Category Archives: Interviews

My BBC Post on Blogging’s Evolution and Growth

I was asked to do a guest post for the BBC, as they’re doing a new full-production special titled “Digital Revolution“, which is set to focus on the first 20 years of the internet.

The producer asked me to write about the changing face of blogging. Answering the question on, “has blogging lost its feeling of freedom, untethered and raw that once defined it?”

My answer is simply: no. You can read why on the link below:

Voices on the rise: raw and unfiltered blogging still lives

An excerpt (read the full post to catch the arguments):

“So, in answering my question at the beginning, we see not a loss in the freedom and raw power of citizen-based communication, but a burgeoning growth in it that threatens to overwhelm us all. In fact, the wave is coming on so strong and big that the most important question we need to ask is not how to get more citizen blogs, updates and voices, but how to filter it so that it remains useful.”

African Digerati: Adii Pienaar of Woothemes

African Digerati Interview: Adii Pienaar

Adii Pienaar (aka Adii Rockstar) is the 7th in the African Digerati series of interviews. At only 24 he’s the youngest one on the list – he’s here because he represents the success that can be achieved as a young digital entrepreneur in Africa. Just under a year ago Woothemes splashed onto the stage as a new seller of WordPress (blogging tool) themes.

Rumor has it that this might be the most monetarily successful startup in the new media scene coming out of South Africa… That’s in less than one year. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the fact is that Woothemes is one of the top WordPress theme sites in the world, and it’s grown out of Africa with a lot of work, an eye for design and passion.

Woothemes just launched version 2 of itself, called WOO2. This interview is in response to that, and a chance to take a look at one of the visionaries behind it. After reading the interview, take a look at Adii’s blog. You’ll realize he’s light-hearted and doesn’t take himself to seriously, personality traits that I appreciate.

Woothemes version 2: woo2

When was the seed of Woothemes planted in your mind, and what was it’s genesis? What caused you to go from idea to actually building something, and how did you do that?
I don’t really know… Magnus, Mark & I had been collaborating a bit more loosely and the business was growing quite steadily. So I think it was just a natural progression to formalize the collaborations into a business and brand it as WooThemes. Luckily for us, we had a good following at that stage and the foundations were good all round to launch WooThemes.

What inspires you?
Would I be egotistical to say that I inspire myself? :) Honestly though, I’m inspired by a bunch of different things on a daily basis; and those things are random at best. The “being inspired” bit, along with willingness to act on said inspiration is a result of me absolutely loving a challenge and thus being completely driven to pursue those challenges.

Who are your biggest influences?
Online, I’ve got a lot of respect for entrepreneurs like Ryan Carson & Collis Ta’eed, who are at the top end of this new wave of entrepreneurs. Offline I’ve always appreciated Richard Branson’s way of going about business and marketing his ideas. And then closer to home… I’ve learned a helluva lot from both my business partners – Magnus & Mark – whilst I’d be lying if I said that my dad didn’t influence my business mind a lot – especially when I was younger.

Woo2 is a redesign of the Woothemes site and the community platform behind it. What are the big changes, and why do they matter?
Facing outwards, I think WOO2 signals our intent with regards to further growth and also improving the current experiences on WooThemes.

On a business level, I think WOO2 is more professional and we put a lot more strategic thinking into it. So again, it’s some kind of natural progression of how we’ve grown. WOO2 is the next step and the next part of the journey ahead.

Woothemes is expanding to other platforms beyond WordPress (Drupal, Expression Engine, etc.). What is your strategy here, and when will we start seeing these themes for different platforms?
The strategy is basically one that aims to diversify our offerings (and also our risk of having all our eggs in one basket), along with the growth aspects (new products = new markets = new users). And whilst I’m reluctant to commit to any schedule in this regard, we will start rolling out the Drupal themes in the next 2 / 3 weeks, and we’ve already started work on the EE & Magento stuff.

There’s always been the debate amongst the WordPress intelligensia about some theme providers not honoring the WordPress GPL licensing. iThemes, Brian Gardner and others have changed stances. I noticed you have as well. Is this where you wanted to go, or was it something that the greater community forced upon you? How will this help your business?

I can categorically say that this wasn’t something we did because we felt forced to do so. Way back in August 2008, I told Matt Mullenweg (at WordCamp SA) that going GPL was on the horizon for us and we’d do so when we felt comfortable doing so.

And as for how it will affect / help our business… I don’t know yet. We’ve only been GPL for a day, so I guess we’ll have to wait & see. :)

How big is Woothemes and how active is your community? Can you give any numbers?
This is tempting, but I’d rather not share these numbers… Maybe in the next couple of months, we’ll adopt a more open approach and share some of these numbers, but we’re not into boasting about supposed success.

I can however say that our support forum has racked up almost 45K posts, which means that the community is active. And our free themes (6 of them) have been downloaded about 35 000 times in the last month… :)

You’ve successfully created a web business out of South Africa that has impacted people around the world. You’re tapped into the web in a way that few others are. What’s next? What does the big picture look like from a the Rockstar perspective?
I’m taking over the world, one WordPress installation at a time.

LOL no… I’m very content with what I’m doing at the moment and very happy with the space & freedom that WooThemes has afforded me. I’m still young (24), so at this stage I’d like to think that I’m trying to revolutionize my own life, in terms of how I work and how I act outside of business hours. Beyond further growing WooThemes, that’s probably my main focus, because I want to do this now and not when I turn 30 / 40 and realize that I’ve work my life away.

And a shameless punt… I’m writing a book called Rockstar Business that basically airs my thoughts & experiences within this journey! :)

Finally, what are your thoughts on the impact of blogging in your own continent: Africa?
I’m ashamed to admit this, but Africa is generally a deep dark place for me (which I’m planning on rectifying with a proper journey into Africa – for holiday – later this year). So I’ve honestly not met many Africans who are bloggers.

BUT… In theory I think blogging gives everyone a voice; a voice they didn’t have before. And that’s true freedom & power for me, which we’ll ultimately see itself manifest when Africa becomes one of the strongest nations / economies in the world.

[Disclosure: I'm a customer of Woothemes, having purchased (full-price) one of their themes for the Maker Faire Africa website. I'm very happy with this too, everything is rock solid.]

My (short) TED Talk on Ushahidi

I was fortunate enough to be at TED this year as a Fellow. While there, I did a short TED University talk on the roots of Ushahidi, where it’s going and a new initiative called Swift River. Needless to say, it was only 4 minutes, so I couldn’t get all the information that I wanted to in there. If you would like to know more about Swift, take a look at this video where Chris and Kaushal talk about it in more detail.

Currently we’re seeing this at work in India, where a group of people have come together to deploy Ushahidi and Swift River to gather information from normal people about the elections.

Radio Gbarpolu and Travel in Liberia


Liberian Bush Trip from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

I took an opportunity to travel to Bopolu, a small town in the Liberian bush that is the center of government for Gbarpolu county (don’t say the “G”).

My goal was to talk to someone from a rural community radio station. I also wanted to talk to the local leaders to determine how information flows in the community, and how it gets from local villages to Monrovia.

Here is a quick video that I put together showing some of the highlights of this trip.

Meeting Videographer Ruud Elmendorp

Ruud Elmendorp is a well-known freelance videographer in East Africa, and someone I have been meaning to meet-up with while there. Last month while in Nairobi we finally got to link up for a coffee and discuss a little about his business and the kinds of stories he does. When you get a chance to talk to someone who has interviewed the infamous Joseph Kony in person, you don’t pass it up!

Interestingly enough, six years ago he decided to just pick up and move to Kenya to begin his business. It came after having done some work in Southern Sudan, and at a time when life beckoned for him to leave the Netherlands behind. It’s how a lot of first-timers get to Africa, for some it sticks and they thrive, others it breaks them.

Of course, we got started talking about equipment, me showing my little Sanyo Xacti vpc-E1 (an ultra-small waterproof video camera), and I swear I saw a little drool escape him at that point… It’s good to know he’s another gadget-head, and was neat to see how he used his mobile phone for a lot of his work (Nokia E-51).

A Video by Ruud

Here’s a recent video showing MTN’s Village Phone Project in Uganda:

‘I never expected to start a business.’ The 49-years-old Nakakande Uvumba got herself a Village Phone, where people can make cheap phone calls. 15,000 others in Uganda have a new future.

Interesting Facts

Ruud is the national correspondent for RTL (Netherlands) and a regular field correspondent for Rocketboom. He also runs the booming Facebook Videojournalist group.

One of these days I’ll be able to afford Ruud doing an AfriGadget documentary. Until then, I’ll enjoy his videos – doing stories that are interesting and always compelling.

Note: the funny picture above was taken using the Xacti video camera’s still image capture (6 Megapixel). Needless to say, Ruud wasn’t quite ready for it…
(hat tip to James Neal for jogging my memory on this story)

Steve Mutinda: Brains, Initiative and J2ME Skills

Every once in a while, in this line of work, you get a genuinely welcome and unexpected surprise. That’s what happened the other night when I met up with some local tech guys and a certain Steve Mutinda showed up just happening to mention that he did some J2ME programming. He has created two mobile phone apps (and working on a third), which I’ll review over a couple of posts.

In brief, LiveQuotes let’s you track the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) from your GPRS enabled phone.

The NSE updates their data every time a trade happens, and that information can be downloaded as a CSV. Steve has it setup so that he checks it every minute, allowing you to have near real-time access to the exchange, and a scrolling ticker for your selected portfolio. Want to see how your stock has done over time? No problem, there is a basic line chart showing how your shares have done historically.

Steve started this about 3 months ago, soft-launching it to a few friends as he worked on new features and fixed things up. So far there are 200 users. I would expect that to change soon. 800,000 Kenyans have just bought into the Safaricom IPO was his inspiration, and a good one because it means there are hundreds of thousands of new stock owners in Kenya.

While it’s fee right now, plans are to charge 30/= Kenya Shillings per week ($0.50 cents) per user. Anyone can receive the application through a simple SMS with a link to the URL, and then registering on the spot. Safaricom or Celtel (depending on which carrier the end user has) will act as middleman for transactions, paying Steve on a monthly basis.

A little math will tell you that by getting just 10,000 users he will make about 300,000/= per week ($4,665). $18,000/month is a nice salary by almost anyone’s standards. I’ll be asking for a loan from him soon, I hope.

What else is in the future? Uganda and Tanzania for one, possibly the rest of Africa if things go well. On the technology side, look for some type of API that will allow others to access the same pre-parsed information.

See it in action in the video below:

Populi’s Mobile Researcher – an Interview (Part 2)

Below is a question and answer (through email) that I had with Andi Friedman, who heads up Populi’s Mobile Researcher product. Standby for some really interesting thoughts on the mobile landscape in Africa. (read Part 1, with background on the Populi platform, here.)

A gallery of images showcasing Populi’s Mobile Researcher product in action, on mobile phones and computer interfaces:

Question: What about pricing? How do you charge for Mobile Researcher?
As we roll out additional products on the platform (Populi), we hope to develop a multitude of billing models (including free models whereby revenue could be generated through advertising, opt-in marketing, permission-based data mining or context-sensitive search for example). We’d obviously need to drive volumes for that to work effectively.

For the current Mobile Researcher product which focuses on organisations who deploy fieldworkers to conduct research, we have implemented a transactional billing model whereby the organisation conducting the research purchases credit allowing them to process responses. We took this decision for several reasons:

  • The prepaid credit model has worked exceptionally well in Africa so far (e.g. airtime).
  • The cost of submitting responses is borne predominantly by the organisation receiving the data (not by the respondent although there are tiny airtime charges for data), thus centralising costs.
  • The barrier to entry and risk is very low as we don’t require organisations to buy expensive licenses or software. They purchase credit (even a few hundred dollars worth to start) and don’t need to commit to anything.
  • Transactional billing is fair since the organisation is only billed for the service when it is used.
  • Many organisations are looking for a hosted solution as they do not wish to or cannot support the hardware and personnel required to manage their own systems.

When an organisation signs up, a ‘Research Console’ (essentially a web portal) is created for them which centralises research-related activity (such as survey design, data export, reporting and fieldworker management). From here they may design surveys which consist of fields (questions) which need to be answered and logic which links them together (such as ‘If response = yes, skip to Q11′).

Surveys are then deployed to fieldworkers who conduct the them on their phones using a mobile application, WAP, Web or SMS (each ‘channel’ has its advantages and limitations). When a completed survey is uploaded from a fieldworker’s phone, the system calculates an amount to deduct from the available prepaid credit for the corresponding organisation based on the number of fields actually submitted in that response.

The baseline cost is approximately $0.01 per field (we work in South African Rands so it’s exchange rate specific). Thus, if 10 questions were posed, the total cost per response would be approx $0.10. If, for some reason, such as skip logic, only 5 questions were posed in the survey, an amount of approx $0.05 would be deducted. Airtime costs (rendered by the relevant network operators) are dependent on the package the fieldworker is on, but even in worst case scenarios are usually in the order of fractions of a cent per survey.

We also negotiate volume discounts in cases where an organisation wishes to purchase a large amount of credit.

Question: Why does Mobile Researcher matter in the African context?
Our goals for Mobile Researcher are to improve the quality, quantity and speed of data being collected. Bad decisions, policy and life choices are the result of poor quality, insufficient or outdated information. In Africa, where these problems are all-too-common, the prevalence of the mobile phone in the absence of other technologies makes it an excellent tool to help improve the situation. Traditionally, paper-based data collection techniques have been expensive, difficult to manage and have taken so long to be processed that the data may be may no longer be accurate or relevant.

To highlight the benefits, Health Systems Trust (an NGO in South Africa I have close ties with) is currently evaluating rural clinics using Mobile Researcher where there aren’t even computers in some cases. They receive the information back in near real-time as opposed to months later and it is stored securely and without the need for additional data capture. The possibility of building a near real-time Health Information System based on Mobile Researcher is a very real one. This could allow outbreaks to be rapidly identified, patients to be more effectively treated and monitored, and so on. As with any new technology however, it takes some time to educate and convince the naysayers.

Question: Who are the competitors and what are their advantages/disadvantages?
There are of course many companies who offer PDA solutions but we believe one of the core differentiators of our solution is that it leverages low cost and existing mobile phones and the internet.

Two companies offering similar solutions in the UK who we’ve found on the internet but haven’t had direct contact with are listed below. There are others but to limit the brevity of this email, I’ve kept to these two.

  • Embrace Mobile (www.embracemobile.com)
  • Bluetrail (www.bluetrail.co.uk)

Of course we’d like to believe that technically our solution is better (but that is up to the public to decide!). We have extensive experience in both mobile and web development and believe that the simplicity and usability of our solution underpins its elegance.

Africa’s unusual technology profile makes it the ideal place to build and market mobile-driven service delivery and information exchange mechanisms. While sending out fieldworkers to conduct research is critical (particularly in Africa where monitoring and evaluation of intervention efforts is so important), the real power will come when the end user is empowered to retrieve and feedback information. We are working hard to make this a reality. We have direct access to these markets (we’ve been focusing closest to home to start of course). Even in South Africa, there are enormous challenges of poverty and lack of physical infrastructure. But mobile phones can help overcome these challenges – a platform to leverage them is what is missing. I recently read your paper on The Africa Network in which you make similar observations.

In addition to our geographic positioning, we also believe that our high level vision will differentiate us. As I mentioned, eventually we’d like to see the end user being able to submit and request information with almost an unlimited number of interactions (for research purposes but also for a variety of other things such as trade, incident reporting, health information, remote diagnoses, etc.). Most of our competitors’ visions end at research.

We already have good connections with some of the biggest research organisations in South Africa (specifically in the health sector), such as the Medical Research Council of South Africa (www.mrc.ac.za), Health Systems Trust (www.hst.org.za), Human Sciences Research Council (www.hsrc.ac.za), University of KwaZulu-Natal (www.ukzn.ac.za), University of Cape Town (www.uct.ac.za), University of Witswatersrand (www.wits.ac.za), Statistics South Africa (www.statssa.gov.za), and others. It will take time for this technology (or rather the use of it in this way) to become mainstream. It will also take money and high level talks with network operators and manufacturers to be widely successful. It is our belief that we need to build a strong business first to be able to spearhead this.

Another South African NGO called Cell-Life (www.cell-life.org.za) has been working on an Open Source mobile data capture project. I have met with them before and will be meeting with them again this week at their request to discuss areas for collaboration. Of course our strategies are different: they are funded by donations where we are trying to build a sustainable business model but our intentions are similar.

An Interview with the Minds Behind StocksKenya.com

StocksKenya LogoAs I was looking into the landscape that is online stocks and markets in Africa for a post I did recently about African stock market opportunities online, I looked long and hard at StocksKenya. It was particularly intriguing to me because they’ve taken a very hyper-local approach to information on the stock market in Kenya. They’re building a strong and focused community, and they have a real chance to grow this into a money-making business.

Josiah Mugambi, one of the three minds behind the site and someone that I’ve had the chance to meet a couple times in Nairobi, graciously did an email interview with me.

What is the basic background behind StocksKenya?
We came up with the idea behind stockskenya.com early last year (Feb 2006). We got tired of perusing through papers for daily updates on the stock exchange and the task of analyzing trends was not easy since this required manual entry of daily prices into a spreadsheet. We also had in mind a personal finance manager online that we would individually use to track our finances and portfolios.

So we registered stockskenya.com and slowly began development. Between the three of us; Edwin doing most of the development work and Ted and I doing research and data collection as well as testing, we had the makings of a prototype by May 2006. We were doing these in our spare time (roughly 5-10 hrs a week in total). A friend of ours who also runs a stocks agency was also encouraging us to develop a portfolio manager that would enable agents of stock brokers on the Nairobi Stock Exchange to service their clients more efficiently through the internet.

StocksKenya Homepage

What kind of user and traffic information can you share with us?
By Aug 2006 the first version of the site was complete. We began to tell our friends about it, mainly to enable us to weed out bugs and to improve it. It was not until late Sept 2006 that traffic began to increase significantly after the site was featured in a local daily. The discussion forum has been very active too. The growth in terms of contributors has been gradual especially after Sept-Oct 2006. We have not actually done any marketing campaign but have quite a reasonable amount of traffic for a site in Kenya. We have about 4000 registered users on the site with the number growing. We also receive about 60,000 visits on a monthly basis.

Have you realized any profit from this venture, how about the return on investment of time spent?
As a business, the site does sustain itself, and provides some return on our investment, though we believe that its greater potential is still unrealized. In terms of input, majority of the resources have come from the three of us – the technical and limited financial input that has been done.

What’s in the future for you and the others at StocksKenya?
We are also intending to provide a platform similar to stockskenya for the East African region as the regions stock exchanges develop.

African Digerati: Ken Banks

African Digerati - Ken Banks

Ken Banks is the 6th in the African Digerati series of interviews. Ken has become a recognized leader in the mobile space in Africa, primarily through his open source text messaging hub called FrontlineSMS. He speaks regularly around the world on the use of mobile technologies to meet the demands of the real world in places like Africa.

Blog and/or website:
You can find more information on Ken Banks at www.kiwanja.net. Including information on his projects, his mobile database, pictures and blog. It’s one of the best resources for information on mobile technology for Africa on the web.

What do you do?
I use a mix of 22 years in IT, 14 years working on and off in various parts of Africa, and a degree in Social Anthropology with Development Studies to help local, national and international non-profit organisations make better use of information and communications technology – particularly mobile – in their work. I’m usually based out of the UK (where I have a small flat in a lovely Cambridgeshire village), but am currently a Visiting Fellow at Stanford University on the Reuters Digital Vision Program. To pay the bills I do a mixture of paid consultancy and pro-bono work for a range of NGOs, working mostly at grassroots level, a place where I strongly believe the greatest change will come

Continue reading

Kenyan Computer Game Maker in the News

I had a chance to chat with Nick Wadhams, a freelance journalist living in Nairobi, when I was there last month. He had wanted to discuss tech issues in Africa, especially the gaming world. Maybe it was because of our joint love of computer games, or because he’s a natural conversationalist, but we hit it off all the same.

Since I had done a piece on a Wesley Kirinya, a Kenyan game maker, he had tracked me down. We talked about the future of game designers in Africa. His piece is now published, titled “A ‘Lonely’ Inventor Creates a Computer Game in Africa”:

By Western computer game standards, Kirinya’s effort is awkward and slow; there is no music, no storyline and no character development. But the game is unique because Kirinya created the engine that powers the software’s code, rather than downloading one of the many serviceable engines available on the Internet. The only element that he farmed out was some of the graphic design to a Czech programmer for $600.

(Read the whole story)