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.

An Inspiring Article with Great Advice for Entrepreneurs

“When you take risks, odds are you’re going to fail. Successful people don’t like to fail. So the challenge with innovating as you scale is that you have to get people in the mindset that failure is part of the process — it’s part of this iterative process of grinding.”

This is from an article about David Friedberg, who just sold The Climate Corporation (aka Weatherbill) for $1 Billion.

Read it: http://firstround.com/article/Theres-a-00006-Chance-of-Building-a-Billion-Dollar-Company-How-This-Man-Did-It#ixzz2hPGdWRCn

Savannah Fund Accelerator: Call for 2nd Round

The Savannah Fund has been in operation about 8 months now, and has done 5 investments. One at $200k+, one at $75k and three at the accelerator level of $25k each.

We’re accepting applications through the end of this week, and we’re looking for 5 quality startups to begin the accelerator program in August. Fill out this form to apply.

What is the Savannah Accelerator Fund?

Last month we put together a short video to better explain the Savannah Fund, and why it’s important for tech entrepreneurs in the region.

In short, it’s not just the $25k, which is useful but not the reason why you should be applying, it’s all of the other connections, training and access to people that bring the real value.

Mbwana has written a post on some of the lessons learned along the way, well worth reading:

“Some of the sessions included Max Ventilla who sold his startup Aardvark to Google, Carey Eaton of Africa One Media (best known for Cheki), Eran Feinstein of 3G Direct Pay a leading credit card and payment processor in East Africa, and investors including Khosla Impact. We also focused heavily on digital marketing by bringing technical experts such as Agnes Sokol who continues to advise some of the startups. In the next accelerator we will add additional resources including collaborating with iHub Research and UX Design Lab.”

Here’s Ahonya, one of the Savannah Fund accelerator companies describes how startups can benefit from accelerator programmes.

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.

Quick Hits Across African Tech

What Africa’s Entrepreneurs Can Teach the World
Ghanaian friend and TED Fellow Bright Simons does a piece for Harvard Business Review on African entrepreneurs, excess diversification and hyper-entrepreneurship. A quote:

Then there’s the tendency toward what I initially saw as excess diversification. My think-tank colleagues and I were stunned to see how many concurrent businesses the typical entrepreneur owns and manages in Africa. One famous waste utility entrepreneur had about 66 different businesses. On the whole, the businesspeople we studied appeared to run an average of six businesses.

Twinpine: Nigerian Mobile Ad Network
Forbes does a piece on a startup that I hadn’t heard about yet from Nigeria, Twinpine, who is setting up a successful mobile advertising network.

Re-inventing Finance
There’s a good talk by Sean Park from Lift 2012 called, “Reinventing Finance: an Emerging (Digital) Reformation” where he talks about the changes in the money space, with examples of who to look out for.

Infographic: Mobile Web East Africa
Interesting numbers, quotes and data from the Mobile Web East Africa conference.

30 Brilliant Startups Across Africa
If you’re looking to find some startups from many different countries across the continent, Memeburn has an article, selecting 30 companies that are doing cool, new things in tech in Africa.

African Domains
I’ve been having fun following a Twitter handle @AfricaDomains recently, and the Africa Domains blog is worth a read as well.

Kenya: Big vs Small
Big international firms (think IBM, Dimension Data, etc.) are beating out smaller local firms to lucrative government contracts, which makes up a significant portion of the annual tech spend in the country. The Nation opened up this debate with this article, that then went on to have a real face-to-face debate by the end of the week.

InMobi Mobile Media Consumption Research Q4 2011 – Global Results

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 developer to tech entrepreneur gap

Being able to make something doesn’t mean you’re an entrepreneur, being able to make a business out of it does.  

I’ve met many great developers across Africa, some who would be considered “top of class” in any country in the world.  Unfortunately, some confuse starting a company for running a business.  It’s easy to get a legal entity, a company name and even a prototype out into the market.  It’s hard to earn money off of that idea, even enough to make it self-sustaining, much less profitable.

I can think of a couple reasons why this might be.

Sometimes I wonder if this problem comes from the current eduction system, where you’re trained to be great employees but not independent thinkers with an entrepreneurial bent.  That could be it, and it’s no surprise that the tech entrepreneurs who are making a living, building businesses of their own, weren’t the top students in their class.

I then look out at the many pitch competitions and challenges that are being presented to the young tech entrepreneur in Africa, and I realize something else.  The ability to communicate what you do and what value it brings to your market are missing.  There is an extremely small number of presentations that I’ve seen that would sway an investor or business executive to engage with your business and its products.

Again, maybe this is a matter of academic style and lack of business training in school.  It probably has a lot to do with the fact that developers are generally not businessmen, therefore they have a difficult time pitching their product, even if they have the desire and fancy themselves in that role. 

We need a couple things to happen.  

First, more companies formed by a combination of 1 businessman and 1 tech.  Start from there and see what happens when you each concentrate on what your strengths are – your competitive advantage.  As a programmer, put your ego to the side and realize that an experienced businessman with good business acumen will take you far.

Second, I hope the local high schools and universities will offer basic business classes that are made open to young people in the technical field.  Having a basic understanding of economics, marketing and incentives means a better chance that aspiring tech entrepreneurs will make it.  Equally, we need more business schools to have introductory classes in technology so that they know what the gaps are and can exploit them.  

Mxit is Imported into Kenya

Mxit is a massive mobile social network that was started in South Africa a couple years ago. Today, Safaricom announced a partnership with them, using their marketing muscle (7 pages of ads in today’s newspaper) to import Mxit into Kenya.

Mxit launches in Kenya

[For the time being, we’ll ignore the complete ripoff of Twitter in their marketing...]

Mxit is a free instant messaging platform that uses the data network, thereby making it cheaper per message than sending an SMS. They claim 19 million users, most a younger demographic, who spend time chatting with friends or in chat rooms. MXit also supports gateways to other instant messaging platforms such as MSN Messenger, ICQ and Google Talk.

Mxit user growth

Local apps and entrepreneurs react

This should be a slap in the face to Kenyan programmers and tech business entrepreneurs. The model to build the same type of mobile social network has been openly working and available to do for at least three years.

To be fair, Mbugua and the Symbiotic team tried to create something like this a year ago, called Sembuse. Both he and Idd Salim aren’t very happy about this latest move, claiming that Kenyan entrepreneurs can’t get the same access or opportunities as their South African counterparts.

From Mbugua:

“The issue is not that they have a partnership with Mxit but that from personal experience, local developers and companies suffer greatly in their quest to have such partnerships.”

From Idd:

“Most likely, the marketing retards at Safcom were convinced to believe that Mxit will increase data ARPU for Safcom. Mxit is meant to be a replacement to SMS. … So Instead of sending an SMS, you will use Mxit. Safaricom will lose KSHS 3.5 per SMS, but gain KSHS 0.003 per data exchange over Mxit. Talk of Safaricon Conned! Pwagu amepata pwaguzi.”

The issue with Safaricom

On one side, the Sembuse team have a point. Safaricom has been promising to open up their API and platform for real extension. This has never been fulfilled. They have promised to (honestly) engage with the local programming community, and this hasn’t happened either. They were publicly called out on all of these facts and more at the Mobile Web East Africa conference this year.

In many ways Safaricom walks arrogantly through the Kenyan market, lying, stealing and cheating their way to even larger profits. However, they also push the edges. While others are happy to sit back and make their current margins, Safaricom takes risks and eats their lunch. Innovation, whether it’s home built, bought or stolen still has the same effect.

Business reality

For whatever reason (marketing, value add, etc), Sembuse didn’t catch on – it hasn’t reached critical mass. Numbers of users, rather than technology ability even when it’s better, are the things that larger companies are looking for in this type of play. If you don’t have half a million users, you aren’t even in the game.

Though I’m no Safaricom apologist, I can’t fault them for making a decision to go with a tested product from an established business. Yes, SMS is currently a cash cow, especially here in Kenya. However, everyone can see the writing on the wall: data is the future, and controlling the channel is more important than anything else.

As David Kiania from the Skunkworks list noted, “Rule No. 4 in business: Cannibalize your revenue and business model before your competition does it for you.

I’m more disappointed that no Kenyan company has been able to make a go at this by themselves, just like Mxit did years ago. You don’t need Safaricom or any other mobile app provider to be successful in this space, Mxit if anything, has proven that.

Like I said 2 years ago, this is a sure win if you can pull it off correctly. The technology to do this is not new, as Idd Salim points out as well, neither is the model – so you know that the strategy here is on marketing and communications to show the value add to potential customers.

More than anything else, Kenyan entrepreneurs should be upset with themselves for missing a sure opportunity, not upset with Safaricom for making a good business decision.

iHub: Nairobi’s Tech Innovation Hub is Here!

iHub – Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community – is here! It’s an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part investor and VC hub and part incubator.

A number of us in the Nairobi tech community have been discussing the need for a physical nexus for the tech community here for a couple years, so it’s great to finally be so close to uncorking the bottles and celebrating a big step forward for all of us.

iHub opens on March 3, 2010!

Here’s a rough video of the iHub. A first-look at the space, before any design or wiring is done:

[Note: my apologies for the video quality, it was taken with my phone.]

Background and Info

The iHub will have a redundant 10Mbs connection, hardwired and WiFi, and it’s freely available to any tech person in Nairobi to use once they become members. Membership is free, our only requirement is that you are indeed involved in the tech space as a programmer, web designer or mobile application developer.

Data connectivity is the most important aspect of the iHub, but after that comes a fresh design and an atmosphere that is conducive to techies getting cool stuff done.

Finally, we’re putting our networks into place to give special access to the entrepreneurs and startups who need space to meet with VCs, seed funders and local businesses. We’re trying to create the place where seeds are planted and are easily found by the people with money to help them grow.

A Blank Canvas

The iHub is what we as a tech community make it. It is a blank canvas, a big open room with a great view and wonderful location, but still an empty room that needs some input from people within the community to design, and create a culture around.

What part are you going to play?

  • Want to have bragging rights on being the logo designer for the iHub? There’s $500 (38,000 Ksh) up for grabs at the iHub logo contest!
  • Have a penchant for design, want to help layout the floor plan, pick the wall colors or design the signage?
  • We’re wiring this place with the latest and best data connections in Kenya. Can you help us make sure the network is sound?
  • Good at creating intranets for fast and easy file sharing of 1gb+ downloads like the Android SDK? Want to help us build that?
  • Maybe you’ve got great business connections. Will you help us connect the iHub and the people in it to the business community?

iHub Location

The new iHub’s location is going to be on the 4th floor of the new Bishop Magua Centre on Ngong Road (directly opposite the Uchumi Hyper). It’s an amazing location, with quick access to public transportation, food and the rest of town.


View iHub – Nairobi’s Innovation Hub in a larger map

Community Involvement

I’ve been working closely with a couple of people from the community to find a place and get some basic items squared away. This advisory group is made up of individuals with a long standing presence in tech locally, including:

  • Riyaz Bachani, CTO of Wananchi
  • Josiah Mugambi, Co-Founder of Skunkworks
  • Rebeccah Wanjiku, Tech reporter and entrepreneur
  • Conrad Akunga, Blogger and Software Manager
  • Erik Hersman (me), Tech blogger, Founder of AfriGadget and co-Founder of Ushahidi

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of things still to be done, and we all need to band together in order to make this space what we hope it will become. Your ideas and drive will make the iHub into the space to be in all of East Africa for tech-related activities.

If you would like be involved, leave a comment below.

African Digerati: Adii Pienaar of Woothemes

African Digerati Interview: Adii Pienaar

Adii Pienaar (aka Adii Rockstar) is the 7th in the African Digerati series of interviews. At only 24 he’s the youngest one on the list – he’s here because he represents the success that can be achieved as a young digital entrepreneur in Africa. Just under a year ago Woothemes splashed onto the stage as a new seller of WordPress (blogging tool) themes.

Rumor has it that this might be the most monetarily successful startup in the new media scene coming out of South Africa… That’s in less than one year. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the fact is that Woothemes is one of the top WordPress theme sites in the world, and it’s grown out of Africa with a lot of work, an eye for design and passion.

Woothemes just launched version 2 of itself, called WOO2. This interview is in response to that, and a chance to take a look at one of the visionaries behind it. After reading the interview, take a look at Adii’s blog. You’ll realize he’s light-hearted and doesn’t take himself to seriously, personality traits that I appreciate.

Woothemes version 2: woo2

When was the seed of Woothemes planted in your mind, and what was it’s genesis? What caused you to go from idea to actually building something, and how did you do that?
I don’t really know… Magnus, Mark & I had been collaborating a bit more loosely and the business was growing quite steadily. So I think it was just a natural progression to formalize the collaborations into a business and brand it as WooThemes. Luckily for us, we had a good following at that stage and the foundations were good all round to launch WooThemes.

What inspires you?
Would I be egotistical to say that I inspire myself? :) Honestly though, I’m inspired by a bunch of different things on a daily basis; and those things are random at best. The “being inspired” bit, along with willingness to act on said inspiration is a result of me absolutely loving a challenge and thus being completely driven to pursue those challenges.

Who are your biggest influences?
Online, I’ve got a lot of respect for entrepreneurs like Ryan Carson & Collis Ta’eed, who are at the top end of this new wave of entrepreneurs. Offline I’ve always appreciated Richard Branson’s way of going about business and marketing his ideas. And then closer to home… I’ve learned a helluva lot from both my business partners – Magnus & Mark – whilst I’d be lying if I said that my dad didn’t influence my business mind a lot – especially when I was younger.

Woo2 is a redesign of the Woothemes site and the community platform behind it. What are the big changes, and why do they matter?
Facing outwards, I think WOO2 signals our intent with regards to further growth and also improving the current experiences on WooThemes.

On a business level, I think WOO2 is more professional and we put a lot more strategic thinking into it. So again, it’s some kind of natural progression of how we’ve grown. WOO2 is the next step and the next part of the journey ahead.

Woothemes is expanding to other platforms beyond WordPress (Drupal, Expression Engine, etc.). What is your strategy here, and when will we start seeing these themes for different platforms?
The strategy is basically one that aims to diversify our offerings (and also our risk of having all our eggs in one basket), along with the growth aspects (new products = new markets = new users). And whilst I’m reluctant to commit to any schedule in this regard, we will start rolling out the Drupal themes in the next 2 / 3 weeks, and we’ve already started work on the EE & Magento stuff.

There’s always been the debate amongst the WordPress intelligensia about some theme providers not honoring the WordPress GPL licensing. iThemes, Brian Gardner and others have changed stances. I noticed you have as well. Is this where you wanted to go, or was it something that the greater community forced upon you? How will this help your business?

I can categorically say that this wasn’t something we did because we felt forced to do so. Way back in August 2008, I told Matt Mullenweg (at WordCamp SA) that going GPL was on the horizon for us and we’d do so when we felt comfortable doing so.

And as for how it will affect / help our business… I don’t know yet. We’ve only been GPL for a day, so I guess we’ll have to wait & see. :)

How big is Woothemes and how active is your community? Can you give any numbers?
This is tempting, but I’d rather not share these numbers… Maybe in the next couple of months, we’ll adopt a more open approach and share some of these numbers, but we’re not into boasting about supposed success.

I can however say that our support forum has racked up almost 45K posts, which means that the community is active. And our free themes (6 of them) have been downloaded about 35 000 times in the last month… :)

You’ve successfully created a web business out of South Africa that has impacted people around the world. You’re tapped into the web in a way that few others are. What’s next? What does the big picture look like from a the Rockstar perspective?
I’m taking over the world, one WordPress installation at a time.

LOL no… I’m very content with what I’m doing at the moment and very happy with the space & freedom that WooThemes has afforded me. I’m still young (24), so at this stage I’d like to think that I’m trying to revolutionize my own life, in terms of how I work and how I act outside of business hours. Beyond further growing WooThemes, that’s probably my main focus, because I want to do this now and not when I turn 30 / 40 and realize that I’ve work my life away.

And a shameless punt… I’m writing a book called Rockstar Business that basically airs my thoughts & experiences within this journey! :)

Finally, what are your thoughts on the impact of blogging in your own continent: Africa?
I’m ashamed to admit this, but Africa is generally a deep dark place for me (which I’m planning on rectifying with a proper journey into Africa – for holiday – later this year). So I’ve honestly not met many Africans who are bloggers.

BUT… In theory I think blogging gives everyone a voice; a voice they didn’t have before. And that’s true freedom & power for me, which we’ll ultimately see itself manifest when Africa becomes one of the strongest nations / economies in the world.

[Disclosure: I’m a customer of Woothemes, having purchased (full-price) one of their themes for the Maker Faire Africa website. I’m very happy with this too, everything is rock solid.]