Oxford Jam: Social Impact Investing in Tech in Africa

I’m in Oxford for the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship, and this afternoon I took part in an event called Oxford Jam, where I carried on a discussion with Michael Szymanski (MEST Ghana) and Corina Gardner (GSMA) focused on “investing in tech in Africa”. It was a good session, as it was very much a discussion between the audience and ourselves.

Some takeaways:

Using the What’s There
There are a number of tech hubs and labs coming up across the continent, and each have a different focus as we all try to experiment in our space to see what works. Michael works at MEST in Ghana, which is a very focused 2 year program on training entrepreneurs, where they then invest in some of the ideas that come out. This varies greatly from the iHub model where we’re primarily trying to connect people rather than train them, which is also different from what ActivSpaces in Cameroon or ccHub in Nigeria are doing.

The Funding Gap
We’ve seen that the biggest gap in funding comes at the early, risky stage. How can we get more local angels involved in tech startups in Africa? New seed funds are starting up in some of these spaces, and it’ll be good to see how that continues to grow and if we can create a true base, a true foundation, to the startup ecosystem in the African technology hub cities.

Social Impact Investors
We’ve heard some grumbling about the social impact investment circle, that it takes a lot more effort and has a lot less return going after the money in these circles than it does just going after more traditional VCs or other investment vehicles. At the end of the day, what’s needed is to build a business, something that is sustainable and can generate revenues. That takes time, connections and capital to make happen, and the question is whether the social impact investors can keep up with the normal investors in Africa.

Due Diligence
When an investor comes into a new country it’s difficult for them to get plugged in, and hard for them to know who to trust. They need trusted intermediaries to do the initial introductions, and then a way to figure out if the companies that they’re potentially investing in are legit. This can come at a higher cost than where the investor is coming from, as the legal and business structures can differ quite a bit.

From the outside, it also looks like most people invest in people that look like them, which would explain why more of the social impact investment money being directed at Africa seems to go to people who come from Europe or the US. I’d like to see more of the social entrepreneur programs (schools like MIT and Stanford, as well as the big Fellows programs) doing more work getting out into the Asia and Africa. It seems to me that there are just as many people who come from these countries who know the real problems, and the cultural issues there, that could use some time overseas in the US/Europe, not just the other way around.

The event really starts now, where my colleague Patrick Meier at Ushahidi will be taking the stage for the opening plenary session with Judith Rodin CEO of Rockefeller Foundation, Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto and Soraya Salti, Senior Vice President of Middle East/North Africa for Junior Achievement Worldwide, INJAZ Al-Arab.

Your Chance to Speak at TED

TED 2011

“More than half of the speakers at TED2013 will be selected through an ambitious experiment in crowdsourcing: the TED Worldwide Auditions.”

Speaking on the TED stage is hard. It’s hard to get to. It’s hard to speak from. It’s hard to stand out enough to make it to TED.com. For all of these reasons, it is also one of the most coveted speaking engagements in the world.

Africa Locations and Dates

If you’re in Africa, this is your chance to get there, to be heard. The auditions are coming to the following 3 cities on the continent, and my sources tell me that Chris Anderson, the curator himself, will be there to screen you.

  • Johannesburg, South Africa – applications open on February 24 and close on March 15. Auditions are on May 3.
  • Nairobi, Kenya – applications open on February 26 and close on March 17. Auditions are on May 5.
  • Tunis, Tunisia – applications open on February 29 and close on March 20. Auditions are on May 8.

What TED is looking for

Anyone can apply to audition, so long as you have not spoken at a TED Conference, TEDGlobal or TEDActive, and do not have a talk posted on TED.com/talks. We’re especially looking for:

THE INVENTOR … sharing an innovation with world-changing potential
THE TEACHER … sharing valuable knowledge in a memorable way to teenagers or adults
THE PRODIGY … young talent ready to break out
THE ARTIST … who can showcase their work in a compelling, new way
THE PERFORMER … music, dance, comedy, drama … or something entirely different
THE SAGE … wisdom the world needs from those who have learned it the hard way
THE ENTHUSIAST … with an infectious passion about a topic they can share
THE CHANGE AGENT … helping shape the world’s future with work that matters
THE STORYTELLER … vivid, original, meaningful … with a talent for connection
THE SPARK … with a powerful idea worth spreading

My TED Story

In 2007 there was a TED Africa, held in Arusha, Tanzania. Looking back, this might have been one of the most important events for our generation of “cheetahs“, we learned the importance of story and a firestorm brewed over the trade vs aid debate.

I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the Fellows for that event, and it was there that the most of what would be the Ushahidi core team met. Seven months before we built it, we knew and trusted each other more because Juliana, Ory, Daudi, and myself were there.

It was also the first place that I stepped onto the TED stage to talk. I did a short 3-minute talk on AfriGadget and the types of innovation found on the side of the road in Africa. To be honest, I psyched myself out on it, and didn’t do a great job. I don’t remember much about it, but the fact that it never showed up on TED.com means that it was underwhelming (and I’m glad that it didn’t see the light of day). This is also when I swore to never get worked up over a simple speech again.

Fast forward to 2009 when the official TED Fellows initiative was launched. I had another chance to talk, this time on Ushahidi and our plans to build the next generation curation tool, which we call SwiftRiver. This time it went much better, and my talk showed up on TED.com. It’s now been translated into 31 languages and watched by thousands around the world, taking myself and Ushahidi to another level.

If you’ve done something remarkable, have an amazing talent and are able to speak or perform well, then there isn’t a better stage than TED. Make sure you get your application in on time, so that you get a chance to audition, and take the first step to the TED stage.

PopTech Fellows 2011

I’m back in one of my favorite places in the US: Camden, Maine. Even on a drizzly, rainy day like today you can enjoy the clean air and colorful fall-colored country around you. It’s a week before the PopTech conference kicks off, where we’ll hear from a number of eclectic speakers and have our minds given a true workout once again. (I am speaking at the conference this year during the “Re:think” session.)

PopTech Social Innovation Fellows

With hundreds of applicants from 58 countries, you have to be good to get here. As always, this year of Fellows is impressive and each one has already done something incredible to make it to this stage. We’ve got clean energy entrepreneurs, mini-manufacturing technologists, big data crunchers, girls health innovators and music community engineers. It’s a mess of engaging, driven individuals that remind you why the odd ones in the crowd are the ones that give us hope.

For the Fellows in the program, this is a chance to learn from some of the foremost experts in the field of communication, design, branding, negotiation, strategy and fundraising. The Fellows each get a chance to do a 5-minute talk on the PopTech main stage. Finally, the network that everyone is injected into gives them an amazing opportunity to connect and meet people that can help them realize their projects goals.

PopTech does something very interesting, the conference is the big “annual gathering” of the network. It’s full of great talks, as you’d expect, but you’d be wrong if you thought that was the reason PopTech exists. The organization itself is a catalyst, focused on accelerating ideas that can change the world.

The increased focus of the PopTech leadership on the Social Innovation Fellows, the Science and Policy Fellows and the Accelerator Labs that are put on in cities around the world are proof that their goal is to take all of the energy and resources that a focal point like a conference of their stature brings together, but to then direct that energy like a laser into the people and projects that they think can make a massive impact on the world.

The Fellows program fits into the PopTech organizations focus on finding people creating Innovative tools that impact positive societal change and then bringing them together with communities of stakeholders and other practitioners.

Pictures from Day 1

A Pivot 25 Retrospective

PivotNairobi 65

Pivot 25 was a blast! Over 100 teams from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda applied to pitch their startup over a 2-day period. We named it “pivot” because we wanted to play off of the word, often used in the startup scene to denote a need for a startup to nimbly move in a different direction (plus it had a good sound). We did the event for 2 reasons:

  1. To bring attention to “what’s next” coming from the vibrant mobile startup scene in East Africa.
  2. To support the new m:lab, a mobile incubator that launched yesterday, where all profits from the event went to sustain.

This wasn’t your ordinary conference, it was a pitching competition mixed with lively fireside chats with the regions top business and government leaders in the tech space. Larry Madowo, a TV news personality in Nairobi, did one of the most amazing jobs I’ve seen with the fireside chats, keeping them lively and (best of all) disagreeing with each other. The event with 300+ attendees was smoothly MC’d by AlKags, keeping the pace fresh and upbeat.

Each category of finalists consisted of 5 companies, with an independent panel of judges (in other words, the organizers had no say in this). The finalist pitched for 7 minutes, followed by some very pointed and tough questions by the judges. Each judge scored the presenters on their pitch, business viability and model, an average of all these scores was tallied to find that session’s winner.

The Winners

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Prizes of $5,000 were awarded to the winners of each of the 5 categories, and the overall winner was picked from these and will go to pitch at the DEMO conference in California:

A massive congratulations to all the winners, and we expect to hear great things from the MedKenya team of Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda when they head to Silicon Valley in September to pitch on an even bigger stage.

Big Thanks!

The real reason this event worked was due to the team behind it. Countless hours spent getting sponsors, working with the finalists and designing the space. I want to thank the guys who really put the work in behind it, making it such a huge hit: Jay Bhalla (producer), Tosh, Joshua, Ryan and Jessica, the Sprint Interactive team, the Ark for the video, plus a good dozen volunteers from the iHub community.

WERE2011_PIVOT25-1290

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank the guys at Afrinnovator for live blogging the event, and for CapitalFM for live streaming it to the 3000+ people who tuned in from all over the world. Zuku provided us with 100Mbs for this to happen, though we will make sure we have more, and more robust, access points next time.

Finally, thanks to Nokia, Equity Bank, Samsung, Google, Tigo and Elma for sponsoring the event and helping us pay for what was a very costly exercise.

For those who want to know, the full revenue from the event was $145k, with a cost of $110k. Leaving $35,000 to put into the m:lab.

Stay tuned for where Pivot will be next year. Thanks everyone!

Local Innovation and Entrepreneurs

I gave a keynote yesterday at the opening of the infoDev Global Forum in Helsinki, which has a specific focus on innovation. The m:lab funding comes from them, and they are exploring new ways to help entrepreneurs in the high-tech space, specifically mobiles, to make their businesses a reality.

Innovation: Knowledge and Resources

I’ve already stated that I think innovation is spread equally across the world. No one region has a monopoly on it. The kind of innovation that you see is dependent upon a number of things, but the foremost in my mind are knowledge and resources.

It’s what you’re educated about and in, it’s your skills, training and ability. When you mix that with the resources available around a creative and inventive person, then innovation happens. Let’s take a look at it.

Low-tech example
In Gikomba, a market place of jua kali workers in Nairobi, you find that their resources are made up of re-usable metal and they have deep training in non-traditional metal working methods and tools.

It comes as no surprise then, that the products they create look like this. Parafin lamps and other low-tech consumer products that sell cheaply and yet took a good deal of local ingenious thinking to craft (originally).

High-tech example
There is a group of women coders in the Nairobi area that call themselves the Akirachix. They often work out of the iHub, and their knowledge is about PHP, MySQL, USSD and SMS application building. The resources around them are mobile phones, and computers to work with.

It comes as no surprise that a couple of these gals (Jamila and Susan) develop mobile and web applications, targeted towards a demographic that they understand: farmers. M-Farm is a USSD and SMS app for farmer information, and organized buying by coops and suppliers.

What you see

What’s interesting here is that it’s often difficult for someone coming from one society and cultural background to appreciate the level of innovation coming from a completely different one. I used a couple examples of this in my discussion yesterday. How the low-tech innovation that we see at Maker Faire Africa is still innovation, and they have business value and provide efficiencies to the community that created them.

What’s difficult for people to do is see. It’s hard to look through another set of lenses and appreciate the inventiveness that got something so far. It’s a challenge to understand the needs of a culture that you don’t share and then create a product for it. This is why so many of the platforms and products designed in the West fail in Africa. It’s not that they’re not well designed, they’re just not designed by people who truly understand the needs of the customers in Africa.

It’s why rugged and efficient seed planting devices will be created in rural Ghana. It’s why Ushahidi and Mpesa had to come from a place like Kenya. It’s why South Africa’s Mxit has 35m users.

Finally, it’s why we should continue to invest in local inventors and entrepreneurs – instead of importing foreign solutions, let’s grow our own.

TED 2011: Imagine what could happen…

I’m fortunate to be a Senior TED Fellow, which means that I go to five TED conferences over 3 years. To date, I’ve been to five TED conferences, ranging from Tanzania to Long Beach and Oxford, and each one has amazing speakers, jaw-dropping discoveries revealed and true ideas worth spreading.

I say fortunate because it puts me in the presence of others who ask, “Imagine what could happen...” That’s an important statement, because it means that the we’re looking for possibilities. We’re challenging the norms. We’re following what makes us curious.

A TED Moment

Everyone tends to have a moment at TED that you remember, that makes you realize this isn’t just another conference. I’ve had a number of interesting meetings/chats with big-name entertainers, politicians, actors, scientists and technology entrepreneurs. While interesting and fun, they didn’t shift my thinking.

That moment happened yesterday as I was listening to Sal Khan talking about his project, the Khan Academy. He’s made thousands of videos and activities that make it easy for kids to learn subjects like math and science in a non-judgmental and reapeatable environment.

Sal Khan was nearing the end of his talk when I shot an email off to my 8 year old daughter saying that she might be interested in looking at this website. An hour later I got an SMS from my wife stating, “You’re going to make your daughter into a math nerd like me, she’s been on this site since she got your email.”

It might be that I’m excited that I could link my time at TED and share it to my daughter in near real-time. It’s partly that, but it’s also knowing that the simplicity of a well executed online video tutorial site, something not technologically exciting, can have such a massive impact on millions of children learning. Most of all, my own.

The TED Talk

I was saving this blog post, which I wrote last week, until the video of Sal Khan’s talk was published. Here it is:

Pivot 25: East Africa’s Mobile Competition & Conference

I’m excited to announce Pivot 25, which will happen on June 14-15 in Nairobi.

If you’re an app developer or entrepreneur, submit your idea here!
Applications are due midnight (East Africa Time) March 15th, 2011

What is it?

Pivot 25 is an event bringing together East Africa’s top mobile entrepreneurs and startups to pitch their ideas to an audience of 400-500 people, with a chance of winning monetary prizes and increasing awareness of their work to local and global investors and businesses. In East Africa’s hot mobile market, this is a way to find out “what’s next?“.

The competition is for 25 entrepreneurs/startups to pitch their best mobile apps or services, in 5 different verticals, to the audience and a panel of judges. Anyone who has a new app or service can apply, if they’re from Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda or Kenya.

Pivot 25 is mostly about the entrepreneurs and their pitches, but we’re also sprinkling it with fireside chats with the top mobile industry leaders in the region.

Get Involved

There are a couple of ways to get involved with Pivot 25.

  • Sponsor the event – we’re already getting some great sponsors on board, but there are still a couple areas available.
  • Enter your startup – this is the BIG one, if you make it to the event, the awareness will be huge and the prizes bigger!
  • Register to attend – we expect tickets to sell quickly, so get yours now before they’re all gone.

Help us get the word out by tweeting (our handle is @pivot25), blog it, and definitely tell your friends around East Africa to get their startup application in right away.

Some Background on Pivot 25

The mLab (mobile lab) is a new incubation, training and testing space for mobile apps in Kenya. It’s situated directly underneath the iHub, and was created from an infoDev grant to a consortium of the iHub, Emobilis, the Web Foundation and the University of Nairobi.

As the team behind the mLab got together and talked we realized that we needed to solve two problems. First, a good way to create awareness of and access between the mobile entrepreneur community and investors and businesses. Second, that an event could help raise funds for the mLab, making it sustainable.

The Event will not only showcase developer talent in the region but also bring much needed focus to the mLab and the role that it play’s in the mobile application development ecosystem in East Africa. Our goal is to make this truly inclusive, bringing together startups, manufacturers, businesses and operators from every country in East Africa. The mLab is accessible to anyone in any of these countries, and Pivot 25 is as well.

(The Lack) of African ICT Research

I’m at the ICTD conference at Royal Holloway, University of London, this week. Usually I wouldn’t be at a conference full of academics and researchers, but Tim Unwin (conference Chair), was interested in having a practitioner panel leading it off, of which I was a part. It’s a conference of very intelligent and driven people, with a lot more patience than myself, studying a lot of what’s going on in the ICT space as it relates to development in Africa, Asia and South America.

More Research in/of Africa, by Africans and African Institutions

One of the people that I’ve been speaking a lot with here is Shikoh Gitau (on Twitter), a Kenyan lady who has spent the last few years down at the University of Cape Town doing research. In the talk about “ICTD Research by Africans: Origins, Interests, and Impact” by Gitau S; Plattiga, P and K.Diga, there were some very interesting points given and a great argument made for why Africans need to be involved more.

“African research agendas need to involve Africans more”
– Geoff Walsham

It’s no surprise that most of the ICT research comes from South Africa, followed by Nigeria and Botswana. But even if you added up all the research done in all of Africa, it is only 9% of the research done in Africa is done by African institutions.

Who are the researchers in Africa?

This, of course, is what Shikoh and her team looked into. Here’s where you can help to. What are the African ICT research institutions? What are the publications?

Add any ones that you know to the comments below and I’ll add them to the list above.

Thoughts on Doing More

One of my questions about why there isn’t more African ICT research was whether this was a supply and demand problem. Is it because there aren’t enough researchers in Africa? Not enough research institutions? Or, is it because the people paying for and funding research are only funding researchers in their own back yard (the US and Europe)?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the lack of incentives for African academics to get away from “just” lecturing and into research. Another seems to be the lack of funding organizations looking for Africans to do the actual research.

I’m intrigued enough by this that I’m thinking of how the iHub can be used to support African researchers. If that interests you, let me know.

Nokia World in a Time of Flux

I’m at Nokia World this week in London as part of the final judging panel for the $1m Growth Economy Venture Challenge. I’ve been reading and reviewing dozens of entries from all over the world, and I’m excited to see the finalists in action as they do their presentations tomorrow.

Nokia in Flux

There are a lot of things going on within the world of Nokia right now. The Monday Note has a great overview of the big challenges facing Nokia right now, not least their incoming Canadian CEO, Stephen Elop, and the effect that it is having internally on other high level executives.

A couple months ago I gave a talk on “Innovating Africa“to some of the Nokia executives in Nairobi, they largely dealt with Africa, as well as specific products and operating systems. Most of my suggestions were directly from passionate customers of theirs from all over Africa. The Nokia brand is still very strong in Africa, the game is still on here. However, Nokia needs to be careful that they don’t lose this advantage by faster moving, cheap Chinese manufacturers and the better software and UI found on the Android/iPhone smartphones.

Developers, Money and Nokia in Africa

Smartphone growth and marketshare is getting more and more aligned with the types of apps that are available for people to use. If the apps, utilities and games that they want aren’t present, then they’re more likely to move somewhere else. In Africa, where unlimited, high-speed bandwidth isn’t the norm, the mobile web as an option isn’t quite reality yet. It’s a different paradigm than in the West.

This means that you need third-party developers interested in building apps on your operating system. While almost all operating systems have a store for apps now, including Ovi, iPhone, Android, Bada and others, there is a glaring hole in Africa:

You can’t get paid…

So, here’s a hint for Nokia, taken from the talk months ago: make it easy for developers to make money, even in Africa. Figure out a way that people get paid and can bill via your server-side offerings like Ovi.

Smartphones

Africans are aspirational; they might not be able to afford the Mercedes Benz, but everyone is working their way towards buying one. The same holds true for smartphones, though the vast majority cannot afford a high-powered iPhone, the latest $600 Android phone or the Nokia N8, they look to who the leader is in the space. He who controls the mindshare of the smartphone space, holds the mindshare of the mobile brand as a whole.

Nokia N8

I’m looking forward to testing out, I’m sure it will have excellent hardware as all Nokia devices tend to be well engineered. However, I’ve yet to find a Nokia with good software or UI, and since it’s running the brand new Symbian 3 OS, it will likely be laden with bugs as all first-time OS are prone to have. (Engadget and CNet reviews)