Swimming with the Hippos in Botswana

This week finds me sitting in Botswana. I’ve talked to a couple startup entrepreneurs; Pule Mmolotsi who is testing out an Oyster-like payment card for public transportation in the country, and Katy Digovich who is creating mHealth apps for the Ministry of Health. While only a small sample, they do a good job of representing what I continue to see around the continent; a new generation in Africa trying new ideas and taking to technology to cut the way forward.

Five years ago in Tanzania we had TED Africa, where George Ayittey coined the term “cheetah” to represent the new, younger generation of Africans trying to make a new path. He contrasted them to the “hippo” generation, the slow and often-times corrupt individuals, whose primary role seems to be stifling growth and filling their own pockets. In this context, they are the ones who were (and many still are) in power within government, NGOs, academia and big corporations. It was a captivating talk, and you can watch it here.

While somewhat melodramatic, it framed the conversation. It has provided a good lens through which to think about who is doing what around the continent. More importantly it gives us a frame to realize the rift between the old and the new, not necessarily best delineated by age, but by mindset and approach.

Tackling Transportation Payments

Pule is an inventor and entrpreneur who’s had most of his success come from biometric devices. His new product, Olekard, is very similar to what Google is trying to do with the testing of their Beba Card in Kenya. Anyone familiar with traveling London’s tube system or buses doesn’t need an explanation of how this works. Basically, you get a card that you load money onto, this card is then waved over a terminal on the bus/matatu/combi/train and you’re done, you can take your seat as you’ve just paid.

Benefits include it being safer for people, as they’re not walking around with as much cash on them. It’s easier for the transportion owner to track revenue and decrease theft by driver and tout. For riders, they get a discount on the price from what they would normally pay in cash. Incentives are almost aligned.

The one final bit is how do you incentivize the drivers and touts to not sabotage the device in order to force cash usage. Afterall, that’s how they make good money on the side, by skimming off the surface of what’s due the owner. I’m not sure how that will be handled, but I’m wondering if paying a “bonus” to these staff based on revenue would help.

It’s a good idea, needs a moderate amount of funding ($25k) to go beyond it’s currently small prototype stage, and best of all he already has signed relationships with a route owner with 40 vehicles and a major bank to provide the float.

It’s a tough job, where Pule has to spend most of his time bringing together disparate communities, large corporate entities and old power brokers in order to become successful.

Mobile Health Partnerships

Katy is from the US and has lived in Botswana for the last 3 years, she currently heads a non-profit called Ping that does mobile health apps and also Develo, which does for-profit type work. (side note: put those two companies together and you get Develo-Ping)

Like her counterparts in Kenya, Ghana and elsewhere across the continent, she was attracted to the opportunities in Africa’s tech space. Katy has built up a team of young, energetic developers and they’ve had a good amount of success working within the aforementioned hippo pools, such as the Ministry of Health.

Fortunately for Katy, she’s in Botswana, where there is more wealth and fewer people. The government here seems more intent on actually solving problems with new ideas, and they have both the willpower and funds to make that happen (healthcare is free to all Botswanans). In conjunction with HP, U-Penn and Clinton Health Initiative, they’ve had success in getting the project off the ground.

I didn’t get to see this app first-hand, but I understand it’s made for Android phones and uses the Open Data Kit (ODK). Doctors and nurses in more remote areas can send in pictures of some malady, and have an expert give feedback on the probably issue and remedy needed.

Like any young company, Ping has to figure out service delivery and maintain quality control on their apps, all while working within a much larger and more bureaucratic institution. It’s not easy, and it means more meetings, great communication on managing expectations and real scope change management.

Swimming with the Hippos

I don’t envy Pule or Katy’s their jobs, it’s not easy being an entrepreneur.

It’s in this space where government, large organizations and startups meet that hope can be found. The larger organizations have the cards stacked against them to innovate on anything. The small organizations with great new ideas, find it hard to scale without partnerships.

When large organizations are open enough to bring in outsiders and revisit old laws or rules in order for change to happen, there is hope.

When small organizations are humble and patient enough to work with larger ones, then big change and big money are both possible.

Massive Africa Update on Google Maps

The Map-the-World and Map-Maker teams at Google have been making some major, and much needed, additions for Africa. With a large data push yesterday, Google Maps has one of the most impressive sets of maps on Africa that you can find.

There are now 27 more African countries that now have detailed maps, including:

Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Togo.

Comparing countries

What I wanted to do was compare old map tiles with new ones, but I didn’t have any screenshots to do that with. Instead I did a quick comparison of a few countries – those that were just announced vs ones that weren’t on the list.

A good example of this is found when comparing Mali to Burkina Faso in West Africa. There are significantly more town names in Burkina Faso, and all the roads either have names or numbers. In Mali, which hasn’t been done yet, there are some major roads outlined, few towns are named, and no minor roads to speak of.

Mali vs Burkina Faso

Also of interest, you’ll notice how the roads that should intersect at the borders, do not.

Here’s another interesting view of West Africa. You can clearly see that there has been a lot of data added for all of these countries, except for Liberia and Mali.

Google Maps in West Africa - May 2009

One other interesting map that I came across was of Mogadishu, Somalia. It appears that there either are no street names, or that the Google team working on this didn’t know what they were:

Mogadishu, Somalia - no road names

iPhone Conquest Turns to Africa

iPhone Conquest of the World (June 9)

Above is the map of the, “iPhone conquest of the world” shown at Apple’s WWDC keynote today. 15 African nations are getting in on the game now that is is 3G and more affordable. Honestly, I wonder how many of the local networks can handle the data load, but that’s another conversation. Orange will be the carrier for Africa (as well as the Middle East and Europe).

The iPhone will be released in many countries on July 11th. However, the full index of countries, including all of the African nations (save South Africa), won’t see the iPhone until later in the year.

iPhones in Africa - Country List

The 15 countries are:

Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Niger, Senegal, South Africa.

The iPhone in Africa. Really?
Many people will say that the iPhone will never be of any consequence in Africa. Possibly true. Outside of Egypt and South Africa, the number of people who can afford post-paid data plans are fairly limited. The second problem is the data networks themselves, many of them aren’t ready for the stress that iPhone users will apply (as AT&T wasn’t in the US).

I reserve judgment. Blackberry’s, N95s and other smart phones can be made to work in Africa quite well. However, I don’t think what we’re seeing is “just another smart phone”. It’s a new operating system that changes the paradigm of the mobile phone/web. (I think Android is similar in many ways too – just more open).

What will happen is those who can afford the iPhone and the requisite post-paid plan will rush out and buy it. The data networks will become stronger to support it, and local developers will start building for apps (not to mention the secondary and tertiary applications and APIs that are needed).

Years from now, when the idea of the mobile web isn’t so flashy and unknown in Africa, we’ll look back and say our thanks to the iPhone as one of the catalysts that pushed development forward.

Gruber gets it right:

“The physical phone is not the story. A year from now, the iPhone 3G will be replaced by another new model. The platform is the story. Platforms have staying power, and, once entrenched, are very hard to displace.”

[image courtesy of Engadget, and full notes from keynote. Full video on Apple.com]