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.


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.


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 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.


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:

  • 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.


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.


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.


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.

Personal Link Updates:

A 2013 Uchaguzi Retrospective


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
  • 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

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