Category Archives: Africa

Chasing the Sun (Tanzania to Zambia)

Catching up on a few updates at once here, you can read about Day 2 of our trip here.

It’s 6am in Lusaka, Zambia as I write this. The last two days have been a blur as we covered over 1,700 kilometers from Dodoma to Lusaka in what can only be considered as marathon sessions from sunup to just after sundown. Fortunately, both Tanzania and Zambia have some of the best roads we’ve seen, and the motorcycles and car all behaved well with only one slow puncture the whole way. We took small breaks every 100-200km in order to rest and move around a bit, but we’re still quite sore and ready for this day to do no travel.

Some twisty's on the road to Iringa

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Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

The border crossing from Tanzania into Zambia at Dunduma left a little something to be desired. What felt like it should have taken about 1.5 hours at most, ended up taking 3+ hours, which meant our last 50km into a campsite were done in the dark on the only section of bad road we’ve seen. People did warn us of this, so it wasn’t unexpected. However, the reason wasn’t because of long lines of trucks slowing us down, it was due to inefficiency in the process itself at both immigration and customs.

From here, our days get a little more sane, with a run down through Victoria Falls into Botswana and then finally Johannesburg. As an aside, it turns out that half-way between Nairobi and Jo’burg is almost exactly at a small town called Serenje, Zambia – 2,200km from each.

Time at Bongohive

We pushed so hard to get to Lusaka by now so that we would be here in time for the events at Bongohive, Lusaka’s tech hub, which were all scheduled for today.

1pm – Demo of BRCK (Philip Walton and Reg Orton of the BRCK team)
3pm – Meeting with Startups (Mark Kamauof the iHub UX Lab) – HCD, UX, DT
4:30pm – Meeting with Startups (Erik) – Investment readiness, experiences with Savannah Fund, getting into new markets etc
6pm – Keynote at Startup Weekend Lusaka (Erik and Juliana Rotich)

Lukongo Lindunda is the co-founder of the space, and we’ve known each other for years, since before they got it started back in 2011. I’ve been looking forward to seeing everyone here in the tech space for a while, and I’m interested in hearing what’s brewing in the startup scene.

Some of the startups that I’ve heard about from Zambia include: 

  • ShopZed.com
  • Bantu Babel 
  • Venivi
  • DotCom Zambia, BusTickets
  • TeleDoctor 
  • SCND Genesis

If you’re part of the tech community in Zambia, I hope you can swing by, and we’re all looking forward to seeing you as well.

Lessons From the Trip

Since we’ve started this trip I’ve been thinking a lot about communications, as one would expect with a BRCK expedition, and especially mobile comms. We outfitted the truck with a omni-directional Poynting antenna on the front bumper, hooked up into the car, where we can also connect it to an amplifier if needed. As we drive down the road, we have a pretty good mobile WiFi hotspot, as long as we’re in range of a tower.

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The last few years have seen a number of countries implement a registration process to buy SIM cards (ostensibly this is for security though it’s not been proven to be useful for anything more than big brother activities by governments). Even buying a SIM card is then a process of identification (usually passport or drivers license), so you have to budget for that 30-60 minutes to get that done, since it’s usually filling out a form by hand.

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

You then purchase credit for the SIM card and load it up – this is the easiest part.

Now you get into the “mystery meat” part of the process, which is how do you turn that airtime you just bought into internet credit? Each network in each country has a different way of doing this, some combination of USSD or SMS to get it going.

A couple things come to mind now when we look at the BRCK.

First, we need a terminal screen in the BRCK interface for us to do all of this from the device itself. Right now we find ourselves popping out the SIM card and using a phone (Mozilla’s 3-SIM phone is amazing for this purpose), and then inserting it back into the BRCK when done.

Second, there needs to be a database of this “airtime to internet data” information that we can all use. I’m not sure how best to get this going, but I know it would be immensely useful when you drop into a new country to have this at your fingertips.

We’re already working on the first issue, of USSD/SMS interface, but it’s complicated, so it’s taking longer than we’d like. This trip is about learning, and we’re already finding a lot of things to do better. Look for more posts on the BRCK blog from the others as well.

Great roads and a bit of engine trouble (day 1)

(Cross posted from the BRCK blog)

I’m writing this blog post using my Mac, connected to a BRCK which is connected to a satellite internet connection using an Inmarsat iSavi device, somewhere about 100km from Arusha towards Dodoma. Inmarsat gave us this test device, a small unit, made for global travelers, so we could test out what worked and give them feedback on their tools. It also helps us figure out what connecting to the internet looks like when you’re beyond the edge of the mobile phone signal in Africa.

Here’s Reg, using his phone to do the same at our campground this evening:

Reg using the BRCK and iSavi in Tanzania

Reg using the BRCK and iSavi in Tanzania

The Journey

We left at 5:30am from Nairobi to beat the traffic out of the city. With the beautiful new roads, we were at the Namanga border by 8am and cleared by 10am. Before you go on one of these trips, make it easy for yourself and get the following:

  • Carnet de Passage for each vehicle (get this via AA)
  • COMESA insurance (get via your insurance company, or buy at the border)
  • International driver’s license (get via AA)
  • Yellow fever card
  • Passport

By noon we were in Arusha, and took a chance to see the cafe that Pete Owiti (of Pete’s Coffee in Nairobi) set up with some Tanzanians, called Africafe. If you ever find yourself in Arusha, this is the first place you should go. Great food, good coffee, right in the middle of everything.

Knowing we were only going about 100km more today, we set off around 1pm. We got to a roundabout, and I knew which direction the main road was, so even though Philip mentioned we should go right, I went left to the main road. 45 minutes later we realized my mistake when Philip checked his GPS and realized we were further away than we were supposed to be.

Lesson learned: always listen to your cofounders (especially the one with the GPS).

With many sighs, we turned around and went back to Arusha, where Reg had been smart enough to stay with the Land Rover when he realized we went the wrong way. We quickly split off in the correct direction, aiming to get to the camping spot by 4pm latest.

As we were sitting in traffic in Arusha, Joel says, “Erik, your bike is smoking.” I replied that it was likely just the car I was parked next to. Nope. Sure enough, I was leaking oil… For those of you who don’t ride motorcycles, this is the last thing you want to hear when on the front end of a 4,400km trip. I ride a 2007 Suzuki DR650 – they have some of the most bullet-proof engines, and are perfect for Africa’s roads.

Working on the DR650 in Arusha

Working on the DR650 in Arusha

Fortune smiled upon us, and we were pointed towards Arusha Art Limited, which turned out to be an amazing garage (the best I’ve ever seen in Africa). Their director, Hemal Sachdev helped us out by helping to troubleshoot what could be wrong, and even fabricating a high-pressure oil hose, with compression fittings on the spot. There was oil everywhere, so we washed it off and kept going.

Lesson learned: there are a lot of people willing to help you in your journey, especially if you ask nicely.

5 km down the road, I was still smoking… Thanks to Hemal’s help, we knew what the problem wasn’t. It was now that we chanced to notice that the problem seemed to be coming from the timing chain setting hole. We realized this could be filled by a normal M5 screw, so got trucking to the campground where we could let the engine cool down and screw it in.

Now, I sit here in Wild Palms Camp, some place we saw on the side of the road near the Tarangiri game reserve. For 10,000 Tanzania Shillings ($6) each, you get a patch of ground to put a tent, there is a banda with table/chairs, and there are even some showers and toilets. Not real camping, but definitely nice after a day on the bike!

A Journey South

Two days from now we begin a BRCK overland expedition to South Africa. Like any of our trips, it is meant to be fun and adventurous, while at the same time giving us the opportunity to stress test our product beyond the norm.

BRCK Expedition

In the vein of our past expeditions to Turkana and the Nile, this one is on the edge. We’re taking 3 motorcycles and a Land Rover from Nairobi to Johannesburg in time for Maker Faire Africa on Dec 3-6.

As usual, we’ll have a couple guests, or “shotgun riders” as we call them:

On the way south: Juliana Rotich (Ushahidi, iHub, BRCK), and Mark Kamau (UX Lab lead at iHub).

On the way north: Aaron Marshall (CEO, founder of Over, Africa’s biggest selling IOS app), as well as Matt Schoenholz (head of the Kitchen Studio at Teague which focuses on prototyping and making).

You can keep up with us:

A Dash South

If you do the math, you’ll realize this is more of a mad dash south in time for the event, covering 4,400km in 9 days. Here’s what the route south looks like, from Kenya through Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and into South Africa.

Nairobi to South Africa - southern leg

Nairobi to South Africa – southern leg

The journey north takes us through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and back to Kenya, which we’ll take a little slower.

The People We’ll See & Events We’re At

We do have plans for a day off along the way. We’ll be stopping to visit our friends in the Zambian tech community in Lusaka. The Bongohive has been kind enough to host us, and we’ll be hanging out there, doing BRCK demos for techies and businesses, and I’ll give the keynote that evening for the beginning of Lusaka’s Startup Weekend.

Since I’m a founding organizer for Maker Faire Africa, I’m excited to go back, and this time have a product of our own to show for it. Besides demoing the BRCK and sharing how to build a hardware business in Africa, we’re also going to have some fun hacking on the devices with whoever is around and wants to play with them. We’ll have a couple of our engineers on hand as well.

Gearbox, our new prototyping and making initiative in Kenya, is a supporter of this year’s MFA too, so I’ll be able to speak to that and will have one of the Gearbox team with us at the event.

On the way back North we’re stopping in Harare, Zimbabwe to meet up with the tech community there. We’ll largely spend our time around the Hypercube, though plans are underway to get together with members of multiple tech spaces.

Testing BRCKs and Electronics

There are a couple new things we’re testing on this trip, three of which I’m extremely excited about:

    When you add a RaspberryPi, a hard drive and another 8 hours of battery to a BRCK, you get a BRCKpi Microserver

    When you add a RaspberryPi, a hard drive and another 8 hours of battery to a BRCK, you get a BRCKpi Microserver

  1. BRCKpi – this is our RaspberryPi + BRCK device – it’s an add-on to the BRCK (we call those MRTR, as in “bricks and mortar”). We launched it last month with Mozilla in London, and are targeting it primarily at schools and clinics in Africa. However, we know there are a lot of other use cases for it, and one of those will be as a media server for our images and video on this trip.
  2. Real off-grid, portable internet in Africa.

    Real off-grid, portable internet in Africa.

  3. Satcoms – we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can extend the BRCK beyond the edges of the network, so that it’s the one internet device that’s smart enough to pick the right connectivity type depending on what it can sniff around it. To that end, we’ve been having great conversations with Inmarsat and we’re testing out their newest product, the iSavi (not even on the market yet, first one in Africa). Internet speeds are comparable to cellular networks at up to 384 Kbps down, and 240 Kbps up. It’s much smaller and more portable than a BGAN, so we’re excited to pair it up with the BRCK, stress test it and see how it goes off-grid.
  4. Some of the best antennas on the market, made in Africa

    Some of the best antennas on the market, made in Africa

  5. Antennas – We’ve tested some of Poynting’s antennas before, and they’re some of the best we’ve ever found. This time around we’re testing their mobile units, paired with amplifiers which we built into the vehicle, in order to see if we can create quick, deployable units at the edge of the grid. Of course, Poynting is a South African company too, and as one of our partners, we’re going looking forward to seeing them in-person for the first time in Johannesburg.

Sendy: Digitizing Motorcycle Deliveries

Motorcycle couriers in Timau, Kenya

Motorcycle couriers in Timau, Kenya

This year at Pivot East I had my first look at Sendy, which does for motorcycle courier deliveries and customers in Nairobi, what Uber did for taxis and passengers in San Francisco. At its heart, Sendy is about bringing the vast and growing motorcycle courier and delivery network in Africa into the digital and networked world.

Motorcycles in downtown Monrovia, Liberia

Motorcycles in downtown Monrovia, Liberia

This is a big deal, because those of us who live in large African cities know just how inefficient driving a car around the traffic-plagued metropolises can be. With the bad roads, traffic and high cost of fuel, motorcycle deliveries are a natural path.

Indeed, in almost every city, from primary to tertiary throughout the continent, you’ll find thousands of motorcycle guys sitting by the side of the road, ready to courier a package or serve as a taxi. They ride inexpensive $800-$1200 Chinese and Indian motorcycle brands, are generally not trained very well, have little safety equipment and are some of the most reckless riders I know.

When Alloys Meshack, Sendy’s CEO, stepped onto stage for his 7-minute pitch, I was hooked. It sounded like the right team, a good business plan, and one that could scale well beyond Nairobi. I met with him again this month, and got into a lot more details around the business, and this encouraged my thoughts on both him and his team, as well as the broader scope of the business that they are building. It is truly impressive.

How it Works

Sendy delivery - Android app screenshot

Sendy delivery – Android app screenshot

I also signed up for the service, and then used it.

It’s as simple as this:

  1. Download the Android app, or sign-in to the web app at Sendy.co.ke
  2. Click the button that you have a delivery (or pickup) to be made.
  3. You can see the map for where the rider is – my wait was approx 5 minutes for the courier to arrive
  4. Give him the package and directions

There is a GPS transponder on the motorcycle, and you get an SMS update when the delivery rider gets withing 50m of the delivery zone. Once the package is delivered, there is another confirmation that the rider sends to Sendy, that comes to you as well. Payment is then made automatically by either credit card or Mpesa.

My delivery took about 25 minutes, from first Android app entry, to delivery about 5km away. At the end, you can rate your delivery rider, so that the best are known and get more business. I found my particular rider courteous and patient. He also told me that he makes about 5-6 deliveries a day with Sendy, and loves the service.

Challenges and Opportunities

The Sendy opportunity in eCommerce

The Sendy opportunity in eCommerce

With Africa’s growing need for logistics around eCommerce, Sendy presents a natural option for everyone from Jumia to your local supermarket. Motorcycles are already an accepted means of delivery for non-traditional business and large enterprises alike. The idea of capturing a large portion of this, without all the baggage of a normal courier company setup, is good for both Sendy and the everyday bodaboda/courier guy.

There are a couple hurdles to overcome to make this a simple process to onboard new customers, receive payment and then send payment to the courier riders. Unlike the US or EU, not everyone has a credit card, and the mobile payment options don’t allow for “pull” billing (instead, the customer has to “push” a payment to your service), which is clunky.

Sendy has corporate accounts (which is now used by both BRCK and Ushahidi), and for businesses, finding a good payment process isn’t a problem. However, there will need to be some creative thinking for individuals and small businesses in order to make Sendy as painless as it promises to be.

The service verifies the courier riders, keeping their records on file, and providing the necessary technology for both tracking of motorcycle and communications with the rider. This means that qualified riders are picked, lessening the chance of getting robbed, and the ability to rate a courier creates a system that builds trust over time.

The opportunities that Sendy represents are staggering. I encouraged Meshack to get Nairobi right quickly, then scale up and move beyond into other major cities in the region.

Sendy is raising a seed round of investment. If this opportunity is interesting to you, you should reach out to them.

Barcamp Nairobi 2014 Edition

Barcamp Nairobi 2014Barcamp Nairobi 2014 is set to begin, seven years after the first one was held. It’s one of those events that brings people out of the woodwork around the city, where techies who don’t normally meet end up having great conversations, and relationships are formed.

This Saturday, Aug 30th at 08:00, your chance to lead a conversation on something interesting begins. Nailab and iHub are hosting it, and we’re expecting 400 people to show up for the event.

Go register now, if you haven’t already, it’s free.

It was while sitting around after Barcamp Nairobi 2008 that the seed for what would become the iHub was planted, and why this post was written (many old blog posts from 2008 here). Many of the people I work with today on the teams at BRCK and Ushahidi were at these same events over the years.

Past Barcamp Nairobi Pics

Discussion topics

You’re the one who decides what the discussion will be, and we’ve seen everything from “how to make yoghurt” to “Python 101″ to “blogging for women” conversations (and everything in between).

This year, there’s bound to be some discussions around government surveillance and personal privacy in Kenya.

We entrust our most sensitive, private, and important information to private technology companies. At the same time the increasing usage of technology has attracted the attention of authorities eager to provide caveats on the openness of the Internet and the range of freedoms, which we enjoy online.

That’s sure to be a firestorm, of the best kind…

Kazi ya Mkono

Entrepreneurs who succeed are hungrier, and they get their hands dirty. A couple stories:

The Coffee Man

Pete Owiti is a coffee connoisseur, he learned the trade back in the late 90’s as one of Java House Nairobi’s earliest baristas, became one of the best in Kenya, winning global barista competitions and then went to the US and Canada to do even more coffee training and serving. When I moved back to Kenya in 2009 to get the iHub going, we wanted a coffee bar in the space. I put out a call for proposals, and he was one of three that responded. By that time he had moved on from just serving coffee, to a business where he trained all of the baristas for both Java House and Dormans (the top two coffee houses in Kenya at the time).

There was no doubt who was the most qualified to run the iHub coffee bar, he was far and away the winner. Since then, Pete’s Coffee has gone from strength-to-strength, culminating in the Pete’s Cafe on the ground floor of the building that does an amazing amount of business.

Still today, you can find Pete doing the hard work, cleaning up, taking orders, making coffee – alongside his wife Christabel (who works harder than anyone else I know). Yes, there are employees now, but he still gets his hands dirty.

Read more about him on this profile piece (with video).

From the Village to the City

One of my favorite entrepreneurs in Kenya is also another good friend, she sits on the iHub Advisory Board, and is someone I go to for advice all the time. Rebecca Wanjiku started life in a village on the outskirts of Nairobi, with little to her name beyond a work ethic and drive to succeed. She worked her way into journalism, realized there was a gap in tech journalism in the region, educated herself by reading everything she could on every topic around the internet, and became the go-to tech journalist for many years. She’s flown around the world to cover major internet and tech events to bring an African perspective to the news. Still, today, she writes hard-hitting pieces for different magazines and on her own blog.

Rebecca Wanjiku

Becky didn’t make it because of a benefactor, she made it because of her own hard work and drive. Today she has a networking company that wires up buildings and people’s homes with internet connectivity, Fireside Communications, that has seen great success and continues to hire, and has even built a retail outlet in Westlands.

“Kazi ya Mkono” as a culture

I recently had someone who works with me complain about being given “Kazi ya Mkono” (aka, KYM) jobs (which is a term for “work of the hands” and is often used as a derogatory term for manual labor). I was stunned. Did this person not understand that I still get my hands dirty and build stuff? That I still run errands myself? That nothing gets built if you aren’t also willing to get down to do the hard work yourself?

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Becky Wanjiku earlier in the year, where she was complaining about graduates with university degrees and how unemployable they are in Kenya. They come out thinking that they’re “management material” and won’t do hard things. She tried to hire someone straight out of university for a networking job, and he refused to climb a ladder to install a WiMax solution.

Simply put, most of Kenya’s university graduates are not hungry enough. I see it when I look at the people we interview for positions at my companies. I see it when I mentor startups, where the CEO wants a business card that says that, and a desk, but won’t leave that desk to get his feet dirty knocking on doors. They don’t know that hustling isn’t just what you say to get work, business or jobs, but doing the actual work too.

Some of the best people I’ve had the honor to work with come with no degrees. They’re hungry. They hustle. They make up for their lack of training by educating themselves, watching, learning – but most importantly, trying. They will do whatever it takes to get that job done.

This attitude towards Kazi ya Mkono is a cancer in our system. It’s an unearned, entitlement mentality that is disturbing to see in anyone, but especially in 23-year old recent grads.

Hard work is something that shouldn’t be looked down upon, whether in a kiosk owner, a road sweeper, a barista or a coder. Yes, try to do it “smarter, not harder”, but still dig in and get your hands in there.

Not all jobs are manual. However, all companies are built on hard work. I hope that we’re not losing this thread in our community.

Bonus Content

Emeka Okafor just pointed me toward this great article, “Kenya’s Over-educated and Unemployable youth“.

No one says it better that Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame. Besides the video below, read his response to a fan.

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