Arrogance or Laziness

Last year for Pivot East, we flew in one of the top trainers in presentation design in the world from Duarte Design to spend two days with the 25 companies who would go on stage. The first day was a general training for all hands. The second day was one-on-one sessions. Only half decided they needed to do the personal session.

IBM decided to open up its new research arm in Kenya, these are well paying internships for university students to understudy with some of the world’s top researchers. 100+ students applied, 20 were shortlisted for interviews. 11 showed up for their interview.

These types of responses by members of the tech community point towards either arrogance or laziness.

Why?

Blogging in a different style

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

post-icons

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

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

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.

GSMA 2013 Mobile Economy Report

GSMA 2013 Mobile Economy Report

No organization is in a better position than the GSMA to get data on mobiles globally. After all, they’re the global association for almost all of the world’s mobile operators. When they release a report, it’s worth looking at. This time they’ve done a great job of putting some of their research and statistics into visuals, check the full report on “The Mobile Economy 2013” website. It’s a virtual treasure trove of valuable global and regional mobile information.

Some interesting takeaways:

  • 3.2 billion mobile subscribers at the end of 2012
  • Data is what is driving the growth to the tune of 1,577 Petabytes of data, with the biggest driver being video.
  • Africa is expected to see a 79% growth in data by 2017
  • SMS usage is growing, but slowing in growth to 28%. This is thought to be from VOIP and social networking apps.
  • 77% of all connections globally are pre-paid
  • The GSMA is pushing their “OneAPI” approach, which I wish the African operators would subscribe to, as everyone would make more money – MNOs included
  • Average revenue per user has dropped form $30.3/month in 2008 to $25.9 in 2012 – this is a big deal in Africa.

GSMA: global ARPU drops globally

Most people don’t appreciate just how much investment goes into creating viable mobile networks. To put that in perspective, see the chart and comments below:

Global Mobile CapEx

The mobile industry, if you go by this GSMA report, are all about personal security and privacy. We know this is a load of crap, but we can all pretend that the mobile operators really are acting in our own best interests… They are a long way from their mantra of, “an industry supporting and protecting citizens”.

The mobile operators do not care about privacy or security

Top SMS spam categories:

SMS spam, by category

The Kenyan Blogosphere Still Has Great Talent

If you were blogging back in 2005, it was amazing to see the talent and energy found in the African blogosphere, and Kenya was a leader amongst the countries involved. I’ve spent a lot of today working through 350+ blogs who were nominated for different prizes for the annual Kenya Blog Awards put on by the Bloggers Association of Kenya (@BAKE_ke). It’s humbling to see so much quality. As a judge, certain categories are extremely difficult due to the parity of the entrants.

Who knew that we had such interesting food and fashion blogs? I certainly didn’t, and was happily sending the food links to my wife as I read through them. The photo bloggers are insanely good, but that shouldn’t be surprising to most of us. The Creative Writing category was huge, in both size and number of quality writers, we truly are blessed in this country – people have a way with words.

Kenyan bloggers Sharon of ThisisEss has her photo taken by Steve Kitots (both linked below)

I thought this picture was great, as it takes two Kenyan bloggers – Sharon of ThisisEss and photographer Steve Kitots (both linked below)

Since I can’t name who I’m pegging as my favorite, I thought I’d just throw a couple links here to show you who’s blogging well in different categories. [Note, I'm only throwing down 5 of the 15 categories here, and listing a bunch in each one, in no particular order.]

Photo Bloggers of Kenya

Mwarv
Mutua Matheka
Steve Kitots
Joe Makeni
Louis Nderi
Ben Kiruthi

Food Blogs from Kenya

Healthy Living
Kula Chakula
Delish
Pendo la Mama
Foodie in the Desert
Yummy

Fashion, Beauty and Style Blogs of Kenya

This is Ess
Nancie Mwai
Toi Market
The Vonette Way
K Smith Diaries
The Funshion Mistress

Kenya’s Entertainment and Lifestyle Bloggers

Niaje
Hood Junction
Kimani wa Wanjiru
Mr. Young Scholar

Creative Writing Blogs in Kenya

Even Angels Fall
Cizoe_Poetry
Biko Zulu
AIDEEDYSTOPIA
Kenyan Voice
Potentash
Mwende the Dreamer
Fasihi Arts
deMaitha’s Blog
Minamilist Eric
Do Not Feed the Bloggers

(I told you there was a lot on the creative writing side, this isn’t even all of them…)

To those of you who write these blogs, keep it up. You’re doing an amazing job of capturing the essence of Kenya and providing an open discussion forum for all to take part in. You’ve made my life quite a bit more difficult, having to choose my top picks, but it’s been worth it due to the reminder I received of how the blogging talent is still here in Kenya, still growing and better than before.

See 2012 winners

Tech Links Around Africa, March 2013

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

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

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

Nigeria's I-HQ project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Link Updates:

A 2013 Uchaguzi Retrospective

MRTN8684


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

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

Uchaguzi Update

Some basic statistics:

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

Notes and Links:

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

Here’s an Uchaguzi community graphic:
Uchaguzi community graphic

Kenya’s 2013 IEBC Election Tech Problems

TL;DR – Kenya’s IEBC tech system failed. I started a site to collect notes and facts, read it and you’ll be up to date on what’s currently known.

Kenya’s IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) had an ambitious technology plan, part based on the RTS (Results Transmission System), part based on the BVR (Biometric Voter Registration) kits – the latter of which I am not interested in, nor writing about. It was based on a simple idea that the 33,000 polling stations would have phones with an app on them that would allow the provisional results to be sent into the centralized servers, display locally, and be made available via an API. It should be noted that the IEBC’s RTS system was a slick idea and if it had worked we’d all be having a much more open and interesting discussion. The RTS system was an add-on for additional transparency and credibility, and that the manual tally was always going to happen and was the official channel for the results.

The Kenya IEBC tech system elections 2013

On Tuesday, March 5th, the day after the elections, the IEBC said they had technical problems and were working on it. By 10pm that night the API was shut off. This is when my curiosity set in – I didn’t actually know how the system worked. So, I set out to answer three things:

  1. How the system was supposed to work (Answer here)
  2. Who was involved and what they were responsible for (Answer here)
  3. What actually failed, what broke (Answer here)

Turns out, it wasn’t easy to find any answers. Very little was available online, which seemed strange for something that should be openly communicated, but wasn’t. We all benefit from a transparent electoral process, and most especially for transparency in the system supposed to provide just that.

So, I set up a site to ask some questions, add my notes, aggregate links and sources, and post the answers to the things I found on the RTS system. I did it openly and online so that more people could find it and help answer some of the questions, and so that there would be a centralized place to find the some facts about the system. By March 6th, I had a better understanding of the flow of data from the polling stations to the server and the API, and an idea of which organizations were involved:

  • Polling station uses Safaricom SIM cards
  • App installed in phone, proprietary software from IFES
  • Transmitted via Safaricom™s VPN
  • Servers hosted/managed by IEBC
  • JapakGIS runs the web layer, pulling from IEBC servers
  • Data file from IEBC servers sent to Google servers
  • Google hosted website at http://vote.iebc.or.ke
  • Google hosted API at http://api.iebc.or.ke
  • Next Technologies is doing Q&A for the full system

IEBC tech system diagram

Why now? Why not wait a week until the process is over?

It’s been very troubling for me to see people speculating on social media about the IEBC tech system, claiming there have been hackers and all types of other sorts of seeming misinformation. Those of us in the technology space were looking to the IEBC and its partners for the correct information so that these speculative statements could be laid to rest. I deeply want the legitimacy of this election to be beyond doubt. The credibility of the electoral system was being called into question, and clear, detailed and transparent communications were needed in a timely manner. These took a long time to come, thus my approach.

Interestingly, Safaricom came out with a very clear statement on what they were responsible for and what they did. Google was good enough to make a simple statement of what their responsibilities were on Tuesday. both of these companies helped answer a number of questions, and I hoped that the other companies would do the same. Even better would have been a clear and detailed statement from the head of IEBC’s ICT department to the public. Fortunately they did provide some general tech statements, claimed responsibility, refuted the hack rumor, and made the decision to go fully manual.

My assumption was that since this was a public service for the national elections, that the companies involved would be publicly known about as well. This wasn’t true, it took a while asking around to get an idea of who did what.On top of that, In a country that has been expounding on open data and open information, I was surprised to find that most of the companies didn’t want to be known, and that a number of people thought it was a bad idea to go looking for who they were and what they did. I wasn’t aware that this information was supposed to be secret, in fact I assumed the opposite, that it would be freely announced and acknowledged which companies were doing what, and how the overall system was supposed to work.

I’ve spoken directly to a number of people who are very happy that I’m asking questions and putting the facts I find in an open forum, and some that are equally upset about it. Much debate has been had openly on Skunkworks and Kictanet on it this, and when we debate ideas openly we fulfill the deepest promise of democracy. My position remains that this information should be publicly available, and the faster that it’s made available, the more credible the IEBC and it’s partners are.

By Friday, March 8th, I had the final response on what went wrong. My job was done. Now it’s up to the rest of the tech community, the IEBC and the lawyers to do a post-mortem, audit the system, etc. I look forward to those findings as well.

Finally, I’ll speculate.
My sense of the IEBC tech shortcomings is that it had very little to do with the technology, or the companies creating the solution for them. It was a fairly simple technology solution, that had a decent amount of scale, plus many organizations that needed to integrate their portion of the solution. Instead, I think this is a great example of process management failure. The tendering process, project management and realistic timelines don’t seem to have been well managed. The fact that the RFP due date for the RTS system was Jan 4, 2013 (2 months exactly before the elections) is a great example of this.

Some are saying that the Kenyan tech community failed. I disagree. The failure of the IEBC technology system does not condemn, nor qualify, Kenya’s ICT sector. Though this does give us an opportunity to discuss the gaps we have in the local market, specifically the way that public IT projects are managed and the need for proper testing.

It should be said that all I know is on the IEBC Tech Kenya site, said another way, read it and you know as much as me. There is likely much more nuance and many details missing, but which can only be provided by an audit or the parties involved stepping forward and saying what happened.

Uchaguzi: Full-Circle on Kenya’s Elections

Uchaguzi: 2013 Kenyan Election Monitoring Project

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

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

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

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

Uchaguzi 2013

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

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

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

Uchaguzi's workflow process

Uchaguzi’s workflow process

Your Job

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

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

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

Geomapping team for Uchaguzi

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

Some other helpful links for the Kenyan elections

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

The 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.

The Deepest Watering Hole

2012-worlds-biggest-companies-profit

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

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

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

An Ushahidi Example

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

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

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

Elephants at the Watering Hole

Deeper Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)!

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.

We Need More, Not Less

I was recently approached by a Kenyan journalist who was bemoaning the fact there was so much activity in the local tech scene, but that so many weren’t making a lot of money on their startups yet.

It was an interesting moment for me, as I looked at last year’s iHub Research study showing 48 new companies out in the past 2 years (I’ll need an update for 2012 numbers). I look at the numbers of say 30-40 new tech startups in Kenya each year and I think, that’s not enough. We know only 10-20% will make it. Personally, I’m not happy with 3-6 companies each year getting through, we need more. I’ll be a lot happier when we see 100+ new startups, working out of all the new incubators and getting the investment and users/clients they need to grow.

In short, we need more, not fewer startups in Kenya.

It might be uncomfortable for some of us, as we’ve seen the increasing amount of activity and we’re not used to it. However, a growth in this space is exactly what we need if we are to fulfill our own potential for being Africa’s tech innovation hotbed.

It’s also a bit hard to see so many companies fail. This is normal though, it’s what we should expect. As long as the entrepreneurs are learning from what went wrong, then it can serve as a good lesson that makes them more investible in the future. It’ll help us get used to a much more rapid ideation >> creation >> failure/success model.

Here’s the full infographic from the iHub, updated for 2012 (click for full size):