often offered suggestions, he also always challenged widely held assumptions and made the sessions entertaining. Many of the startups’ thinking were radically improved in dimensions from hiring, marketplaces to business strategy as well as practical Africa startup tips. Carey Eaton played many roles in the Africa tech ecosystem, from mentor, board member to fearless executer of his business in Africa- a true role model of what is possible.

My last memory of him was hardly 2 weeks ago visiting his newly decorated Nairobi office where you might think you were walking into Silicon Valley’s best startup pads. Paul Bragiel, visiting partner from Silicon Valley, was amazed at the space. My last lunch with Carey was entertaining with important business lessons- like his expansion of Cheki car marketplace into Lagos’s biggest car lot and how he outwitted, not out only compete-ting his competitors. Carey’s unique brilliance crossed boundaries in Africa and that legacy will be greatly remembered by me and Savannah Fund.

RIP- Carey Eaton.”

- Mbwana Alliy, Savannah Fund

“As with everyone else, I was shocked and numbed to learn of Carey’s untimely and incomprehensible passing. I had spoken to him just the day before seeking advice on what to about a dodgy car purchase (of all things!) at a local dealer – we bantered for a while on consumer rights in Kenya (another sore topic), how One Africa Media was coming along and how my new baby was doing. In many ways it this brief conversation reminds me of a much longer one that we had sharing a 1-hour cab ride to the airport after Pivot East in Uganda last year. After spending two days together judging the latest ideas coming out of East Africa, we were invigorated by what we saw and spent the cab ride reflecting on how amazing it is to have the chance to play a role in building an industry. I learned a ton about his experiences in Australia, how he got Cheki off the ground, and how he raised capital to build One Media Africa. We talked a lot about his family and how he balances his life with frequent trips to see them and spend time with friends in Nanyuki. I remember getting on the plane impressed by not only how genuine, open and funny he was but also that he was a person living his life’s purpose. Not only was he making life better for thousands of people through One Media Africa’s products, but he was enjoying his life, spending time with the people he loved. You could feel that content and happiness in him – perhaps it’s the grace that many others have mentioned. Carey has been a generous mentor to me in my work and always reminds me that it’s certainly not everything. Pivot East is just around the corner and I still have not accepted that I won’t see his big grin there this time.”

- Isis Nyong’o Madison

“Carey was a board member at Kopo Kopo but more importantly he was a friend. He was someone with the guts, the spirit and the brains to guide Kopo Kopo through rough times and to keep Ben and I focused on the grander vision. His loss is personally devastating. I will do everything I can do ensure his spirit will remain and grow.

Carey was just getting started. Now, it’s on us to keep it going.”

- Dylan Higgins, Kopo Kopo

“Carey was one interesting guy – who always had a ready smile and would have a friendly chat for a few minutes (even as he tried to rememebr when we’d last met). When I last saw him at the launch of their new offices in Nairobi, he was very happy, and more so for the team who had worked hard to get the event and place set up.

Cheki is the site for which he’s known and it’s hands down the best web site for car sellers and buyers. When I seriously used it, it was timely – and whenever a new car was posted there, it was easy to find and the directions, and description matched. The Cheki team were responsive, they’d even call to ask how the car sale process was going and offer tips on how to improve the ads for better responses from buyers. Even two years since I last had to buy/sell a car, I’m still hooked to it and I’ve never deactivated my e-mail alert so I can still see the cool way they interact with car buyers & sellers.

I think I once asked him how I could contribute to the free Cheki site as it was so useful. He said they had put up a tiny “Donate via M-pesa” button on the Cheki site due to public demand, but clearly he had a bigger goal in mind than even building the largest online car marketplace site in East or West Africa.

Carey made running a business look effortless. Later he was part of an informal initiative that tried to help other tech entrepreneurs sort out the perennial challenge of accessing vital working capital on friendly terms.

My condolences to his family, and he is missed by many friends.

#RIPCarey

- Limo Taboi, @Bankelele

“I never met Carey Eaton in person but I interacted with him digitally.

With all the noise and hype about Silicon Savannahs, Carey was one of the few who actually walked the talk and built something of substance.

He once told me the success of Cheki was not the website – a website is just a window into a business.

That is the sort of thinking that led him to scale heights where it was not known that there were heights to scale.

The list of visionaries I admire is a short one, and Carey was the head of that list.

A luta continua, good sir.

Rest easy

#RIPCarey”

- Conrad Akunga, Innova

“There are too many things I could say in praise of Carey. More than I could write here. He was a super generous guy. He had a true sense of passion and purpose for technology and Kenya that was simply inspiring and infectious. What Carey accomplished through his technology businesses in Africa over the last 5 years or so is mind blowing. Where many talk, Carey just did it. Pragmatic and effective execution seemed to be his domain. As a friend I knew from my high school days over 20 years ago in Nairobi I will miss him. May he rest in peace.”

- Moses Kemibaro (also see his blog post on Carey)

“I felt horrid when Carey’s mum told me about his untimely death! More mad about why they would rake a way a brilliant, easy going and fun loving Carey. I first knew Carey when I was a kid, my parents and his parents were then fellow leaders in the Nairobi Baptist church of which his dad Michael Eaton was one of the founding pastors. Later, when my husband and I moved to Australia, I would attend his wedding (small and family centered with his friends) and later re-meet in Kenya when I returned before him and he followed later.

He always knew what he wanted to do. I remember asking him about visiting iHub and mLab and everything else that was getting out on ICT in Kenya. He was passionate, easy going and had no airs. The Carey I will miss was someone who always willing to share. He loved his family and always spoke to his kids on skype if he was not with them. I miss him, and am mad at our ruthless Kenyans who won’t work hard but instead steal others thunder. Carey, you will be missed, but I know you even with all you had achieved, you had found rest high above in God. May we even here remember there is life in Christ. God bless.”

- Dr. Monica Kerretts Makau

“I met Carey through an introduction by Erik. At the time we were a bunch of tech entrepreneurs in Nairobi trying to set up an informal network to help each others business weather the storms and make it. Carey had a ready smile and a hunger to know what your business was up to and how he could help.

We talked about our ventures and I remember his insights on Cheki, Brighter Monday and Jobberman. He reminded me of the magic of the web. And how we all keep chasing it and trying to make it. He had successfully navigated the earlier stages of the journey, and a bright future was in store for him and his ventures. His passing has robbed us of a tech leading light in Africa. We have to keep going on. Rest in peace brother. You will be missed.”

- Joshua Wanyama, Pamoja Media

“Carey was the true embodiment described in “The Man in the Arena”. It was such an honour to meet such a smart, energetic, fun guy who made everything look easy.Carey forever will be with those he affected the most, and his family will be in our thoughts and prayers.”

- Kahenya, Able Wireless

“It is with great sadness that I find myself writing here, not only have we lost a brilliant man who was taken too soon, but also a genuine friend to so many of us.

My first encounter with him was in 2012. We had just launched buyrentkenya.com and he dropped me an email asking if I was interested in meeting up. He had a genuine interest in what we were doing and was ever ready to offer advice and guidance. He continued to check in with us as we grew, and when the opportunity arose to join One Africa Media, knowing that Carey was there made the decision very easy.

As a young entrepreneur every conversation with Carey was priceless. You would leave every meeting feeling more focused and confident. He had an innate gift of conveying his immense knowledge and business acumen through his warm and friendly persona.

May you rest in peace Carey. Thank you for all you taught us. For the laughs and the jokes. The advice and the guidance. We miss you and hope we make you proud when we finish the work you started.

#ripcarey”

- Jamie Pujara, BuyRentKenya

“I feel very privileged (and a bit unworthy) of the time I got to spend with Carey in both a professional and personal capacity through the last few years. What an absurdly fantastic father, captain, friend, CEO, brother, colleague, inspiration, human. He was all of these things and more, and my favorite part of Carey was that he was wonderfully frustrating. He would answer my questions before I even had a chance to ask and continually ask me “but why?” when I announced that I was certain I had finally uncovered the real problem. He would come back from business trips with new best friends, new companies, and tales of clever offensive strikes against competitors. He would invest time he clearly didn’t have into me — into all of us. The thing I admired most about Carey was that he was raw and real and made no apologies for who he was, but always admitted his failures. I hope we can all help Carey live on through us.”

- Jess Shorland, Cheki

“I have been too shocked to say anything until now.

Many have talked about Carey’s intelligence, warmth and humility. About his tremendous professional success, and his passion for Kenya and Africa. About the mentorship role that he played for the entire Nairobi tech community. And he was all that for me too, for sure.

In our last conversation, just a few hours before that gun shot, I had told him I wanted to discuss some business items with him. “Go ahead”, he said. “I will when I see you”, I responded.

We were supposed to have dinner that night.

We would have talked about business, yes. And I might have made some big decisions based almost solely on his advice – that’s how much I trusted it. But from our first meeting, it had not really been about work. We had recognized each other: we were of the same tribe. Adventurers, restless travelers, risk takers, creative thinkers. We had found each other.

It’s sometimes hard – impossible even – to talk about my life as a nomad entrepreneur to some of my oldest friends. It is so strange really, hopping from city to city trying to get your business off the ground, away from your family or things that might tether you to the ground. But at the same time it is so exhilarating to be living exactly the life you want, when so many people have compromised on their dreams. Sometimes you are so obscenely happy that you don’t dare tell anyone. Carey and I shared that feeling, and the relief to have found a partner in crime.

We used to talk about what we wanted to do once we’d be able to step aside from our day-to-day, sometimes prosaic and often stressful, empire-building responsibilities. The places we wanted to go, a specific restaurant we wanted to visit together in Italy. And also about love and relationships and all these things that have absolutely nothing to do with work.

He could read my mind – which is why, even if there are many things I was not in a hurry to tell him because I was expecting our friendship to last forever, I think that he already knew.

Carey had a crazy life. His achievements are well known. The tragedies he had to endure, a lot less. Nothing he did was boring or average or pedestrian. Even in death, he surprised us all. And as someone who believes that we should all thrive to make our own life the most exciting story we’ve ever heard, I can certainly say that he succeeded.”

- Marie Lora-Mungai, Buni TV

Carey Eaton at the iHub, a regular

Carey Eaton at the iHub, a regular

(As much as I’m sad, I’m also angry about his murder. This type of violence only happens because of an endemic corruption in the gov’t (That’s from President Kenyatta to the Nairobi Governor and down), a ridiculously low-paid police force, and a basic “shrug your shoulders” culture of tolerance for crime at all levels. But, this isn’t the time to go deep into that, it’s a time to remember Carey for who he was.)

5 Good Recent Reports on African Tech – 2014

I keep meaning to write blog posts on each of these reports on tech, most of them on Africa, but can’t seem to get it done. Instead, I’ll just post a link to each, a visual, and why I think it’s worth reading.

1. The Akamai “State of the Internet” Q3 2013 report

[Akamai Report - PDF Download]

Has good information on overall usage globally, and trends. In Africa, even though they have a node in Kenya, all we’re seeing is stats on South Africa, Egypt and Morocco. However, there is a really fascinating chart by Ericsson in it on wireless usage.

Mobile data vs voice growth globally - 2013

Mobile data vs voice growth globally – 2013

2. GSMA’s “Digital Entrepreneurship in Kenya” report 2014

[GSMA - Entrepreneurship in Kenya report 2014 - PDF Download]

The GSMA puts together some fantastic reports, due to the amount of data at their fingertips due to their association’s membership. Alongside the iHub Research team, they’ve done a deep dive into the tech entrepreneurship side of Kenya, and you can see the results here.

tech-in-kenya-stats-2013

3. Deloitte’s “Value of connectivity” report 2014

[Deloitte's - Extending Internet Connectivity report 2014 - PDF Download]

The Deloitte folks do a study and argue that an increase in internet penetration could have a large impact on an emerging market country’s GDP.

“Deloitte estimates that the resulting economic activity could generate $2.2 trillion in additional GDP, a 72% increase in the GDP growth rate, and more than 140 million new jobs.”

Internet penetration worldwide - Deloitte Report 2013

4. infoDev’s “The Business Models of mLabs and mHubs” report 2014

[The Business Models of mLabs and mHubs 2014 - PDF Download]

I’ve had a front-row seat to infoDev’s work starting and supporting places like the m:lab in East Africa. After doing it for 3 years, here’s their indepth report on what’s working, not working, how much money has been spent and what the future might look like.

Comparison of Key Results across mLabs - 2014

5. McKinsey’s “The Internet’s transformative potential in Africa” report 2013

[MGI Lions go digital_Full report_Nov 2013 - PDF Download]

Mostly useful due to the interest large corporates and banks put in McKinsey, this report makes that the greatest impact of the internet in Africa is likely to be concentrated in six sectors: financial services, education, health, retail, agriculture, and government. What they’ve done particularly well is gather a large range of numbers from diverse and various sources to make better sense of what’s going on.

Penetration and usage vary widely across the continent

Experiencing Ethiopia: Tech Hubs (Part 2)

As I was getting ready to head to Ethiopia last week to speak at a conference, one of the main things on my agenda was to see IceAddis. To my surprise, I also found out of a new community-based tech hub, called xHub, that’s about to go live. Here some of my thoughts on both.

IceAddis

IceAddis - made from 6 shipping containers

IceAddis – made from 6 shipping containers


IceAddis is renowned in the African tech hub community for their amazing design. This is for good reason, as they sit on the EiABC, the architectural and design school at the university. They’ve been part of the AfriLabs network from early on, and one of their co-founders, Oliver, was kind enough to pick me up and take me to see the space.

There is a semi-finalist from Ethiopia in this years Pivot East event, for the first time ever, and it’s not surprising that they came from IceAddis. In fact, I ran into one of the founders in Addis, and I’m excited to see a company from a new country in this year’s event.

Online Hisab (Ethiopia): Online Hisab is a cloud-based accounting package for Ethiopian SMEs, who are looking for an affordable and easy to use accounting solution.

I’ve never been a fan of seeing tech hubs or labs showing up on university campuses (as I’ve never been a fan of government run/setup ones). The team at IceAddis confirmed why. Due to the amounts of bureaucracy inherent in the system, it makes doing anything almost impossible. Their space was fairly empty when I came through, likely due to time of the day, but this also might be due to location in town or due to being on campus.

The BRCK in IceAddis - useful as the university network was down

The BRCK in IceAddis – useful as the university network was down

One really great thing I got to see was their maker space, which is only used by the architectural school, but they do some amazing things with it and it holds great promise. Now, if only Ethiopia would bring some consistency to component and equipment import regulations.

xHub

xHub - Ethiopia's newest tech hub (possible logo)

xHub – Ethiopia’s newest tech hub (possible logo)

The moment I stepped into the hotel in Addis Ababa, I was met by one of the local tech guys, Kibrom Tadesse who started telling me about this new tech hub that he was planning called xHub. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it, and on Saturday he arranged for me to be picked up by his business partner and primary driver behind the space, named Tedd Tadesse (his brother-in-law).

Teddy Tadesse of the xHub gives me a tour

Teddy Tadesse of the xHub gives me a tour

I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest, and was thinking that they might be better served by joining with IceAddis. However, after talking at length with Teddy and seeing the location, I changed my mind and realized that there was indeed room for both spaces in the community. The community badly needs a space that is enterprise and entrepreneur-focused, that is welcoming to the business community.

First, the xHub space is amazing. The building that it’s at and floors it can take up are just what you’d expect from a top-end community tech hub in one of Africa’s major capitals. If they can wring a deal out of the landlord for the roof space, it’ll be the best event space on the continent.

The xHub roof space in Addis (undeveloped)

The xHub roof space in Addis (undeveloped)

xHub in Addis - they would be on the left side of this picture

xHub in Addis – they would be on the left side of this picture

The plan is to get the community involved in the build-out, design and use of the xHub right away, and have the space in a usable fit and condition with 4-6 weeks. I’m excited about it, and I know the community is as well, as I talked to a number of young entrepreneurs and coders later that day.

Thoughts on the Addis Tech Community

Local mobile app and web devs get to work

Local mobile app and web devs get to work


After a lot of discussions with the tech hub leaders, a few tech entrepreneurs, over a dozen computer science and engineering students, and then experiencing the internet in Ethiopia, I came away with a few thoughts.

  • The tech community in Addis is smart, hungry and realizes the potential of the country they live in. It felt a little like Nairobi in 2005, where there was this growing desire to get connected (faster), build businesses and show up on the global stage.
  • The infrastructure of connectivity in Ethiopia is constrained by government monopoly on telcoms (mobile) and internet, so they really struggle for good service.
  • Due to their foreign currency trade restrictions, investors aren’t keen to work in the market too deeply. This means funding and access to other markets are hard.
  • With the size of the local market (some 80 million people) they realize there is a home market, and some of the businesses are honing in on the b2b and public-sector opportunities.

I’m curious as to what will happen next. The tech hubs seem like the best vector, since they provide a nexus point for activities and people finding each other. Being in a country where government control is so heavy, these tech hubs have to work with the government, and I hope that this will open doors and increase the flow of capital into the startups rather than constrain them.

Experiencing Ethiopia: Around Town (Part 1)

Having landed in Addis Ababa yesterday, I thought I might write down some of my impressions. The last time I was here was over 20 years ago, as I would fly between Khartoum and Nairobi for boarding school. Needless to say, much has changed, except for the warm hospitality of the Ethiopian people.

Mobile carrier’s and their spam advertising

No mobile carrier ads in Ethiopia's main aiport

No mobile carrier ads in Ethiopia’s main aiport


It’s non-existent here. I was shocked when I landed at the airport, since there were no billboards or ads for any mobile operators (only the phone manufacturers). I didn’t realize how much mobile operator advertising there is in the world until I got to Ethiopia.

2g vs 3g SIM cards
“What is that!?” I thought the guy who was telling me about them was confused, but he wasn’t. The actually sell SIM cards that are different here, and you can’t buy 3g SIM cards right now, since the government-run company (ETC) that manages all ISP and mobile carrier traffic is upgrading to 4g. They’ll sell 4g cards then, and until then you’re stuck with sipping out of the 2g straw.

Rent-a-SIM

Feleg with the working BRCK using ETC

Feleg with the working BRCK using ETC


Luckily I have a friend who has a friend, named Feleg, who rents SIM cards. He’s an Ethiopian techie who spent much of his life in Colorado, and is now back building his own businesses. Besides hooking me up with a 3g SIM which now runs in the BRCK, it turns out Feleg is a really good front-end engineer and UX guy.

The Internet Speeds
They remind me of internet speeds in Kenya in 2007, pre-undersea cable. Usable, but not great. Everyone says that they were faster until recently, when all the big road works started to cut the cables and cause some disruption in the service.

The Roads are Amazing
Hardly any traffic and really well built. There are advantages to a centralized autocracy, as Rwanda shows us as well. Police/soldier are everywhere – literally on every corner. Traffic is hit/miss, but overall moves faster than in Kenya. Mostly due to there not being a lot of cars. Importing a car here has seemingly arbitrary rates of duty, ranging from 100-500% (so I was told) and that number might change while the vehicle is in-transit.

Great Leather

Enzi - high-end leather shoes made in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Enzi – high-end leather shoes made in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


I didn’t know this before, but Ethiopia is renowned for it’s leather. Some of my old contacts have a shoe company called Enzi Footwear, who make some of the best quality leather shoes you’ll find anywhere. One of the founders works in Italy’s fashion markets, so you can guess just how nice they are. Unfortunately, they didn’t have my big shoe size, but you might see Bono wearing a pair from time-to-time.

Managing with Trust and Expectation

For the past 6 years I’ve been part of a rather unique organization in Ushahidi, where we decided early on that how we’d run the organization was that we would trust each other and expect that everyone would act like responsible adults. It’s worked brilliantly, even as we’ve grown and spun up new enterprises and organizations such as iHub and BRCK.

Yesterday I read about the Berkshire Hathaway “strategy of trust”:

Mr. Munger, 90, was ruminating on the state of corporate governance, offering a counternarrative to the distrustful culture of most businesses: Instead of filling your ranks with lawyers and compliance people, he argued, hire people that you actually trust and let them do their job.

It’s well worth a read, and I didn’t expect to find parity in leadership philosophy between us and a 300,000-person family of organizations.

How do we do it?

There are probably other organizations like ours, ones who have decided to trust their team and assume that people make good decisions based out of the best intentions of the organization and their colleagues, over themselves. We didn’t set out with a great body of knowledge on how to do this, but instead with some theories that we’ve refined over time. Here are the most important ones:

Find the Right People
David, Juliana and I particularly don’t like to micromanage. We’ll work with you to define the goal, but if you expect someone to tell you how to get there, you won’t fit. We don’t check up on you all the time, you tell us when there’s a snag. You need to work autonomously. We’ll help, and are always there for a conversation, but your job is to get from point A to point B.

It’s always better to find people who are smart and get things done, who can work autonomously and tend to not put themselves first. Big egos don’t go well with this kind of team, so we look for humility when interviewing.

I remember making a mistake back in 2009, hiring someone off of reputation and resume, without really digging into their portfolio or doing multiple interviews. Ever since then I’ve refused to look at CVs or resumes and each new person goes through about 4-5 other people on the team before we make the final decision. Those other people on the team catch things I wouldn’t, some about skill, but most about ethos and personality.

Knowing the Ethos
If an emergency happens where you are, can you make a decision and run with it, without having to ask permission? You should be able to. This is especially important in an organization with a globally distributed team that deals with crisis and disaster. We decided that everyone should be able to make critical decisions about deployments of the software, partnerships and strategic steps on their own. Just fill everyone else in on it as it comes up and if adjustments need to be made, then we do it together.

To make this work, we had to ensure that everyone on the team, from junior engineers to new QA staff actually understood the foundational elements of the organization. Not just what we built, but why we built it, how it all started and where we were going in the future. While there’s no “intro to X” classes, we do throw you in the deep end early on. It started with our first hire, Henry Addo from Ghana, who found himself speaking in the French Senate in Paris in his first month on the job. That made us realize that public speaking forces you to learn a lot more about the organization that you’re in, quickly.

Our goal is that a camera and mic can be put in front of any team member and they can answer any question on the organization. The way they answer it might be different than me due to speaking styles, but because they understand the ethos of the organizations, it is still correct.

Per Diems
We don’t do per diems. You’re traveling for the organization, spend what you need on food, lodging and transport. Be responsible about it, since this is money needed for the organization to grow. If you’re in NYC, we know things are more expensive, if you’re in Omaha we know they’re not. The “Agency Effect” (or Principal Agent Problem) comes into play here as the incentives are wrong between a team member and the organization if they get an allowance for travel.

Final Thoughts

I suppose what I’m saying is that if you truly trust people to act like the adults they are and to do the right thing, they generally do. All the corporate oversight you can apply won’t stop an Enron from happening, so something else has to work. It has to be something that’s real though, people can sniff out very quickly if it’s a manufactured, or fake, trust. This means as much of the onus lies on the leaders to “let go” as it does for the team members to shoulder and own the expectations that come with their role.

My greatest takeaway from the Mr. Munger and Mr. Buffett was found in the last paragraph:

Mr. Munger, in a previous annual meeting, contended that the best way to hold managers accountable is to make them eat their own cooking. Mr. Munger pointed to the late Columbia University philosophy professor, Charles Frankel, who believed “that systems are responsible in proportion to the degree in which the people making the decisions are living with the results of those decisions.” Mr. Munger cited the Romans, “where, if you build a bridge, you stood under the arch when the scaffolding was removed.

We all need to stand under our own bridges more often, and I’m going to figure out how to make that happen in my organizations.

A Kenyan Tech Ecosystem Report 2014

The Emergence, Challenges and Potential of the Kenyan Tech Ecosystem” is a Report by Julia Manske published by the Vodafone Institute. Follow the link above for an overview and a podcast on the topic.

[PDF Download of the "The Emergence, Challenges and Potential of the Kenyan Tech Ecosystem" Report.]

A tech ecosystem map of Nairobi

There are a lot of reports that touch on the tech developments in Kenya over the years, but few do as good of a job painting the background picture and how it has taken a few years to develop. Here’s a rather long excerpt, which gives a pretty good 10,000 foot view of the last 4-6 years in the Nairobi tech space:

With the success of M-Pesa Kenya advanced to the position of a global pioneer and international point of reference for mobile payment systems. For the first time Kenya was associated with technology-driven innovation. International media and large companies took notice of the African country. This had an effect on the Kenyans’ self-image. M-Pesa’s success became an identity-forming narrative; the idea that an innovation can come out of Kenya crystallised in the collective memory of the younger generation in particular.

Similar to the butterfly effect,16 M-Pesa became the trigger and driver of a new ecosystem of mobile technological innovations. It created a mood in which resources were pooled and key thinkers from the Kenyan tech and start-up scene got together. This development was accelerated by the foundation of the Ushahidi platform that was set up at the start of 2008 following the uprisings in the context of the Kenyan presidential elec- tions. As a reaction to the violence, an ad hoc team of developers and bloggers came together to collect witness statements via SMS and plot them on a Google map, thereby initiating what is termed “activist mapping”. The free open source service is now used by bloggers and activists across the world, for example for the earthquake at Christchurch or the Gaza war in 2008. The company that came out of this process enjoys high levels of familiarity in Kenya and its founders have become leading digital opinion makers.

One of the Ushahidi founders, the blogger Erik Hersman, was struck by the absence of places to exchange ideas in Kenya and so in 2010 he set up the iHub, one of the first co-working spaces for companies from the tech scene in Africa.

This was followed by a whole host of further technology spaces, incubators and accelerators. The Bishop Magua Centre, the fourth floor of which is occupied by the iHub, is also home to the spin-offs iHub Research, the iHub UX Lab, the start-ups Ushahidi, mFarm, Frontline SMS, mLab, the accelerator Nailab, Kopo Kopo, Preakelt and the Africa office of GSMA. The Who’s Who of the Kenyan tech scene is housed in a single building. Other actors such as the accelerators 88mph and The Growth Hub have set up shop in the immediate vicinity. Large multinational companies such as Google, Microsoft, GSMA, Nokia and IBM have opened branches and research centres. This development is facilitated by a liberal economic system with a dynamic and strong private sector that promotes efficiency, competition and overseas investments. Within seven years Nairobi has developed into an African centre of technological innovations – journalists dub it “Silicon Savannah”.

The success story of Kenya also radiated to other African countries. Technology experts, developers and designers started cooperating and by doing so gave rise to the technological ecosystem that they had been missing until that point. Especially Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Africa saw similar developments as in Kenya. Large development organisations, such as InfoDev which is associated with the World Bank, setup co-working spaces and accelerators. Microsoft, Google and individual investors financed the expansion of a range of start-up centres in the African metropolises. Spread across the continent there are now over 35 locations for tech innovations in 13 African countries – of which many are members of the AfriLabs [www.afrilabs.com] alliance. These generate new inventions and mobile and digital business ideas every year.

It’s a good report, worth a read and it covers a lot besides this, including a recipe for creating a tech ecosystem:

  1. Create access to funding capital
  2. Promote lasting structures
  3. Establish competences
  4. Set up stable real and virtual networks

Maps of Africa: Private Equity and Infrastructure Investment 2013

The good folks over at Africa Assets have teamed up with Cross Border Information to release these two maps. The first on private equity investment in Africa in 2013 and the second on infrastructure investment in the same year.

Private Equity Investment in Africa 2013

Private Equity info Map of Africa – 2013 (PDF Download)

There was a total of 83 PE deals. 44 were reported totaling $4.3 billion.

Private Equity info Map of Africa - 2013

Private Equity info Map of Africa – 2013

Infrastructure Investment in Africa 2013

Africa Map of Infrastructure Investments in 2013 (PDF Download)

If you add up all of what Europe, the US and all the multilaterals together put into Africa, the total is $15,368,000,000 ($15.4b USD). China alone put in $13,360,000,000 ($13.4b USD). Is it any wonder that the African leaders of today look east to China more than the west to the US and EU?

Africa Map of Infrastructure Investments in 2013

Africa Map of Infrastructure Investments in 2013