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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Category: Conferences (page 3 of 27)

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.

MedAfrica Pitches at DEMO

Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda were the overall winners at the Pivot 25 event earlier this year with their MedKenya app, which has since turned into MedAfrica. Their prize was a chance to pitch at DEMO, the big startup pitching event in Silicon Valley. Here’s their team last week giving the pitch.

MedAfrica is just the tip of the iceberg, as we see more startup spaces, pitching events and seed capital entering the continent.

IPO48 Nairobi Startup Finalists 2011

I’m at the final pitches for the 2011 Nairobi IPO48 event that’s been happening non-stop over the last 2 days. This year it’s being held at the iHub, with 12 companies working through ideas, prototypes, business plans and finally an investment for the winner. In total, they’re offering:

  • 25.000€ (3.3m Ksh) in funding after 48 hours
  • Mentorship from serial entrepreneurs and professionals
  • Great media exposure for your startup
  • Find talented people that want to join your startup

If you want a quick rundown of who the 12 finalists are, and what their apps do, check out Afrinnovator’s writeup. You can also watch quick 1-minute videos on each of them on YouTube.

The 2011 Winner: Tusquee Systems with their SchoolSMS app (which also won their category at Pivot25)!

Runners Up Ghafla! and 6ix Degrees will win an additional 15k Euro investment (more on Afrinnovator).

Kenya Startup Events


It’s only 2 months since Pivot25 and now we’re on another startup event with Human IPO back in Nairobi for the second year. The Tandaa $690k startup grants for techies have gone out to 15 companies. We didn’t have any of these events going on. None.

This is important for a number of reasons:

  • Kenyan entrepreneurs are getting experience in pitching their ideas.
  • Techies are finding out the hard truths about themselves as business people, and that technology alone doesn’t make a business.
  • Local and international mentors are giving the entrepreneurs much needed insights and wisdom.
  • Investors and international media are being catered to, they’re getting a chance to see the Nairobi startup scene up close and personal.
  • Design is being taken a little more seriously (though a lot more needs to be done).
  • It brings an angel and early-stage investment mentality to Nairobi that hasn’t really existed before.

In short, we need to continue with local startup competitions. The more people who learn how to think through, build and pitch their ideas, the more likely we are to continue our upward growth in mobile and web innovation. It’s only by a lot of practice, lessons learned and hard knocks that we’ll see more success stories.

The finalists in these competitions represent a small percentage of the people who apply, but don’t make it. It’s a pure numbers game, where we’ll see the 10-15% succeed and most fail. Again, that’s okay, it’s how the startup game works.

We’re only half way up the mountain, and startup competitions are only part of the equation. There’s a lot more work to do if we want to see more success stories. Thus we need the whole technology community in East Africa to continue supporting the events and the people behind them, but also get involved in the startups themselves, whether for mentoring, business or investment.

TEDGlobal 2011

This last week I was in Edinburgh, Scotland at the TEDGlobal conference. As always, it was filled with inspiring talks, great conversations and I went away with a brain full of new ideas. (TEDGlobal picture sets)

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I’m one of the TED Senior Fellows, and I should add that there is one more week open for applications to this program. Every class of new TED Fellows seems to get better, where their talent, ability to speak and communicate their ideas grows stronger. In fact, I think this year’s TED Fellows talks were at a higher quality on average than TED U talks.

TG11_00033

Not all of my favorite talks are up yet, but two of them are, embedded below.

A Magna Carta for the Networked World

One of my favorite people in the world is Ethan Zuckerman, who gave a talk at TEDGlobal last year in Oxford. He co-founded Global Voices, and his colleague on that was Rebecca MacKinnon, who spoke at this one. Here’s her talk on why we need a Magna Cart for the networked world:

Trial and Error

As knowledgeable as we are in whatever our chosen field is, there are things that we shouldn’t jump to assumptions on. Instead, economist Tim Harford makes a case for the use of trial and error in order to come up with the right decision.

A Pivot 25 Retrospective

PivotNairobi 65

Pivot 25 was a blast! Over 100 teams from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda applied to pitch their startup over a 2-day period. We named it “pivot” because we wanted to play off of the word, often used in the startup scene to denote a need for a startup to nimbly move in a different direction (plus it had a good sound). We did the event for 2 reasons:

  1. To bring attention to “what’s next” coming from the vibrant mobile startup scene in East Africa.
  2. To support the new m:lab, a mobile incubator that launched yesterday, where all profits from the event went to sustain.

This wasn’t your ordinary conference, it was a pitching competition mixed with lively fireside chats with the regions top business and government leaders in the tech space. Larry Madowo, a TV news personality in Nairobi, did one of the most amazing jobs I’ve seen with the fireside chats, keeping them lively and (best of all) disagreeing with each other. The event with 300+ attendees was smoothly MC’d by AlKags, keeping the pace fresh and upbeat.

Each category of finalists consisted of 5 companies, with an independent panel of judges (in other words, the organizers had no say in this). The finalist pitched for 7 minutes, followed by some very pointed and tough questions by the judges. Each judge scored the presenters on their pitch, business viability and model, an average of all these scores was tallied to find that session’s winner.

The Winners

WERE2011_PIVOT25-1610

Prizes of $5,000 were awarded to the winners of each of the 5 categories, and the overall winner was picked from these and will go to pitch at the DEMO conference in California:

A massive congratulations to all the winners, and we expect to hear great things from the MedKenya team of Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda when they head to Silicon Valley in September to pitch on an even bigger stage.

Big Thanks!

The real reason this event worked was due to the team behind it. Countless hours spent getting sponsors, working with the finalists and designing the space. I want to thank the guys who really put the work in behind it, making it such a huge hit: Jay Bhalla (producer), Tosh, Joshua, Ryan and Jessica, the Sprint Interactive team, the Ark for the video, plus a good dozen volunteers from the iHub community.

WERE2011_PIVOT25-1290

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank the guys at Afrinnovator for live blogging the event, and for CapitalFM for live streaming it to the 3000+ people who tuned in from all over the world. Zuku provided us with 100Mbs for this to happen, though we will make sure we have more, and more robust, access points next time.

Finally, thanks to Nokia, Equity Bank, Samsung, Google, Tigo and Elma for sponsoring the event and helping us pay for what was a very costly exercise.

For those who want to know, the full revenue from the event was $145k, with a cost of $110k. Leaving $35,000 to put into the m:lab.

Stay tuned for where Pivot will be next year. Thanks everyone!

Broadening the Base of the Startup Pyramid

While in London at the RGS event I spoke about a different way that I’ve been trying to explain the startup and successful ecosystem needed in places like Africa. Specifically, in the major technology hubs for the continent, these are cities; Nairobi, Jo’burg, Accra, Lagos and Cairo. There seems to be enough funding available for SMEs. How do we get more of them?

It goes something like this.

We have a few good success stories in any one of these cities. There are a handful of great tech companies and organizations that have “made it”. This can be seen as a success in innovation or in business (or in both). Everyone wants to be at the tip of this, and these are the examples we hear of at international conferences and read about in the media.

In the middle we have everyone else, the guys who are still slugging away. They have some clients and revenue streams, but they’re not at the top (yet).

At the bottom, that’s what we deal with in places like the iHub and m:lab. These are those scrappy startups that might or might not have any right being in the place. They’re risky, probably don’t have a solid business model yet, and only a few of them will graduate into the SME space above them.

What to do?

To make the tip of the pyramid bigger, to have more success stories in the tech space, there is only one option: you have to make the base of the pyramid broader.

If your job is to see more innovative new tech companies come out of Africa, the recipe is quite simple:

  • Invest seed funds into local tech entrepreneurs.

(that’s my only bullet point, it’s that simple)

Local Innovation and Entrepreneurs

I gave a keynote yesterday at the opening of the infoDev Global Forum in Helsinki, which has a specific focus on innovation. The m:lab funding comes from them, and they are exploring new ways to help entrepreneurs in the high-tech space, specifically mobiles, to make their businesses a reality.

Innovation: Knowledge and Resources

I’ve already stated that I think innovation is spread equally across the world. No one region has a monopoly on it. The kind of innovation that you see is dependent upon a number of things, but the foremost in my mind are knowledge and resources.

It’s what you’re educated about and in, it’s your skills, training and ability. When you mix that with the resources available around a creative and inventive person, then innovation happens. Let’s take a look at it.

Low-tech example
In Gikomba, a market place of jua kali workers in Nairobi, you find that their resources are made up of re-usable metal and they have deep training in non-traditional metal working methods and tools.

It comes as no surprise then, that the products they create look like this. Parafin lamps and other low-tech consumer products that sell cheaply and yet took a good deal of local ingenious thinking to craft (originally).

High-tech example
There is a group of women coders in the Nairobi area that call themselves the Akirachix. They often work out of the iHub, and their knowledge is about PHP, MySQL, USSD and SMS application building. The resources around them are mobile phones, and computers to work with.

It comes as no surprise that a couple of these gals (Jamila and Susan) develop mobile and web applications, targeted towards a demographic that they understand: farmers. M-Farm is a USSD and SMS app for farmer information, and organized buying by coops and suppliers.

What you see

What’s interesting here is that it’s often difficult for someone coming from one society and cultural background to appreciate the level of innovation coming from a completely different one. I used a couple examples of this in my discussion yesterday. How the low-tech innovation that we see at Maker Faire Africa is still innovation, and they have business value and provide efficiencies to the community that created them.

What’s difficult for people to do is see. It’s hard to look through another set of lenses and appreciate the inventiveness that got something so far. It’s a challenge to understand the needs of a culture that you don’t share and then create a product for it. This is why so many of the platforms and products designed in the West fail in Africa. It’s not that they’re not well designed, they’re just not designed by people who truly understand the needs of the customers in Africa.

It’s why rugged and efficient seed planting devices will be created in rural Ghana. It’s why Ushahidi and Mpesa had to come from a place like Kenya. It’s why South Africa’s Mxit has 35m users.

Finally, it’s why we should continue to invest in local inventors and entrepreneurs – instead of importing foreign solutions, let’s grow our own.

The Future… is Here! [Pivot 25 Video]

PIVOT25: East Africa’s Biggest Mobile Tech Event from Pivot25 Conference on Vimeo.

The next big thing in African Tech has arrived. Pivot 25 is here! The region’s top 25 mobile tech startups pitch against each other June 14-15 in Nairobi, Kenya at the Ole Sereni Hotel.

Go to pivot25.com for tickets and info.

Video by The ARK

An Evening with Chinery-Hesse and Negroponte

Next week I’ll be in London to speak at the 21st Century Challenges event put on by the Royal Geographic Society with a focus on “Digital Technology in Africa“.

Besides that main event, it will be a busy 3 days as I’ll also be speaking at the World Bank, meeting at #10 Downing Street, talking at the BBC College of Journalism and at the launch of a Vodafone SIM paper on the mobile web in East Africa at the London School of Economics.

I’m particularly excited about the RGS event because of who I’ll be sharing the stage with. The other speakers are Herman Chinery-Hesse and Nicholas Negroponte.

The above video is Herman Chinery-Hesse, a successful and well-established software entrepreneur in Ghana. He’ll be keynoting the Tech4Africa conference this October in South Africa (along with my colleague Jon Gosier). Herman brings a wealth of knowledge on successful technology businesses, within a West African context. The understanding that the regions of Africa have differing business models and technology success stories is important to recognize.

Nicholas Negroponte is known internationally due to his long and storied history at MIT’s Media Lab. He’s leaving soon, and Joi Ito will soon take over the leadership of that institution. Negroponte spent his last few years heavily pushing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, and I’m sure that will be a large discussion item in London.

Here’s Negroponte a couple years ago talking about the OLPC:

If you’re in London and can join, do check to see if any tickets are still available.

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