Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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Africa Gathering Nairobi 2009 (day 2)

I’m here at day 2 of Africa Gathering in Nairobi, but can only spend part of the day here today, so it won’t be a full listing of all the talks. Day 1 talks are here.

I missed Nkeiru Joe’s talk about the sea and fibre cables. However, I’ve known and debated this with her for a long time. 🙂 Here’s her presentation on this topic, but to get the flavor on it you should talk to her or hear her speak.

Nkeiru Joes Africa Gathering Presentation – 2009

Digital Integration (lifestyle and webstyle)

David Nahinga, one of the organizers for Africa Gathering. He’s taking a few minutes to talk about the difference between digital culture and everyone else. How we need to use our time effectively, not try to be on 20 social networks and to prioritize the tools and platforms that we use that help us reach our goals.

It’s interesting, David is really doing a primer on why social media and digital tools are useful, and a reminder to use the “hard disk as another lobe of our brain.” Having a tight digital framework helps us to adapt quickly to a constant change, which is a characteristic of web lifestyle.


Got Issuez Christmas logoMark Kaigwa is here to talk about his startup project called GotIssuez, which I’ve blogged about before. They are creating a digital means for Kenyans to talk about customer service issues – by mobile phone and the web. It’s an African social platform that crowdsources rants and resolutions from Eastern Africans on Products, Brands and Service Delivery. Users rant, rate and resolve issues, and where companies can get involved is in acting on the feedback.

Mark asks, “Do we as Africans have a problem with really listening?”

He draws lines from everyday customer service by businesses in Kenya, with the way that politicians operate, how police try to direct traffic and to the post-election violence last year.

“If the ballot box can’t bring me change, why should a suggestion box?”

The suggestion box is dead, or at the least it’s in need of a revamp. That’s why tools like GotIssuez, which is similar to Get Satisfaction in ideology, are important.

4 things that GotIssuez is doing to create change in the customer service space in Africa. (How do you get an African to believe in change?)

1. Creating community
Their community is made of people from Generation Y, with a very strong presence in universities. They’re the ones who will have a large voice in the future of Kenya. Providing a digital way to complain, but also a way to come up with solutions.

They’re using gifts and prizes as an incentive to get more people to use the platform.

2. Evolve Culture
In the beginning, the users who came to the site were there complaining about non-issue type items, like why they couldn’t get a date for valentines. Now however, the complaints are about mobile phone operators, ISPs, restaurants and things that others are having problems with as well.

3. Involve Companies
How do companies get feedback? How do they engage with customers online and offline? GotIssuez is trying to become the official voice of the people by providing a platform that both consumers and companies can use.

4. Change Circumstances
Actually create change by involving both ordinary people and companies. The example he used here was a popular coffee shop called Savannah that only has one bathroom. People weren’t happy about this and created a GotIssuez report on it. The managing director of Savannah was directed towards this and came up with a solution (finding nearby restrooms that people could use).

Mobile Cloud Computing

Simeon Oriko is a 3rd year student at University of Eastern Africa Beraton and he’s here to talk about mobile phones and cloud computing, and where the two meet. Mobile Cloud Computing is a combination of two major emerging technologies: Mobile computing and Cloud Computing. Both these technologies are increasingly growing at a high rate. The concept of Mobile Cloud Computing involves the integration of mobile phones and the internet (the ‘cloud’) to create a cheaper, more convenient way of accessing information and other resources on the internet.


“How do we give people access to information and other resources that allow them to be all that they can be?”

Simeon was driven to think about this knowledge gap as he went to different high schools and talked to students who wanted to learn about things, but couldn’t, which was holding them back from different professions and futures. The example he gives is of a young lady who wanted to be a pilot, but had no idea where to start.

The Mobile Web
Mobile phones are not the same as desktop computers, but people create sites and applications that don’t allow true access via the mobile phone. We have this hugely fractured space, with browsers, phones, operating systems that are so different that it’s impossible to operate in them.

4 problems:

  • Limited memory and storage – Various data formats are used and it depends on the device as to how powerful it is. Data storage is expensive. There are major interoperability issues between phones, so a different application needs to be created for each device.
  • Small display screens – Desktop version websites are optimized for 1024×768 pixels – and there’s no good solution for that on a mobile phone. Technical solutions exist using CSS and javascript… if your phone renders them
  • Flaky browsers – There are MANY mobile browsers (Android, Safari, Opera, s60, Opera Mini, Blackberry, NetFront, IE Mobile (old), Iris, Bolt, Skyfire, Obigo, Fennec, Teashark, etc…). They all vary in standards and modes of rendering
  • Bad Connections – Connectivity is spotty outside urban areas.

Cloud Computing

Take processing away from the mobile phone and into the cloud – put it on the internet. For instance, if you want to upload a picture, you should be able to expand the storage space online from that which you have on your phone/memory stick.

Create a common platform that all the mobile phones try to share in common. Examples are the mobile web, SMS and USSD.

What will mobile cloud computing look like?

“Smartphones will increase in percentage, but that will not be the future. Feature phones will become more sophisticated, as more of the processing is taken away from the device and put in the cloud. Lower end phones will be the driving force, using SMS and USSD, even if they don’t have the mobile web.”

Applications will be of two types:

  1. Native apps will still be there (Android, iPhone, WinMo, etc.)
  2. Web apps will be used a lot more.

Faster mobile networks and improved network connectivity.

Simeon is working on Kuyu, a mobile web application that allows African devs to build African apps for real world African solutions.

Africa Gathering Nairobi 2009

Today I’m at AfricaGathering, a small conference focused on tech in Africa. I was at the first one in London earlier this year, and we had a great time, so I hope this will be just as good. This is the third one of it’s kind, but the first to take place in Africa – in this case Nairobi, Kenya at the British Council. I’ve decided to do one long running post today, where I’ll just keep adding to the post as the day goes on – refresh the page for more.

British Council in Nairobi

Today’s speaker list


PesaPal logoRight now Agosta Liko, a smart tech businessman who runs Verviant, is talking. He launched PesaPal just 2 months ago as a web-based mobile payments system for Kenya. Now that I’ve moved back to Kenya, I’m looking forward to trying PesaPal out in person.

“Life is 98% boring, work is boring and operational. 2% is inspiration and that’s where you get all the press. Make no mistake, the boring stuff is where you grow your business.” – Agosta Liko

There is no consumer oriented web payment system in Kenya. It’s a way for the unbanked (and banked) to buy online in Kenya. Agosta thinks that they are well positioned to be the most efficient transaction system in Africa. PesaPal is trying to find equilibrium between value, payment systems and real money. Making a transaction of beans or cows equivalent to one made by credit cards or PayPal.

PesaPal value flow

The transaction rate for merchants holding an account with PesaPal is currently 2.75%. PayPal, the closest comparable online payment system is set at 2.9%.

Kenyans for Change

Kenyans for ChangeJane Munga is here to tell us about a social movement called Kenyans for Change (K4C). They’ve been working on uniting Kenyans worldwide, starting with a group on Facebook and quickly moving around the world with 10,000 users in the diaspora and in Kenya itself. It’s a voice for national reform online.

Jane Munga of Kenyans for Change

Jane is talking about what’s needed to restore hope in the “Kenyan Dream”. This dream is defined by the Harambee spirit, equality, national unity and sound leadership. With last year’s post-election violence, the poor state of roads and hospitals and all the other ails that we face in Kenya, it’s a hard sell. What’s interesting to me here is to see that the impetus for this initiative seems to come from the diaspora, after all, Jane lives in Alabama most of the time. This begs the questions, will it take the diaspora taking part to make real change happen?

One of the projects that Kenyans for Change is working on is called Project Amani (“peace” in Swahili), focused on the youth by the youth.

Africa Rural Connect

Africa Rural Connect logoMolly Mattessich is here to talk to us about an initiative by the US National Peace Corps Association, Africa Rural Connect is an online platform with a mission to connect current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers with the African Diaspora, development practitioners, scholars, technologists and innovators to discuss rural agricultural development challenges and solutions in Africa.

“Find answers to Africa’s rural agricultural problems”

ARC is a way to use global collaboration to solve endemic agricultural issues across the continent. They focused the project on two main groups. First, Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived in the rural areas and who have a good understanding of what is going on at the village level as they lived there for two years. The second is the Afrian diaspora living around the world.

The $20k grand prize winner is actually here in the room, Jacky Foo with his “The Ndekero Challenge: A Systems Approach for Rabbit Keeping by a Rural Community in Partnership with a Commercial Rabbit Farm”.

The ARC project is built on Wegora, a tool that’s part blogging, commenting and voting. It’s built specifically for use by communities and collaboration amongst them. It’s really well designed platform and I’d expect to see it used by a lot of other organizations in the future.

Low Tech Social Networking at Africa Gathering Nairobi

We’re currently running through a workshop on collaboration (Low-tech social networking), where we write down our “big dream” and the steps we need to get there. Others in the room can then come up and offer help on what can be done to make it happen.

Kenya Airways

Rose Ohingo and Ann Muthui (who’s in charge of the social networking side of customer service) are here to talk about how Kenya Airways has created an online presence and a social networking strategy. They are here to talk about how the airline is using social media networks like twitter to attract new business and keep in touch with it’s client base to great success.

Look for Kenya Airways on Twitter at @KenyaAirways, on YouTube and Facebook.

What have we learned about “being out there“?

First off, people are surprised and impressed to find Kenya Airways interacting with them on social networks where they are online. Where they build relationships with people on a personal basis. People try to verify if it really is a KQ representative, and then they dig even deeper trying to find the names of the people behind the account(s).

Kenya Airways stats on Twitter

Using analytics, Kenya Airways really tries to understand who is following them and who is interacting with them online. It turns out that 17% of their Twitter followers are travel guides, they have almost 2200+ followers, and their greatest growth has been 26% in the month of December (more stats).

“It’s a human face that they’ve never seen. They ask about jobs and how it is to work for KQ. They want to have a look inside the company.”

Marketing on social media has been very successful, case-in-point was the KQ tweet on the ability to use Mpesa to pay for flights using mobile phones.

Access Kenya

Kris Senanu is here representing Access Kenya, one of the countries largest ISPs, which services the corporate market. Kris will be talking about: “Fibre – the dawn of a new era”.

Kris Senanu of Access Kenya

In 1995 Kris was graduating out of college, and the fastest internet connection you could get was 9.6kb and you needed a phone line – at that time there were only about 210,000 working phone lines, most within Nairobi and Mombasa. If it was raining, you had even less of a chance getting online. Times have changed.

Ultimately, the world is now flat, now that we have fibre in Kenya – we can compete and connect at a global level in ways we could never do before. Job creation and lifestyles will change as knowledge workers, who are needed in the new economy, now have access to the same level of connectivity as anyone in else in the world. Africa would have followed Europe and the West by going towards eCommerce – we have the ability to leapfrog that and go straight to mCommerce. We have the ability to do transactions that you would have spent a long time doing before, getting in 2 hour long lines and dealing with city traffic, just withour mobile phones.

Technology is a key enabler and facilitator for our transformation in Africa.

I agreed with Kris about the technology gap decreasing. I asked him if the challenge wasn’t any longer a technological one, is it a cultural one? Is it an issue of Africans using technology in a way that truly makes them equal on the global level – on time, reliability, quality?

Kris had a brilliant answer, starting with Kenya having a culture of excusability, where peopel always have an excuse for why things are late or shoddy. He then went into the difference between “Matatu-time” vs “train-time”. The train leaves at 8:05 on the dot, if you’re not on it by that time, your loss. Matatu-time leaves at 8-ish – time isn’t as important. This cultural understanding of time is an area where there is a gap that might be the biggest issue between Africa and the rest of the world.

On Customer Service
Juliana aksed, “How does Access Kenya deal with customer service and support when there are high expectations in the market?”

Kris goes on to talk about the way Access Kenya grew from being a company that dealt with corporate clients. They would rather pass up business than deal with consumers. Now however, they found that they had excess bandwidth, especially in the evenings – so they decided to create a consumer-focused service. This hasn’t worked out so well. Kris fell on his sword, stating that they are trying to improve their consumer services, but they are no where near where they need to be and are trying to make it better, trying to make it as good as their corporate services.

Essential Africa

Jimmy Gitonga & Juliet Mukunga are here to talk about Essential Africa, an African search engine, portal, and free web directory with comprehensive listings covering all African countries on one single virtual platform.

Jimmy tells us how in Africa, there’s not normal street names or directories for things. In Africa, you need a guy. As in, “I know a guy…” who can help you as you’re trying to find something.

An example, you’re trying to plan a trip across Africa on a bicycle, how do you know where to stop, eat, sleep and visit? There is no directory. There is no content.

This is why they created Essential Africa, a way for people to get a free African listing. He gets an address, map directions, contact number, and a description and a URL to the company’s website.

“Everyone thinks that we’re philanthropic. No, we’re not blue-eyed like that. We make money off of the eyeballs and the advertising.” – Jimmy Gitonga

I Know a Guy...

Essential Africa has been at it for two years. They started with spidering the web (with limited success) and then getting people to start entering their own information. It’s been a long road, but they’ve started to gather a lot of information, a lot of listings for organizations and small businesses who have never been on the internet at all.

They are hoping to be the African “human” search engine. It’s built for computer and mobile devices, covering all African countries on one single virtual comprehensive platform. They’re hoping to be the gateway for Africans and the friends of Africa who are visiting.


Christine Ogonji is here as one of the newest members of Movirtu. They are creating a way for poor people to share a phone, but not a phone number. They target services to the bottom of the pyramid, for profit – the classic “do well by doing good”.

Out of 3.4 billion people in the world who have a handset and a SIM card, 1 billion only have a SIM card, but no phone. Their income is $1-2 per day, but they spend 5-30% of their income on mobile communications.

Here’s a video about Movirtu, and why it’s a product that could make a big difference in Africa:

Funding for Movirtu has come from Gray Chost Ventures and Grassroots Business Fund.

Right now Christine says that Movirtu is looking to provide an Mpesa-like account for people using the virtual phone numbers. The name for this service is MXPay, and is going to have mobile money integration with a regular account and one time use. Distribution of monies or acceptance of payment from specific people below the poverty line who do now own a phone or a SIM card.

They’re targeting their first 1 million customers in 2010.

The End

A big thanks to Ed Scotcher and team for today. Tomorrow is the big “open” day here at the British Council. Get here by 9AM if you want to get a seat.

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