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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

An African Aggregator Roundtable Discussion

Last week I had a chance to sit down and have a conference call (Skype chat) with the technology brains behind the latest buzz in the African blogosphere: The Aggregators.

African Blog Aggregator RoundtableJustin Hartman (Afrigator), Vincent Maher (Amatomu), Neville Newey (Muti) and Matthew Buckland (Amatomu) got together for a half hour to discuss their creations. Having that much brain power pointed in my direction left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable, but they were all nice enough chaps and didn’t make me feel like a complete tech-peasant, for which I thank them. 🙂

Bullet-point takeaways:

  • Neville points out that Muti is actually not an aggregator (I apologize)
  • Amatomu is positioning itself for the greater non-blogging readership, not just the bloggers
  • Afrigator has a plan to grow through a mobile phone strategy
  • Justin coins the term “Afrosphere” to describe the African blogosphere
  • There is a need to be wary of South African domination of platforms
  • Amatomu plans to grow outside of South Africa regionally
  • Everyone aggrees that broadband connectivity is hugely important for future growth


Below is an edited version of our chat. Any spelling errors are my own.

On reaching out beyond the tech community

Aggregator RoundtableErik Hersman:
What are you doing to reach the non-techie/first-mover crowd with your platform?

Neville Newey:
Ok a few ways to answer that….
Muti doesn’t “try” and go for any particular crowd, it’s the members themselves that really decide on the tone and flavor of the site. Having said that, if you look at Digg and Reddit they tend to be dominated by techie types. It’s quite possible that Muti will gravitate that way, but I personally am not trying to go for that crowd or any other crowd. It’s quite interesting to sit back and watch it take shape.

Vincent Maher:
Amatomu has 2 audiences: the bloggers and the general blog readership who may not be bloggers. We see the non-bloggers as the far bigger audience and part of what we want to achieve with the site is to grow and enhance the blog audience. We’re going to do ths by using our existing channels to promote content on the ‘sphere. Links from the M&G website, write-ups in the paper and so on. Most bloggers are already saying Amatomu sends them 15% of their daily traffic, so that’s the plan.

Erik Hersman:
So, the bloggers get the readers and you get the mainstream traffic?

Matthew Buckland:
Essentially, we want to send more readers to the blogosphere. We also want to measure blog activity so people can see authoritative blogs. We want to implement many other metrics to measure blogs and the blogosphere… Track links, measure page impressions (sign of activity), measure fast movers, measure links to posts and blogs, etc…

Justin Hartman:
I think we are targeting a very similar approach to Amatomu in a lot of respects. However, we’re trying to tap into a very “untapped” market in the Afrosphere. There are a lot of technology resources out there – Technorati is one of them – however, we’re trying to make it more user friendly if we can. We want the un-educated newbie user to understand what Afrigator is about, but we also want the techie features for our subscribers. We want to become a hybrid for news in and around Africa an ultimately be a source of objective information to countries that lack many technology resources. A part of this strategy is our WAP side, because most African’s have a cell phone.

On growth strategies

Erik Hersman:
Okay Justin, so you have a mobile strategy too for Afrigator.

Matthew Buckland:
Just to add: we’re also developing an Africa-focused blog aggregator on the back of the current Amatomu template, but we felt at the outset that Amatomu needed to be South Africa-focused.

Neville Newey:
How will Amatomu differ from Afrigator?

Matthew Buckland:
To tell you the honest truth, I’m not sure. I haven’t investigated Afrigator in any depth (yet :-)). What I can say is that it will be similar to Amatomu in that we will have categories, possibly regional as opposed to topic.

Vincent Maher:
Our strategy is also regional and not limited to Africa.

Justin Hartman
:
Well, I don’t think the market should be limited either. There is nothing wrong with having Amatomu and Afrigator serving the same markets.

On South African domination of platforms

Erik Hersman:
How do you all plan on dealing with South African’s taking over and drowning out other voices from around Africa on your platform?

Matthew Buckland:
There is something we have been mulling re: The Africa and South Africa separation… South Africa is a very big internet market in Africa terms… So, we did not want South African bloggers dominating what should be a discussion for Africa… Hence the decision to create a focused South Africa aggregator and a separate Africa aggregator. We will obviously link the two.

Justin Hartman:
I think up until now, South Africans (us) have had difficulty in understanding what the African markets entail and we have, as you mentioned, drowned the voices of other markets. That said, there havent’ really been the tools available to allow Africa as a whole to do this, and I think that’s Afrigator’s edge in this. We are, I hope, becoming a resource for the minority voices to be heard. I think there is a huge market outside of South Africa.

Neville Newey:
Justin, I am interested to know if you are going to try and do a French version or have language options, because obviously West Africa is a pretty big market.

Justin Hartman
:
You know, I hadn’t even thought about this until last night when our first two French sites came on board. In my mind we have to do this without questions, but we have to figure out how to do it effectively.

Erik Hersman:
How about Amatomu?

Vincent Maher:
French, Portuguese and Arabic.

On challenges for social web development in Africa

Erik Hersman:
Quick hit question: what is the major challenge you see in this new space in Africa? (technology, social, etc…)

Neville Newey
:
I have said it before and I will repeat it again. BROADBAND, BROADBAND, BROADBAND

Justin Hartman:
From my perspective, our biggest challenge is resources. By that I am referring to the accessibity of the internet to Africa. We want to reach the masses, but as with SA we will probably only hit the elite few who can afford broadband, but please God, can we change that wit a future strategy. Mobile is a key solution here I think.

Matthew Buckland
:
Yes, internet connection speeds are big issues, but that is more a function of socio-economic issues and broader issues of governance. Just to add something else into the pot: there is a huge sensitivity in Africa to South African companies dominating and acting in an imperialistic manner. So, in regards to our Amatomu Africa strategy, we’re going to apprach with extreme sensibility. It’s a real no brainer that we get the African blogosphere to buy into it.

Again, a big thanks to everyone for being involved in the conversation. Next one we’ll try and do audio so that we can get through more questions.

20 Comments

  1. Great interview. Perfect timing and all the right people present!

  2. I notice when it comes to web developments, aggregators etc in Africa, so much focus is on South Africa. Though this is where broadband is mostly available users from around Africa could visit sites where performance is not an issue, Id like to think that other African users, use the web for more than just email.

  3. JohnN, that’s a good point and one that was raised in our chat. The fact that Amatomu, Muti and Afrigator were put together by South Africans is due in large part to the closely-knit web community in SA. It’s also because there are more programmers and web developers there.

    However, there’s absolutely no reason that they couldn’t have been developed by someone from any other African country. The opportunity to develop web platforms is there for anyone – it’s up to them to take the initiative to build it. Believe me, if someone from Mali had developed Afrigator, it would be just as popular as when the South African’s built it.

    By the way, this is why I cared so much about BarCamp Kenya – it was a chance for that same type of web/mobile tech community to grow and share ideas in Kenya. That’s the type of thing that needs to happen to foster new projects in different countries.

  4. Thank you Hash for inviting me to be part of what was a very interseting discussion. JohnN, you raise some interesting points. I have two thoughts for you, one is that there are in fact some new aggregators out there that are NOT developed by, or focused on South Africa, to name a few: Mashada (Hash blogged about it a few weeks ago), AfricanPath.com (both a blog agregator and news site) , and Memeza, a Zambian focused Digg clone. The other thought I want to share with you is that Muti initially started out (and I still position it as such) as a Pan African site, and for the first few months it was very much Pan African, however as the user base grew more and more the flavour moved toward South Africa as most of the users are from South Africa. If you have any suggestions as to how to encourage other Africans to be more involved I would love to hear them. (Hash has also blogged about this “issue” before)

    Regards and thank you all for good points made.

  5. Nice interview Hash.

    Thank you all for sharing some insight into what you do.

    A couple of quick questions on models that I was hoping to get clarification on:

    – I think it is fair to say that in a quite a few African nations, internal connectivity is decent while external links are not that great and are much more expensive. Examples include Kenya, Uganda to some extent and maybe even Zimbabwe. Have any of your services considered doing distributed local hosting within these nations as a way of getting around this in the short term?

    – Justin mentions mobile services twice, once when talking about a WAP side to strategy and again later when he mentions that Mobile services would be a key strategy – he did not go on to elaborate on both comments. Any chance for some follow up on this? I am especially interested in how this would be implemented given the fact that screen real estate is the real issue here.

    – none of your panel talks about business models: how these services will be translated to revenue. Is there any chance that this could be covered a little?

    thanks once again to all of you.

    – Steve

  6. Ntwiga: In reply to your first question: A few people have asked me about having local instances of muti within countries not only for bandwidth issues but also to allow local content to be more visible. Elsewhere on this blog it has also been discussed. I am quite happy to do this ie make the platform available for anyone who wants to run a country specific version. Countries that have so far been discussed are Kenya and Nigeria. The exact details of how this works for example whether items posted on the Kenya instance are automatically cross posted to the main instance are still up for discussion. I must stress though that I barely have the time for operating the main muti instance so this will only happen if people in other countries are willing to step forward and own the instance together with the responsibility that goes with that ownership.

  7. I’m a bit late on this one… But I’d just like to jump on the thubs-up bandwagon here… Great interview! Awesome ideas coming through here.

    I agree with Justin that Amatomu and Afrigator shouldn’t be considered competition, since they’re not mutually exclusive… It’s in the best interests of the Afrosphere to be a part of both… and together they uplift the African web community in terms of innovation, connectedness and info-exchange.

  8. Concerned African

    April 11, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    I am concerned why are all these people white african, south africans.
    Are there no black techies out there out there?
    The reality is that these products will continue to have dominated use within south africa and even there only within the white african community.

    I guess thats a niche in itself

    I will continue to watch and wish you all the best in your endeavours

  9. Concerned African

    April 11, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Another comment I have for Muti which I find the most interesting out of these project but yet the least useful.

    Muti follows the Digg idea of bring to attention interesting topics. At anytime of the day when I go to the Digg front page, the news is always interesting every any time of the day however when on the Muti page and I have been there many times, I never understand why something is on the front page, why it is voted for. Everything on the muti page seems to be tech oriented but on a global front not on an african front, as I type the top stories are about
    Broadband Services
    Photobucket
    Audi RS8
    Wikipedia
    Skype

    But if I needed to know these I’ll be on Digg. The platforms above are not mutually exclusive as you say. In fact they are in direct competition with each other, it’ll be survival of the fittest from here on. For now theres no clear leader as I dont see how a casual african user will benefit from the platforms the sorting algorithms lack logic (yet to try amatomu) and as yet am as confused about which blogs are interesting and which are not as ever before

  10. Hi Concerned African

    I encourage you to participate in the voting and vote for what you would like to see on the front page of muti. If you dont like what you see now, vote it down, if you like something else, vote it up, this is how the platform works. You cannot please all the people all the time, but at least you can give them an opportunity to express their opinion. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that there are others who share your opinions. Thanks for your comments. (As an aside the #1 item you listed there is about broadband services in Africa and this item would never have made it to #1 on digg or any other non-african platform)

    Regards

  11. JonhN,

    Others countries are french-speaking or arabic-speaking, and the fact that the langage isn’t english is a huge barrier.

    There a many moroccan initiatives, or ivorian, or senegalese, or cameroonian ones and it will be less present in anglophon (or south african) aggregator.

    You know, only Nigeria and Ghana are anglophon outside southern and eastern africa. all others are quite french-speaking.

  12. I think Nino makes a good point here. It would be interesting to look at how, if at all, internationalization has been catered for in muti and the aggregators. I mean even in SA there are 11 official languages. What are the possibilities of language-centric versions… i.e. a Zulu Amatomu (ZAmatomu?)etc. That could provide a big boost for articles to be written in different languages, and also make it portable across Africa.

  13. Concerned African

    April 12, 2007 at 6:41 am

    Thanks for the reply Neville, I write about Muti because I have high regard for it.

    I like that you are thinking about branching out country specific ports (if i may call it that) of muti and the idea of it being run by people from differet countries makes sense. There is no way it could work otherwise. In the Nigerian Blogosphere for example English is not always the lingua franca and readership is slowly creeping up with the masses but the most interesting blogs are not about technology but about events and journal, they are funny entertaining and educative at times. This catches the attention of the masses. I hurge anyone planning to become a force to reckon with in africa to work on collaborations with entities in the different countries as this is the only way success can be guaranteed

  14. Thanks for your replies everyone. A number of issues made me think.

    1. The language issue (i.e. English not always being the lingua franca) is something, i foolishly overlooked. I do not think it is a far cry to have a site with two halves a French and an English section. However, this would cause division and fails to promote a sort of pan-africanism that I think underlies these “african wide” news aggregators. A question for forum. Are you trying to promote some sort of pan-africanism.

    Because sitting from where I am (UK as a member of the Kenyan diaspora) it seems as if these aggregators are trying to “catch all” users within Africa because there is not sufficient internet users on the continent. Is this the case?

    To better explain my point. A European Digg would not work because of language issues. So why are we trying to fudge an African Digg. We have similar language issues. Is it not better to have a SA Digg, Kenya Digg, etc?

    Are these aggregators putting politics (pan africanism) before user experience (which would perhaps favour one language one country/region)

    Thanks

  15. Some others initiatives :

    1- Moroccan blogs aggregator : http://www.maroc-blogs.com/
    2- African blogging platform : http://www.akopo.com
    3- Moroccan blogging platform: http://www.jwane.com
    4- Tunisian aggregator: http://tn-blogs.com/
    5- Kind of Youtube, Flikr for Cameroon: http://wmedia.cameroon-info.net/mm/cin_list_videos.php

    There a many previous initiatives, if you don’t talk about here, it is because of your countries of interest and the langage. I think.

  16. Good links Nino, thank you. You’re absolutely right – some of these websites weren’t even on my radar, primarily because of language issues. It’s not a lack of interest, but a lack of being able to find them.

  17. Good links Nino, I wonder what the chances of success such sites have vs pan african sites.

  18. Concerned Africa

    April 13, 2007 at 6:13 am

    I think they’ll have a better chance than the pan african sites, because they’ll find it easier to create a community feeling that is so essential to the growth of these systems.

    As to

    Are these aggregators putting politics (pan africanism) before user experience (which would perhaps favour one language one country/region)
    and
    it seems as if these aggregators are trying to “catch all” users within Africa because there is not sufficient internet users on the continent. Is this the case?

    The African approach can work but it can only work in segregation such as it is in allafrica.com
    Although their main site aggregates news from the whole continent, they also have a french version and country specific versions. The use of channels to achieve the same feat as is done in afrigator.
    Only thing afrigator lacks now is a community thats not biased to vote on the stories

  19. Very interesting conversation going on here. Some of the questions being posed I have been thinking of a lot these past two weeks. Pan-Africanism and establishing businesses that serve such a market is more than just political. But as I had written from one of my posts before, each pan-African company will have to become relevant in each country they serve.

    At the end, that is what all of us have to think about when we build these applications and business models. As for competition, I think the market is the same. Whether directly or indirectly, we are all competitors although the strength of most of these businesses won’t be in going at it alone but building strategic partnerships. Until these partnerships are in place, we will keep spinning the wheels and not getting anywhere.

  20. well said josh, i am in agreement

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