The Cross Section of a Tech Ecosystem

I end up talking a lot about our tech community here in Kenya and I’ve had a front seat to what it looks like from the iHub. In my mind, I think about it like the cable conduit below, where you have multiple different parts that seem to look, feel and act independently, but together form a whole.

A cable crosssection

One grouping is starups, another is investors, another is large tech companies, and yet another is researchers. There are bloggers, digital creatives, visiting techies, SME leaders who’ve learned their lessons, and freelancers moonlighting from their day jobs. It’s a big mixed bag and we all together form an ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem is where all of the sub-cable systems are functioning well and there are no cuts.

Moving beyond the cable metaphor, a healthy tech ecosystem is where the different parties are able to and want to work together. Where each is happy to see the other do well and will go out of their way to help make connections and bring others forwards with themselves.

The Blackboard Blogger of Monrovia

Alfred Sirleaf is an analog blogger. He take runs the “Daily News”, a news hut by the side of a major road in the middle of Monrovia. He started it a number of years ago, stating that he wanted to get news into the hands of those who couldn’t afford newspapers, in the language that they could understand.

Liberias Blackboard Blogger

Alfred serves as a reminder to the rest of us, that simple is often better, just because it works. The lack of electricity never throws him off. The lack of funding means he’s creative in ways that he recruits people from around the city and country to report news to him. He uses his cell phone as the major point of connection between him and the 10,000 (he says) that read his blackboard daily.


Liberia’s Blackboard Blogger from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

Not all Liberians who read his news are literate, so he makes use of symbols. Whether it’s a UN or military helmet, a poster of a soccer player or a bottle of colored water to denote gas prices, he is determined to get the message out in any way that he can.

Liberia - Daily News props

Advertising works here too. It’s $5 to be on the bottom level, $10 to be on the sideboard and $25 on the main section. He doesn’t get a lot of advertising, and but he manages to scrape by.

His plans for the future include decentralizing his work, this means opening up identical locations in other parts of Monrovia, and in a few of the larger cities around the country. I don’t put it past Alfred either, he’s a scrappy entrepreneur on a mission to bring information and news to ordinary Liberians. He’s succeeded thus far, and I would put my money on him growing it even further.

Alfred Sirleaf talking to a news reader

(Also, read the NYT piece on him from 3 years ago)

(note: title for this post stolen shamelessly from Rebecca’s Pocket)

30 Great African Tech Blogs

A conversation on Twitter with Marshall Kirkpatrick of RWW about the top tech blogs to read in Africa made me realize that there is no great list to start from. Most of us just have them in our head, RSS feeds or blogrolls. Some of them don’t update frequently enough, and many of the range across topics, but all of them are useful if you are trying to figure out what is going on in technology around Africa.

Here is a list of African tech blogs that I follow. Hopefully it can be a resource, and a good place for everyone to start from when exploring the mobile, web and general tech space in Africa:

General Web and African Tech

AfriGadget – Stories of low-tech African ingenuity and innovation
Afromusing – Juliana’s insights and thoughts on alternative energy in Africa
Appfrica – Pan-African and Ugandan web and mobile tech developments
Bandwidth Blog – Charl Norman’s blog in South Africa
Bankelele – One of East Africa’s top business bloggers, also has great insights into the business side of African technology
Build Africa – Matt’s musings on technology in Africa
Charl van Niekerk – Always insightful post from one of South Africa’s great coders
Coda.co.za – One of Africa’s very best web designers
Dewberry – Shaun’s frenetic blog on general, and South African tech
My Hearts in Accra – More of generalist these days, but excellent analysis of African tech space by Ethan Zuckerman
Henry Addo – A perspective on tech from Henry in Ghana
Geek Rebel – Henk’s blog on entrepreneurship and technology
Matthew Buckland – From one of the pioneers, and big thinkers, in the South African media space
Mike Stopforth – Entrepreneur and South African social media nexus point
Nubian Cheetah – Thoughts and news on West African tech
Oluniyi David Ajao – Web coverage from Ghana
Open Source Africa – Just what the name describes… talking about open source development in Africa
Paul in Sierra Leone – hardware tech news from a very hard place to get news/info from
Startup Africa – Tracking mostly South African web startups
Startups Nigeria – Just what the title says
Stii – One of my favorite true coder blogs out of South Africa
Timbuktu Chronicles – A must-read covering pan-African technology, from web to mobile to hardware
Bits/Bytes – Coding thoughts by the unique and always hilarious “M” from Thinker’s Room.
Vincent Maher – Vincent’s excellent, fun and controversial blog on all things South African tech
Web Addict(s) – From the mind of Rafiq, opinionated coverage and thoughts on South African tech

African Mobile-focused Blogs

Epic Mobile – mobile phone tips and tricks from South Africa
Jopsa.org – (aka Mobiles in Malawi), thoughts by Josh Nesbit in Malawi
Kiwanja – Ken Banks on mobile usage and his FrontlineSMS app, much of it in Africa
Mobile Africa – A great resource for mobile news across Africa
Mobility Nigeria – track what’s happening in the Nigerian mobile phone space
Fring – the only tool/app on this list

5 Non-blog Tech Sites and Tools for Africa

Afrigator – the defacto blog tracking tool for African blogs
Amatomu – the South African blogosphere tracker
Mobile Active – Katrin does a good job of finding reports and stories about mobiles in Africa
Muti – mostly South African tech news and gossip, a reddit/digg for interesting African news/blog links
Videoreporter.nl – Ruud’s videos consistently have great tech stories
Akouaba – A French language blog tracker for West Africa

The, “If I missed it”…

I likely missed many blogs that should be on this list. Please add them to the comments below. I know I’ve missed quite a few Francophone and Arabic ones, so PLEASE add those especially.

Additions (aka, ones I missed):

Many Possibilities – Steve Song on open source in Africa
Africa 2.0 – A French language blog talking about all things new media in Africa
Subsaharska – Miquel, building a blogging tool for Africa (Maneno)
Arthur Devriendt – French blog on web tech in Africa

Maneno: A Blogging Platform Made for Africa

Maneno means “words” in Swahili. An apt name for a new blogging platform being created right now by Miquel Hudin Balsa. It’s all new. There is nothing in there that’s part of some pre-packaged system.

Maneno.org - blog platform for Africa

Do we need another blogging platform?

When I first heard about Maneno, the first question that came to my mind was… “what about WordPress.com and Blogger.com?” Don’t those serve the same purpose? Realizing that my knowledge in this might be lacking, I contacted Miquel to answer a few answers. Here is his response:

“We travel quite a bit and I found that anything hosted in the US gets slower and slower the further you get from the US, so I worked to create a CMS/blog platform that was very stripped down, yet fully functional. Don’t get me wrong, WordPress is a beautiful, fantastic system that I admire and also use, but when you’re on a satellite connection in Bukavu or very slow DSL in Sarajevo, it’s mighty slow to use, which is the same problem with GMail and other web based applications that were developed in North America and Europe. So, I realized that what I was doing for our personal blogs would translate very well in to a system that would meet a great many of the needs for a new blogging system for Sub-Saharan Africa.”

That makes sense. Any hosted web platform based in the US and Europe is going to have lag issues Africa. Every byte counts, so a system that has been custom built to work in this scenario can be useful.

Primary African Languages

Currently, the Maneno website interface is available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Kiswahili. Most of the translation work is being built on feedback from translators who work on multi-lingual sites and have problems with the interface – as most are built for just writing and not for translating.

“For the time being, since we are still in Beta, we want to incorporate about 3-4 more non-colonial languages in the next 2-3 months, perhaps Akan, Hausa, Lingala, or Zulu. For now, we’re trying to include languages that have a large amount of speakers. The system is quite open for translations, and we’re in fact looking for new volunteer translators.”

Maneno side-by-side translation UI

For translating individual articles, it’s a instantaneous system where if someone is reading an article, they just click on the dropdown next to it and go to a translation page that allows them to work on their version side by side with the old one.

Final thoughts

The site absolutely flies. It’s a lot faster than most other blogging platforms. I’m interested in hearing from others around the African continent on how fast the site loads for them.

Besides the standard text and images, Maneno allows you to add up to 10Mb audio files as a post. This is a great idea, and shows just how much they’re thinking about things differently, as many normal users of blogging platforms can’t figure out how to host podcasts or audio files to get them out in the public.

What Maneno is trying to build could be a really effective hosted blogging tool for Africa. Besides language and page-load speed, on their blog they state that they’re also thinking about using mobile phones as a way to blog.

The software is in it’s Beta stage, which means it’s time to try it out and see how well it actually works in the field. If you’d like to help in local dialect translations, make sure you visit the Maneno Languages page.

A Brief Timeline of Blogging Engines

Timeline of Major International Blogging Engines

  • October 1998: Open Diary begins and pioneers reader commenting
  • March 1999: LiveJournal started
  • July 1999: Pitas launches the first free build your own blog web tool.
  • August 1999: Pyra releases Blogger which becomes the most popular web based blogging tool to date, and popularizes blogging with mainstream internet users
  • June 2001: b2Cafelog starts being built by a few unemployed hackers
  • October 2001: Movable Type released
  • August 2003: TypePad launches for the non-technical masses
  • May 2003: WordPress.org begins as a branch of the b2Cafelog code, and quickly becomes the most popular self-hosted blogging engine
  • December 2005: WordPress.com launches
  • July 2006: Microblogging tool Twitter launched
  • October 2006: Vox Released by Six Apart
  • March 2007: Tumblr microblogging tool launches

Sources: I put the above graphic together from the following timeline that I found on Wikipedia, Enterprise blogs and the platform owners blogs.

Why?
I’m working on my talk for Where 2.0 next week and am starting to think that there is an analogy between current consumer-facing mapping tools and where we were in the early 2000’s with blogging and journaling tools. Not sure if I’ll even talk about this, but thought the research into blogging engines was worth sharing.