Category Archives: Strategy

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:

Savannah Fund Accelerator: Call for 2nd Round

The Savannah Fund has been in operation about 8 months now, and has done 5 investments. One at $200k+, one at $75k and three at the accelerator level of $25k each.

We’re accepting applications through the end of this week, and we’re looking for 5 quality startups to begin the accelerator program in August. Fill out this form to apply.

What is the Savannah Accelerator Fund?

Last month we put together a short video to better explain the Savannah Fund, and why it’s important for tech entrepreneurs in the region.

In short, it’s not just the $25k, which is useful but not the reason why you should be applying, it’s all of the other connections, training and access to people that bring the real value.

Mbwana has written a post on some of the lessons learned along the way, well worth reading:

“Some of the sessions included Max Ventilla who sold his startup Aardvark to Google, Carey Eaton of Africa One Media (best known for Cheki), Eran Feinstein of 3G Direct Pay a leading credit card and payment processor in East Africa, and investors including Khosla Impact. We also focused heavily on digital marketing by bringing technical experts such as Agnes Sokol who continues to advise some of the startups. In the next accelerator we will add additional resources including collaborating with iHub Research and UX Design Lab.”

Here’s Ahonya, one of the Savannah Fund accelerator companies describes how startups can benefit from accelerator programmes.

Report: Accelerating Entrepreneurship in Africa

A couple months back Omidyar Network released a report (with an exhaustively long title, like all reports tend to have), “Accelerating Entrepreneurship in Africa: Understanding Africa’s Challenges to Creating Opportunity-driven Entrepreneurship.“. If you’re interested in this space at all, in even a minor way, it’s well worth a read.

Get the full 2.5Mb download of the report here: (ON Africa Report).

The gaps they see are familiar to many. We all know that part of the problem is the education system isn’t setup for problem solving, it’s about rote learning.

“Students are not afforded clear paths for cultivating competencies related to practical thinking and creative problem-solving—skills needed to successfully build and manage a business.”

African entrepreneurs aren’t helped by government policies and regulations, in fact they’re better served by doing it informally first, as seen in the responses on this to the question:

African entrepreneurs prefer starting off informally

African entrepreneurs prefer starting off informally

Another great quote about the cultural pressure not to do a startup:

“Parents and guardians pressure their wards into studying more professional courses rather than entrepreneurial or creative ones, sometimes even tagging them as ‘crazy’ when students make the decision to work in start-up companies or develop their own businesses.”

There’s also a gap in where companies find seed funding:
Africa-entrepreneurs-funding

The survey focused on four areas of the entrepreneurial environment:

  • Entrepreneurship assets: Financing, skills and talent, and infrastructure
  • Business support: Government programs and incubation.
  • Policy accelerators: Legislation and administrative burdens.
  • Motivations and mindset: Legitimacy, attitudes, and culture.

There are a lot of recommendations for each of these four areas that the report covers, enough for anyone running a tech hub, incubator, university and especially the government to think through.

Reports on m:lab and Umati

This week two reports have come out of the iHub community.

m:lab East Africa after 2 years

The study which was conducted between April and May 2013 focused on 3 key activity areas at the m:lab namely:

  • Mobile entrepreneurship training
  • Pivot East regional pitching competition
  • The incubation program

The highlights are found on the iHub blog for now, the full report to be downloadable as soon as it is formatted.

Umati: monitoring dangerous speech in Kenya

The Umati project sought to identify and understand the use of dangerous speech in the Kenyan online space in the run-up to the Kenya general elections. Apart from monitoring online content in English, a unique aspect of the Umati project was its focus on locally spoken vernacular language; online blogs, groups, pages and forums in Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, Kiswahili, Sheng/Slang and Somali were monitored.

umati-dangerous-speech-kenya2

Download the full Umati report (PDF)

The GSMA Opens an Africa Office in Nairobi

The GSMA is the global association for the world’s mobile operators. Back in 2010 when the iHub first opened, we had some of their staff who were in Kenya working out of the iHub and using the space for different meetings. They loved the vibe and makeup of the Kenyan tech community and wanted to figure out how they could connect and be a part of this same energetic space, while at the same time fulfilling their obligation to Africa’s mobile operators.

gsma-nairobi-office2

gsma-nairobi-office1

The main office for the GSMA is in London, and their times in Nairobi coincided with their internal strategy discussions on opening up offices in each continent. Today they are opening up their Africa office, which is on the first floor of the iHub building (Bishop Magua Centre), on Ngong Road.

This is great news for all parties, as it brings the large mobiel operators into closer connection with the startups and tech innovators found in the building already, and it allows the tech companies to better connect to the association that bridges the big mobile players. I’m excited about what will come from the interactions that this new space will bring.

My experiences with the GSMA team, both in Kenya and London, have left me with nothing but a great amount of respect for what they’re doing globally. I also love them for their mobile statistics and reports, which is why I’ll leave some exerpts from their press release here:

Why the office in Nairobi?

“The rapid increase of mobile connections has attracted GSMA to the region. Mobile connections in Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 20 per cent to 500 million in 2013 and are expected to increase by an additional 50 per cent by 2018. The GSMA’s permanent presence in Kenya will enable the organisation to work closely with its members to put the conditions in place that will facilitate the expansion of mobile, bringing important connectivity and services to all in the region.”

From their Anne Bouverot, Director General, GSMA:

“The rapid pace of mobile adoption has delivered an explosion of innovation and huge economic benefits in the region, directly contributing US$ 32 billion to the Sub-Saharan African economy, or 4.4 per cent of GDP. With necessary spectrum allocations and transparent regulation, the mobile industry could also fuel the creation of 14.9 million new jobs in the region between 2015 and 2020.”

On the internet and data:

“In Zimbabwe and Nigeria, mobile accounts for over half of all web traffic at 58.1 per cent and 57.9 per cent respectively, compared to a 10 per cent global average. 3G penetration levels are forecast to reach a quarter of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2017 (from six per cent in 2012) as the use of mobile-specific services develops.”

You can read the full press release here.

Building the BRCK: A backup generator for the internet

Why do we rely on equipment made for the Berlin, Orlando and Tokyo when the conditions we have in Nairobi, Lagos or New Delhi are completely different?

The BRCK is Africa's answer to internet connectivity

Today we’re announcing the BRCK: The easiest, most reliable way to connect to the internet, anywhere in the world, even when you don’t have electricity.

We have a BRCK Kickstarter going, where we’re asking for your on taking it from prototype to production.

The BRCK is a simple, and it came from us asking:

“How would we design a redundant internet device for Africa?”

It would need to do the following:

  • A router for 20 people
  • With 8+ hours of battery for when the power goes out
  • That fails over to 3g when the Internet goes out
  • That travels, so you become a mobile hotspot
  • With cloud-based backend that supports every country
  • On device with both a software and hardware API

As a web company, being connected to the internet when you need it is a big deal, small outages cause lag that ripple through the organization. Even in Nairobi with it’s 4 undersea cables and growing tech scene, we still have power and connectivity problems. Could we do something to scratch this itch of ours that would help others too?

Since we travel a lot, we decided that it needed to work in every country. The BRCK had to work when the power was off for a full day (8 hours), had to fail over to 3g internet when the ethernet didn’t work, it also had to work in any country we were in, by just changing the SIM card. At the same time we wanted it to be accessible for both software and hardware extensions by others.

Having a BRCK cloud means that you can login to your device from anywhere in the world, load apps and services on to it, such as a VPN, Dropbox or other services and also control sensors and other devices connected to the hardware. We think that the BRCK model of both a software and hardware API represents the glue that will make the internet of things work.

As Ushahidi we’ve always used simple technology to create tools and platforms that work for us in Africa, and which is also useful globally. This holds true for the BRCK too. We’re redesigning technology that’s been around for years, but making it work for our needs in Kenya.

BRCK-header

Some History

A year ago I jumped on a plane from South Africa back to Kenya without my book and my phone battery almost dead. Funny enough, these happenstances which leave me bored and with nothing to do but think have lead to my most interesting ideas (I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…). I subsequently broke out my notebook and started sketching out what I thought would be a fun hardware side-project for Ushahidi’s core team that would give us something to work on, when we were too fatigued with the normal coding/work.

We live in possibly the most interesting time for technology in history, where we’ve created this incredible thing called the internet, connecting us globally while at the same time getting to the point where the people who can code software can also “do” hardware. An era where analog and digital are democratized and the making of both attainable by anyone with a computer.

Making things is hard. It’s harder in Africa. I can’t overnight an order of processors, boards or 3d printing filament here. There aren’t an over abundance of local fabrication facilities or tools, and the milling machine you find might be in disrepair and take you two days to calibrate. We’ve got our work cut out to create the right spaces for prototyping and small-scale fabrication on the continent.

We actually started with Jon Shuler doing a lot of the early builds being done by him at his home in California. I’d bring these builds back to Brian Muita and team in Kenya where he was hacking on the firmware to make the system work. All the while hoping that air travel security would let me through with what to all appearances looked like a remote detonation device…

The BRCK being built at the University of Nairobi FabLab

By prototype version 5 we were in Nairobi with a bunch of plastic, using the University of Nairobi’s FabLab to mill the body. There was a fair bit of repair and adjustment needed on the machines to make it work. Like most things in Africa, you either fix what you have or you don’t do it, because there isn’t another option. After a couple days we got it within close enough allowances that we could do it. It still wasn’t pretty, but we knew it would work by then.

That was all just the hardware bit. Concurrently we wireframed the software side, ensuring that this device was much more useful than just a MiFi on steroids. The BRCK Cloud falls directly in Ushahidi’s software development wheelhouse, so we set about creating a simple responsive interface that would work on both phones and big screens.

BRCK setup - mobile web

The software side does three things:

  • A simple setup interface with only 3 form fields. Router setup is scary and hard, so we’re trying to take the pain out of it.
  • A dashboard, so you can see if your BRCK is running on backup or primary power, how fast your current internet connection is, your provider, and how all of these have done over the last hour, day, week and month.
  • A marketplace for free apps and services, as well as the place for others to offer up their own creations to the rest of the BRCK users around the world.

While having a device that was remotely programmable and that could run its own apps and service is important, we realized this was only half of the equation. We would need to create a similar interface for hardware creators and users. This means we needed the device to have hardware ports for everything to connect to, from temperature sensors to Raspberry Pi’s (as an aside, I want to get a Raspberry Pi hooked into the BRCK, thereby making a small, working server). We also decided to put special hex nuts at the top that would allow you to pop the top and get into the guts easily to do your own re-jigging.

The plan for the future is that you’ll be able to stack components under the BRCK like Legos, so that if you need an additional battery pack, a temperature sensor, solar charger, or other product you could do so with ease.

For a full rundown of the all that the BRCK can do, check out the Kickstarter. If you want to get into the real details, see the spec sheet.

Final Thoughts

This week I’m in Berlin to speak at re:publica – and as this post goes live I’m finalizing my talk. I find myself driven to tell the story of Africa’s great potential and growth, tempered by my experience building companies, communities and products here. I see the other entrepreneurs, hungry to create new products and driven by the same powers that are seen in their European and American counterparts. Here, it’s a harder road to hoe in many ways, it takes more grit, more determination and more belief in a future that is not yet realized to do it.

I look at the success we’ve had as Ushahidi and what this new hardware product means to us, and I’m humbled that we have the luxury to self-fund the R&D to get it to this stage, while so many my peers are struggling to take great concepts to even the prototype stage. The opportunities afforded us by our international awareness, the advantage of attracting and hand-picking the top talent that come through the iHub, the ability to have funds that we can risk on a half-baked original idea, a Board who believes in us and trusts our decisions – these are what I’m grateful for.

For this same reason, we’re committed to making a difference for our friends and peers in Nairobi. We’re going to build a makerspace through the iHub that allows others to start from a better position. A place that will give hardware hackers and entrepreneurs a chance to get trained on tools and machines, meet their peers and take risks on their own crazy half-baked hardware ideas. We’re calling this Gearbox.

Gearbox - an iHub Nairobi initiative for makers

We’re looking for corporate, academic and other partners right now to make it a reality. I’ll write about it more at another time (as this post is already too long). However, if you’re interested in being a part of this initiative, do let me know.

The Need for Both Makerspaces and Incubators in Africa

Maker Faire Africa 2012 in Pictures from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

I’ve long been a proponent of getting more spaces set up for hardware prototyping and making of things in Africa. I wrote about it first in 2010 (Hardware hacking garages), then again in 2012 (Fab Factories: Hardware Manufacturing in Africa). I’m one of the founding organizers for Maker Faire Africa and the founder of AfriGadget. I’m not just writing about it either, as we have plans to open up a makerspace in Nairobi this year, which will compliment the FabLab that we already have at the University of Nairobi.

Well managed makerspaces are a missing component in the African technology ecosystem and we need more of them.

There’s a couple reason’s that we need more of them.

A urine powered generator

First is for youth and learning, like the urine powered generator story from the teenage girls in Lagos, that took the world’s bloggers by storm, is an example of this. Another is the young Kenyan who used a simple lighting mechanism to scare away lions. We need places where young people can get their hands into hardware earlier, not all schools are setup for this, and having places with good mentors and tools that they couldn’t buy on their own is important.

Ugali Cooker

Second is about a culture we already have of making things in Africa, specifically that we need to acknowledge our already present maker culture and then try to move it in the direction where it melds some of the more recent high-tech advances with the already low-tech inventiveness found locally. Examples abound, take the bladeless wind turbine out of Tunisia, or the mobile phone security system for your car in Kenya. Simply put, the more we get merge the hardware and software, the more interesting our products will be and they’ll have more global relevance at the same time.

A False Dichotomy

I just read an article titled “Close the Incubators and Accelerators, Open FabLabs and MakerSpaces instead” by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin. While overall it’s a good piece, the title does it a disservice by assuming a false dichotomy – that one is better than the other. It’s not an either/or, it’s an “and”. We don’t need to get rid of accelerators and incubators for software development, we need to add more makerspaces for hardware development and experimentation on top of what we already have.

First a quick list of assumptions that aren’t properly addressed in the piece, so are confusing:

  • There is a conflation of the terms “incubators” and seed-funding “accelerators” they are two different spaces and ways of growing businesses.
  • Makerspaces are collaborative incubation and experimentation spaces with a hardware prototyping focus.
  • Startups can be software or hardware based (or both).
  • Incubation and acceleration is not tied to just only one type (software or hardware) of startup.
  • Not all companies or individuals benefit equally from incubation, some not at all.
  • It can be argued that hardware startups benefit more from incubation facilities due to the heavy cost of getting started.

Other things to consider regarding software, hardware and ultimately the entrepreneurs and companies that come from them:

They’re different. Software startups are different than hardware startups, very different. I know this due to being involved with a hardware product internally at Ushahidi, it’s not the same at all and the needs for the two are completely different.

Having a space doesn’t take the place of personal drive and ambition. Incubators are no substitute for hungry entrepreneurs getting their startup going. Hackerspaces are no substitute for inquisitive hardware minds to experiment. Both require people driven towards a goal already, the space doesn’t matter if the person isn’t ready.

Both can help accelerate entrepreneurs. Both incubators and makerspaces give driven people a chance to move further, faster. The basics of fast internet, space to work with like-minded people, access to tools, inroads to mentors and/or business contacts, and government or university connections are all things that both can (should?) provide.

The conflation of what these spaces are is understandable, as they seem to be morphing all the time. Two good pieces to consider:

Hackerspaces as Accelerators

“It makes good theoretical sense to use a hackerspace as part of an accelerator. Incubators and accelerators are constantly evolving from models that provide premises, training and funding, that may or may not be part of a larger organization, to models that provide nothing but a cooperative community sharing resources. Some take equity, some ask for rent. Some take cuts at both ends. Some have sliding payment scales and operate in tranches, others have fixed programs. There are a lot of variations and not all accelerators/incubators deliver value.”

Evaluating the Effects of Accelerators? Not So Fast

“A business incubator in the purest sense refers to an office park or building complex that charges businesses, typically new businesses that cannot afford their own offices, some rent in exchange for space within the incubator and some administrative services and infrastructural support.”

“Accelerators are organizations that provide cohorts of selected nascent ventures seed-investment, usually in exchange for equity, and limited-duration educational programming, including extensive mentorship and structured educational components. These programs typically culminate in “demo days” where the ventures make pitches to an audience of qualified investors.”

Where should they be?

In short, not the universities in Africa. They’re mired in the 1970′s and have levels of bureaucracy that make it difficult for innovative products or companies to grow out of them. I’d like this to be different than it is too. When I look at what we’ve built at the iHub over the past couple years (the UX Lab, Research arm, supercomputer cluster), I can’t help but think that if Kenyan universities were doing their jobs, then we wouldn’t have to do a lot of these things.

The truth is, globally there are few universities that do a good job of incubation. There are few labs that do a good job of prototyping and taking products to market. There are few accelerators that do a good job of accelerating startups. It doesn’t mean you throw all intent of doing these activities away due to 90% being bad at what they do. That doesn’t mean all are bad. It just means we need to emulate the good ones better.

The best incubators and makerspaces I’ve seen, or have been a part of, are collaborative community environments. Caterina Mota provides an excellent talk describing why they work, and uses the stories of Safecast and Makerbot to underline her statement:

“Secrecy and exclusivity are not essential to commerce.” Catarina Mota

It’s important for us to have spaces that the community has built and runs, where the university, corporates and government can plug into, but not be in charge of.

Jonathan Kalan said it best in his recent article researching the tech hub boom across Africa:

“In a region with a near-total absence of true “3rd spaces”- physical spaces like coffee shops, libraries, and internet cafes, Africa’s “hub boom” has emerged to fill the gap, fostering openness, access, collaboration, education and sharing in Kenya’s tech community, while offering nodes for international exchange, where people like Eric Schmidt can drop in to get a sense of what’s going on.

Crucially, they address the ecosystem’s essential need to grow startups beyond ideas. There is no shortage of entrepreneurs with great ideas on the continent, yet many lack the knowledge and skills to build and scale companies. Through workshops, accelerator programs, incubators and mentorship, these hubs are helping to building local capacity.”

In the end, that’s what we’re all driving for. We’re looking to build and grow the spaces and investment vehicles that allow Africa’s tech community to expand and grow, whether it looks like a makerspace, an incubator or a seed-funding accelerator. We don’t need less of anything, we need more and we need diversification in the types of spaces as they help grow companies in different fields.

Poaching, Carbon and Tech in Tsavo

I’m disconnected. Off-grid in the usually dusty and dry (though green currently) Tsavo region of Kenya with seven others from the Ushahidi team as we look into whether or not technology can be useful on the Rukinga Sanctuary.

We’re here to see if our technology, or the knowledge of what can be done with tech, is useful in carbon monitoring of deforestation, security operations with rangers and/or better engaging with the surrounding community?

David Kobia talks to Dr Mwangi Gichiru of Wildlife Works carbon project

David Kobia talks to Dr Mwangi Gichiru of Wildlife Works carbon project

The Wildlife Works team has an extensive for-profit program around carbon credits, carbon offsets, and small factories in an EPZ where brands like Puma get their “made in Kenya” stamp. It’s maybe the most impressive example of what could be termed a “social enterprise” that I’ve ever seen. Over 300 people have jobs due to their presence, and all in the community monetarily benefit from their activities.

The 75,000 acre sanctuary sits just south of Voi, off the Mombasa road. Rukinga was the first place in the world to be VCS (verified carbon standard) verified and REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) certified by the UN, and has since grown to encompass the 13 other ranches and 1/2 million acres surrounding them. 60,000 people in the communities surrounding them are financial beneficiaries from the project.

Last year they sold sold 1.4 million tons of carbon credits for around $6-8 per ton. The revenue from that is split into three parts; 1/3 goes to the land owner(s), 1/3 goes to the managing company (Wildlife Works) and 1/3 goes to the community. Interestingly, unlike a lot of NGO work, the team doesn’t decide how the community should benefit. The community decides how to spend the money, through their own local committees, and it’s led to a huge amount of school bursaries (2,000 kids now in secondary and tertiary schools), water catchements and other public works.

It’s impressive.

So, what does Wildlife Works really do at Rukinga?

In short, they try to increase the amount of trees, protect the animals, while balancing that with the local community.

An elephant in Rukinga Sanctuary, Kenya

An elephant in Rukinga Sanctuary, Kenya

This is where the problems arise as there are encroachments for wood by charcoal burners and poachers killing the elephants. Due to the community benefiting from the ranches, there has been a decrease in the amount of charcoal burners and even the local poison-arrow elephant poachers and bushmeat hunters have reduced.

However, there’s a much bigger problem, that of commercial poachers (mostly of Somali descent) who come down from NE Kenya, with sophisticated weapons and who are experienced in tactical movement. They come in teams of 2-10, using their mobile phones for coordination, moving fast and anchoring off the Mombasa Highway. Often they have buried caches of guns and ivory on the ranch, so they don’t even carry those in or out with them, and they can blend in easily.

18 rhinos have been killed since the holidays in Kenya alone, and elephant tusks sell for around $300/kilo, so provides a massive incentive for income for anyone.

“We’ve been working in Kenya for the past 17 years… We lost 10 elephants to ivory poachers in the first 15 years, and 45 in the last 18 months, and this is despite being a relatively well-funded organization with extraordinary relationships with the local community members who benefit from wildlife,” says Wildlife Works founder and CEO Mike Korchinsky.

The rangers have no weapons. They are highly skilled at finding and tracking the poachers, but need the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to come if they’re going to catch someone. KWS is sometimes slow to respond, and they’re not willing to put their life on the line in order to catch or kill the poachers. When a poacher is caught, the laws are not stiff enough to disincentivize others.

Talking with the Wildlife Works security and operations team

Talking with the Wildlife Works security and operations team

The Tech

So, where can tech help? We don’t know yet, is the answer.

To frame the problem of biodiversity protection, if you get to the animal or tree after it’s dead, then it’s too late. What you really want is prevention. If you can’t get prevention, then you need swift and effective response.

Prevention
We’re wondering if there’s a way to get the community interacting through SMS to pass on information about illegal activities. Beyond informants, we’re thinking that there might be a useful way to connect the local community monitors and make reporting on human-wildlife conflicts more efficient.

Response
The teams of 100+ rangers are on foot a lot, carry a GPS and do have some mobile coverage. They create reports when they come in, and their goal is to be light, hardy and fast. All of them already carry cheap Nokia-type phones, so can send SMS and call, and we’re thinking that a very simple text messaging system as a hub might come in handy for coordination and archived messaging for later assessment (and possibly mapping).

Other Ideas

  • There is a lack of information on all types of location-based data, especially once you get off the main road. There’s an opportunity to do a community-level mapping exercise, tied to Open Street Map.
  • The process for getting GPS-related data from the rangers to HQ and then a map takes a couple weeks. Surely there is a way to make this more efficient.
  • Related to the rangers data is that they rarely see the output of the GPS data and forms that they fill out. Could we create a faster way to visualize it, and let them see their work?
  • It seems to me that if you were able to gather the phones and SIM cards off caught poachers, then you could start dumping their address books and pattern matching for similarities. We could also see if it is possible to streamline the process for legally getting call log data for those SIM cards from the mobile operators.

The camp we’re staying at is situated has a generator that provides backup power in the evenings for a few hours, where we get our daily recharge-dose for our gadgets. If you stand in just the right place you get one bar of connectivity on your phone and send out text messages.

It’s a shock to our digitally connected system when we find ourselves without a digital tether. It’s also a wonderful reminder of the constraints that real life problems have, where technology helps and/or hinders and why simple solutions tend to be the best.

While we’d love to just shove an Android phone in every rangers pocket, it’s probably not the answer. Instead, as my battery dies, I sit here thinking that we’ll revert to our simplest messaging solution (aka SMS) for any communications tools. It also reminds me that technology is at it’s best when it’s a small component that makes one thing work better, faster or more efficiently. If all we were to do was take one pain point out of the Wildlife Works people’s lives, then that would be enough.

(Sidenote: Limo rubs it in that his Blackberry gets messages and calls, and much to my shame he’s right, it’s better than any of the Android of iPhone devices for connection on the edge of network connectivity. Maybe there is still a place for RIM…)

A huge thanks to Taylor Martyn for coming with us and taking some great pictures (seen here)!

Growing AfriLabs: 14 Labs, a Director, Research and Support

AfriLabs is a network of the tech hubs and labs across Africa. The labs serve as an accessible platform for bringing together technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in their city. Each lab shares a focus on entrepreneurs, Web and mobile-phone programmers and designers.

Bill has put together an excellent blog post on how we’re growing the AfriLabs network. We’ve moved from the original 5 to 14 labs and hubs across the continent.

iHub – Kenya
Hive Colab – Uganda
ActivSpaces – Cameroon
BantaLabs – Senegal
NaiLab – Kenya
MEST – Ghana
iceAddis – Ethiopia
Co-Creation Hub – Nigeria
iLab – Liberia
RLabs – South Africa
BongoHive – Zambia
Malagasy i-Hub – Madagascar
m:Lab East Africa – Kenya
Wennovation Hub – Nigeria

Applications are open, and we hope to induct more African tech hubs into the AfriLabs Association in the coming months. I hope to see Kinu (Tanzania), OutBox (Uganda) and Jumpstart (Zimbabwe) apply.

An AfriLabs Director

We’re looking for AfriLabs first director, someone who understands the tech hub models and is able to help build the network, connections to it from media and investors and be a general connector for everyone. It’s a challenging position that requires someone who is good at community building, and can speak well with international corporates, foundations and media.

The AfriLabs Director can come from any country in Africa, and the HQ for AfriLabs is wherever the AfriLabs Director resides.

Funding for this position has been provided by our partners at Hivos. We’re seeking further funding and partners as the AfriLabs network grows, so if your company or foundation is interested in working with (or promoting) technology spaces across Africa, do get in touch.

Research on Africa’s Tech Hubs

Since we started the AfriLabs network, tech communities in many countries in Africa have started their own spaces. These range in model and makeup, from incubation and training spaces like MEST Ghana to co-working environments such as ActivSpaces in Cameroon, and community spaces like the Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria. Governments have gotten involved with places like the Botswana Innovation Hub here in Gaberone, and some academic institutions are jumping in as well like we see with the Strathmore iLab in Nairobi.

The iHub Research team has started doing case studies on the labs, and have started a research paper on the Impact of ICT Hubs (PDF) (this first one on the iHub). They’ll need further funding in order to take this to some of the other tech hubs across Africa.

This is estimated to be a 3-year-long study on 15 selected ICT Hubs across Africa. The main objectives of the study are to:

Short-term objectives:

  • Investigate what factors make up the ICT Hubs model;
  • Understand the entrepreneurs/start-ups and the value of the ICT Hubs to their business ideas through a representative sample size representing the different membership tiers;
  • Assess the impact of the Hub to an individual member based on the different memberships categories;
  • Survey the factors that make the members to continue to use the space.

Long-term objective:

  • Compare the different Hubs/Labs and the unique factors in each that make it to work;
  • Study the Impact of the ICT Hubs on the economy’s development that is adoption of new technologies and innovations of employment leading to improvement in the living standards.

Supporting Organizations

Initial funding to get AfriLabs off the ground was through Hivos, who also supported the iHub back in 2009 before anyone believed that a tech hub in Africa could really work. They continue to support the ecosystem through funding the AfriLabs Director position (mentioned above).

One of the organizations that has really stepped forward to help give seed funding to the new tech hubs is Indigo Trust. They recently convened a meeting in London where they flew in a number of the managers from these facilities to meet and talk about what would be needed. This was the same type of discussion that was had in Nairobi with another group of tech hub leaders at the Open Innovation Africa Summit.

Google, Omidyar Network and infoDev have also been strong supporters (monetarily as well as other resources), with multiple hubs and labs. We seem to have reached the point where there is enough critical mass in the number of tech spaces, and enough support for them from corporates and foundations.

AfriLabs serves as a great vector for all of this to come together, applying resources to help liase and coordinate the communications and events between the tech hubs, and at the same time providing that larger target for media, investors, corporate and funding partners to find the initiatives in each country.

Launching the Savannah Fund in East Africa

I’m happy to finally be able to publicly announce the Savannah Fund, an accelerator fund focused on finding and investing in East Africa’s highest potential pre-revenue startups. It’s a partnership between Mbwana Alliy, Paul Bragiel and myself – along with a great list of limited partners (LPs) who are investing in the fund.

The idea is to bring the Silicon Valley-style accelerator model to Africa, seeing what needs to be tweaked to make it work for our region. It’s a small fund at $10m, with most of the activity focused on classes of 5 startups at a time being brought on board and invested in. They’ll get $25,000 for 15% equity, and have 3-6 months to prove themselves. Those who fail either pivot or leave, those who gain traction have a chance at follow-on funding. A portion of the fund will be invested at the $100-200k range where we’ll look at follow-on funding for the startups in our program, and also at other high-growth tech companies in the region.

We’ll be looking throughout the region for these investments, from Rwanda and Tanzania to Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya. You can put in an application now, though the first cohort will not be accepted into the program until the end of the Summer (Aug/Sept timeframe).

At this stage we’ve raised half of the fund, which allows us to get moving. 35% of the fund has been raised from local investors, such as Karanja Macharia from Mobile Planet. We also have big US names on board, such as Yelp co-founder Russ Simmons, Tim Draper, Dave McClure, and Roger Dickey and Dali Kilani of Zynga.

Why I’m involved

The reason I’m involved with Savannah Fund is very simple, I’m focused on getting the foundation of our technology future in place. In East Africa, we don’t have enough mid-cap investment opportunities in tech, and the only way to change that is increase the size of the base of that success pyramid.

Some history. Over a year ago I met with Ben Matranga from the Soros Economic Development Fund who noted that there were a number of interesting small startups, but they were too small for them to invest in. If there was a smaller fund, someone focused on this space, they’d be interested in using them as a vector to stir up the bottom and help uncover more successful companies over the next 3-5 years. At Pivot 25 last year I met up with Mbwana and we started to discuss the fact that most startups here aren’t ready for VC fund and how we might be the right people to create the needed vehicle.

Fast forward to September 2011 and Paul, Mbwana and I decided to go ahead and do it. Hours and months of due diligence, pitching and phone calls later we finally are getting it off the ground.

  • My role is to help find the new companies and to connect them to the businesses in the area.
  • Mbwana’s role is to manage the fund and the startups in it.
  • Paul’s role is to connect the Savannah Fund startups to Silicon Valley businesses and investors.

As Mbwana says, “We’re a fund for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs”. We’re here for the small guy and our goal is to find those risky tech startups with hungry, passionate founders that will do the hard work it takes to become a successful company.

Find us on Twitter at @SavannahFund