Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Community Connectedness as a Competitive Advantage

In the last couple weeks I’ve had the opportunity to be in Nigeria (Maker Faire Africa), followed by South Africa (AfricaCom). Along with Kenya, these countries represent the biggest technology countries on the continent. They are the regional tech hub cities at this point in Africa.

In both places I was struck by how different each country is, and the challenges and opportunities that arise due to the tech community’s connectedness, regulatory stance and local entrepreneurship culture.

The Kenyan tech community in the iHub

Some Theories

South Africa has so much infrastructure, you’re immediately struck by how money isn’t an issue there. The lesson I took away from the DEMO Africa conference is that South Africans are far, far ahead of the rest of the continent in enterprise apps and services. They tend to see themselves as “not African”, and try to identify with Americans or Europeans. This comes out in their tech products, they have a more global focus and tend to fill the gaps that are needed by the many multinational corporates that call South Africa their home in Africa.

Nigeria has so many people, it overwhelms in it’s pure mass. It’s a bit cramped, louder, and more energetic than almost any other country in Africa. Nigerians have a long history in entertainment, with their Nollywood films and music spreading across the continent. It wouldn’t be surprising to find a killer entertainment consumer app coming from Nigeria, that can be exported regionally and internationally.

Kenyan tech companies tend to focus on localized consumer needs, and we have a competitive advantage in anything to do with mobile money. Even in the secondary and tertiary uses, I’m always struck by how much more advanced the Kenyan startups are with local eCommerce products and marketplaces than their other African counterparts.

Kenya is smaller than Nigeria and has less infrastructure than South Africa. Why then are there so many more startups per capita, more innovative products coming from Kenya right now?

A History of Community

Kenya’s technology scene is vibrant and there’s a certain connectedness amongst the community that isn’t found in the other two countries, yet.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

I was in Ghana in 2009 for the first Maker Faire Africa. I went around visiting a lot of tech companies and individuals I had gotten to know via blogging over the years. What struck me at the time was that there wasn’t even a tech mailing list that connected the community. We’d had the Skunkworks mailing list in Kenya since 2006. My assumption had been that every country with any type of critical mass in tech had a forum of some sort for connecting tech people to each other.

20+ members in the Ghana tech community came together at Maker Faire Africa and decided to start Ghana tech mailing list. I’m still subscribed to it, and it’s a great resource for both myself and those using it. With that list, and the founding of MEST in 2008 (their tech entrepreneur training center) that Ghana’s tech scene started to get connected and move forward strongly together a couple years ago.

Points of view

Fast forward to Nigeria a couple weeks ago. As far as I can tell, there are some tech-related forums, though not a mailing list. These have been valuable in connecting people, but it seems that the ccHub, founded last year, is the start of a real connectedness between members of the tech community. I got the feeling that all the energy and entrepreneurialism that makes up the Nigerian culture of business now has a tech heart and that we’ll see an acceleration of growth in the coming years that has been missing until now.

For many years, the tech bloggers of South Africa organized and centralized conversations around tech with events like 27Dinner, BarCamps and more. They have long-standing tech hubs, such as Bandwidth Barn, they have a network of angel investors and greater access to VC funding. There wasn’t a centralized mailing list or forum back in the day (before 2008) that I know of. A few years ago we saw the rise of Silicon Cape, an initiative to bring attention to Cape Town’s startup culture.

At AfricaCom an interesting discussion ensued around South Africa’s tech community and questions on why it wasn’t getting as much attention or traction as Kenya. Two points were brought up that I think are incredibly important.

First, while Silicon Cape is focused on branding (and doing a good job of it), what is really needed is someone to bring the new tech hubs, startups, angel investors, media, academia, corporations, and even the government together. There’s a lot of activity, each in it’s own silo. It’s a hard job being the trusted bridge between these different parts of what can be a very opinionated and political community. I’d suggest that Silicon Cape’s mission should be to do just this.

Second, In Kenya and Nigeria the founders of startups tend to look a lot like a cross section of the country’s population. The tech community in South Africa doesn’t look a lot like the racial makeup of the country. to put it bluntly, I rarely see a black South African tech entrepreneur. Not being from there, I’m not sure why this is, so it’s just an observation. It’s hard to build a product for a community that you’re not from, nor understand, so I can’t help but think that the South African tech scene would benefit greatly by having more people building companies to solve problems from all parts of that country’s stratified makeup.

A Connected Community

Sitting at 38,000 feet writing this piece, I keep thinking how there seems to be a link between the connectedness of a tech community in a country and it’s vibrancy as an industry. Though I realize there are other variables, this explanation helps me explain why Kenya is further ahead in some areas than other countries.

As I look to Kenya more deeply I’m struck by how important the egoless actions of individuals like Riyaz Bachani and Josiah Mugambi (Skunkworks), Dr. Bitange Ndemo (Government), Joe Mucheru (Google), and others have been in setting us on a trajectory that we all benefit from as the whole becomes greater than the sum of it’s parts.

This theory of a connected tech community doesn’t mean that the everyone always agrees or walks in lock-step with each other. There’s a healthiness in internal critique and desire to find solutions beyond the status quo of the moment. However, I do think it does provide a foundational element for cities and countries trying to grow a more meaningful and vibrant tech community.

The connectedness can come in two ways, digital and analog, and will have a different flavor in each country that mirrors it’s own culture. It helps to have a centralized digital space to throw out questions, opinions and find answers on efficiently. Equally, I think we’re seeing that analog, physical meeting spaces that are represented by the growing number of tech hubs around the continent are another way to accelerate the connectedness needed to grow.

Africa’s tech hubs are the new centralized meeting spaces, the watering holes, for connectivity and connectedness. However, it’s not enough to have a space, without local champions who are willing to make it their mission to grow, connect and bridge the tech ecosystem (gov’t, corporates, startups, academia, investors), then they won’t work.

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.

Quick Hits Across African Tech

What Africa’s Entrepreneurs Can Teach the World
Ghanaian friend and TED Fellow Bright Simons does a piece for Harvard Business Review on African entrepreneurs, excess diversification and hyper-entrepreneurship. A quote:

Then there’s the tendency toward what I initially saw as excess diversification. My think-tank colleagues and I were stunned to see how many concurrent businesses the typical entrepreneur owns and manages in Africa. One famous waste utility entrepreneur had about 66 different businesses. On the whole, the businesspeople we studied appeared to run an average of six businesses.

Twinpine: Nigerian Mobile Ad Network
Forbes does a piece on a startup that I hadn’t heard about yet from Nigeria, Twinpine, who is setting up a successful mobile advertising network.

Re-inventing Finance
There’s a good talk by Sean Park from Lift 2012 called, “Reinventing Finance: an Emerging (Digital) Reformation” where he talks about the changes in the money space, with examples of who to look out for.

Infographic: Mobile Web East Africa
Interesting numbers, quotes and data from the Mobile Web East Africa conference.

30 Brilliant Startups Across Africa
If you’re looking to find some startups from many different countries across the continent, Memeburn has an article, selecting 30 companies that are doing cool, new things in tech in Africa.

African Domains
I’ve been having fun following a Twitter handle @AfricaDomains recently, and the Africa Domains blog is worth a read as well.

Kenya: Big vs Small
Big international firms (think IBM, Dimension Data, etc.) are beating out smaller local firms to lucrative government contracts, which makes up a significant portion of the annual tech spend in the country. The Nation opened up this debate with this article, that then went on to have a real face-to-face debate by the end of the week.

InMobi Mobile Media Consumption Research Q4 2011 – Global Results

What’s on Tap for 2012

2011 was a good year – a great one even. Here’s why:

  • iHub reaches one year, clocks over 6,000 members and more than 100 events. Companies were founded, business got funded and many companies found CTOs and employees through the network. (What makes the iHub work?)
  • The m:lab (East Africa’s mobile lab) was founded, with a testing center, 7 companies incubating and 2 classes of mobile app development trained.
  • AfriLabs was founded and now has grown to see over 15 labs in Senegal, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, Cameroon, Ghana and South Africa.
  • The first Pivot pitching competition and conference was a massive hit. Look for regional versions in South and West Africa in the coming years.
  • Ushahidi has over 20,000 deployments in 132 countries, the community grows.
  • Kenya leads an open data revolution in Africa, and we also held the IGF which brought many big names into town.
  • African tech startups start to get some real attention globally.
  • Massive growth in bandwidth mixed with lower costs on smartphones, internet itself and mobile services as well as increases in internet and mobile users across the continent.

PivotNairobi 65

2012 looks to be even better

The past few years have been about building an infrastructure that improves the chances of the technology startups in Africa to succeed. Seeing this buildout in action in 2011 was exciting, but it should be recognized for what it really was: a setup for 2012 and beyond.

You see, all those labs and hubs around the continent, the startups and the media coverage? They’re all about getting attention and increasing the awareness of the pent up startup potential in Africa’s technology space. Media and funders both have a bigger target to hit when looking for entrepreneurs. We were setting the stage to broaden the base of our startup pyramid: finding the local innovators and entrepreneurs and getting more of them funded.

Where we stand now is an order of magnitude beyond what we had just a few short years ago. In 2006 if you stated that you want to be a web or mobile entrepreneur you weren’t taken seriously. Five years later and it’s a legitimate position to take. We now have some successes to point out (think mPedigree, Mxit, PesaPal, Sproxil and Ushahidi etc), which make it a lot easier for the new breed of startups to get started.

This is what we’re aiming for: a playing field that allows more entrepreneurs to startup, get some seed funding and fail fast if necessary. The ones who make it, the ones who get beyond the startup phase and become real companies with cashflow and employees, are why this is being done. This will make some people a lot of money, and it will make millions of others lives a lot better because they have better and more relevant products locally.

2012 is set. It’s the year where we grow the seed funding and early stage venture capital investments so that five years from now we have the ecosystem needed to support a much larger investment and startup community.

My prediction is this: In 2012, if you have a startup in one of the main tech cities in Africa and are unable to get funding, it is due to one of two things: Your idea isn’t viable or you don’t know how to pitch.

The funding is coming, and it’s up to you to create a business and make it succeed.

(To do this, I suggest you read 2 posts on the Afrinnovator blog: “15 Skills African Tech Talent Must Acquire in 2012” and Mbwana Alliy’s “12 Predictions for African Tech in 2012“.)

The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D”

I have cognitive dissonance over the term “ICT4D“. The term “ICT4D” is confusing, hypocritical and has a whiff of condescension that makes me cringe.

As I understand it, it’s what NGO’s do in places like Africa and Asia, but if the same things are done in poor communities in the US or Europe, it’s not called ICT4D, it’s called civil society innovation or a disruptive product.

I’ll be the first to say that I think more communications and technology tools in the hands of ordinary people is good, it’s what we need. For this reason I didn’t come down on the OLPC project, not because I agreed with it’s strategy or reason for existing, but because I simply think that getting more computers in kids hands is good idea.

So, let me be clear: I’m not against the practice of getting more ICT into Africa, I’m just don’t appreciate the condescension and hypocrisy that the term ICT4D comes with, and I’ll bring up the reasons that it actually constrains the technology innovation culture in Africa.

What do we really mean by “ICT4D”?

Ken Banks is doing a fun “ICT4D Postcards Project” where he’s asking people who work in that field to send him a picture with a note of why it matters to them. Though a fun project, I hesitated when asked to participate, because I’m particularly put off by the terminology. But, I did one, and here it is:

A few of the UN cars outside UNMIL in Liberia

“ICT4D” represents a mental roadblock. A term that brings as much baggage with it as a sea of white SUVs, representing the humanitarian industrial complex’s foray into the digital world. It means we’re trying to airlift in an infrastructure instead of investing in local technology solutions. Like the SUVs, it’s currently an import culture that will not last beyond the project’s funding and the personnel who parachuted in to do it.

If an ICT4D-type project is done in a poor part of America, is it still considered ICT4D?

That’s the question that sums up the hypocrisy of this term to me more than anything else. Here’s a an example of what I mean, on a project that I really like and am behind: PeaceTXT. It’s using mobile phones and SMS to help with violence interruption in Chicago.

Is that ICT4D? If it was deployed in Johannesburg or Mogadishu it sure would be labeled as such.

Is ICT4D basically branding for emerging market tech? It seems like it’s a way to name interesting and innovative products from Africa and Asia as something different than their counterparts doing the same thing in the West. In the West they’re called a disruptive initiative or civil society product.

If an African company creates a product that gets millions of Africans using technology to communicate better, which seems to be the very definition of ICT4D, are they automatically that? Mxit does that… What are they?

Let’s say you’re Kilimo Salama, run by my friend Rose Goslinga, which is a micro-insurance program designed for Kenyan farmers, and a partnership between Syngenta Foundation, UAP Insurance, and Safaricom. You charge, make money and yet are helping both small and large farmers alike. Is this ICT4D?

A roadblock to African tech

I was recently discussing this term with one of my Kenyan tech friends, where he stated, “I always picture a team from the UN putting up toilets in Uganda when I hear of ICT4D.”

Uganda: poster about UDD toilets

That’s one of the key problems that the ICT4D space, because to an African it comes with all the baggage of 60+ years of failed aid and development work on the continent. It triggers that begging bowl mentality, instantly stripping the dignity away from the initiative.

It also feels like this is how international NGOs are trying to stay relevant, by creating a new department and new initiatives that the big funders will buy into and support (themselves to stay relevant). Ask yourself, how many ICT4D projects in Africa are more than pilot projects? How many are just Westerner organizations parachuting in, which have no hope of staying alive beyond the time and funds put in by their organization? Sounds like the same old “aid story” to me.

That might be annoying, but the actual problem with this is twofold.

First, the African technology startup scene is young, but it’s ready to be treated as a real industry with real investors looking to make real returns. When the people who are doing business and making money in African tech get a sniff of an “ICT4D” project, they immediately dismiss it – labeling it as a special needs project where the regular rules don’t apply.

A startup company who is trying to create value and make money, but doing so with what outsiders view as poor or disadvantaged communities, is often pigeonholed internationally as ICT4D. For instance, is Esoko the money-making agricultural product from Ghana, which is now in a dozen countries, an ICT4D company? How about if a company started off by being used in Africa, but then their product went global – such as with Ushahidi?

Second, the funds and work put into this space by the NGOs are creating a false floor in the economy. They’re undermining the community of tech entrepreneurs who could be building the same products and services and charging for it, just like we’d expect any company in the West to do if there was a valuable service worth paying for. If it’s a service that should be supplied by the government, then they’re short-circuiting those responsibilities and subsidizing actions that subvert the public offices away from their duty.

Let’s say, for arguments sake, that the only way to get a much needed project going is to get a Western team in-country to start it. Is there a reason why ICT4D projects are slow to get local ownership, management and team members? Is this technology tourism and fabricated externally run projects, created because doing work in Africa is an adventure?

In Closing

What I’m hoping to get across is that we’re doing ourselves a disservice with this terminology and that it has a negative perception in the tech startup culture in Africa. Technology is about overcoming inefficiencies in the system, and products succeed because they solve real needs within communities. In Africa, as in the West, some of these solutions are for-profit and some not-for-profit. It’s important to invest in the local startups involved in trying to solve these problems and come at it from a more objective view, instead of labeling innovative technology solutions from Africa automatically as ICT4D.

We have to thinking less of ICT as something that’s about development, and more of it as a commercial venture. We need more focus on ICT4$ than ICT4D.

Going Off-Grid (Holiday)

I’m off-grid on holiday until August 8th. This means that any communications that come in before Aug 8th will be DELETED upon return. I do this for peace of mind on vacation, not because I don’t value what you have to say. No one wants to come back to an inbox of 2000+ messages.

Feel free to get in touch with my colleagues at Ushahidi and the iHub in my absence.

Interesting Reads

What makes the iHub work?

I often get asked what the iHub is, what happens here, and why it has worked. Often followed by the question of whether or not this model could work elsewhere in Africa. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

The iHub is Nairobi’s nerve center for technology; a place where we can grab coffee, create apps, find funders and build businesses. It’s where the community of web and mobile programmers connect with each other, businesses, the government and academia.

[TLDR version: Championed by credible people, alongside advisors from the community. Experimental mindset. Strong connections to corporates. Strict community focus.]

A brief history

Juliana, Erik and David

There was a discussion at Barcamp Nairobi 2008 about how valuable it would be for the Kenyan tech community to have a static space of our own. No one would fund that idea. My organization, Ushahidi, decided that we liked it the idea enough that we would fund it. It fit with our overall thoughts on being “open”, it would serve as Ushahidi’s home in the region, and most of all, we thought we could use our good fortune to find and help the next startups in Kenya.

Thus, I moved back to Nairobi in 2009, with funding from Ushahidi via Omidyar Network and Hivos, to build the iHub. I quickly selected a space, and picked the energetic and gifted Jessica Colaco as the Manager. In March 2010 we started work on the space, and in June it was open for use.

Though we had provided funding for the first 2 years, the iHub is an independent Ushahidi initiative. Meaning, that it runs outside of the normal Ushahidi operations and organization. Though the Ushahidi team has full access for the space, we have a very light footprint, and use it the same way everyone else in the community does. We knew that even though we were the most neutral of parties, with a ton of local credibility, trying to “own” the space would fail – just as it would if it had been named the “Google iHub” or the “Nokia Innovation Hub”. It had to be owned by the community, and that meant name and usage both.

The community

IMG_8629

At the heart of all that happens at the iHub is the community. They designed the room layout and logo, run the network, hold events, built the website, create the house rules and drive the direction of the space. The management of the space is there to provide basic infrastructure support, a foundation, which the community then builds on to make the space what it is today.

What’s important to understand is that we come from this community too, we are it. We knew it could work because it was ourselves we were building for. When people ask me if I could do the same thing in another city, I respond that it would be questionable. A space like the iHub needs to be put together by someone from that community of techies who understands at a basic level the needs and has the credibility within it to make it happen.

As the iHub grew, we realized that all of the administrative duties, mixed with community interaction, were too much for one person. Thus we brought on Tosh to be the community manager, where he is in charge of working with people, memberships and events. His job is to aggregate, translate and enable the communities needs.

The advisors

That “being part of the community” was what drove me to start looking for a small team of advisors who could help make decisions, especially early on. This iHub advisory board was made up of 4 influential and highly credible technology players from Nairobi, plus myself. The greater community could appreciate that they were being represented well, and it provided a small enough team to move quickly.

Initial roles for this team were to make the final decision on build out design, logo and name, as well as figure out how to deal with an influx of members in a tiered membership model if the need arose (and it did, quickly). With over 4,300 white-level members, this team is also responsible for making the decisions on who gets green-level membership, the people who ultimately get to have free and unfettered access to the iHub facility.

The design

IHub Nairobi Incubator 3D

The design of the space was very important, and we were lucky to have Fady Rostom and Kwame Nyongo to lead the design team. They spent a lot of time listening to the ideas and thoughts of the advisory team before they started drawing, and it shows in what was built.

We needed a place that was open, and could be flexibly turned from community commons to event space. We wanted a subsection of the space to be rentable desks, for pre-incubation and co-working activities. At no time was a coffee shop not included – it was seen as core to the vibe and culture of what would happen here. We’d need a secure server room, and plenty of ethernet and electrical points, both inside and outside.

Most of all, the iHub needed to be a place where Kenyan techies were proud of. A place that was uniquely ours, and that we could show off to our visiting friends from abroad. It had to have the feel of being any high-tech community space in the world, with a Kenyan flavor. And it is.

The sustainability strategy

Early on we had no idea how we would pay for things beyond the first 2 years. We projected costs, but didn’t know where the revenue would come from. We had some ideas, but instead of creating a grand plan, we decided to take a very experimental approach, iterating on what worked and killing ideas that didn’t fit.

Right now the iHub has revenue coming in from red members (co-working desk rental), events and the new research arm. Events and desk rental were obvious and worked from very early on. The R@iHub arm didn’t come into being until January of this year, and was very much a big experiment – which appears to be working marvelously well. Jessica’s background is as a technology researcher, and she’s built a brilliant team around her to focus on this. Already we can see that 50%+ of future income will come from this initiative.

The other experiment was taking lead on the m:lab, a space the same size as the iHub which sits one floor beneath us. It’s an incubator. It plays the iHub’s foil, where upstairs is about community, openness and fun, the m:lab downstairs is about professional tech companies building quality products and making it into the market. We took the lead on the consortium behind this, and it is seen as a sister-facility to the iHub, with many shared services between the two.

The corporates

Both the iHub and the m:lab have strong corporate partners. Early on, before the first brush of paint was dry in the iHub, we had started talking to big technology corporates who call Nairobi home. Large tech corporations need an active dev community, and the dev community needs them. Luckily, Kenya is geographically well-positioned for some great companies to make it their home in the region, which worked well for us. We also happened to know a number of them personally, which sped up the discussions and interactions considerably.

We didn’t want to just have corporate partners who were sponsors. We made it very clear early on that their money was less important to us than what value they could add to the space that would help the dev community, but that it was a 2 way street. If we couldn’t facilitate a strong value back to them from the local tech community, then it was a no-go.

Fortunately, despite our lack of a clear idea of exactly how things would work, or what our metrics of success would be, we found some great patners. Nokia, Google, Wananchi and Microsoft are corporate partners with the iHub, and downstairs we have MIH, Nokia and InMobi working with us.

A small aside here, which isn’t corporates, but we’ve also nurtured strong connections with the Kenyan government, though we take no money from them. This also applies to academia.

Final thoughts

IMG_8578

By the end of 2010 people were already claiming that the iHub was a model for technology engagement, aid stuff (gah!), etc… in Africa. I thought that was a premature statement, it was an experiment and it still is. The success of the iHub has come from a strong foundation of advisors and community members who understand their city, their peers and their region.

The success of other tech hubs across Africa will be based on leadership credibility, and ability to engage their community.

Much of the iHub’s success comes from a community that works together. In that spirit of “harambee” that is so much a part of our Kenyan life. While there is always healthy competition, we would rather work together and celebrate each others success, and ultimately help each other along with the knowledge that if more of us succeed, then we all benefit.

I hope to see many more labs and hubs across the continent, and we’re seeing them grow too, in Cameroon and Ethiopia, Uganda and Nigeria. Though some of them will need financial assistance to get going, like Ushahidi did with the iHub, they’re organic growth is what makes them viable.

iHub: 3000 Members and 1yr Old

[A HUGE thank you to the team who put this video together: Ahmed Deen, Michael Kimani, Norah Kithaka, Bob Muchiri, Barbara Muriungi and David Muthami.]

It’s this week that we’re celebrating the iHub’s one year anniversary, and oh-so-much has happened in this last year… What started out as a little idea and an experiment has blossomed into a full-fledged community hub and a model for labs and hubs around the continent.

By the Numbers

  • There are a total of 3,036 members in the iHub community.
  • There are 1,236 Developers
  • We have 876 Creatives amongst us
  • We have 235 Green members
  • We’ve held 70+ events in the last 12 months, ranging from hackathons to investor pitches to product launches.
  • At least 12 companies formed off of relationships made in the space.
  • We have 4 outstanding corporate partners (Wananchi, Google, Nokia, Microsoft)
  • 3 companies found funding through investors that came through the iHub.
  • 2 funding partners who took a gamble (Omidyar Network and Hivos).
  • 1 iHub Foosball championship team. :)

What’s next?

2010 was big, but 2011 is going to be huge! I don’t have time to cover everything in detail, but here are the top items.

  • The new m:lab incubator with space for 7 companies, a training room and a mobile testing lab for all devices and operating systems. Will be open in April.
  • The Pivot 25 event on June 14-15th. Pivot 25 is an event bringing together 25 of East Africa’s top mobile entrepreneurs and startups to pitch their ideas to an audience of 400 people, with a chance of winning monetary prizes and increasing awareness of their work to local and global investors, media and businesses. In East Africa’s hot mobile market, this is a way to find out “what’s next?“. All proceeds go to support the m:lab.
  • A new research arm, dedicated to facilitating local technology research capacity building and to conduct local qualitative and quantitative research in Africa.
  • Advanced programming and business training and mentoring. Starting in April, a mentoring program with some of Kenya’s leading tech programmers and business minds.
  • The Afrilabs Association has been founded, and the iHub is a leading member of that, where we’re sharing what we’ve learned to help others across the continent build their own hub or lab. We’re also looking to grow an Afrilabs Seed Fund, which we’ll share more with everyone about as it gets solidified.

An iHub Party!

To celebrate this, we’re putting on a big party today, March 11th. Due to size of the space, it’s invite only and for Green members who have RSVP’d in time. We’ve got Just A Band coming in, a cool party atmosphere, food and the best cake in Nairobi. Plus, those who get to the iHub on time (and are on the list) get an iHub zawadi.

Big thanks to Nokia for sponsoring the gift, Google for sponsoring the after-party drinks at Capri7, and to Microsoft, InMobi and Ushahidi for covering some of the additional costs on food, drinks, etc.

TED 2011: Imagine what could happen…

I’m fortunate to be a Senior TED Fellow, which means that I go to five TED conferences over 3 years. To date, I’ve been to five TED conferences, ranging from Tanzania to Long Beach and Oxford, and each one has amazing speakers, jaw-dropping discoveries revealed and true ideas worth spreading.

I say fortunate because it puts me in the presence of others who ask, “Imagine what could happen...” That’s an important statement, because it means that the we’re looking for possibilities. We’re challenging the norms. We’re following what makes us curious.

A TED Moment

Everyone tends to have a moment at TED that you remember, that makes you realize this isn’t just another conference. I’ve had a number of interesting meetings/chats with big-name entertainers, politicians, actors, scientists and technology entrepreneurs. While interesting and fun, they didn’t shift my thinking.

That moment happened yesterday as I was listening to Sal Khan talking about his project, the Khan Academy. He’s made thousands of videos and activities that make it easy for kids to learn subjects like math and science in a non-judgmental and reapeatable environment.

Sal Khan was nearing the end of his talk when I shot an email off to my 8 year old daughter saying that she might be interested in looking at this website. An hour later I got an SMS from my wife stating, “You’re going to make your daughter into a math nerd like me, she’s been on this site since she got your email.”

It might be that I’m excited that I could link my time at TED and share it to my daughter in near real-time. It’s partly that, but it’s also knowing that the simplicity of a well executed online video tutorial site, something not technologically exciting, can have such a massive impact on millions of children learning. Most of all, my own.

The TED Talk

I was saving this blog post, which I wrote last week, until the video of Sal Khan’s talk was published. Here it is:

African Innovation

A couple of years ago you didn’t hear the words “Africa” and “innovation” paired up quite as much as you do today.

  • On Saturday I speak at TEDxAntananarivo in Madagascar, and my theme will be on the equal spread of innovation globally.
  • On Monday I get back to Nairobi, only to shoot off to Naivasha for 3 days of the Open Innovation Africa Summit.
  • The last year I’ve spent building out the Nairobi iHub (Innovation Hub).
  • The Maker Faire Africa events in Ghana and Kenya have been about invention, ingenuity and innovation.
  • AfriGadget is built on telling stories of African solving everyday problems with ingenuity and innovation.

By and large, these are events and stories of Africans coming up with innovative solutions and products, solving their own problems and building their own businesses. It would be easy to think that this is just a meme. This is especially true for myself as I’m involved in so much of it. It’s not.

The reality behind the meme

Sisal into rope machineLet’s take the example of Maker Faire Africa participant Alex Odundo from Kisumu in Western Kenya. Alex has spent 5 years coming up with cheaper and more efficient tools to process sisal and make rope. He did this with the mechanical use of a processing machine called Sisal Decorticator, that adds value to the sisal by turning it into rope that can be sold for 100 shillings. This nets him 95 Kenya shillings in profit per kilo.

He’s spent 5 long years refining his machines, selling them and building new ones. Going from sisal processing to rope making with the tools and engines he can fabricate and buy locally. He’s an example of the inventor-entrepreneur who won’t give up, and is trying to build a real business of his niche product. He’s akin to the Charles Goodyear of local rope manufacturing.

What Alex represents is the hardcore inventor, the industrial, non-sexy side of innovation that we don’t often hear about. What usually surfaces, and what I talk about a lot here (and what I’m sure we’ll talk about at all these other events) is the cool, sleek mobile and internet solutions and products.

We give all this airtime to the gadgets and bits, and there are great reasons to do so. Kenya’s advantage in the mobile space around payments and other items is exciting. South Africa’s social networks and global-level web apps are amazing. Ghana’s up-and-coming tech sector, Nigeria’s banks and even Somalia’s mobile networks are all compelling stories on where innovation in both African business and the African tech are taking us.

An equal spread

If there’s one thing that my years spent in this space traipsing around looking for AfriGadget stories, putting on Maker Faire Africa and starting the iHub has taught me, it’s this. That innovation is spread equally around the world. That you’ll find the same number of inventors and innovative solutions coming from people in any country around the globe. Why African innovation is trending to people internationally is because only now have people begun to notice that the same applies on this continent as their own.

African innovation might not look like the innovation you’re used to seeing if you come from another continent. You might miss it because you don’t know what you’re seeing or why a business’s strategy is different than you expect. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Kenyan Techies: Secondary School Survey

[Update: I've decided to keep the survey running for a little longer to get the late comers. If enough fill it out, I'll republish the results.]

Out of curiosity I put out a survey to the Kenyan tech community 2 days ago. I’ve always wondered which schools in Kenya put out the most people who move into positions within tech companies, or start their own. I now have 200 entries, which is a decent enough size sample, though I know if we did a true canvasing of the entire community that the results would be slightly different.

[2010 Kenya Techies School Survey]

Here are the results

The top schools
Kenyan technologists - schools attended

Starehe Boys’ (20) leads by a large margin, followed by the other big private schools; Strathmore (9), Lenana (8), Nairobi School (8), Alliance (7) and St. Mary’s (6). It’s clear that some schools choose quality over quantity, such as my alma mater Rift Valley Academy (2)… :)

There are a plenty of examples, such as Gitwe (1), which had only one graduate that come from all over the country. Clearly, many techies here in Kenya had to fight their way up from a challenging environment.

Year Graduated
I started this off in 1980 and went to 2009. There’s an interesting curve happening within the community on when people cleared school. The highest is the year 2000 (25). I wonder if there was something that happened in the school systems at this time to make the number go up, or if there is some other reason for that bump in 2000-2002.

Kenyan Technologists - year finished secondary school

Companies you work for
I was amazed at the number and spread of technologists across the tech companies in Kenya. Here is just a small sampling of 127 different companies that were listed of who people work for:

Access Kenya
AFRICOM
Cellulant
Craft Silicon
Dotsavvy
Google
IBM
Kencall
Mobile Planet
Mocality
Nokia
Safaricom
The Standard
UN (different groups)
Virtual City
Wananchi Group

Making Ushahidi

[Below is my Tech4Africa talk, given today in Johannesburg, South Africa, titled "How we built Ushahidi, w]

I’m used to talking about Ushahidi, and as all of you guys who frequently talk about your product or company know: it gets old spouting off the same old stuff over and over again. That’s why I’m excited about today and for being invited to this excellent conference, since I’ll be telling the backstory, the quirks and funny bits that got us to this point and made our Ushahidi culture what it is today.

This is my story of Ushahidi – Of a small organization that dislikes hierarchy and being told what we can’t do. One that questions everything, embraces innovative thinking, takes risks boldly, and sometimes learns the hard way that we’re human after all.

In January 2008 I spent a week watching news reports roll in from Kenya, frustrated. Frustrated because I had said for years that “technology helps us overcome inefficiencies”. Wasn’t the madness of Kenya, in it’s post-election violence throws, it’s lack of media coverage, and lack of real information just this? Why was I unable to do anything?

It turned out that I needed an idea, and for once I couldn’t come up with one on my own. That seed of an idea that grew into what you see today came from a simple bullet point by my friend and fellow blogger Ory Okolloh, asking if we could map reports of violence around the country. Thus Ushahidi was born.

I’m going to walk you through three defining moments for our organization, and our platform, not all of them pretty, but which make us who we are.

1. Let’s look at the ad hoc cast that got it started:

The Ushahidi Team - circa Jan 2008

Ory Okolloh – lawyer, blogger and Kenyan political pundit
Juliana Rotich – renewable tech geek, blogger and database admin
David Kobia – developer and top Kenya forum webmaster
Daudi Were – blogger and web guy
Erik Hersman – Africa tech blogger, web guy
Others – a various cast of tech and non-tech people swarmed around the first Ushahidi deployment in Kenya, helping with small tasks and then disappearing.

Key points:

  • You’ll notice that there was not a single one of us who had any humanitarian experience
  • None of us had taken part in any open source project. (v1 was built in .NET)
  • Most of us were self-employed, running our own businesses or consulting, and didn’t like working for big companies.
  • The only common denominators that we shared was our love of our home; Kenya, and the ability to blog.

Thus, we felt we were the best placed to create an African open source platform for crowdsourcing information, our tech gift to the rest of the world.

We didn’t think of that at all actually. Instead we were madly Skyping, emailing, wireframing and coding over a 3 day period to get something up as quickly as possible.

We were brutal about every decision:

  • If it wasn’t absolutely necessary, throw it out.
  • Pick a name, any name, we don’t care if non-Kenyans can’t say it, just get a domain up asap
  • Launch this app, it’s functional, we’ll fix bugs and features on the fly
  • No one has a short code for us yet? Screw it, it’s not worth waiting, we’ll get one eventually.
  • Money, what’s that for? Media budgets are overrated, we’ll blog it.
  • We don’t have a logo. Oh well… Launch already!

How our team came together, the way we made those initial decisions and how we interacted and leaned on what would become our community was defining. It still colors how we operate, our organizational communications and our community focus.

Lessons learned:

  • This taught us to keep a shallow and wide decision-making structure so that everyone had access to all the information about ops or platform that they desired. Anyone was empowered to make decisions, since thy understood the macro-game.
  • Release code early, it’s better to have it out and being tested and worked on in the real world, than hidden away in a sandbox somewhere.
  • If you want it done, build it yourself, don’t put it off onto another team member.
  • Community = success
  • No money, no worries. Build good stuff and good stuff happens, money follows.

2. Technology is only a tool

allocation

No background in open source projects meant that we had little experience in how to engage programmers, designers and the help needed to get things moved from that initial .NET build into an open source language. David and I were trying to decide what language to write this in, and we ended up picking PHP over Python since we thought more African programmers would be proficient in it.

David wasn’t a PHP guy (yet), so the early helpers, the volunteers like Jason Mule, Henry Addo and Chris Blow were a huge help in making the decision to go with the Kohana framework and a myriad of other decisions.

3 months later we announced v0.1 of “THE NEW AND REBUILT USHAHIDI PLATFORM!”

We were very excited, after all, wasn’t this the platform that would save the world? And we were ready to show the world just how it could be done. Gamely mounting our white steeds we charged into a deployment of Ushahidi in the troubled North Kivu region of the DR Congo.

Echoes of that failure splatting against the ground remind us still, today, of the complexities of the space we build software in. We learned from those lessons though, and Ory wrote a good blog post making sure that it was shared within and without.

Lessons learned:

  • Technology is only 10% of the solution needed. The rest is administration and messaging.
  • Stick to what you do well. Our team is built to build software, not be a deploying organization
  • (caveat! We do help in deploying rarely, like Haiti and Kenya, but we now pass those off, or partner)
  • Own your failures publicly, learn from them.

3. Enter the failephant!

The Ushahidi Failephant

Only a few months later, after the DRC debacle, we were rested and ready to fail again.

Al Jazeera had used the alpha version of the Ushahidi platform in Gaza, a group of organizations and individuals were deploying it to monitor the worlds biggest elections in Indian, and we had a number of groups in East Africa testing it out.

Our model was that we had a small team at Ushahidi whose job was to come up with and guide the core architecture of the platform. Volunteers also worked on core, but were also encouraged to extend the platform in their own ways. It was working very well, and still does.

We were ready to release the code publicly.

Before I say anything, let’s revisit that point earlier about none of us having eroded on an open source project before…

Preperations were made, blog posts were written, tweets were tweeted – and we got lambasted by one of the guys we respect a great deal in the open source community. Rabble called us out on all the things we did wong.

- The code repository was behind a user/password wall
- We weren’t available in the normal programmer channels like IRC
- Hard to plug into the rest of the dev community

Our team went to work, madly working over the next 12 hours to get our stuff straightened out. Finally I wrote another blog post, introducing our failephant mascot and apologizing for our ignorance and missteps.

Lessons Learned:

  • Listen and apply that listening to real changes
  • Again, own your failures. Fix things that are wrong.
  • It’s okay to think different in how you execute on a project as long as you don’t stray from the spirit of your community and self
  • .

Finally, I’ll end with this.

We’ve learned that technology does overcome inefficiencies, but that it still takes people to make it happen.

We’ve learned that more people need to buck the status quo, that questioning everything makes us better.

We’ve learned that Africans can build world-class software, and to expect nothing less.

TED Thoughts: Where Gaming is Taking Us

TED is the type of conference where you’re drinking from the fire hose and, with the 18-minute talks marching onward every few minutes, you have little time to reflect on what you’ve heard before you’re onto the next. It’s been two days now, much of it spent in travel, reading and reflection and I’m starting to string a couple of thoughts together that I find at the very least interesting. At the most disturbing.

On the technology side, there were three talks that made me sit back and consider their repercussions, especially as I think of their tracks vectoring in on each other.

It’s a pretty interesting time that we live in; where giant databases are learning about us by applying Myers-Briggs testing to millions of people through a game, where both software and hardware can self-replicate, and where you can control virtual actions and physical items with your mind.

Gaming

I’ve been playing computer games since I was about 8 years old, when a friend in Nairobi got a Commodore-64 and I learned how to use those dastardly cassette tapes to bring fantastical new realities to life. What happens when a gaming generation looks at the tools and devices being built? I don’t think any of us know quite yet, but sometimes, in the minds of sci-fi writers that we see a future that could be.

On the flight back I read the book Daemon, by Daniel Suarez. It’s a mixture of hacker and gaming culture set in a fantasy world of techno-pessimism and a doomsday scenario that will get a geeks blood flowing. Well worth the read, a perfect airplane book.

Now I’m on to Fun, Inc, a book about “gaming being the 21st century’s most serious business”. It’s a $40+ billion dollar industry, and it’s not slowing down. Virtual worlds and currency are here to stay.

In Milo, I saw what looked like a fairly unimpressive game, but one with a very impressive gaming and AI-training engine. It’s next iteration will be significant indeed.

I talked to Tan Le about the Emotiv device and how I thought that her ideas of it being used for practical purposes like closing shades and turning on lights, though sounding less juvenile, would likely be overshadowed by its use in the gaming world. In fact, I can’t wait to see the first big gaming companies using the Emotiv SDK to create new user interactions, HUDs and options in popular games.

All of these vectors of technology are, at once, both exciting and scary. I don’t know where gaming is taking us. What I can’t help but think is that gaming, and possibly the culture behind it, will be the vehicle that drives mainstream technology use and growth of the talks and demos that I saw at TED.