A Web Technology Idea for Africa

Here’s something a little different. I recently talked about how the web can change Africa, and how those of us who I termed the African Digerati, the people with an understanding of Africa and knowledge of technology, are the catalysts of that change. I challenged people to come up with ideas and to implement them if they can.

Since I try to practice what I preach, here is something I’ve thought of. Below you will find a web technology idea that could change the way Africans communicate, trade and interact with each other and the world.


The Africa Network - Download Here

The Africa Network idea is just that, an idea. As I state on the last page, it is not thoroughly analyzed or researched, so the detail is lacking. However, it does provide a platform to open discussion on the topic. Post your thoughts in the comment area below, or email me at: hash [at] whiteafrican.com if you would like to discuss something privately.

NOTE: This was also my chance to test out Apple’s iWork software, thus the formatting and size (my apologies).

NOTE: Vote for the Web Technology Idea for Africa manifesto on ChangeThis by clicking the link below:

Vote for the African Technology Manifesto!

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48 thoughts on “A Web Technology Idea for Africa

  1. Mark Forrester

    I love the idea and think it could work (i also love the formatting of your document, iLife looks an exciting packaging program). The possible drawbacks that I can think of though are, firstly education, what percentage of this untapped market is educated and would understand (and be willing to learn) how to use this cellphone system. Training users might be a large expense. Language barriers would also be an issue, and a costly exercise to translate webpages and web results into all the African languages. Lastly, marketing and advertising (not that I am knowledgeable in either area), would surely cost millions in each country, and what mediums would be used in each country? Is $1 million dollars really a realistic figure?

    Thanks for the comments Mark, you’ve opened up a couple areas that I wanted to address.

    First, I think it’s best to think of this “network” as a platform. Something that will be used by different groups of people in different ways. The idea is to provide the basic infrastructure of a web/mobile platform, and then to let the users decide how to use it. I think that will help explain my answer to the education issues.

    Second, I strongly believe that if you provide something of value, that people will begin using it and will train each other. For instance, say you’re Flickr and provide this great free application (with a paid pro version). You have your first-movers come in, who are generally very well versed in technology, then those go off and trumpet it to all their friends and family. Pretty soon, grandma is using Flickr because her grandson taught showed her his pictures and got her started. I think the same thing will happen in Africa. And, who can forget how little education it took for Africans to figure out all the many uses and nuances of mobile phones? Most of them know more about them than me!

    So, value creates users and users teach each other. The best applications take very little to understand and need very little, if any, paid marketing. Once you have a user base, you can then think about monetizing it.

    Lastly, on your question of $1 million being to small. I’d say you’re correct. However, I think that would be a good figure to start at for a pilot program in one country. After you work the kinks out there, the scaling of it will be cheaper on a country-by-country basis due to the fact that you’ll know what you need and most of your application is scaleable.

    Again, great questions and thoughts, keep them coming!

    HASH

  2. Alex Kuria

    Great idea !!! the technology is in place to execute this and a common portal/community space it will benefit so many in Africa

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  4. John Powers

    I just downloaded your business plan. It’s so great that you’re putting this up and providing a platform for people to contribute ideas. Something like this is certainly needed.

    Something that’s really great is leveraging Web based services with other media, particularly cell phones.

    Another medium which has potential are Pod casts. I-pods and MP3 players can broadcast a short distance to FM radios. Governments have been quick to shut down low-power community radio stations. Pod casting allows for some of the advantages of community radio perhaps without some of the downsides.

    That’s an idea not ready-for-prime time, I mention it because it seems to me that something like the newscarier–paperboy–is useful to consider. Cell phones have a fairly high penetration, but still leaves many out. If people can find ways of making a small amount of money distributing information with their cell phones it increases the audience and attention.

    The marketplace rather assumes that the owner of the cell phone is interested in a particular purchase, but cell phone owners may more often be a link to the broader community’s interests.

    A cell phone owner may aggregate local information to be distributed by word of mouth, I-pod “radio broadcasts” or simple printed matter. (I have and idea for tiny books–3 books made from a single sheet of regular paper.)

    My point is simply that if ways can be found for cell phone owners to get a little money as a conduit for information available it may increase the economic viability of this proposal.

    Sorry Erik, I see my ideas are half-baked. Mostly I want to say this is exciting and gives me lots to think about.

    John, I’m glad that you like the idea, and I hope that it will create many more ideas for you and others. What we need is for someone to step up and say, “yes, this is something that needs to be done, and here’s some investment money to get started on it.” :)

    I like the idea of using smaller networks as their own hubs, which is what I think you were getting at. Each part of Africa is different, but I would go so far as to say that local networking is the backbone of my idea. Yes, people need to be linked on the macro-level with their country and continent, but the real power lies in the increased ability to communicate, trade and intereact at the local (and regional) level.

    Thanks again for your input and interest!

    HASH

  5. JKE

    Thx 4 sharing, great idea, interesting straight-forward presentation. Man, this is so true. If they want to start something like this, they should better start immediately. Also, they (someone) might already be working on it – however, definately not as passionate as this approach is.

    I am also thinking of integrating not only news & trade stuff, but DIY manuals and ebooks that come in as SMS/MMS or even via WAP. Sure, what you’ll need to get this project on the road is a tight co-operation with a mobile network (but not only one!) and of course flatrates for the service so that it becomes affordable. Yani, you know this already. The benefit with the manuals & educational part is that this could secure some financing through agencies that are interested in promoting education. I like that advertisment approach, though. Just like the credit point system you were mentioning – GOOD idea!

    I think all it takes now is a) some backend ppl who code the database & a simple frontend and b) a way of figuring out how to streamline this channel down to the sms-level as the short message service seems to be the common denominator on mobile phones. What I LIKE about Safaricom or the GSM system in Kenya in general is that they make proper use of GSM technology – just think of that scratch card system where you just type in a number and send it off to the main computer without dialing any number (=costs). Other providers in Europe, for instance, still require the customers to call a voice line and then type in a number. So the point is that there might be some relatively young networks being operated in most african countries, but at least they are using the technology to its full potential and should be well interested in having someone providing an incentive for people to generate even more traffic (=income). After all, this could be the biggest killer application next to something like en.wapedia.org if only there are ways to make content accesible on the sms level (with their 160 characters limit).

    I think there will always be funding for project like these once a test system is running ready for presentation. Advertisment for this should then be a piece of cake – think of viral marketing…

    Great talking to you earlier JKE, great points brought up about SMS and GSM. It’ll take a quick study of a market, and then a pilot program pushed out to really test the viability of the technology.

    Making the technology valuable for the lowest common denominator (the African on a simple SMS phone) is the highest priority. If that can be made into a valuable experience, how much better can it be made when on a WAP enabled phone or a computer? The technology is there to make a robust enough application that allows for scaleable interfaces and cross-technology interaction. Where the SMS user can interact and derive great value from their interaction on their phone, with the user on the souped up computer on a cable modem in a big city.

    Erik/HASH

  6. JKE

    Also, the interesting approach about this idea despite of reaching rural areas via mobile phones (= existing technology) is that content will be generated by users. An important fact, I think, since other initiatives like the OLPC project also heavily depend on content and not only making technology (hardware) available. Zangu (as an interim name for this) could be a good way to see if such modern interactive networks actually work out in the field.

  7. Ntwiga

    I love it when people come up with great ideas like this and I wish that this something exploting this idea could be implemented.

    This is an excellent model and the only aspect of it that I can fault (just a little though) is the type of content that it would take to make it fly.

    I suspect that news alone would not cut it unless it was:
    1. Very local (like down to what we would call a district in Kenya – the equivalent of a township or borough) which, it seems to me, would be almost impossible to update with any kind or regularity . . .

    2. Trade/commerce related data: I think that this would fly like an eagle.
    Why?

    let me prove it by example:

    titleCheck out what geekcorp is doing here: don’t you think that this would be a great match – delivering local/regional produce pricing over cell?

    If I was a farmer, this would buy me a ton of leverage:
    – I can tell when to bring my produce to market (hold it until prices are good)
    – I can tell which market to bring my produce to (if I transport my stuff 2 towns over, I get $x+10 instead of the $x I would get right here. Lets go,
    – I can form an ad-hoc co-op with other farmers in the region to market for better pricing based on volume or regularity of supply (if the buyer needs x kgs a week then and we can only produce x a month individually then we collectively sell to the buyer and you deliver this week, then you, then you then me the last week)

    Another example, The CTA envisions using cell phones to manage tea prices via updates on direct updates on volume and quality from farms using cell phones.

    This model is clearly very easily extensible to many other products including coffee, hortricultural produce, flowers . . . lots of products.

    As an aside, I should mention that Nick Ochiel at Billionaire Businessman has written and is in the process of releasing an open source SMS application designed to deal with for product/business implementations using the model that you have identified here in the African domain.

    Ntwiga… so many good comments I don’t know where to start.

    Local is the heart of this platform. Local (town size) > District > Regional > Country > Continent. That should be the order and the “onion peel” that users interact with it. For instance, I can upload news/trade information to the local level. If enough readers find it useful, it gets promoted to the District level, then to the Regional level, etc… So, news aggregation plus user valuation of that content. That same philosophy could be applied to more than just news.

    Trade and commerce interactions are numerous. This falls under what I termed the “community” portion, but maybe that should be renamed? What I would like to see, is a platform that allows users to customize their experience for their needs.

    So, if I’m a wood carver in Ukambani, my use of the service could be far different than a farmer in Zambia. I could use my own language to interact and I could decide how best to use the infrastructure provided by Zangu to make that happen. Real-time pricing in markets is now available to me. I can decide if I should take my product to city A or city B on the very same morning that I’m planning to get on the bus to go there.

    Don’t ask me how I ever missed Nicks blog (Billionaire Businessman)! Good stuff there.

    Erik/HASH

  8. David Seruyange

    Hey Erik,

    I like the idea you have but here is another idea that I think might wrap well into your portal for making money and empowering Africans: you can sell data about them. I know that here there’s a lot of hoopla over “privacy” but I think little is done in terms of tracking trends and gathering raw data about Africans. Simple example: I don’t know where you could get historical market performance data for African exchanges. Not only that, but what about *paying* people to give you information – straw poll votes on issues, demographic information, how much their bread cost them etc…

    It would take a little time to get enough data to make useful analysis and projections but over time I think there would be all kinds of interesting applications to trend data in Africa. I’m sure a lot of companies could find the market research they could get from your data quite lucrative: setting price points, needs analysis, and so on.

    How about this as a scenario: you give your registered users an “account” – like a paypal account – where they can accumulate “points” or currency of some kind. They get the equivalent of 5 cents or whatever for data they give you: each straw poll vote, relaying local price information, whatever. They can then apply their accumulated “points” or whatever to purchase items from your “CraigsList” type site – you facilitate the transaction like a bank/broker.

    Search is hard, good search is harder, brokering transactions, fulfilment (especially in Africa) would require some special pixie dust on your part. But you’re absolutely right, the opportunity is there!

    David, good to hear from you. Always an opinion that I value.

    You see, this is why I post an idea like this to the blog: there is just no way I can come up with all the great ideas and thoughts that you guys are throwing out. I hadn’t even thought of the data accumulation as a product in and of itself, but it makes sense. Making it a transparent, opt-in experience is what could make it successful and useful.

    I’ve discussed the idea of “credits” or “points” with a couple people on the phone or through email today. Let’s face it, there are just numerable opportunities that that opens up – whether it’s in marketing, trend analysis or news aggregation.

    Of all the components, a vertical search engine for Africa would probably be one of the hardest. I can’t claim to know how to build one, though licensing a service might be the best answer here… who knows until further research has been done. If anyone out there can shed some light on this portion of the plan I would love to hear it.

    Erik/HASH

  9. JKE

    Oh, I thought about talking to a mobile phone network and persuading them to implement some additional interesting features on the USSData layer of the GSM protocol (think of *#100# for prepaid debit) which could be used to push data to and from users. A technology that avoides the rather static structure of SMS and provides a better exchange (though billing could be a problem). ‘nway, just an idea for the sms pinhole…

  10. thakadu

    Mark said:
    > The possible drawbacks that I can think of though are, firstly education, what percentage of this untapped market is educated and would understand (and be willing to learn) how to use this cellphone system. Training users might be a large expense. Language barriers would also be an issue, and

    My own feeling is that the Zangu should be so useful, and engaging that is does not need any training. Another way of looking at is to say that if your application requires training in order to be used then you have missed the mark.

    Take craigslist for instance, I bet not a single person has ever been trained to use it, yet it is one of the most used sites on the web. The african continent is home to the most ingenious people in the world and believe me, if Zangu is done right, it will take off without any training.

    I have witnessed this before in Botswana when e-mail was first introduced in the government in the MOE. I was in charge of training and after the first few courses we simply cancelled the rest, because people found it so useful that the word spread and they just trained themselves.

  11. HASH

    AfroM from AfroMusing emailed me the other day with some good comments. I asked if it was okay if I posted them here in the comments section so that everyone could see them.

    From AfroM:
    Hmm, great idea, and well presented too. Just a little to add, when i visited kenya i noticed that programming that is specifically tailored for certain tribes was actually quite popular! For example for luhya families, in their cars they listen alot to luhya radio and kalenjin families listen to kassfm which happens to have a website http://www.kassfm.co.ke/

    Not sure how that fits into the plan, but i felt it is part an interesting characteristic if the network is to be specifically geared for Africans/kenyans. There is that tribe factor, and it is very sticky…(people pay attention if its in a language they consider their ‘emotional’ language).

    I am still thinking of what this means in terms of concrete ideas for your business plan. Woiyee i hope this is constructive.

    Language is a big issue, and it’s something that needs to be addressed in order for the Africa Network to take hold. I think the best solutions are simple though, and here is what I would do to address this.

    News: Since the majority of the news stories will be user generated, especially at the local/district level, there is no reason that people just can’t text that message in in their own language. (I have an idea of how this should work, but I fear it would take me another page to explain it!)

    Search: Definately allow for search by language. Harness some of the work already done in many communities, and over time work in languages that aren’t available. For instance, in Kenya you might start with English & Swahili, then work to allow search in Kikuyu, Kikamba, etc…

    Community: The community area works much like the news section, in that most of the content is generated by and for the community – therefore they will write in the languages that they are most comfortable with.

    We provide the underlying structure and basic navigation, the users use it how they like. That’s the beauty of this idea – it’s simplicity and it’s moldability into what the end users need/want it for. I can’t tell you how the Namibians will use it, much less the community around Machakos. However, I can tell you that I could provide them with useful tools that they can use.

    Anyway, you can tell this is something I really enjoy and am passionate about! :) Keep your input/questions/critiques coming, they only make for a better idea in the end.

    Erik/HASH

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  14. michelle

    You have had some great feedback, of which I am glad , because this idea warrants attention. I hope you dont’t mind but I put a link to this article in today’s blog.

  15. HASH

    Michelle, I’m very happy to have you write and link back to this paper/idea. I hope more people do the same, so that the idea spreads. That is what is important here.

  16. HASH

    Thakadu, we’re talking about the same thing here. When you say,

    “Another way of looking at is to say that if your application requires training in order to be used then you have missed the mark.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I feel that way with almost all web applications, and this should definately be no exception.

    That isn’t to say education isn’t an issue, it’s just that web education falls to the first-movers and zealots, not necessarily the company behind the idea.

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  22. imnakoya

    Great idea Hash.

    You may want to check the Nextbillion (http://www.nextbillion.net/) to see if you can showcase this there as well. I’m sure that by the time this concept goes through the mill, something great will come out of it.

    Thanks and Good luck!

    Thanks for the link Imnakoya. I’ll check it out.

  23. Maxwell

    I’m very impressed with the excellent ideas in this forum, and I havent even read the darn PDF file yet as it’s being downloaded as I type.
    But I’ll be sure to post my opinion, and also add this to my blog once I wrap my head around it.

    BTW, speaking of SMS…
    Has anyone seen any ideas or implementations on using cell phones (via SMS) in location-based applications?

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  25. Maxwell

    Okay, I’ve read the PDF document and was very impressed with the concept.
    I can see that a lot of thought went into this.

    Some things to ponder:

    1) SMS network access
    You’d need to get all the selfish cell phone companies (CPCs) like Safaricom and CellTell aboard. Is this possible? Are they greedy enough to want to do their own crazy thing?
    The reason I ask this is because I’ve always been thinking of ways to use cell phones to make ePayments since everybody has a celly – more or less. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to send an SMS like *3456789#4.50# to order the product or service for $4.50? It seems so bloody logical. Yet I’m told that the greedy CPCs either don’t allow it or take a big chunk. See for yourself: http://www.luup.com

    And with luup.com, I don’t see any African CPCs.
    Therefore this would have to be worked out. Wouldn’t it be great if we had an SMS network similar to the Internet eh?? Then a big obstacle is out of the way.

    2) Payment for content
    I think its a great idea to reward providers – especially when a lot of relevant news goes unreported in the mainstream press.

    3) SMS size limitations?
    Is the content doable or practical with the SMS limit of 160 characters? Just curious. Or were you also thinking of WAP too? The rates for WAP access by the greedy CPCs are ridiculous…well over here in Africa, which is where this thingy is supposed to be set up. As you can see, I despise CPCs. :-)

    =======
    Related links – see:
    – “South Koreans Lead In Cell Phone Payments”
    http://www.afponline.org/pub/res/news/ns_20050214_korea.html

    – “Cell Phone Payments From NTT DoCoMo”
    http://theponderingprimate.blogspot.com/2005/11/cell-phone-payments-from-ntt-docomo.html

    – “PayPal Goes Mobile With Cell Phone Payment System”
    http://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/49559.html

    – “Cell Phones & Electronic Cash”
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/07/22/tech/main631231.shtml

    – TexPayMe ( http://www.textpayme.com ) – a Paypal-like service for cellys and SMS
    {I found out about this here:
    http://www.cellphonehacks.com/viewtopic.php?t=46989&sid=0963073dbd1cd7eb88642c5e0ab2694b
    ——————–

    Erik, I’ll post some more thoughts later…getting sleeeepy. :-)
    Catch ya later, maybe on Skype…and I owe ya an email…was out for most of Sunday.
    But all in all, I love the concept and can really see it having a huge impact in the region. In my blog, I’ve stated that Westerners are too focused on Asia and other news-worthy countries with regards to investment. But I see lots of opportunities right here in East Africa. :-)

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  34. munya

    Hie there, I have trying to see how I incorporate your Africa Network idea into my concept to develop an Africa wide internet cafe chain. I came across this exciting cocktail of public good and for profit business principles driven by the ideas well elaborated by C.K. Prahalad in his book, The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, eradicating poverty through profits. Voxiva is a portfolio company of the socially conscious Acumen Fund.

    Voxiva: Remote Healthcare Communications

    The Challenge: Infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and cholera account for half of all deaths in developing countries. The rural poor are disproportionately affected due in large part to poor communication between the affected areas and domestic and international health agencies, which hampers efforts to control the spread of such diseases.

    The Innovation: Because cell phones – unlike computers with Internet access – are quite prevalent in developing countries, Voxiva has developed a communication system that allows rural healthcare workers to enter a patient’s
    symptoms or condition directly into an online database via cell phone, providing officials with immediate information on the extent of an outbreak.

    IMPACT: Using existing phones reduces the cost of a communication system by 40%, requires minimal training, and allows for a faster and more appropriate response. Read more…

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  39. Wollu

    Hi White African,
    I’m new to the development of Africa. My question to you is: My company Silver Server can provide lots of DSL-Hardware and other network devices. We are planning to donnate this asset to a development project in eastern Europe or Africa. Can you help me in finding the appropriate persons or organisation in order to start negotiations?

  40. raya

    Theoreticaly good,africa doesnot have to repeat
    history of technology
    but
    viewing webs by mobile is very expensive
    b/c providing the service is expensive

    what do you think about that?

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