Category Archives: Conferences

Prizes Help You Get Noticed (a response to Kevin Starr)

Kevin Starr is a good friend and someone I respect a great deal. He’s a surfer, doctor turned investor focused on impact over monetary returns. He’s got one of the best heads in the business, and I tend to agree with most of his assessments.

I don’t completely agree with his recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, “Dump the Prizes: Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them.”

Let me caveat this by saying that I do agree with most of what Kevin talks about with prizes:

  1. It wastes huge amounts of time.
  2. There is way too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation.
  3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.
  4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

If you’ve read his article (please do), then you’ll notice that I agree with Kevin on every salient point he makes. Where we disagree is due to the blinders that come with Kevin’s position, an omission due to perspective, not intellect or experience.

Why then are prizes worth it?

Simply because prizes serve as a filtering mechanism for new, young and unknown startups to be found. A method for recognition when a voice is too small to be heard.

It’s hard for people with money to understand this. It’s hard for companies that have had some success to remember it.

When you’re brand new, have a prototype and just a small bit of penetration with your new idea or product, it is extremely hard to be taken seriously or to get noticed. Being at the award event gets you in front of people. Winning it helps validate the concept and people with money start taking you more seriously.

This outlook comes from my own experience. As Ushahidi, way back in the early days of 2008, we were part of the NetSquared Challenge, where David and I walked onto a stage and pitched Ushahidi for a whopping 2 minutes (crazy short!). A day later we walked out with $25,000 – which allowed the newly formed organization to become a reality. It tided us over until we received real funding from Humanity United 3 months later.

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

I’ll add two more points of my own – one of contention, one opinion:

Contention: I remember, when Ushahidi was just 8 months old, winning a prize. This was the last prize we ever applied to be a part of, as I realized that it was only $10,000 and that the cost of the award ceremony alone was more than all the prizes added together.

Opinion: When an organization gets the initial recognition and wins a prize or two, they should remove themselves from that world of smaller prizes. Applying (and even winning) a bunch of small awards takes time and energy, and it has decreasing value over time – both for recognition and for bottom-line value.

Style and Swagger With a Renegade Trike Hacker in Nigeria

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I’m a motorcycle guy, so anytime you put a motor on a chassis with something less than four wheels, then I’m interested. This week I’m at Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, Nigeria. This is the 4th installment, after Ghana 2009, Kenya 2010 and Egypt 2011.

The creation below is by a young man called “STA”, who’s got a lot of swagger and a double teardrop tattoo under his right eye. In many ways STA is a one-of-a-kind character, unlike anyone else I ran into in Lagos.

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Let’s put it this way, anyone who rides such an eye-catching bike without a license plate, and who has no worries of the cops hassling him because of it, is certainly cut from a different cloth. When stopped, STA simply points to the Nigerian flag flying on the front and explains that it’s all the license he needs. (I kid you not)

STA spent about 4 years in Holland where he was inspired by custom motorcycles and trikes (tricycles). When he came back to Nigeria he decided he could build his own here. STA International’s first bike is the long-forked trike.

Due to using his own funds, it’s a little underpowered with only a 250cc engine and a 10 liter tank. STA scrounged around and found the different parts, and put it all together himself. All total, he spent 300,000 Naira ($1,600) on it.

The bike has some very comfortable seating, a nice big sound system, 4 big silencers in the rear and drink holders for both driver and passengers. He can carry two passengers in the back, and there’s room under the seats for a little storage.

The bike is kickstarted, which I wasn’t expecting at first as I’m used to bikes this big having an electrical starter. Makes sense though, as this is a small engine bought off of a used engine reseller. The trike also has a reverse gear, which comes in handy when the bike is as long as this one is, for maneuvering out of difficult spaces.

STA and I hung out a bit over the last few days. He’s got a real passion for modding bikes, and his next big plans include an even bigger trike, though he hasn’t fully fleshed out the design yet. I showed him some of the cool, retro, modded designs on Bike Exif and we talked a while about what a custom bike for African cities might actually look like.

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Note: I’ve been blogging most of this on the Maker Faire Africa blog, so go there to find more posts on the stories from Lagos, Nigeria and the innovative and fun products made there.

Ghana’s Saya App Pitches at TechCrunch Disrupt

There’s a Ghana email list of tech guys that I’m on. Opening my email this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a Ghanaian team was pitching last night at TechCrunch Disrupt.

Saya is an app for texting. That mixes SMS, Facebook chat and hyperlocal findability to get in conversations with those near you. They’re on Android, Blackberry and waiting for their iPhone app to be approved.

Robert’s pitch revolves around the 5.8 billion NON-smartphones in the world, and how that market has needs that need to be addressed by apps like their own. Ways to communicate via SMS in a much more elegant way.

Saya isn in a tough position, trying to get US and European-based investors to think that anything to do with old tech like SMS can be big is quite difficult. Their paradigm is set in the West’s way of thinking about being intoxicated the newest tech, not understanding how much of the world more fully uses each technology before discarding it.

Without knowing anything about how many users Saya has, I can say that it looks like an app that will really work in Africa and therefore many other parts of the world. Just looking at the app, it seems that they have a strong focus on product, and are paying attention to things like design details that really do matter.

Good job guys, and good luck!

Quick Hits Around African Tech: July 2012

Africa’s Mobile Stats and Facts 2012

Few organizations do as good of a job as Praekelt in creating well-designed applications that are used by millions of people in the continent. A couple times a year, they take that same level of quality and create new videos and resources to better showcase Africa’s tech statistics. Here’s their newest video.

Game Creators: an Interview of Maliyo Games in Nigeria

Good interview of Maliyo Games founder and the opportunity in Africa’s gaming space.

Why do you think the African audience is looking for African games instead of Farmville or Mafia Wars?

“It’s not so much what they are looking for, more what is being pushed to them. Our games ‘Okada Ride’, ‘Mosquito Smasher’ and ‘Adanma’ have far more local relevance than Mafia Wars. Nigerian music and Nollywood movies have a strong appeal to the local and diasporan consumers. We are riding this trend and thus far we are seeing traction.”

Check out Maliyo’s website to get their games.

Opera’s “State of the Mobile Web” for Africa 2012

Opera puts together a great resource of user-based statistics [PDF link]. It’s a country-by-country breakdown of mobile penetration, user growth, top domains and top handsets used. Here are a few of the interesting tidbits:

  • Across Africa, data growth seems to outpace page-view growth. This fact suggests that Africans are browsing larger pages and most likely, using richer, more advanced websites.
  • Facebook is the top domain in every country except for these six, where Google leads: Egypt, Guinea, Djibouti, Comoros, Central African Republic, and Algeria.

Mobile Reporting Field Guide

UC Berkeley has created a mobile reporting field guide, useful for people doing data collection and research as well as activist types.

Upcoming Tech Events in 2012

PyCon South Africa – Cape Town, Oct 4-5
DEMO Africa – Nairobi, Oct 24-26
Tech4Africa – Joburg, Oct 31-Nov 1
AfricaCom – Cape Town, Nov 13-15
Mobile Web Africa – Joburg, Nov 28-29

(If you know of other tech events coming up before the end of the year that you think belong here, put it in the comments and I’ll add it later.)

Some Self-Serving Links:

Launching the Savannah Fund in East Africa

I’m happy to finally be able to publicly announce the Savannah Fund, an accelerator fund focused on finding and investing in East Africa’s highest potential pre-revenue startups. It’s a partnership between Mbwana Alliy, Paul Bragiel and myself – along with a great list of limited partners (LPs) who are investing in the fund.

The idea is to bring the Silicon Valley-style accelerator model to Africa, seeing what needs to be tweaked to make it work for our region. It’s a small fund at $10m, with most of the activity focused on classes of 5 startups at a time being brought on board and invested in. They’ll get $25,000 for 15% equity, and have 3-6 months to prove themselves. Those who fail either pivot or leave, those who gain traction have a chance at follow-on funding. A portion of the fund will be invested at the $100-200k range where we’ll look at follow-on funding for the startups in our program, and also at other high-growth tech companies in the region.

We’ll be looking throughout the region for these investments, from Rwanda and Tanzania to Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya. You can put in an application now, though the first cohort will not be accepted into the program until the end of the Summer (Aug/Sept timeframe).

At this stage we’ve raised half of the fund, which allows us to get moving. 35% of the fund has been raised from local investors, such as Karanja Macharia from Mobile Planet. We also have big US names on board, such as Yelp co-founder Russ Simmons, Tim Draper, Dave McClure, and Roger Dickey and Dali Kilani of Zynga.

Why I’m involved

The reason I’m involved with Savannah Fund is very simple, I’m focused on getting the foundation of our technology future in place. In East Africa, we don’t have enough mid-cap investment opportunities in tech, and the only way to change that is increase the size of the base of that success pyramid.

Some history. Over a year ago I met with Ben Matranga from the Soros Economic Development Fund who noted that there were a number of interesting small startups, but they were too small for them to invest in. If there was a smaller fund, someone focused on this space, they’d be interested in using them as a vector to stir up the bottom and help uncover more successful companies over the next 3-5 years. At Pivot 25 last year I met up with Mbwana and we started to discuss the fact that most startups here aren’t ready for VC fund and how we might be the right people to create the needed vehicle.

Fast forward to September 2011 and Paul, Mbwana and I decided to go ahead and do it. Hours and months of due diligence, pitching and phone calls later we finally are getting it off the ground.

  • My role is to help find the new companies and to connect them to the businesses in the area.
  • Mbwana’s role is to manage the fund and the startups in it.
  • Paul’s role is to connect the Savannah Fund startups to Silicon Valley businesses and investors.

As Mbwana says, “We’re a fund for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs”. We’re here for the small guy and our goal is to find those risky tech startups with hungry, passionate founders that will do the hard work it takes to become a successful company.

Find us on Twitter at @SavannahFund

The Ground is Barely Scratched: Pivot East 2012


(Thanks to @zulusafari for the images today)

“The ground is barely scratched”, quipped Rebecca Wanjiku, a local tech infrastructure entrepreneur and iHub advisory board member, on stage today at Pivot East. And she’s right, there are a wealth of opportunities in the region. When asked “Why are there so many apps being built in Kenya?”, Kenya’s Permanent Secretary for Info and Comms Bitange Ndemo said, “Because we have so many problems to solve.”

While the iHub might be about innovation, Pivot East is about finding the tech startups with high-growth potential in the region and putting them on stage in front of investors, media and businesses. It’s about finding “what’s next” in East Africa’s vibrant mobile tech scene. Chances are, the best of these startups are providing highly innovative and disruptive solutions.

The startup scene in East Africa has moved wildly beyond where it was even two years ago when the iHub started. Those trying to raise funds for a new company have all of the resources they need at their disposal, including spaces to work with fast bandwidth, mentors and investors that cover the funding spectrum. If the last couple years was about building the ecosystem, this year is about the startups proving themselves and building products.

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Day one of Pivot East is over, and we’ve had a lot more fun than we should be allowed to have. How to find out more and follow for day two tomorrow:

Overall Thoughts

It’s interesting to see how this Pivot East is different than last year’s Pivot 25 (by the way, we changed it to Pivot East so that our friends in South and West Africa could use the brand to do their own events). It seems like the bar has risen, that the pitches are better delivered, that the ideas are a little more sound and business plans are more thought through.

This makes sense, as there has been an influx in pitching and hacking competitions over the last year and people have seen the bar from last year and want to do better themselves. On top of that, the startups in East Africa have had a lot more face-time with investors, who provide pressure to think more deeply about the important questions related to running a business, not just building a cool product.

My friend Michael Duarte, of Duarte Design – the team behind some of the most impressive presentation designs in the world, spent 3 days with the Pivot East finalists last week helping them to hone their decks and tell a story that would resonate with the audience. It’s worked wonders in the way the decks look, as well as the confidence that the startups have when they pitch.

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This year we’ve put the investors into the same area as the judges, allowing both to ask questions and grill the startups. This has turned out surprisingly well, allowing the people with the most interest to ask pointed and meaningful questions.

We’ve had some fantastic pitches thus far, but it’s only day one, so we’ll have 10 more hit the big stage tomorrow. Exciting times!

Fireside Chats

Intermixed between the pitches are “fireside chats”, our fancy term for panels of real movers in different parts of the industry. We try to keep them lively by bringing a good moderator in, and this year TV personality Eric Latiff from KTN has proved to be an outstanding one, making sure we’ve got some lively commentary and tough questions being asked.

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One of my favorite panels was when we had Bob Collymore, CEO of Kenya’s Safaricom on the same stage with Hakim Moi, the CEO of Zain South Sudan. It was a real treat to hear the difference in the way an incumbent mobile operator speaks about their market versus a new one in Africa’s newest country. There’s a lot of opportunity in both countries, but they come from completely different edges of the spectrum.

A particularly interesting challenge was voiced by Bob Collymore on the difficulties of large mobile operator’s on the innovation front. He’s interested in having a “Director of Innovation” in the organization, someone that comes from the outside and on the edge, who can work directly with him to ensure that not only Safaricom, but the rest of the people and organizations within their sphere are thinking broadly about disruption and creating ways for new, small and innovative companies to better interact with each other.

Skoll: Entrepreneurs in a Time of Flux

“To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill

The theme of the 2012 Skoll World Forum is “Flux: seizing momentum, driving change”, which I think is a fantastic one. We’ve never had such upheaval in the way businesses work, in how citizens interact with government, or in how information flows in the world. It’s about change, and survival in a time of flux is best done through agility and creativity.

“As an operating paradigm, it expresses the fluid nature of relationships, policies, institutions and human beings which are ever changing in non-linear ways.”

Thriving on Acceleration

The world we live in today is accelerating, in just about everything we’re seeing disruptive models and changing norms. We’ve always had change in the world, it just hasn’t moved this fast before. Lucas Welch of Soliya put this best when we spoke today, explaining how people tend to meet this accelerating change in two ways; terror with its built in threat response activities, or embrace it as a new norm with the agility needed to move with it.

As Hans Rosling so masterfully showed us yesterday, we’re seeing a population shift, where the majority of the world’s population is in Africa and Asia, and how the West (a term difficult to define) needs to come to grips with the power shift from West to East.

“Strategy is your portfolio of experience” – Bill Brindley

I had an interesting discussion with Bill Brindley, the CEO of NetHope, where we were talking about how leaders of organizations today need to be a lot more fluid with their strategy. It isn’t enough to have a lot of books and an expensive university degree any longer (has it ever?), now, more than ever a leader needs to build on their experience. How those who run organizations need to engage and adjust on the fly when the paradigms shift underfoot.

For the entrepreneurs on the forefront of disruption, the real innovators who are responsible for breaking the status quo, they are able to better sense the change and adjust to it than others. They often fight an uphill battle getting people to understand what’s going on, to understand their business and to fund it. As Gordon Brown reminded us, through a quote by Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it“, which is why so many of the new solutions sound so crazy and struggle so much… until they win.

Technology the Foundational Change Agent

Underlining the changes we see shaking the foundations of the way the world has traditionally worked, is technology. 87% of the world’s population has a mobile phone. The cost of accessing the internet has continued to speed up and decrease in costs across the globe. These basics; devices and data flow, are the foundations upon which ordinary people have built new companies, have leveraged for social and regime change, and are adjusting the dynamics of how communities interact everywhere.

Nigel Snoad of Google’s Crisis Response team talks about the “consumerization of IT”, where devices and data are widespread throughout society and the impact this is having on every sector, not just for disaster relief. Robert Kirkpatrick of the UN’s Global Pulse team talks about “digital exhaust”, all of the data and signals put out by people using mobile phones and the web, and thinks of how it can be captured and used to improve the planning that both UN bodies and governments do.

I can’t help but think that our changing world is driven on technological shifts, and that their solutions will have technology as part of their answer. For instance, with this aforementioned data overload issue, we can’t wish for technology use to decline, instead we need to find ways to harness the same tools to make sense of it.

Entrepreneurs in a time of Flux

When I look at the entrepreneurs in Oxford I’m energized, because what I see is a new generation of leaders who are looking at some of the worlds most difficult problems in new ways. They don’t see problems, they see opportunities and challenges that can be overcome in the midst of the flux that upsets many of their peers. They flip the “known” on its head and they refuse to accept norms as something that applies to them.

When I look at the flux in the world, I’m excited, as it provides room for the misfits – it gives breathing room to the crazy ideas and those that hold them to move, to act and create. While this flux brings down industries and regimes, it also provides a chance to build up new solutions that benefit a greater number of people. If anything, that’s what this Skoll World Forum is about, it’s about giving a space and a chance to the new thinkers to emerge and find the few others that might believe in them enough to support them as they tilt at windmills.

Oxford Jam: Social Impact Investing in Tech in Africa

I’m in Oxford for the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship, and this afternoon I took part in an event called Oxford Jam, where I carried on a discussion with Michael Szymanski (MEST Ghana) and Corina Gardner (GSMA) focused on “investing in tech in Africa”. It was a good session, as it was very much a discussion between the audience and ourselves.

Some takeaways:

Using the What’s There
There are a number of tech hubs and labs coming up across the continent, and each have a different focus as we all try to experiment in our space to see what works. Michael works at MEST in Ghana, which is a very focused 2 year program on training entrepreneurs, where they then invest in some of the ideas that come out. This varies greatly from the iHub model where we’re primarily trying to connect people rather than train them, which is also different from what ActivSpaces in Cameroon or ccHub in Nigeria are doing.

The Funding Gap
We’ve seen that the biggest gap in funding comes at the early, risky stage. How can we get more local angels involved in tech startups in Africa? New seed funds are starting up in some of these spaces, and it’ll be good to see how that continues to grow and if we can create a true base, a true foundation, to the startup ecosystem in the African technology hub cities.

Social Impact Investors
We’ve heard some grumbling about the social impact investment circle, that it takes a lot more effort and has a lot less return going after the money in these circles than it does just going after more traditional VCs or other investment vehicles. At the end of the day, what’s needed is to build a business, something that is sustainable and can generate revenues. That takes time, connections and capital to make happen, and the question is whether the social impact investors can keep up with the normal investors in Africa.

Due Diligence
When an investor comes into a new country it’s difficult for them to get plugged in, and hard for them to know who to trust. They need trusted intermediaries to do the initial introductions, and then a way to figure out if the companies that they’re potentially investing in are legit. This can come at a higher cost than where the investor is coming from, as the legal and business structures can differ quite a bit.

From the outside, it also looks like most people invest in people that look like them, which would explain why more of the social impact investment money being directed at Africa seems to go to people who come from Europe or the US. I’d like to see more of the social entrepreneur programs (schools like MIT and Stanford, as well as the big Fellows programs) doing more work getting out into the Asia and Africa. It seems to me that there are just as many people who come from these countries who know the real problems, and the cultural issues there, that could use some time overseas in the US/Europe, not just the other way around.

The event really starts now, where my colleague Patrick Meier at Ushahidi will be taking the stage for the opening plenary session with Judith Rodin CEO of Rockefeller Foundation, Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto and Soraya Salti, Senior Vice President of Middle East/North Africa for Junior Achievement Worldwide, INJAZ Al-Arab.

Innovation Kills the Status Quo

This is from a blog post that I wrote for the Skoll World Forum, coming up in a couple weeks, that I titled, “Innovation Comes from the Edges“.

A phone booth graveyard, displaced by the mobile phone, in Lamu, Kenya

I was recently asked, “how do you find innovators?” It’s an odd question really, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that is valuable to think through. You have to dig deeper and think why innovations happen at all, and what the power structures are that make them be identified as innovative. After all, innovation is just a new way of doing things than what is currently the norm.

In any industry, society or business there are status quo powers at play. These are generally legacy structures, setup for a time and place that needed that design. Think big media in broadcasting and print, how has it been disrupted by the internet, mobiles and social media in the last 10 years? How about government? How about the humanitarian space? How about the energy industry?

All of these industries were seen as “innovative” when they came into their own, decades and centuries ago. Now they are legacy in both infrastructure and design, and their relevancy in their current state is in question. By their nature they fight to maintain the power structures that keep them in the position that they hold. Changes to the foundations on which they stand is not only scary, it’s deadly.

Innovation comes from the edges, so it comes as no surprise that innovators are found in the margins. They are the misfits among us, the ones who see and do things differently. They challenge the status quo and the power sources that prop that up, so are generally marginalized as a reflexive and defensive action.

Think about what you’re really asking for when you say you want innovation in your space. Because, when you do, you’re asking for the outliers, the disruptors and the rebels to have their way. You’re asking for a new way of thinking and doing – and if you’re in a position of power within an industry, you’re likely going to be upset along the way.

Innovation and Social Entrepreneurs

I’ve seen my fair share of “social entrepreneurs” as a TED Senior Fellow and a PopTech Faculty Fellow, at the iHub – and of course as a co-founder of Ushahidi I’ve been labeled as one as well.

I’m still not sure that I buy into this term (but that’s a longer discussion for another time).

All successful social entrepreneurs are innovators, though all innovators aren’t social entrepreneurs. This space is being defined as one where the innovation has to be something that empowers the disempowered, strengthens the weak, or enriches the lives of the poor. These are loose boundaries, but ones that allow the subjectivity of founders and funders to define their work. Since it’s fairly new, this works for everyone quite well.

At the end of the day what I do, and what the other social entrepreneurs that I’ve gotten to know over the years do, is disrupt something. Simply put, we’re working from the outside, or the edges of an industry, with less money and less buy in, trying to change the way that it works. Sometimes undermining it entirely, sometimes coming up with new markets and new industries, all in our search for a better way.

On Funding Innovation

Many of the people who say they want change, and aren’t happy with the current solutions found in the world, aren’t actually serious about wanting that change. It’s lip service. There are very few funders and forums for game changers to be heard and for them to find funding to take their idea, product or service to market. The same people who say that they don’t want the same traditional approach, apply traditional ways of thinking to finding and funding innovators.

There is precious little innovation in the funding space, even as these same funders look to find the next organization that will turn the world on its head. In a space overflowing with grand claims of disruption, which funders are actually that themselves? How many “social impact” funders actually fund anything? In the social entrepreneurs world, it’s a lot less painful to get funding from traditional VCs and angels than it is this new social impact investor type.

I can think of a few funding organizations that actually try new things, and can count them on one hand: Skoll, Omidyar Network, Knight, Indigo Trust. I’ve probably missed a couple, but you get the drift, this isn’t an area where people are changing with the times.

Your Chance to Speak at TED

TED 2011

“More than half of the speakers at TED2013 will be selected through an ambitious experiment in crowdsourcing: the TED Worldwide Auditions.”

Speaking on the TED stage is hard. It’s hard to get to. It’s hard to speak from. It’s hard to stand out enough to make it to TED.com. For all of these reasons, it is also one of the most coveted speaking engagements in the world.

Africa Locations and Dates

If you’re in Africa, this is your chance to get there, to be heard. The auditions are coming to the following 3 cities on the continent, and my sources tell me that Chris Anderson, the curator himself, will be there to screen you.

  • Johannesburg, South Africa – applications open on February 24 and close on March 15. Auditions are on May 3.
  • Nairobi, Kenya – applications open on February 26 and close on March 17. Auditions are on May 5.
  • Tunis, Tunisia – applications open on February 29 and close on March 20. Auditions are on May 8.

What TED is looking for

Anyone can apply to audition, so long as you have not spoken at a TED Conference, TEDGlobal or TEDActive, and do not have a talk posted on TED.com/talks. We’re especially looking for:

THE INVENTOR … sharing an innovation with world-changing potential
THE TEACHER … sharing valuable knowledge in a memorable way to teenagers or adults
THE PRODIGY … young talent ready to break out
THE ARTIST … who can showcase their work in a compelling, new way
THE PERFORMER … music, dance, comedy, drama … or something entirely different
THE SAGE … wisdom the world needs from those who have learned it the hard way
THE ENTHUSIAST … with an infectious passion about a topic they can share
THE CHANGE AGENT … helping shape the world’s future with work that matters
THE STORYTELLER … vivid, original, meaningful … with a talent for connection
THE SPARK … with a powerful idea worth spreading

My TED Story

In 2007 there was a TED Africa, held in Arusha, Tanzania. Looking back, this might have been one of the most important events for our generation of “cheetahs“, we learned the importance of story and a firestorm brewed over the trade vs aid debate.

I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the Fellows for that event, and it was there that the most of what would be the Ushahidi core team met. Seven months before we built it, we knew and trusted each other more because Juliana, Ory, Daudi, and myself were there.

It was also the first place that I stepped onto the TED stage to talk. I did a short 3-minute talk on AfriGadget and the types of innovation found on the side of the road in Africa. To be honest, I psyched myself out on it, and didn’t do a great job. I don’t remember much about it, but the fact that it never showed up on TED.com means that it was underwhelming (and I’m glad that it didn’t see the light of day). This is also when I swore to never get worked up over a simple speech again.

Fast forward to 2009 when the official TED Fellows initiative was launched. I had another chance to talk, this time on Ushahidi and our plans to build the next generation curation tool, which we call SwiftRiver. This time it went much better, and my talk showed up on TED.com. It’s now been translated into 31 languages and watched by thousands around the world, taking myself and Ushahidi to another level.

If you’ve done something remarkable, have an amazing talent and are able to speak or perform well, then there isn’t a better stage than TED. Make sure you get your application in on time, so that you get a chance to audition, and take the first step to the TED stage.

Pivot East: East Africa’s Startup Pitching Competition

Mark your calendars, buy your tickets, submit your applications!

We’re ramping up to the Pivot East pitching competition, where the best startups in East Africa come to show what they have, pitch their startup to investors, media and the judges for a chance to win the prize money.

Pivot East will be held at Ole Sereni Hotel in Nairobi, June 5th and 6th. Last year we had over 100 applications for the 25 slots, and we’re expecting even more after seeing how well Pivot25 did last year (writeups by TIME Magazine and CNN). Last year we saw startups from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, and this year we’re hoping to see some from South Sudan and Somalia as well.

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Categories

As last year there are five categories, each of which will have five startups that will pitching in them. If you think you have a prototype, a deck and a business plan to wow everyone with, let’s see it. Applications are open.

  1. Financial Services
  2. Business and Resource Management
  3. Entertainment
  4. Mobile Society
  5. Utilities

Getting more information

Pivot East is put on by the m:lab East Africa, an incubator for startups in the mobile apps and services space. All profits go to support the facility. This year support comes from Samsung, and we’ll be announcing a few more big names in the coming weeks. If you’d like to be one of them, contact us.

If you have any questions, we’re having a meeting a Baraza at the iHub on Monday the 6th of February from 2.30pm to 3.30pm. If you’re a startup wanting to know more, or are media or an investor, come by and talk to the organizing team.

[Note: for more on last year's here is my blog post retrospective.]

UPDATE:
The Pivot East Team will be coming to Uganda on the 20th February 2011 at Makerere. You can book your tickets for the event on the link below:

http://pivotuganda.eventbrite.com/

Our Voices Revolutionize the World

[The following is from my Institute of Medicine Talk on communications technologies for violence prevention in Washington DC today. A good background paper to get started on the context of tech in violence prevention is found in this PDF. ]

Something has changed over the last decade.

New technology is lowering barriers. For everyone, and everything. It is disruptive just by existing and by it’s penetration into every corner of the world. We’re talking mobile phones, social media, open data, inexpensive mapping and of course the internet itself.

It can be used just as easily for good as for bad, like any other tool and medium before it. However, the biggest difference in our new technology space, is that what before had at least some gatekeepers, now has few or none.

Inefficiencies in older industries or organizations are areas ripe to be disintermediated in our day of new tools and democratizing of information. Think big media, government, the humanitarian field and even the medical and healthcare industries. Many of these are centralized, top-down information systems which are being forced (or will be forced) to change, or become obsolete and die out in their current form. Not because what they represent is bad, but because how they do it is no longer viable.

Legacy systems and processes were built for a use case that is often decades, if not centuries, old. Internet and mobile phone technology bring new efficiencies and lower barriers. At the very least we can expect new technology to augment what’s there, if it doesn’t displace it entirely.

We’ve see this rippling through the media world for the past few years, large magazines and newspapers are going out of print, major TV networks are struggling. New technology is changing the news paradigm.

We see it in government, from fund raising to how wars are fought, and especially to how a faster moving populace interacts with a slower, archaic and sometimes rotten system that rules them. New technology makes a nimble adversary out of the people that the government is sworn to serve.

We see this in the humanitarian space, where large, slow and ungainly organizations can’t seem to coordinate the resources to meet their mandate, yet raise enough money to keep themselves in business. New technology allows the affected people to self-organize and solve their own problems, and leads us to question why some organizations exist at all.

Let me give you a finite example of this, from my own organization, Ushahidi.

Ushahidi was born out of the post-election violence in 2008. In that first week, a number of us came together as an ad hoc group of volunteers and in 3 days created a website that allowed anyone in the country to send in text messages, emails or web reports on problems happening in their area and we mapped them and put them on a timeline. It was simple, rudimentary even, but it worked.

It worked because people were looking for an outlet, they wanted to let people know what was happening to them.

What we’ve seen since that time is that Ushahidi has proliferated, not because of the technology, but because of the use cases that it makes possible. It is a free and open source platform for gathering and visualizing information and it has been used for everything from disaster response to election monitoring, citizen journalism and community engagement.

There are now over 20,000 deployments of the Ushahidi platform operating in 132 countries. Our goals for Ushahidi are simple; to disrupt the way information flows in the world by providing the best tools for democratizing information with the least barriers to entry.

In the beginning this meant take what took us 3 days to build and make it available to others so they didn’t have to start from scratch. Something that would take them only 3 hours to deploy. Last year we dropped that to 3 minutes with the launch of Crowdmap, our cloud-based version of Ushahidi.

We’ve also created many mobile tools, from an Android-based SMS gateway to customizable iPhone and Android apps.

3 lessons we learned early:

  • We didn’t have the credentials. None of us were humanitarians, we just cared about our home and wanted to do something.
  • We had no funding. It wasn’t until 4 months later that we formed Ushahidi as an organization, and 4 months after that when we received funding. That didn’t stop us from doing something.
  • We had no time. If we had thought long and hard before we built our system, it probably would have been too complicated and wouldn’t have worked. We also might have thought of a more sayable name…

All of the lessons that we’ve learned through our journey are baked into our organizations culture. We question assumptions and we treasure disruption. We’re willing to take risks that leave us open to failure, in our effort to change the way information flows in the world.

There’s a term that I came across last year called “White Space“, and it’s best definition is:

“…where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear…”

The most innovative ideas come from this white space; internally within organizations, in the startup space and in society in general. At the end of the day, much of the white space definition looks a lot like where I live and work in Africa. And I think it’s why its sometimes easier to come up with innovative solutions there, and why we’re going to see an increasing number of solutions to the problems in the West coming from places that look a lot like Africa.

The best disruptive ideas come from the edge. So, let’s look at the edge, cases from around the globe, for some examples of how technology is being used to make an impact on violence prevention.

  • HarassMap (Ushahidi + FrontlineSMS) – Egypt
  • BullyMapper (FrontlineSMS + Ushahidi) – Australia
  • Human Rights (Ushahidi) – Saudi Arabia by Amnesty Int’l
  • YoungAfrica Live (Internet via mobile) – South Africa
  • YETAM (FrontlineSMS + Ushahidi) – Benin by Plan
  • Apartheid Watch (Ushahidi) – Israel and Palestine
  • Hollaback (Phone cameras and a website) – US, India, Mexico and Argentina
  • PeaceTXT (SMS and trained people) – US
  • Maps4Aid (Ushahidi) – India
  • Take Back the Tech (Ushahidi) – Global

“Across the globe—and without any organizing or mobilization by NGOs or watchdogs—people confronted with threats to their rights are communicating out those experiences, in effect reasserting agency over their own rights protection.” – Amnesty International

Those are all exciting examples, showing what can be done with new technology. Suddenly there are no barriers to entry, anyone can take part, and it doesn’t require that someone have authority to begin. It’s just a matter of figuring out what you want to do and galvanizing a community to take part.

Is technology a panacea? Not at all.

As my friend Clay Shirky says, “The technology only becomes interesting when it is no longer interesting to technologists.”

We use a graphic in Ushahidi to remind users of our tools that the technology is only a small part of any solution. We say that 90% of the work is non-tech related, and can take the form of organizing, outreach, branding, translation, etc.

It’s a reminder to us as well, that we need to focus on creating tools that augment human activity and get out of the way as much as possible. That, in the end, is what makes the earlier examples so interesting; they worked because they used the simple tools available in people’s pockets to interact and bring attention to a much larger population, audience or intermediary.

Just this week a new site was launched, like it’s predecessor in Egypt it’s purpose is to draw attention to the harassment that women get, this time in Ramallah, Palestine. Residents of Ramallah, as well as staff from Palestinian women’s organizations and civil society came together and did something, they built Streetwatch. It was self-organized, it emerged from local needs and tools were found that could suit them.

“They have an opportunity to help themselves and other honest citizens of Ramallah to isolate the problem areas and say no to sexual harassment.”

This is the new story of our time, that:

“Our voices revolutionize the world.” – David Kobia, Ushahidi

Those 5 words. That simple statement.

The revolution is here, you’ve watched it shake industries, rock countries and effect your own community – and what you’re seeing is only the beginning of the massive changes sweeping across the world.

It’s not complicated. It’s the effect of technology democratizing information and changing the way it flows in the world.

It’s simple solutions, by unqualified but driven people, like the communities in Ramallah, Egypt, India and even here in the US, that provide a foundation for the changes that we’re seeing. It’s ordinary people, using simple technology to organize themselves and take care of their own problems.

Your task is to look closely, to understand the basics and then figure out how to use these new tools at your disposal to make a difference. In your case, to specifically prevent violence and help those who have been hurt.

Africa: Turning the World Upside Down

Whitespace in business is defined as a place, “…where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear…” It’s the space between the organizational chart, where the real innovation happens. It’s also a great definition for what we see in Africa, and it’s the reason why it’s one of the most exciting places to be a technology entrepreneur today.

I just finished with a talk at PopTech on Saturday where I talked about “The Idea of Africa” and how Western abstractions of the continent are often mired in the past. It’s not just safaris and athletes, poverty and corruption – it’s more nuanced than that.

Today I’m in London for Nokia World 2011 and am speaking on a panel about “The next billion” and how it might/might not turn the world upside down. In my comments tomorrow, I’ll probably be echoing many of the same thoughts that came out over the weekend at PopTech.

Here are a few of the points that we might get into tomorrow:

Horizontal vs Vertical scaling

I talk a lot about this with my friend Ken Banks, where we look to scale our own products (Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS) in a less traditional format. As entrepreneurs you’re driven to scale, but our definition of scale in the West tends to be monolithic. Creating verticals that are incredibly efficient, but which decreases resilience.

In places like Africa, we have this idea of horizontal scaling, where the product or service is grown in smaller units, but spread over multiple populations and communities. Where a smaller size has its own benefits.

In this time of corporate and government cuts, where seemingly oversized companies are propped up in order to not fail, there are some lessons here for the West. We shouldn’t be surprised that the solutions to the West’s problems will increasingly come from places like Africa.

Instead of thinking of Africa as a place that needs to be more like the West, we’re now looking at Africa and realizing the West need to be more like Africa.

Reverse distribution

Will we increasingly see a new set of innovative ideas, products and services coming from places like Africa and spreading to the rest of the world? Why is Africa such a fertile ground for a different type of innovation, a more practical one – or is it?

Disruptive ideas happen at the edge.

Africa is on the edge. While the world talks at great length about the shifting of power from the West (US/Europe) to the East (India/China), Africa is overlooked. That works in our favor (sometimes).

A couple of the ideas and products that have started in Africa and been exported beyond the continent include; Mpesa, Ushahidi and Mxit.


Mpesa – the idea came from Vodafone, but product met it’s success in Kenya. Over $8 billion has been transferred through it’s peer-to-peer payment system. Vodafone has failed to make the brand go global, but the model itself is being dissected and mimicked the world over.


Ushahidi – we started small, from Kenya again, and driven by our Crowdmap platform now have over 20,000 deployments of our software around the world. It’s in 132 countries, and the biggest uses of it are in places like Japan, Russia, Mexico and the US.


Mxit – the famous mobile chat software from South Africa has 3x the number of Facebook users in that country, and has over 25 million users globally.

Like we see at Maker Faire Africa, these innovative solutions are based on needs locally, many of them due to budgetary constraints. Some of them due to cultural idiosyncrasies. Often times, people from the West can’t imagine, nor create, the solutions needed in emerging markets, they don’t have the context and the “mobile first” paradigm isn’t understood.

A good example of this is Okoa Jihazi, a way to get a small loan of credit for your mobile phone minutes when you’re out of cash to buy them, from the operator. They’ve built some safeguards in to protect against abuse, such as you have to have had the SIM for 6 months in order to get the service. It works though, because the company selling it (and many of the mobile operators do across Africa) understands the nuanced life of Africa.

We hold on to technology longer, experiment on it, abuse it even. SMS and USSD are great examples of this, while much of the Western world is jumping on the next big technology bandwagon, there are really crazy things coming out in emerging markets, like USSD internet, payment systems, ticketing and more.

Throughout the world, the basic foundation of any technology success is based on finding a problem, a need, and solving it. This is what we’re doing in Africa. We have different use cases and cultures, which means that there will be many solutions. Some will only be valuable for local needs and won’t scale beyond the country or region. Others will go global. Both solutions are “right”, it’s not a failure to have a product that profitably serves 100,000 people instead of 100 million.

Turning the world upside down has as much to do with accepting this idea of localized success as an acceptable answer as it does with explosive global growth and massive vertical scale.

The Two Big Trends

Trend #1: Adoption by Africans as consumers is increasing.
Trend #2: Technology costs are decreasing

Let’s get back to my talk for tomorrow at Nokia… 87% of sub-$100 phones sold by Nokia are sold in emerging markets. 34% of Africa’s population (313 million) are now considered middle class. The fastest growing economy in the world is Ghana, 5 of the top 10 are African countries (including Liberia, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique). Across the continent, the average GDP growth is expected to be at 5+% going forward.

At the same time, we’re seeing bandwidth increase, and bandwidth costs decrease. Mobile operators are the continents major ISPs, and they’re getting creative on their data plans. Handset costs are going down. Smart(er) phones are available for less than ever before. We even have one of the lease expensive Android phones in the world at $80 in Kenya, the IDEOS by Huawei.

Is it all bright and rosy? Not at all. You’re on the edge, you have to create new markets, not just new businesses. But in that challenge lies opportunity, for it’s from these hard, rough and disruptive spaces that great wealth is grown. If you’re an African entrepreneur, why would you want to be anywhere else?

PopTech Fellows 2011

I’m back in one of my favorite places in the US: Camden, Maine. Even on a drizzly, rainy day like today you can enjoy the clean air and colorful fall-colored country around you. It’s a week before the PopTech conference kicks off, where we’ll hear from a number of eclectic speakers and have our minds given a true workout once again. (I am speaking at the conference this year during the “Re:think” session.)

PopTech Social Innovation Fellows

With hundreds of applicants from 58 countries, you have to be good to get here. As always, this year of Fellows is impressive and each one has already done something incredible to make it to this stage. We’ve got clean energy entrepreneurs, mini-manufacturing technologists, big data crunchers, girls health innovators and music community engineers. It’s a mess of engaging, driven individuals that remind you why the odd ones in the crowd are the ones that give us hope.

For the Fellows in the program, this is a chance to learn from some of the foremost experts in the field of communication, design, branding, negotiation, strategy and fundraising. The Fellows each get a chance to do a 5-minute talk on the PopTech main stage. Finally, the network that everyone is injected into gives them an amazing opportunity to connect and meet people that can help them realize their projects goals.

PopTech does something very interesting, the conference is the big “annual gathering” of the network. It’s full of great talks, as you’d expect, but you’d be wrong if you thought that was the reason PopTech exists. The organization itself is a catalyst, focused on accelerating ideas that can change the world.

The increased focus of the PopTech leadership on the Social Innovation Fellows, the Science and Policy Fellows and the Accelerator Labs that are put on in cities around the world are proof that their goal is to take all of the energy and resources that a focal point like a conference of their stature brings together, but to then direct that energy like a laser into the people and projects that they think can make a massive impact on the world.

The Fellows program fits into the PopTech organizations focus on finding people creating Innovative tools that impact positive societal change and then bringing them together with communities of stakeholders and other practitioners.

Pictures from Day 1

IGF 2011, a busy week in Nairobi

It’s been a busy couple days with the IGF meeting in Nairobi. I sat on 2 panels, one on cloud computing and how it relates to emerging markets, and another on privacy and security in an open data, realtime, networked world. Both extremely interesting, where I had to put my iHub and Ushahidi hats on to answer questions.

We also had some fascinating guests, including Vint Cerf (Google), Richard Allan (Facebook) and the VP of the EU.

VP of the European Union

It started off with helicopters and bodyguards as the European Union Vice President, Neelie Kroes, visited, speaking with a number of startups operating out of the iHub and the m:lab. We made the case for the open web and the light touch that the Kenyan government has had in regulation and why that has allowed innovation to flourish here.

Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Union, visits the iHub in Nairobi

Facebook

Richard Allan is in charge of policy for Facebook in Africa, the Middle East and Europe (I put them in that order on purpose AMEE sounds better than EMEA, after all.). It was especially fascinating to have someone of Richard’s calibre within Facebook visiting so shortly after the big changes that the social network has had in the last week.

Richard Allan, in charge of Africa, Middle East and Europe for Facebook visits the iHub

There was a healthy discussion around privacy, the new HTML5 “Spartan” push at Facebook, and thoughts around how local devs could take advantage of the Facebook platform to make apps and money. He also mentioned that any dev could go to their jobs area and start testing to see if they’re good enough to make the team.

Vint Cerf (Google)

Yesterday Vint Cerf, one of the founding father’s of the internet and a VP at Google, spent the whole afternoon with a room full of us at the iHub. Besides the surreal stories he told of getting the this whole internet thing going, he also provided some much needed context into why things work like they do now and where we might be going with the internet in the future (the answer to that, apparently, is space).

Vint Cerf, Google VP and a founder of the internet, visits the iHub

A big thanks to all of the community members who came and spent time with the guests, sharing their insights into the local startup and programming space. A big thank you to the VIPs for coming, and we hope to see them again.