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Meltwater: Training Tech Entrepreneurs in Ghana

Before I left Ghana yesterday I had a chance to run by the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) and spoke to Ylva Strander, the managing director of this two year old institution. Their mission is to train up technology entrepreneurs with the skills and acumen to take part on the global stage. It’s run out of a large building in Accra with enough space to run the program for 60 students and their trainers.

Meltwater - Eyram

Every six months, hundreds of potential “Entrepreneurs in Training” go through a rigorous screening process, which are finally whittled down to 20 finalists. It’s a two year program where young technologists are taught business and refined technology skills.

Their goal: by the end of their time at MEST, come up with a viable business plan for the Meltwater Incubator to fund.

The first graduating class is due to walk out of the building to present their business plan this year. They will have the opportunity for seed funding, which teams of them have been working on since they began this process almost 24 months ago. These are all supposed to be internationally-focused businesses, not locally-focused on Ghana.

The whole operation is a not-for profit, funded by the Meltwater Foundation, part of the Meltwater Group in Europe. The idea is for the Foundation to hold an undisclosed equity stake in the startups, then sink that money back into the educational institution for sustainability. The seed capital used to get the startups going was also unclear, but probably in the $15-50k range.

I asked Ylva why they chose Ghana, after all, there are a couple of good spots to do this type of operation across the continent. Ghana was chosen due to it being an English speaking country with good connectivity, proximity to the US and Europe, a stated government focus on ICT and political stability. It came down to a choice between Ghana and Uganda, with Ghana winning out due to stability and the general higher level of business ambition.

MEST is an impressive undertaking, and one that is hard to duplicate due to the upfront costs of running an institution and the time needed to prove it out as being successful or not. All of the students that I met, and I met a good number, were incredibly bright and engaging. If MEST truly does arm them with the best training, then I believe there could be a higher than average number of “wins” coming from the graduates.

Talking community with Ghanian devs

I was supposed to put on a talk to day at Maker Faire Africa (high-tech side) about mapping on mobiles and web, but when the time came it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Instead, with the mix of people at the room I launched into a discussion about what I saw as a lack of communication and cohesion with in the Ghanaian programming community.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

Everyone agreed that there is a lack of general communication and collaboration in this space, though there are a few user groups for things like Linux and a new one for Java. It’s too bad really, because I don’t think there is less talent in Ghana, but that this lack of cohesion of the tech community means that it’s hard for people to “announce” new things and/or get help for areas that they need to get assistance in. The reason I see this is due to the great activity that I see on the Kenyan Skunkworks email list – the contrast between Accra and Nairobi in this is quite stark.

At the end of the discussion, everyone in the room decided to try for the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 7pm. Daisy Baffoe is the one with the list and is going to get in touch with everyone with a location. Hopefully we’ll see the beginnings of a general programmer community in Ghana!

A picture with the Mozilla guys

Ghana – Maker Faire Africa

Hanging out with Ghanaian Devs

Though I’ve been busy running around getting ready for this Maker Faire Africa event, I’ve also had some nice chats with the a few of the programmers and designers in Accra. I know there are still a lot that I haven’t met, but this has been a good start.

I’ll start out by saying this: one of the most disappointing things that I’ve come across here is the lack of community within the tech scene. There is no mailing list, forum, or other digital touch-point for the devs to keep in touch with each other and discuss pertinent local issues. I know just how valuable this is due to my involvement with the Skunkworks tech community in Nairobi.

Offsetting that is the fact that they do have places like Busy Internet and AITI, two facilities that are well-known for supporting the tech community, that act as nexus points for tech meetups and user groups. There are also a number of good tech outfits with quality programmers.

First impressions leave me excited about the talent, but surprised at the lack of connectivity within the community.

Ushahidi meetup

Tonight we had an Ushahidi meetup night in Accra over at the Suuch Solutions office. It’s a great location, butting up to a hotel with nice seating for a get together like ours. We had a couple devs from BusyLab (which I’ll write a full post on soon), a couple from Succh, as well as Henry Addo from our team.

Ushahidi Ghana Meetup

It looks like we have a couple new guys to help out on some interesting parts of the platform. George is an HTML markup guy who is itching to get his hands into some design work, and Chinedu is going to dig into the API with Henry.

The BugLabs Device

We also had a chance to break out the Bug kit from BugLabs, a completely modular hardware device that can be programmed using Java. I’m not sure who will be having the first crack at it, but everyone was amazed with it. What geek doesn’t like this type of stuff? I mean, accelerometer, GPS, camera, LCD, WiFi and control unit. It’s just such a crazy-cool device.

Buglabs kit in Ghana

Blogging this week

This is a courtesy post so that you know most of my blogging this week is taking place at AfriGadget due to being one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa coming up this weekend.

I’m also doing some work on the “FLAP Bag Project“, testing out modular, solar and light-equipped bags in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda with Timbuk2, Portable Light and Pop!Tech.

We’ve got a big release of Ushahidi coming up this week too, so keep an eye on the Ushahidi blog where I have another write-up coming.

Meetups in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda

August is a busy month. If you’re in Ghana, Kenya or Uganda and want to meetup about anything, let me know. Here’s a rough agenda for some open times and events on my schedule.

ghana-kenya-uganda

Ghana

I’ll be in Ghana from Aug 10-18, much of that time will be spent getting ready for and putting on Maker Faire Africa. If you’re attending that event, or want to carve out some time to chat before/after it, let me know.

We’re having an Ushahidi meetup on Wednesday, Aug 12th starting at 6pm at the Adabraka. If you want to know more about the project, let me, Henry Addo or Brian Herbert know.

I’m really interested in seeing some of the mobile and web apps that the Ghanaian community is working on. If you know someone working on something cool that I just shouldn’t miss, leave it in the comments.

Kenya

I’ve got a couple days in Kenya around Aug 19-20 and Aug 23-26. As usual, my Kenya time gets busy very quickly, so let me know now if you want to meet and I’ll see if I can slot it in. I’ve always got time for cool stuff. 🙂

I’m planning to have an Ushahidi meetup on Wednesday, Aug 26th starting at 6pm at the Prestige Plaza food court (as usual). Come meet the Ushahidi team that’s behind the latest “Goma” release. Also we’ll have the two newest members of Ushahidi in attendance.

Uganda

I’ve got a quick jaunt over to Uganda where I’ll be meeting up with the Appfrica team and Teddy Ruge. We’re also planning on having a tech meetup on Friday, Aug 20th. Again, let us know if you can make it.

As you can tell, it’s a little bit of a whirlwind trip. Follow along here for updates (and AfriGadget for the Maker Faire Africa reports).

Maker Faire Africa in 2 Weeks

I’ll be in Ghana next week to help with the final preparations for Maker Faire Africa, taking place August 14-16 in Accra, with the rest of the organizing team. It’s looking to be quite the event with many Ghanian Makers, as well as some from Kenya, Liberia and Malawi. The FabLab teams from Nigeria and Kenya will both be showing what they’ve been building, as well as some of the teams from the IDDS event.

A Small Taste…

Dominic Wanjihia from Kenya will be coming to show his evapocooler invention for cooling camels milk in Somalia, along with an number of his other inventions.

The FabLab team from the University of Nigeria on their way. Look for a bunch of neat stuff, including: a mobile device battery charger using cycle power, a simple mobile robot, a Wi-fi phone network, and a universal remote control for switching on/off your lights.

Planish, a company that makes cool, funky looking furniture from water bottles will be showing their wares.
Water bottle furniture from Ghana by Planish

Nana Kofi Acquah is an amazing Ghanaian photographer with images that capture the spirit of Ghana. His breathtaking pictures have been used by the likes of FIFA, Nike and Nestle in campaigns around the world. You can find his professional site at NKAphoto.com »
Picture by Nana Kofi Acquah in Ghana

Pat Delaney, of Multimachine fame, is coming. This is an, “all-purpose open source machine tool that can be built inexpensively by a semi-skilled mechanic with common hand tools, from discarded car and truck parts, using only commonly available hand tools and no electricity.” Though he can’t bring the full machine, he is bringing all the knowledge cased in DVDs for anyone to build their own out of locally available parts.

Most of my blogging about Maker Faire Africa will happen on AfriGadget, but there will be a lot of content up on the MFA blog as well.

Sponsors

An event like this just wouldn’t be possible without the help of others. We’re fortunate to have some great sponsors on board, including: IDDS (happening right now in Ghana, read their blog), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Butterfly Works, Inveneo, Moving Windmills, Mozilla, AndSpace Labs and many individual donations totaling up to $2400 (thanks!). Lastly, a special thanks to Dale, and the rest of the O’Reilly team, for letting us use the “Maker Faire” moniker for this event.

Ghana – International Development and Design Summit (IDDS)

Obama’s New Media Strategies for Ghana

A couple weeks ago I had a discussion with President Obama’s New Media team, where we talked about what they might do to reach out to ordinary Ghanaians on his trip next week – which will culminate in his speech in Accra on July 11th. There is a lot of excitement in Africa around Obama, and this trip is going to set the continent humming.

Obama in Ghana - 2009

WhiteHouse.gov/Ghana isn’t live yet, but on July 11th, it will become available. They are going to stream the talk at whitehouse.gov/live.

It’s a fairly interesting initiative to undertake, with a slew of problems, as you try to engage with as many individuals in an open travel campaign as possible. At the same time, you know that any channel you open up will get absolutely flooded with incoming comments, questions and spam of every sort. In the end, the team decided that Radio, SMS, then Facebook would be the primary new media access points – and in that order.

Radio, SMS and Facebook

Radio is still the number one communications medium across Africa, and Ghana has a particularly vibrant and active one with a lot of local and national community interaction.

As everyone knows, mobile phone penetration has grown at an explosive rate in Africa, this means that SMS is a fairly democratic means for getting feedback from people of every demographic across the nation. (Funnily enough, not available to US-based residents – more below on that)

Lastly, there are no major homegrown web-based social networks in Ghana, and like many other countries across Africa Facebook has a decent amount of penetration. In Ghana, it’s at 100,000+, so it makes the most sense for the new media team to engage and interact without splitting their energy over too many services. Having Twitter on as a backup is natural, as there will be a great deal of chatter there as well.

The details (from the White House)

SMS. We’re launching an SMS platform to allow citizens to submit questions, comments and words of welcome (in English and in French) . Using a local SMS short code in Ghana (1731) , Nigeria (32969) , South Africa (31958) and Kenya (5683), as well as a long code across the rest of the world*, Africans and citizens worldwide will be encouraged to text their messages to the President. SMS participants will also be able to subscribe to speech highlights in English and French. Long numbers for mobile registration pan-Africa: 61418601934 and 45609910343.

This SMS platform is not available to US participants due to the Smith Mundt Act (The act also prohibits domestic distribution of information intended for foreign audiences).

Radio. A live audio stream of the President’s speech will be pushed to national and local radio stations during the speech. After the speech, a taped audio recording of the President’s answers to the SMS messages received will be made available to radio stations and websites. The President hopes to answer a variety of questions and comments by topic and region. The audio recording will also be made available for download on White House website and iTunes.

Video. The speech will be livestreamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live. The embed code for this video is available so you may also host the livestream on any Website.

Online chat. We will host a live web chat around the speech on Facebook (it will be at http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive). The White House will also create a Facebook “event” around the speech wherein participants from around the world can engage with one another. A Twitter hashtag (i.e. #obamaghana) will also be created and promoted to consolidate input and reaction around the event.

Obama talks about his upcoming trip

Part 1

Part 2

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

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