Meltwater: Training Tech Entrepreneurs in Ghana

Before I left Ghana yesterday I had a chance to run by the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) and spoke to Ylva Strander, the managing director of this two year old institution. Their mission is to train up technology entrepreneurs with the skills and acumen to take part on the global stage. It’s run out of a large building in Accra with enough space to run the program for 60 students and their trainers.

Meltwater - Eyram

Every six months, hundreds of potential “Entrepreneurs in Training” go through a rigorous screening process, which are finally whittled down to 20 finalists. It’s a two year program where young technologists are taught business and refined technology skills.

Their goal: by the end of their time at MEST, come up with a viable business plan for the Meltwater Incubator to fund.

The first graduating class is due to walk out of the building to present their business plan this year. They will have the opportunity for seed funding, which teams of them have been working on since they began this process almost 24 months ago. These are all supposed to be internationally-focused businesses, not locally-focused on Ghana.

The whole operation is a not-for profit, funded by the Meltwater Foundation, part of the Meltwater Group in Europe. The idea is for the Foundation to hold an undisclosed equity stake in the startups, then sink that money back into the educational institution for sustainability. The seed capital used to get the startups going was also unclear, but probably in the $15-50k range.

I asked Ylva why they chose Ghana, after all, there are a couple of good spots to do this type of operation across the continent. Ghana was chosen due to it being an English speaking country with good connectivity, proximity to the US and Europe, a stated government focus on ICT and political stability. It came down to a choice between Ghana and Uganda, with Ghana winning out due to stability and the general higher level of business ambition.

MEST is an impressive undertaking, and one that is hard to duplicate due to the upfront costs of running an institution and the time needed to prove it out as being successful or not. All of the students that I met, and I met a good number, were incredibly bright and engaging. If MEST truly does arm them with the best training, then I believe there could be a higher than average number of “wins” coming from the graduates.

Talking community with Ghanian devs

I was supposed to put on a talk to day at Maker Faire Africa (high-tech side) about mapping on mobiles and web, but when the time came it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Instead, with the mix of people at the room I launched into a discussion about what I saw as a lack of communication and cohesion with in the Ghanaian programming community.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

Everyone agreed that there is a lack of general communication and collaboration in this space, though there are a few user groups for things like Linux and a new one for Java. It’s too bad really, because I don’t think there is less talent in Ghana, but that this lack of cohesion of the tech community means that it’s hard for people to “announce” new things and/or get help for areas that they need to get assistance in. The reason I see this is due to the great activity that I see on the Kenyan Skunkworks email list – the contrast between Accra and Nairobi in this is quite stark.

At the end of the discussion, everyone in the room decided to try for the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 7pm. Daisy Baffoe is the one with the list and is going to get in touch with everyone with a location. Hopefully we’ll see the beginnings of a general programmer community in Ghana!

A picture with the Mozilla guys

Hanging out with Ghanaian Devs

Though I’ve been busy running around getting ready for this Maker Faire Africa event, I’ve also had some nice chats with the a few of the programmers and designers in Accra. I know there are still a lot that I haven’t met, but this has been a good start.

I’ll start out by saying this: one of the most disappointing things that I’ve come across here is the lack of community within the tech scene. There is no mailing list, forum, or other digital touch-point for the devs to keep in touch with each other and discuss pertinent local issues. I know just how valuable this is due to my involvement with the Skunkworks tech community in Nairobi.

Offsetting that is the fact that they do have places like Busy Internet and AITI, two facilities that are well-known for supporting the tech community, that act as nexus points for tech meetups and user groups. There are also a number of good tech outfits with quality programmers.

First impressions leave me excited about the talent, but surprised at the lack of connectivity within the community.

Ushahidi meetup

Tonight we had an Ushahidi meetup night in Accra over at the Suuch Solutions office. It’s a great location, butting up to a hotel with nice seating for a get together like ours. We had a couple devs from BusyLab (which I’ll write a full post on soon), a couple from Succh, as well as Henry Addo from our team.

Ushahidi Ghana Meetup

It looks like we have a couple new guys to help out on some interesting parts of the platform. George is an HTML markup guy who is itching to get his hands into some design work, and Chinedu is going to dig into the API with Henry.

The BugLabs Device

We also had a chance to break out the Bug kit from BugLabs, a completely modular hardware device that can be programmed using Java. I’m not sure who will be having the first crack at it, but everyone was amazed with it. What geek doesn’t like this type of stuff? I mean, accelerometer, GPS, camera, LCD, WiFi and control unit. It’s just such a crazy-cool device.

Buglabs kit in Ghana

Blogging this week

This is a courtesy post so that you know most of my blogging this week is taking place at AfriGadget due to being one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa coming up this weekend.

I’m also doing some work on the “FLAP Bag Project“, testing out modular, solar and light-equipped bags in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda with Timbuk2, Portable Light and Pop!Tech.

We’ve got a big release of Ushahidi coming up this week too, so keep an eye on the Ushahidi blog where I have another write-up coming.

Maker Faire Africa in 2 Weeks

I’ll be in Ghana next week to help with the final preparations for Maker Faire Africa, taking place August 14-16 in Accra, with the rest of the organizing team. It’s looking to be quite the event with many Ghanian Makers, as well as some from Kenya, Liberia and Malawi. The FabLab teams from Nigeria and Kenya will both be showing what they’ve been building, as well as some of the teams from the IDDS event.

A Small Taste…

Dominic Wanjihia from Kenya will be coming to show his evapocooler invention for cooling camels milk in Somalia, along with an number of his other inventions.

The FabLab team from the University of Nigeria on their way. Look for a bunch of neat stuff, including: a mobile device battery charger using cycle power, a simple mobile robot, a Wi-fi phone network, and a universal remote control for switching on/off your lights.

Planish, a company that makes cool, funky looking furniture from water bottles will be showing their wares.
Water bottle furniture from Ghana by Planish

Nana Kofi Acquah is an amazing Ghanaian photographer with images that capture the spirit of Ghana. His breathtaking pictures have been used by the likes of FIFA, Nike and Nestle in campaigns around the world. You can find his professional site at NKAphoto.com »
Picture by Nana Kofi Acquah in Ghana

Pat Delaney, of Multimachine fame, is coming. This is an, “all-purpose open source machine tool that can be built inexpensively by a semi-skilled mechanic with common hand tools, from discarded car and truck parts, using only commonly available hand tools and no electricity.” Though he can’t bring the full machine, he is bringing all the knowledge cased in DVDs for anyone to build their own out of locally available parts.

Most of my blogging about Maker Faire Africa will happen on AfriGadget, but there will be a lot of content up on the MFA blog as well.

Sponsors

An event like this just wouldn’t be possible without the help of others. We’re fortunate to have some great sponsors on board, including: IDDS (happening right now in Ghana, read their blog), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Butterfly Works, Inveneo, Moving Windmills, Mozilla, AndSpace Labs and many individual donations totaling up to $2400 (thanks!). Lastly, a special thanks to Dale, and the rest of the O’Reilly team, for letting us use the “Maker Faire” moniker for this event.

Maker Faire: Africa

Maker Faire Africa (MFA) is a new event celebrating the innovation, ingenuity and invention within Africa – happening August 13-15 of this year in Accra, Ghana.

Maker Faire Africa in Ghana

We came at this event from a specific angle – we mixed the types of individuals who show up on AfriGadget and Timbuktu Chronicles, and the ethos of the greater MAKE community, all with the blessings of the good folks at Maker Faire. The dates were chosen to coincide with Amy Smith’s and MIT’s International Development and Design Summit (IDDS), which will run for 3 weeks before MFA, also in Ghana.

As Emeka puts it:

The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations, inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated, etc. Maker Faire Africa asks the question, “What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix?”

How You can Support MFA

get a Maker Faire Africa badge!First off, help spread the word! Let people know where and when it will be. Share the link to the site, grab a badge, blog it.

Second, help us find sponsors. If you know an organization or individual who would like to support this amazing event, put us in touch with them. It could be monetary, or it could be donating some cool gadgets, gear, tools or devices for people to hack on while there. (example idea: we’d love to get some LEGO Mindstorm kits for the local high schools).

Third, come. If you have the time and ability, we’d love to have you, your ideas and your gadgets at MFA.

The Team

In my role as founder of AfriGadget, I’m part of the organizing team to put together Maker Faire Africa, joined by my an excellent group of people including:

Want to get involved yourself? Get in touch!

iPhone and Computer Game Development in Africa

I’ve got a new theory: one of the best tests of a tech community’s creativity is how many people are coming up with non-business related applications and games. It makes sense that the two games below come from Kenya and Ghana, two of the biggest “tech hubs” in Africa.

Another 3d Shooter from Nairobi

I think it’s a good sign that I just heard about a new 3D FPS shooter game called Mzalendo (not to be confused with the “eye on Kenyan Parliament website also called Mzalendo that Ory and M put together…). It is being created by Morgan of TriLethal Labs in Nairobi, and they have just released the Beta version of the tech demo outlining the capabilities of the New Siege3D graphics core.

Mzalendo - FPS 3d shooter game

Mzalendo Game - using the New Siege3D graphics core

Africa’s 1st iPhone Game?

I’ve profiled Wesley before, and he’s now partnered up with another game developer in Ghana named Eyram. Their newest claim is that they’re about to release (early April) the first iPhone game from Africa, called “BugzVilla” (I’m not sure if it is the first game, let me know if it is/isn’t).

It’s a game in which you crush bugs by tapping the screen and earn points as you level. Shake the screen to release more bugs, and watch out for the red ants! Here’s a short video on their new game:

I’ll try both of these new games out as soon as I can get my hands on them. Eyram assures me that their new game will be on the iTunes App Store in April, so you can bet I’ll buy it and play it.

Nokia and the Developing World

There is a reason that Africans, by and large, love Nokia and there’s a reason that the brand has made such an impact in that part of the world. While most companies around the world are ignoring Africa, Nokia actively develops solutions for the continent.

I’m continually impressed with Nokia. They seem to really care about making money by doing things right. That’s easy enough for any large multinational to say, but much harder to practice. However, a couple new stories popped up recently that prove this out.

First off, you should go read what Jan Chipchase is writing about Nokia’s Open Studios. They’re working in shanty towns from Ghana to India actively listening to their target audience in the developing world. One of the initiatives that they just ran was a competition to design your ideal future phone”. Below is just one of the designs, see the rest in at BusinessWeek.

Nokia Civilian Police design

Nokia Civilian Police: Designed by a 17-year-old living in a Liberian refugee settlement, this phone is designed to help the user record daily life in the camp. This way he can share his experiences with others. It also helps fight crime by including two separate cameras. This also ensures that both he and his brother have access to a camera.

Beyond the ethnographic and discovery stages of what Nokia does are the actual phones. Juliana writes about Nokia’s new mobile phones for emerging markets. This is where all the work by people like Jan and Younghee come to fruition.

Nokia Phones for Emerging Markets

Lastly, everyone should be aware of Nokia’s Beta Labs, which is full of news and information on what they’re doing in markets around the world. It’s their skunkworks and R&D center (the stuff that they share anyway), and it’s just one more touch point to see how Nokia is innovating around the world.