Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Tech Talent and Expat Bubbles – Kenya Edition

(Note: cathartic, bloated essay forthcoming, read at your peril)

Say you are a Kenyan web designer living in Seattle, do you think anyone cares that you came from Kenya? No, they only care that you are a great web designer.

If you’re an American programmer working in Nairobi, does anyone care that you come from the US? Yes, for some reason that matters. You’re judged on where you come from as well as your skill set.

It’s not apples-to-apples, though it should be.

kenya-usa

This is at the heart of an issue that I’ve seen played out many times over the years in Kenya. My position in the community, my background in Kenya and the US, and the organizations I’ve built locally give me a unique perspective on what’s going on here culturally, that sometimes is hard for others to see.

Americans, Europeans, etc want to work in Kenya and be part of a growing melting pot of engineers, web designer and entrepreneurs trying to build out the next great tech economy. It’s a grand dream, and one that we should all support if we want Kenya to be on the global map.

Kenyans are madly building companies, growing a new breed of programmers, designers and entrepreneurs that are waking up to the reality of a global market. It embodies all of the energetic vibrancy that makes Kenya a regional economic powerhouse.

Both are needed. However, all things are not created equal, which leads to tension.

Kenyan tech has global competition, so act like it

I often talk about the Kenyan tech scene as highly active, yet nascent. There is a great deal happening in our space, but it’s not nearly as big as other larger and older tech communities found in the Bay Area, London, Berlin, Israel, Moscow, Bangalore or New York City. We’re growing, we’re half-way up the mountain, and there’s still some climbing to do.

There is likely the same percentage of top level engineers and designers in Nairobi as anywhere else, but the pool is still small. I’d guess the total pool of engineers is somewhere in the 3,000-5,000 range, and designers are only about 100-200. It’s not a deep pool to pick from, and there are many who linger around the edges claiming that they have skills, but who aren’t qualified to do more than create a “hello world” website.

In the startup world, Kenyan-led companies tend to be under-resourced and without the same networks that make it so much easier for expats to get started. While we’ve been building up more and more base resources locally for seed capital, and the business acumen of the founders is improving due to them being in town, it’s still not enough. And, while the $25k accelerator level is very much present in the community, there’s a huge gap in the $100-500k investment levels.

So, with local entrepreneurs, this leads to a protectionist mentality about how many mzungu’s are around and how they are sucking up resources. It’s not a good place to be. What we need to realize locally is that in the tech world there are very few borders, that we’re automatically in a global playing field. There needs to be lighter rules for immigration of expats (from anywhere) who are willing to bring investment and talent into the country, and keep it here.

If anything, Kenyan lawmakers should be finding ways to reduce the ludicrous tax rates on software companies, which would incentivize local ownership, encourage local investment so that the companies that do well have their profits stay in-country, and try to attract international talent and grow local talent. It’s a long-term game, and will pay off in the years ahead.

US/EU immigrants need to understand where they are

On the other side of the fence are the international expats who enter into Kenya. They are often well-meaning folks with a desire to build a company, or be part of a company in this vibrant country brimming with opportunity. This should be encouraged.

What I’ve observed over the years however, is something that shouldn’t be encouraged. These immigrants who come into Kenya tend to hang out with each other. This isn’t strange at all, Kenyans tend to do the same when they’re in the US. What’s not healthy is when you spend most of the time around people who look and sound like you, then when you want something from the rest of the greater community, act like it’s not there because it’s not directly in front of you.

There are some amazing programmers in Kenya, some ridiculously good web designers, some top-notch entrepreneurs. You will not find them by throwing a dart in a room and hoping to hit one.

Complain all you like about immigration policy, the need for more high-level talent being brought into the country, business taxes, etc – and I’ll be right with you. You complain about there not being any local high-level talent and I’ll call BS.

Instead, get out and get to know people. Get outside of your expat bubble and be a part of the community. This isn’t just meetups, this is who you go grab a drink with, who’s wedding and hospitalization you attend, who you watch rugby with and who you help (and are helped by) when in a bind. This is Kenya, where relationships matter, and where they are earned over time. Friendships here aren’t given lightly, and when they’re given, then they mean something.

To many in Kenya, the expats come and go, so why should they be invested in? Sure, make “friends”, and see what can come out of it, but the problem is that we all know the expat will be gone in 2 or 4 years. The deep investment we expect out of our relationships in Kenya isn’t found in that kind of transient immigrant mentality.

A personal final recap

Back to the talent issue. I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing Kenyan programmers, designers and engineers. How was I able to find them? It turns out that the relationships that I started building back in 2006 (8 years ago), then continued throughout the years, opened my world up to the people who really know what they’re doing. I courted some for 3+ years before they finally joined my team(s), others that I’d like to join my team still won’t budge from their old positions.

Right now I’m looking high and low for an electrical engineer for BRCK, senior-level EEs who have telcoms and/or consumer electronics backgrounds aren’t in deep supply in Kenya. However, I know they’re here, I just have to look harder and keep pushing out beyond my normal network.

They’re here. They’re not easy to find and they might already have a great job. Your lack of being able to find them doesn’t mean they’re not here. Your inability to attract them to your organization isn’t their problem, it’s yours.

“When You Get to Kenya”

Because the falam is flooded, you can drive back through South Horr, then to Baragoi then to Maralal, alafu utafika Kenya (then you’ll be in Kenya)” Said a Samburu man to us in Northern Kenya.

There and Back from BRCK on Vimeo.

It seems that Northern Kenya likes me so much that it doesn’t want to let me go… This time, we only got back a day and a half later than expected. It took us 7 days, and we had an amazing adventure with a host of challenges thrown our way, overcome by teamwork, courage and tenacity, with the help of old and new friends met along the way.

I wrote about our adventure along the way on the BRCK Blog, you can find the posts here:

Day 1 – A change of vehicles was in order
Day 2 – Dust and Mud
Day 3 – Night Riders
Day 4 – Setting up for the solar eclipse
Day 4 – The Hybrid Solar Eclipse
Day 5 & 6 – Many roads and no progress
Day 7 – Home again!

Instagram pictures #BRCKeclipse
Flickr pictures
Crowdmap (pictures on a map)

It used to be called the NFD

20131107-164628.jpg

Back in colonial times, the the areas north of Isiolo were called the Northern Frontier District (NFD), a land that was part of Kenya but far enough removed to be considered the “wild west” of the country. It still is today. When you talk to people who live there, they talk about going to visit Kenya, which means that they come down country to the big population centers.

I was 17 years old when I first traveled up north, it was on a motorcycle with 8 others from my school and a backup Landcruiser. We were on our way back home when we stopped in a dusty old town called Maralal for a cup of chai and a samosa break. In walks a tall, rangy old Brit, who promptly sat down with us and started regaling us with his tales of travels. This was none other than the last of the great African explorers, Wilfred Thesiger, in his final years. He had made all of his travels via horse and camel, and thought that the combustion engine was the devil’s handiwork. A few awkward moments later, us boys sidled over to our 2-wheeled combustion engines and rode off to the south.

The North of Kenya is still a land apart. It’s arid and dry most of the time, while people and towns are far apart and hard to get to. Fuel and water are in short supply and high demand, and there is unrest between the different ethnic groups, as well as visiting shifta (bandits) from Ethiopia and Somalia who stir things up a bit more. There is beauty and freedom in it, but also hostility and danger.

Our trip to see the eclipse

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
- Ernest Hemingway

As I mentioned in my last post, the BRCK team decided to test out our device in this environment, with the excuse of the hybrid solar eclipse as our focal event. We took 3 motorcycles and a Land Rover for this excursion on a 1900 kilometer round trip, 7-day trek to Sibiloi National Park, and back. Here’s the basic route we took:

20131107-164231.jpg

This trip was a real test for all of us. From a broken down Land Rover on day one, to night drives and dust storms that meant we couldn’t see the actual eclipse, to limping into Nairobi with a flashlight replacing a headlamp and a dead alternator on the Land Rover to cap it all off.

Three Lessons I Learned

Work together. Helping each other selflessly makes for a happy bunch who can overcome almost any problem. Not just helping for one’s own well-being, but simply because something needs to be done and it’s good for the group as a whole.

It took all of us to unstick the Land Rover

It took all of us to unstick the Land Rover

When hands were needed to dig out the Land Rover, people stripped down to shorts and dug – for hours. I remember how hard Reg and Jon worked to unstick our vehicle, buried to the waste in mud and muck, trying to get the high-lift jack to find purchase. I remember Fady jumping on a motorcycle and learning to ride it in 5 minutes, so that he could ride the next 4 hours in the bush, in the dark, to get us all to Sibiloi. I remember Emmanuel packing, unpacking and repacking the vehicle so many times that only he knew where things were. I remember having to tell Philip to step away from the heavy equipment so that he didn’t damage his hand more as he tried to assist.

Think creatively. Push harder. When you meet friction and resistance to your mission, it’s easy to give up. Instead, think creatively and persevere. There’s a great deal of friction in everything up north, from bogged down vehicles, to broken clutch plates, to making a special solar eclipse camera out of odd parts, to dust storms that darken out the sun.

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Last night on the ride home, we had already been traveling for over 12 hours, and the headlight on my motorcycle went out. The last place that you want to be driving at night is the Naivasha to Nairobi road without a light. We pulled apart the headlight, tested all the electronics, only to find the bulb was burnt out. Instead of giving up, we found a super intensity flashlight in Fady’s kit, and put it inside the bulb housing. It was like driving with your brights on at all times. This became my light, and I closely followed our car into Nairobi. You can’t give up and you have to be creative.

Always get back up. Life throws some punches, everyone has them and it’s a test of your character whether you let that stop you or you find a way.

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Falling off a motorcycle is hard. Getting up and riding again is harder. Philip took a few tumbles this trip, especially on day two as we did a 3 hour night ride through soft sand – which is some of the most difficult stuff to deal with even in daylight. I knew we had a good leader on our team when he kept getting back up. I knew we would make it when I saw his resolve settle visibly, he relaxed his shoulders and rode on and fell no more.

20131107-161445.jpg
The BRCK team of Philip, Reg, Erik, Emmanuel and Jon.

Everyone has different strengths on this team, and while there are experts in specific things, when we worked together it was amazing to see the results.

A Turkana Solar Eclipse Expedition

It’s been a few years since I was last up in the northern reaches of Kenya, and what an adventure that was! (blog posts 1, 2, 3 and 4)

BRCK Solar Eclipse trip, photo courtesy of Barak Bruerd on our last trip up to Northern Kenya

BRCK Solar Eclipse trip, photo courtesy of Barak Bruerd on our last trip up to Northern Kenya

This week finds me heading back, chasing the moon that will cover the sun. November 3rd at 5:30pm (East Africa Time) there is a hybrid solar eclipse. The lunar-like desert setting on the edge of Lake Turkana is said to be the best place in the world to watch it.

This also happens to be one of the most difficult places to get to, as fuel and supplies are a difficult thing to come by for the final 1000 kilometer loop. You have to bring it with you. It’s an unforgiving place, and yet one of the most hauntingly untouched and beautiful stretches of Africa that you can still find.

Solar Eclipse Path, Nov 3, 2013

Solar Eclipse Path, Nov 3, 2013

Though one never needs an excuse to have an adventure, the BRCK team is using this trip to stress test the device. We have a number of things planned, covering ruggedness and heat to testing out an amplification antenna with it. With luck, we’ll even have a VSat connection in hand, and test out WiFi via satellite internet backhaul and stream the eclipse live. You’ll be able to watch that at BRCK.com/eclipse.

[update: Huge thanks to Indigo Telecom for loaning us a BGAN terminal and 50Mb of data!]

Seven of us are trekking up to this iron triangle; where Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya meet. We’re taking three 650cc motorcycles and a Land Rover 110. Two happen to be professional photographers, two others are highly talented amateur photographers, and I’m going as the hack iPhonographer. :)

Sibiloi National Park, by Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya

Sibiloi National Park, by Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya

Our destination is Sibiloi National Park (KWS site), possibly the least visited and most unknown park in Kenya. It’s a good few hours drive north of Loyangalani, which I’m curious to see after the past few years. As far as I can tell, there is really no reason to ever go there, well, except for an eclipse…

I’ll be blogging our adventures here, as well as with others on the BRCK Blog. You can follow the images and livestream at brck.com/eclipse.

[Note: It should go without saying, but I won’t be answering many emails…]

Liberty vs Control

Bruce Schneier on the NSA (and others) surveillance state:

Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control.

Read the rest

This is the loss of freedom we face when our privacy is taken from us. This is life in former East Germany, or life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And it’s our future as we allow an ever-intrusive eye into our personal, private lives.

Many think that this debate will just go away – it won’t. This is a BIG deal, one that I think is the biggest in our generation. Do not be quiet about this. Do not let tech multinationals and your government do this.

There are many more articles on this (these are just today’s), but here’s another by Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian on the US and UK defeating privacy and security on the internet.

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.

The Nairobi Kids (Hardware) Hacker Camp

The Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub in KenyaFor the last 2 years I’ve wanted to do a camp where we get a bunch of kids together for a fun week of computers and hardware. It finally is happening, this week we have 40 boys and girls, ages 10-16 and from all demographics and types of schools at the iHub. One of them is my daughter, who kept bouncing around excited about it over the weekend, chomping at the bit to get started.

(more info here on the iHub blog)

Nairobi's Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub

What gives me warm fuzzies about this is two-fold. First, acknowledgment that my colleague Jessica Colaco is as amazing as ever, pulling this whole thing together in the last few weeks with IBM and the help of a dozen university-level hardware hackers from the robotics club at the iHub. Second, knowing that it’s taken us a while to really engage kids with tech, and that we’re finally doing it.

I was only able to spend time there intermittently thus far, and I saw the kids get intro’d to robotics (servos and motors) by a guy named Peter, who had built his own remote controlled transforming car. Everything was built by hand, nothing off the shelf, even the remote control itself. Here’s a short video of it closing back up.

A handmade, transforming remote controlled car – Kids Hacker Camp Nairobi from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

remote-controlled-transforming-car

They’ve spent a couple days on breadboards, learning how transistors and diodes work using LED lights. Now they’re onto sensors and micro-controllers (Arduino), and they’re making weather stations as their final project.

The kids are split up into groups of 5-6 kids, with two adults per group, that way each kid gets a lot of time hands-on with the equipment and can ask plenty of questions.

diagraming-electricity

Learning How Power Flows – Nairobi Kids Hacker Camp from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

The Dangers of Telling a Single Story: Computers for Kids and Bill Gates

Creating solutions for one population base in a society does not mean that the others don’t exist. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a great TED Talk, where she said, “There’s a danger in telling a single story.” She warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

I have three example narratives to explore this through:

  1. When the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program first came out there were a lot of critics. Rather than try and get a bunch of primary school kids on computers, it seemed you could do more good with that money. There were more pressing needs, like clean water and better healthcare.
  2. Kenya is putting one million laptops into the hands of first graders this year, as it was part of the presidential campaign by Uhuru Kenyatta. There are a lot of critics. Rather than getting a bunch of first graders on computers, it seems you could do more with that money (approx $600m). There are more pressing needs, like better teacher pay and facilities.
  3. Google is trying moonshot ideas to get more people connected across the emerging markets, like putting broadband balloons into the air. Bill Gates thinks thinks that rather than getting a bunch of poor people internet connectivity, it seems Google could do more with that money. There are more pressing needs, like solving the problems of malaria and diarrhea in Africa.

There are valid points within each of these three stories, however we know that most decisions have a trade-off in them. Inherent in these examples are two sub-narratives; first, that of short-term versus long-term goals, and second, blanket perceptions of a continent as poor, and all with the same needs.

Short vs Long-term

My critique of the OLPC project is the same as that of the Kenyan primary school computers; that is that I don’t care about them for the same reasons most others do – they’re mostly marketing fluff and you certainly leave a lot of short-term needs in the lurch when you do them. I care about them because anytime you get computers into the hands of millions of children, a simple percentage numbers game tells you that you’ll have a lot more curiosity and exploration, and therefore more interesting stuff happening in 10 years time. Many of the best computer engineers start young, and I’d like to have more quality computer engineers in Africa.

Is there a “right” answer for whether we give kids computers early (or not at all), or spend large amounts of money on seemingly crazy ideas for internet connectivity (or on malaria meds)? Probably not, but we too easily fall into the trap of discussing them as if only a single solution will work.

We need more people to try things that move us beyond the status quo and legacy systems that we see globally for education, healthcare, agriculture, business, money, connectivity, etc. Seemingly crazy have their place too.

The Blanket Perception of Africa as Poor

There are more than poor people in poor parts of the world. The story is not as black and white as Bill Gates paints it, he is creating a false dichotomy when he pits a diarrhetic child against internet connectivity needs. We have a middle-class, we have businesses and we have people progressing faster because of their ability to connect to the rest of the world through the internet.

Paul Collier states it best:

“The dysfunction of Africa has become a part of business folk memory that keeps western multinationals from doing anything, but the Africa of the 80′s and 90′s is not the Africa of today.”

This simplistic narrative is possibly the most frustrating of all, because it’s foisted on Africa by others. It undermines Africa’s ability on the international level to show how it is progressing by boxing us into the old memories of famines in Ethiopia from three decades ago.

Yes, we need solutions for malaria and we need better teacher training (and pay) and school buildings. Yes, we need kids on computers earlier and we need better internet connectivity across the continent. We can explore both without damning the other side for trying.

[Sidenote: I realize that Gates was also digging at Page and Brin for the way that Google.org has shifted focus over the last 5 years. He's statement positions their work as a negative thing, that because they're not focusing on healthcare or education needs for the very poorest countries, that what they're doing is less valuable. Working on connectivity for poor countries is not better, it's not worse, it's different - and I would suggest equally valuable.]

Interesting Reads and Links – July 2013

Open Data for Africa
The African Development Bank has put together a great new resource for open data on Africa (200 data sets) at Open Data for Africa. Should be a good resource.

The Birth of Kenya’s Gaming Industry
A great long-read article on the beginnings of the gaming industry in Kenya.

kenya-gaming-industry

Ventureburn has also done a good piece on 8 African gaming companies.

A Kenyan Won the Tour de France
Chris Froome won the Tour de France, and there’s a great write-up in the Nation about how disappointing it is to see him do it under a UK flag, not a Kenyan one.

“Even more incredulous is the fact that Britain’s glory should have been Kenya’s, and those federation officials ought to be bluntly ashamed. But no matter, he has done Kenya proud. Congratulations, Froome. We salute you.”

“Stop Backing Visionaries”
I enjoyed this piece by Josh Miller on how seed funding could be stifling innovative startups in the Valley.

“By and large, innovative products aren’t strategically imagined ahead of time – they’re stumbled upon while experimenting on-the-go.”

Loose Links:

2013 Kenya Tech Community Survey Results

It’s interesting to see where the Kenyan tech community went to school, what years we graduated, where we work and what age we first started using computers regularly. As I did in 2010, here are the survey results for 2013, with 627 responses.

The live survey link.

[Kenya Tech Community 2013 Survey Base Excel File]

What age did you first start using a computer regularly?

2013 survey - Age Kenyan tech community started to use computers regularly

2013 survey – Age Kenyan tech community started to use computers regularly

You can see that we tend to get on computers when we are older, at 17+ (that’s 42% of us). There’s a definite need to get more computers into classroom settings, or homes, at a younger age.

Another view of the same age chart:
2013-Kenyan-age-on-computers-pie-chart

  • 32 People got onto computers at 8 years or younger
  • 51 People got onto computers at 9-10 years old
  • 62 People got onto computers at 11-12 years old
  • 89 People got onto computers at 13-14 years old
  • 128 People got onto computers at 15-16 years old
  • 264 People got onto computers at 17 years or older

Years that the Kenyan tech community graduated from secondary school

Year Kenyan techies graduated from secondary school

Year Kenyan techies graduated from secondary school

Which schools did we graduate from?

The schools were across the spectrum. I don’t have the locations of each one, but it would be interesting for someone with the ability to pinpoint them, to do a heatmap of the country based on the school graduates from each location.

1980 - 1
1981 - 0
1982 - 0
1983 - 0
1984 - 1
1985 - 0
1986 - 0
1987 - 6
1988 - 2
1989 - 1
1990 - 4
1991 - 6
1992 - 6
1993 - 7
1994 - 11
1995 - 8
1996 - 17
1997 - 14
1998 - 18
1999 - 21
2000 - 27
2001 - 31
2002 - 34
2003 - 44
2004 - 54
2005 - 46
2006 - 66
2007 - 56
2008 - 67
2009 - 42
2010 - 23
2011 - 8
2012 - 4
2013 - 1

Here are the top 6 girls schools (I had a hard time knowing which were strictly girls schools):

  1. 9 Moi Girls Nairobi
  2. 6 Kianda Girls
  3. 4 Pangani Grils HS
  4. 4 St. George’s Girls HS
  5. 3 Alliance Girls HS
  6. 3 Limuru Girls

Here are the top 12 boys schools (I think some might be mixed, like Kabarak):

  1. 29 Starehe Boys
  2. 19 Alliance HS
  3. 17 Nairobi School
  4. 16 Mang’u HS
  5. 14 Lenana
  6. 12 Strathmore
  7. 10 Moi Forces Academy
  8. 10 Moi HS Kabarak
  9. 9 Friends School Kamusinga
  10. 9 Highway Secondary School
  11. 9 Kagumo HS
  12. 9 Upper Hill HS

Where do we work?

The short answer, is all over the Kenyan tech sector, plus many other areas of government, NGOs and private companies. By far and away, most of the people on the list were either students or freelancer/self-employed. Some of the companies that stood out were; Kenya Power, Cellulant, FrontlineSMS, MobiDev, Safaricom, IBM, Kopo Kopo, Ushahidi, Stripe and Google.

How I Instagram


(This is my daughter at Lake Naivasha at sunrise)

Enough people have asked me about how I Instagram that I thought it might be worth creating a post on it. I take a lot of pictures as I travel as it gives me something to do along the way, so there are a lot of pictures in my stream from all over the world. I’m a hobbyist, with no pretensions of being a pro.

You can find me at @White_African on Instagram.

I’m starting a tag game with this, now hitting @Truthslinger with #HowIInstagram to see how he does it.

Hardware

iPhone only (I’m on an iPhone 5 these days). I’d guess that 80% of my shots are taken with just the camera and no extra hardware. However, sometimes I mod it with the following items.

These are the hardware mods that I use for iPhone Instagramming: Olloclip + Lifeproof + Joby

These are the hardware mods that I use for iPhone Instagramming: Olloclip + Lifeproof + Joby

An Olloclip lens ($70): which gives me a wide-angle, fisheye and macro-lens all in a small form that I can fit in my pocket. It’s fantastic. Here are 3 examples of it.

Olloclip macro

Olloclip fisheye

Olloclip wide

Underwater Lifeproof case: I don’t have this on all the time, only when I’m specifically going out for underwater or am in a boat taking crazy angle shots. Another great add-on that let’s you take some cool shots.

Lifefproof underwater

Joby GripTight Microstand (Tripod) ($30): I hardly ever use it, but when taking some macro pictures it comes in very useful as I just can’t hold my hand steady enough to get the shot.

Something I’d like to get is a good telephoto lens for the iPhone.

Software

Camera+ ($1.99): This is my most basic quick-edit app, since I can do multiple shots quickly and it does a good job with clarity and quick filters. I tend to tone down most of the filter choices.

Snapseed (free): When I really want to edit an image, a special one that needs a lot of extra attention to detail, I use Snapseed. If you’re an Android user, they have it for you as well.

ProHDR ($1.99): I like color, so to really make colors pop I’ll use an ProHDR to do it properly. A lot of good in-app controls. My favorite picture from last year was taken with it:


(A tree in a park in Camden, Maine during the Fall)

Over ($1.99): If you like to put text over your images, there is no better iPhone app for it than Over. Many awards and also made by my friend @AaronMarshall.

Other apps that I use either randomly or rarely:

  • NoIMGdata ($0.99): wipe all the sensitive EXIF data from the picture for privacy
  • SlowShutter ($0.99): a great app for light trails or low light
  • Reduce ($1.99): for when the image size needs to be smaller

10 of my favorite shots


(Boats near the harbor in Camden, Maine)


(Making sun tea in Diani, Kenya coast)


(A quiet pool and shady trees in rural England)


(At Yale University, USA)


(Mark and Tosh relaxing on Diani Beach, Kenya)


(The iHub team at Diani Beach, Kenya)


(Satellite, the only way to get internet at a ranch near Tsavo, Kenya)


(Emmanuel doing a summersault off a dhow near Lamu, Kenya)


(Olloclip macro lens on a burning candle)


(Jumpshot at Strathmore high school, Kenya)

The Kenya365 Project

In September 2012, we started a #Kenya365 project for anyone in Kenya to take a picture a day and tag it with that hashtag. The amazing @Truthslinger runs it, and we have weekly themes that he sets up. Take a look to see some great shots from around Kenya, and join in. The only rule is that you can only tag one picture per day with #Kenya365 on it.

Blogging in a different style

I’ve realized that my life doesn’t allow for the same style blogging that I used to do in past years, where I would find time to spend a couple hours on different pieces. Instead of giving up on blogging altogether, I’ve decided to take it to a different format.

post-icons

My essay-like blog posts will be less common, though I still plan to do them from time-to-time. The format will be more “tumblr-like” with shorter reads, links to interesting reports, some shots I take as I travel, and articles that I find interesting and think worth taking your time to read as well.

Maybe I’ll even find time to update my blog’s design again… :)

Tech Links Around Africa, March 2013

[Last week I had a security problem with WordPress, which is fixed now, my apologies for any inconvenience]

Pivot East, our East African pitching competition, will be held in Uganda for the first time this year. Get your applications in, and plan your travel for June 25-26th in Kampala.

Bosun Tijani and the ccHub are part of what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of building a “tech city”, they’re creating a “tech neighborhood” in Lagos, Nigeria with many partners.

Nigeria's I-HQ project

The three types of tech incubators in Africa. I disagree a bit here, but will save that for another post.

A long essay, comparing Kenya and Rwanda’s efforts to become the tech hub of East Africa.

Surprising no one, Uganda’s mobile money service eclipses traditional banking with 8.9m users (compared to 3.6m for banks).

Good article by The Next Web on how winning in African tech is a patience game.

Not specifically about Africa, but here’s a great graphic that maps out the alternative financial ecosystem, of which mobile money plays a significant role.

I love this Africa-inspired Foosball table design, which would be made better without all the NGO crap on it.
African-foosball

Personal Link Updates:

A 2013 Uchaguzi Retrospective

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UPDATE: Here’s the report put together by the iHub Research team (3Mb PDF): Uchaguzi Kenya 2013

The elections in Kenya this year have had a lot of drama, nothing new there. As I wrote about last week, Ushahidi has been involved quite heavily on the crowdsourcing side via Uchaguzi, which meant that we had an exhausting week as the results kept getting extended each day.

Uchaguzi Update

Some basic statistics:

  • 5,011 SMS messages sent in (that weren’t spam or junk, as those got deleted)
  • 4,958 reports were created (from SMS messages, the web form, email and media monitoring teams)
  • 4,000 reports were approved to go live on the map
  • 2,693 reports were verified (67% of approved reports)

Notes and Links:

  • Many reports, links an updates can be found on our virtual situation room
  • The analysis team provided twice daily rundowns based on verified data at http://visuals.uchaguzi.co.ke/
  • Rob created a map visual to show the reports coming into Uchaguzi over time.
  • The IEBC tech system failed, I started a Tumblr trying to figure out how the system was built, which companies were involved and what they did, and what actually went wrong.
  • Before the IEBC tech system was shut off, Mikel used their API to create maps (1, 2) and Jeff and Charles created a mobile-friendly results site as well.
  • Heather wrote up a good post on our situation room blog about what we’ve learned along the way.

Here’s an Uchaguzi community graphic:
Uchaguzi community graphic

Uchaguzi: Full-Circle on Kenya’s Elections

Uchaguzi: 2013 Kenyan Election Monitoring Project

Just over 5 years ago, I was just like everyone else tuning into the social media flow of blogs, tweets and FB updates along with reading the mainstream media news about the Kenyan elections. We all know the story – thing fell apart, a small team came together and built Ushahidi, and we started building a new way to handle real-time crisis information. We were reacting and behind from the beginning.

(side note: here are some of my early blog posts from 2008: launching Ushahidi, the day after, and feature thoughts)

Now, the day before Kenya’s elections, I’m sitting in the Uchaguzi Situation Room, we’ve got a live site up already receiving information, 5 years of experience building the software and learning about real-time crowdmapping. There are over 200 volunteers already trained up and ready to help manage the flow of information from the public. This time Kenya’s IEBC is ready, they’re digital, and are doing a phenomenal job of providing base layer data, plus real-time tomorrow (we hope).

In short, we’re a lot more prepared than 2008 in 2013, everyone is. However, you’re never actually ready for a big deployment, by it’s very nature the crowdsourcing of information leads to a response reaction, you’re always behind the action. So, our main goal is to make that response processing of signal from noise and getting it to the responding organizations, as fast as possible.

Uchaguzi 2013

If you’d like to know more about the Uchaguzi project, find it on the about page. In short, Uchaguzi is an Ushahidi deployment to monitor the Kenyan general election on March 4th 2013. Our aim is to help Kenya have a free, fair, peaceful, and credible general election. Uchaguzi’s strategy for this is to contribute to stability in Kenya by increasing transparency and accountability through active citizen participation in the electoral cycles.This strategy is implemented through building a broad network of civil society around Uchaguzi as the national citizen centred electoral observation platform that responds to citizen observations.

The next couple days I’ll be heads-down on Uchaguzi, running our Situation Room online and Twitter account (@Uchaguzi), and troubleshooting things here with the team. We’re already getting a lot of information, trying to work out the kinks in how we process the 1,500+ SMS messages that people have sent into our 3002 shortcode, so that tomorrow when things really get crazy we’re ready.

I’ve already written up a bunch on how Uchaguzi works, so I’ll just post the information flow process for it here:

Uchaguzi's workflow process

Uchaguzi’s workflow process

Your Job

As in 2008, your job remains the same; to get the word out to your friends in Kenya, to get more reports into the system, and to support groups working towards a good election experience.

A huge thank you to the local and global volunteers who’ve put in many, many hours in the workup to tomorrow and who will be incredibly busy for the next 48 hours. Besides the hard work of going through SMS messages and creating geolocated reports out of them, some of the geomapping team have been busy taking the police contact information and mapping it. They’ve created an overlay of the data, it’s on this page right now, but our plans are to put this on the main map later.

Just as in 2008, a few people are making a big difference. All of the volunteers doing the little they can to make their country better.

Geomapping team for Uchaguzi

  • Leonard Korir
  • Samuel Daniel
  • Luke Men Orio
  • Slyvia Makario
  • Wawa Enock
  • Mathew Mbiyu

Some other helpful links for the Kenyan elections

IEBC
Find your polling station
Voter education
Mzalendo
Got To Vote
Wenyenche
Google Elections Site
The Kenyan Human Rights Commission
Mars Group
Kenya Nation Election Coverage
Standard Media Kenya
Kenya’s Freedom Media Council

The Deepest Watering Hole

2012-worlds-biggest-companies-profit

We tend to think of success in terms of visible growth. That’s not always how it works, it’s not always what you see that matters, and it can be deceiving to think so.

“The widest watering hole isn’t always the longest lasting. The deepest is.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I deal with my own organizations (Ushahidi and the iHub), as well as the startups that I come across. What we use to measure success can actually be a deterrent to real strong growth, growth that isn’t seen immediately, but that creates a much stronger organization and a better future.

An Ushahidi Example

For instance, with Ushahidi we set metrics on “deployments” of the software. Tracking this allows us to say things like, “Ushahidi has 40,000+ deployments in 159 countries around the world”, which is a nice marketing line. At first glance, that seems to be a good number to measure, and it is, but it should only be part of the overall definition of success.

A couple weeks ago we started to revisit our metrics, the numbers we track to see how we’re doing. To understand the real value of Ushahidi’s tools, while new deployments are good to track and are part of the overall picture, we find it’s much more telling how “active” each deployment is. This means how often it’s being used, how many new reports are coming in, how many new versus returning users it has, etc. It’s good for us to know if a deployment was “active” for a short time and then not be used anymore, or if it’s long-term. No judgement is made on that, as we know that sometimes Crowdmaps or Ushahidi are setup for spot needs over a short amount of time, and for long-term needs. Most importantly it helps us understand and differentiate between deployments setup for experimentation, with no use, from those that are useful.

In short, we get a better understanding of the value of our software when we measure “activity” than when we use a broad-brush metric like “total deployments’. We’re now in the middle of adjusting these metrics.

Elephants at the Watering Hole

Deeper Waters

The largest organizations aren’t always the most profitable, nor the loudest the most impactful.

FrontlineSMS is a small non-profit tech company that makes software for grassroots NGOs around the world. There are thousands of NGOs, in some of the most challenging places in the world, who are now able to use SMS messaging to better communicate internally and/or externally because they exist. They’re small though, with less than 20 people on their team and they’re not the loudest organization either, yet have had a massive impact on the world.

Lifestraw is an NGO that makes a device to clean water by sucking through a straw. They’ve got big money, loud voices and have a solution that seems ingenious and sexy at the same time. They’ve made a lot of noise, and maybe even have figured out a way to make money using carbon offsets (which I think is brilliant), but are fairly useless and don’t have much impact at all.

There are other examples, such as the size of the Wikipedia’s team and budget, and how they’re one of the most influential websites in the world. Or we could talk about how the startup Color raised a whopping $41m and fizzled.

In Kenya’s startup scene I think about how we get caught up in how much money a company has raised, but don’t discuss how much revenue they’ve brought in. We also tend to get sidetracked into thinking about how much something is written about in the papers and not looking at their user numbers or whether or not anyone outside of the Twitterati are using it. There will be discussions on how, “someone got funding, but there’s nothing to show for it”, meanwhile they’ve been building away on a backend for clients that the public doesn’t get to see.

We need to get into more discussions that are nuanced, ones that are beyond one-size-fits-call metrics and more on how we define growth and success.