Skoll: Entrepreneurs in a Time of Flux

“To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill

The theme of the 2012 Skoll World Forum is “Flux: seizing momentum, driving change”, which I think is a fantastic one. We’ve never had such upheaval in the way businesses work, in how citizens interact with government, or in how information flows in the world. It’s about change, and survival in a time of flux is best done through agility and creativity.

“As an operating paradigm, it expresses the fluid nature of relationships, policies, institutions and human beings which are ever changing in non-linear ways.”

Thriving on Acceleration

The world we live in today is accelerating, in just about everything we’re seeing disruptive models and changing norms. We’ve always had change in the world, it just hasn’t moved this fast before. Lucas Welch of Soliya put this best when we spoke today, explaining how people tend to meet this accelerating change in two ways; terror with its built in threat response activities, or embrace it as a new norm with the agility needed to move with it.

As Hans Rosling so masterfully showed us yesterday, we’re seeing a population shift, where the majority of the world’s population is in Africa and Asia, and how the West (a term difficult to define) needs to come to grips with the power shift from West to East.

“Strategy is your portfolio of experience” – Bill Brindley

I had an interesting discussion with Bill Brindley, the CEO of NetHope, where we were talking about how leaders of organizations today need to be a lot more fluid with their strategy. It isn’t enough to have a lot of books and an expensive university degree any longer (has it ever?), now, more than ever a leader needs to build on their experience. How those who run organizations need to engage and adjust on the fly when the paradigms shift underfoot.

For the entrepreneurs on the forefront of disruption, the real innovators who are responsible for breaking the status quo, they are able to better sense the change and adjust to it than others. They often fight an uphill battle getting people to understand what’s going on, to understand their business and to fund it. As Gordon Brown reminded us, through a quote by Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it“, which is why so many of the new solutions sound so crazy and struggle so much… until they win.

Technology the Foundational Change Agent

Underlining the changes we see shaking the foundations of the way the world has traditionally worked, is technology. 87% of the world’s population has a mobile phone. The cost of accessing the internet has continued to speed up and decrease in costs across the globe. These basics; devices and data flow, are the foundations upon which ordinary people have built new companies, have leveraged for social and regime change, and are adjusting the dynamics of how communities interact everywhere.

Nigel Snoad of Google’s Crisis Response team talks about the “consumerization of IT”, where devices and data are widespread throughout society and the impact this is having on every sector, not just for disaster relief. Robert Kirkpatrick of the UN’s Global Pulse team talks about “digital exhaust”, all of the data and signals put out by people using mobile phones and the web, and thinks of how it can be captured and used to improve the planning that both UN bodies and governments do.

I can’t help but think that our changing world is driven on technological shifts, and that their solutions will have technology as part of their answer. For instance, with this aforementioned data overload issue, we can’t wish for technology use to decline, instead we need to find ways to harness the same tools to make sense of it.

Entrepreneurs in a time of Flux

When I look at the entrepreneurs in Oxford I’m energized, because what I see is a new generation of leaders who are looking at some of the worlds most difficult problems in new ways. They don’t see problems, they see opportunities and challenges that can be overcome in the midst of the flux that upsets many of their peers. They flip the “known” on its head and they refuse to accept norms as something that applies to them.

When I look at the flux in the world, I’m excited, as it provides room for the misfits – it gives breathing room to the crazy ideas and those that hold them to move, to act and create. While this flux brings down industries and regimes, it also provides a chance to build up new solutions that benefit a greater number of people. If anything, that’s what this Skoll World Forum is about, it’s about giving a space and a chance to the new thinkers to emerge and find the few others that might believe in them enough to support them as they tilt at windmills.

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.

An Evening with Chinery-Hesse and Negroponte

Next week I’ll be in London to speak at the 21st Century Challenges event put on by the Royal Geographic Society with a focus on “Digital Technology in Africa“.

Besides that main event, it will be a busy 3 days as I’ll also be speaking at the World Bank, meeting at #10 Downing Street, talking at the BBC College of Journalism and at the launch of a Vodafone SIM paper on the mobile web in East Africa at the London School of Economics.

I’m particularly excited about the RGS event because of who I’ll be sharing the stage with. The other speakers are Herman Chinery-Hesse and Nicholas Negroponte.

The above video is Herman Chinery-Hesse, a successful and well-established software entrepreneur in Ghana. He’ll be keynoting the Tech4Africa conference this October in South Africa (along with my colleague Jon Gosier). Herman brings a wealth of knowledge on successful technology businesses, within a West African context. The understanding that the regions of Africa have differing business models and technology success stories is important to recognize.

Nicholas Negroponte is known internationally due to his long and storied history at MIT’s Media Lab. He’s leaving soon, and Joi Ito will soon take over the leadership of that institution. Negroponte spent his last few years heavily pushing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, and I’m sure that will be a large discussion item in London.

Here’s Negroponte a couple years ago talking about the OLPC:

If you’re in London and can join, do check to see if any tickets are still available.

(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)