Quick Hits in the African Tech Space

Indian firm Bharti buys up Zain Africa
The biggest news in the African tech space is Bharti’s $10.7 billion purchase of Zain’s African operations, which operates mobile networks in 17 countries in Africa. Apparently, some believe that Africa’s potential makes Zain deal value fair. (Zain’s African countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambiaand Morocco.)

Google continues getting Africa on the map

Google Maps was launched in 30 Sub-Saharan African countries
. That’s an amazing asset for everyone to use, and it’s also an incredible testament to the number of users using their “My Maps” feature, as this is where this data comes from.

On the growth of tech hubs in Africa
Rebecca Wanjiku wrote an article on IDG about, “Tech labs move beyond corporations in sub-Saharan Africa“. She’s a member of the Nairobi iHub advisory group, and has more insight than most in this space.

South Africa’s Design Indaba
It’s happening right now in Cape Town (Feb 24 – 26, 2010). Great design, and great speakers, but I was really intrigued by their kids program.

Location based service launches in Nigeria
StarTrack is a new location based tracking service in Nigeria, Loy Okezie has a good overview of this new service from Starcomms.

In San Francisco this week

I’ve spent this week in the San Francisco bay area going to meetings, speaking and discussing everything from the iHub to Ushahidi and AfriGadget.

University Students and the Aid Industry

Last night I spoke to a group of university students for 3 hours at the University of San Francisco to Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg’s class on “the Politics of International Aid and Development”. My bent is towards technology and the practical applications of such in Africa. I’m no expert on international aid, but that didn’t stop us from having a lively debate on what works and doesn’t work in Africa.

My main points were centered around technology allowing people to bypass government (and other) inefficiencies in Africa – creating opportunity where none existed before. In my experience, most aid programs don’t work, in fact we’ve seen more good come out of the mobile phone industry’s foray into Africa over the last 10 years than we’ve seen in the past 50 years of aid work.

Some questions that arose during the conversation, each of which we could have spent a day unpacking and dissecting in detail:

  • Can wealth generation alleviate the ills of Africa?
  • Is corruption trickle up or trickle down?
  • Should corruption just be seen as a “cost of doing business”?
  • What’s the most compelling innovation that you’ve seen come out of Africa?
  • Is there such a thing as “good aid”?

Google

This morning I spent some time with the Google.org and the Google crisis mapping team discussing ideas and thoughts about what we all did in the digital space around Haiti. More importantly we asked the question, “what are we going to do the next time a huge global disaster strikes?”

That’s an important question because we need to ensure that we’re further along next time. That, the next time disaster strikes we’re ready with a toolkit of useful applications and platforms that can all be deployed within just a few short hours.

One of the cool things to see was the Google street mapping vehicles parked in a row.

Citizen Space

There are more and more co-working spaces showing up all over the world, including our own iHub in Nairobi. However, one of the early pioneers in this was Citizen Space started by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt. My main purpose visiting was to see how it’s setup and how it has changed since I last visited a couple years ago.

My takeaways: big open space, desks and cool eclectic design. Rent desk space and have a cool vibe about it. I’m sure there’s more than this, but it’s what struck me during my short visit.

Twitter

Most of the afternoon was spent at Twitter where I gave a lunchtime presentation. Ryan Sarver, head of platforms and the API, asked me to do more general talk on innovation in Africa starting with AfriGadget. Having a good 50-60 Twitter employees listening in on AfriGadget, then a talk on mobile phones in Africa, and finishing with the Ushahidi usage in Haiti was interesting to say the least.

The questions asked made me realize that there’s a good opportunity for top-end Twitter employees (and likely other high-level techies from Silicon Valley) to stretch themselves a little bit, head out to Africa and really see what’s going on. They would probably get some ideas that caused them to be a little more creative back in the US.

A longer discussion was had with the leads for the Geo/Mapping team and the Internationalization team. More refreshing than anything else was realizing how open they were to outside ideas and how willing they were to listen. Twitter is doing a lot of things to make sure that their platform is more accessible all over the world, and I think we’ll see some pleasant surprises this year in Africa.

Summary

There’s obviously much more to discuss than this brief summary can do justice to, but not all of it can be put down at one time, or is even relevant at this stage in the game. What I’m excited about is the fact that more people in the Bay Area are talking about relevant issues to African technologists and that there are opportunities for the two groups to start interacting in ways that haven’t been that common in the past. There’s room for both sides to learn from the other.

Testing Google Driving Directions in Kenya

Gone are the days where you had to have lived in Nairobi for a couple years before you understood all the backroads and neighborhoods in order to get from one place to another. Kenya has an advantage as the only non-sales office in all of Africa for Google is here. When they create new tools, or customize a feature from the developing world, for Africa they do it here in their own backyard first (and sometimes Uganda).

Google Maps in KenyaA couple weeks ago Google turned on mapping directions for Kenya. Like me, most of the people who know Nairobi were shocked and didn’t believe it. Could this really work? It does, and it works well.

I’ve been testing it out for the last week to see what type of results I get, and I’ve been impressed with the results. Fortunately I have my iPhone with me, and it allows me to do things like challenge Google/Apple to find my current location and then give directions from that location to somewhere in Nairobi that I happen know every backroad, alley and footpath between.

Shortcomings

No control for traffic
As omnipotent as Google seems to be, what they’re unable to do is track the vagaries of Nairobi traffic. So, as logical as the directions you get from Google might seem, they are not the best way to go much of the time. While they give accurate directions for new people to Nairobi to follow, they are also the “obvious” route and will cost you hours of sitting in gridlock while you watch the matatu’s clog the road even further.

Alternate route to gigiri

Lack of detail on the maps
Some areas, even large towns like Ongata Rongai aren’t even shown on the map. Below is the failure screen for getting directions from Rongai to Eastleigh. I had to go with Langata instead, as that was the next closest “town” in Google Maps. This pattern holds true for dirt roads and paths that are usable by vehicles, but which don’t show up on the map.

Lack of data - fail on Google map direction in Nairobi

I’ve also seen this in regards to offices and buildings, where they are put on the wrong part of the road, sometimes off by a good half kilometer, as was my father’s office in Upper Hill shown below.

Finding the BTL office in Upper Hill, Nairobi

Final Thoughts

Anyone living or working in Kenya should buy a drink for every intern and Google employee who has done the manual work to get Kenya mapped to the level that it is. It’s an iterative process that only gets better as time goes by and more people work on it.

As Google states:

“This essential tool is by no means Google’s effort alone – we’re enormously grateful to Kenya’s active online cartographers who have helped us build these maps from ground up with the use of Google Map Maker, a tool that allows people to help create a map by adding or editing features such as roads, businesses, parks, schools and more.”

The directions provided by Google in Nairobi (I haven’t tested up-country) are adequate. They’ll get you to and from the locations in Nairobi that you need to go. You’re better off now than you were before, and as someone new to the city you’ll have a lot better luck with Google’s maps and directions than you’ll have with asking someone on the side of the road.

Should we be Building SMS or Internet Services for Africa?

Interesting mobile phone

Probably one of my favorite discussions of this trip was entered into after the Uganda Linux User Group (LUG) meeting here in Kampala. It was about whether we should be providing internet protocol (IP) services first, rather than SMS. If cost is the single most important factor for any mobile service aimed at ordinary Africans, then what will it take to move the ball from the SMS court to the IP court? This isn’t just for non-profits to consider, but everyday businesses as well.

Phones that can access data networks have always been in short supply here, so the easy answer has always been to use SMS, just because that’s what people have in their pocket and can use right now. While there are great arguments for either decreasing the costs of SMS, or of moving to IP, the practicality of that was remote due to the costs involved. Either you need a big organization, or a government, who can force the mobile operators to lower their rates on SMS (their cash cow), or you need to have the costs of data-enabled phones to decrease enough that the majority of users switch to them.

There is an argument that says that Grameen’s and Google’s recent deal with MTN Uganda didn’t go far enough in pushing for free, or cheaper, messaging for their new services. Whether you agree or disagree on that matter isn’t relevant if you bypass the argument altogether and provide services via data, which is drastically cheaper, using SMS as the backup.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that for the first time, last year, mobile phones shipped to Africa with data service capabilities outnumbered the simple SMS-only phones that are so prevalent on the continent (Gartner 2009). Of course, this doesn’t mean that there will be a majority of IP accessible phone users immediately, but it is on its way.

Equally important to understand, and a point that increases the momentum of the mobile services over IP argument, is the fact that where there is mobile penetration, there is also available data services. This stands true in Uganda, where MTN says there is 92% GPRS coverage on their network. It’s even true in countries still trying to catch up, like Liberia, where though there are only islands of coverage, that coverage generally comes with data.

Reinier Battenberg, who runs the only local hosting in Uganda, brought up a great point. The fact that Google and Grameen weren’t able to significantly alter MTN’s position on the prices of SMS doesn’t matter. What matters is that Google didn’t offer an IP-based solution for their new Google Trader that they launched. That’s simply unbelievable! It’s doubtful if that type of work would take more than a day for an engineer to implement. Instead of effectively providing an end-run on the strategy around SMS, they just played the same game that the operator wants to play and will win. Something that Google really wants to do is drive people to the web, so why not at least provide web-services for those that can use it? It doesn’t make sense… all around it’s both curious and a questionable strategy.

Africa’s Poor: Premium SMS in the Crossfire

If you provide services to poor people, should you make a profit?

That’s essentially the question raised by Katrin Verclas on MobileActive, and it’s an excellent one. Specifically, Katrin calls out the new Google Trader service offered by Google in Uganda, in conjunction with the release yesterday of their SMS products with Grameen and MTN Uganda, one of the local mobile phone operators. Basically, they charge 220 Ugandan Shillings per use, instead of the median 110 UGS charge across most networks. This is called a premium SMS rate.

Google Trader price in Uganda

Premium SMS rates are charged so that third-party service providers can make money off of services that they provide over the mobile phone network. The operator makes their (ridiculously high) profit as normal, and the overage is for the third-party. You’ll find a lot of dating, event and sports services offered in this way all over the world, not least across Africa.

Back to the question

The question posed is if people who are claiming to help the poor should charge, and if so, should they make a profit?

I think we’ve seen from the Grameen model in Bangladesh (ex: Grameen Bank and Grameen Phone’s Village Phone program) that you can (and possibly should). By doing so you help both parties; first, by providing a service that consumers value and are willing to pay for, and second by making the business of running an operation self-sustaining. Many good business, or project, ideas die due to lack of sustainable cash flow.

For instance, if a 220 shilling SMS can save you the 1500 shilling visit to the doctor or veterinarian, or give you a 10% higher return for your crops, is it worth it?

Is there a problem in the question?

There ends up being a paternalist nuance to that original question. After all, is it up to us to decide what services to offer the poor and at what price? Aren’t poor people able to make the value-based decision on whether a trip to the doctor is more useful to them than a call or an SMS to one? If services are being offered, the person making the decision to call, SMS or go physically to solve their problem, or not, is ultimately the arbiter of whether or not a service has merit and should be offered. It’s a classic market-led approach – if the price is too high for the service, equilibrium will not be reached and one will give, usually price.

This is particularly true when talking about for-profit companies offering services – like Google is with Google Trader. They don’t operate under the same development/grant funded subsidization that a lot of others do in Africa. Even if their goal was not to make a profit on this service, they still need to cover internal costs, as does every organization that isn’t provided with free money.

Final thoughts

This space in Africa, of offering services to the poor (in lieu of the governments actually doing their jobs), has been primarily “owned” by large development and aid organizations. This has created a false floor for the economy, as projects and initiatives are propped up by outside money and services rarely have to survive on their own. This is changing, as low cost and high value options come into the market, be they mobile phone operators providing new communication opportunities, or cheap chinese batteries and LED lights for local energy/lighting needs.

I’m sensing a flux in the space, like two bull buffaloes before they fight, the heavyweights in the aid industry and in business are circling each other before they knock heads. The marketing is over who is helping the poor and marginalized in Africa best. In the end the market will decide, and regardless of the messages spouted by both sides, the “poor African” will choose the winner.

If there’s a problem with collusion and price fixing in an industry (like there sometimes seems to be with SMS services in a country), that’s something beyond the scope of individuals and needs to be tackled separately by regulation. However, that’s not the case here, we have expensive SMS services in East Africa, but the new entrants into the space always offer low rates, and the costs of switching providers is relatively low.

No, this is market-based competitive services and both non-profits and for-profits have the right to offer them at whatever price they like. Equally, individuals have the right to use it or not, be they premium SMS rates or not.

I’d like to hear some other African’s thoughts on this.

Do you want big multinationals like Google and MTN coming in and providing their services to you? Should we be asking questions for the poor, or is that condescending in itself? What is the sticking point here, and is there a side that I’m missing?

**UPDATE**
Thanks to Katrin’s email to Rachel Payne, Google’s lead in Uganda, we have the following response from her on this topic, and it does clarify quite a few unknowns:

Hi Katrin.

Yes, I saw your blog post where you speak in detail about the pricing. However, what is written is not quite accurate. You see, Google, Grameen and MTN launched three types of mobile services yesterday: Google SMS Tips (targeting low-income, rural users primarily), Google SMS Search (urban, mainstream) and Google Trader (all users).

The second service is somewhat similar to other “premium SMS” content services currently available (except that it is built on Google search technology) and therefore, is the same price as other content services. To accommodate the first group, we have priced Google SMS Tips at half the price of a content service; this is available for the cost of a person-to-person SMS, which many rural individuals are willing and able to afford currently.

The third service drives income and livelihood benefits, so we decided to begin charging at the normal content service rate and monitor whether this excludes rural communities or not (we did extensive testing during the pilot, which included pricing discussions and most of the users found that Google Trader provided far greater, direct value than the 110 shilling price difference). For all services, we are offering them for free for the first few months, just to ensure that all users have an equal opportunity to try them out, risk-free and allow them to access critical content during this period so that they can assess whether or not they would like to continue to use the service.

I hope this helps provide a bit more information that clarifies the questions raised.

New SMS Services in Uganda from Grameen, Google & MTN

Grameen Foundation’s AppLab has released a new suite of mobile phone applications developed in Uganda, using Google SMS Search and in partnership with MTN Uganda as the mobile operator. The services include:

  • Farmer’s Friend: a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts
  • Health Tips: provides sexual and reproductive health information
  • Clinic Finder: helps locate nearby health clinics and their services
  • Google Trader: matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products. Local buyers and sellers, such as small-holder farmers, are able to broaden their trading networks and reduce their transaction costs. (known locally as “Akatale SMS”)

Caterpillar Question - Grameen, MTN and Google team up in UgandaBack in 2004 Grameen started to replicate in Uganda what they had done in Bangladesh with their Village Phone Operators. That is, they would go 20km beyond the best phone signal and provide a loan to a lady in the village that would let her buy a phone and an antenna that would extend the range of the network. The lady would then resell services to local individuals who didn’t have access, or the ability to buy their own phone.

I’m actually quite impressed with this initiative, as it fits in perfectly with Grameen’s mission: providing opportunity through the most basic of mobile phones. All of these services work on SMS-only phones, so anyone with a single bar of coverage and a phone has access to a lot of knowledge in their hands.

Here is a promo video from Uganda, explaining why these services are needed:

High-powered Partnerships

Beyond the applications themselves, what I find most compelling is how the Grameen Foundation collected such a high-powered group of partners. The list reads like a who’s-who of innovative mobile services and development in Africa with Google, MTN Uganda, Technoserve, Kiwanja.net, and BRODSI to name a few. It’s a mixture of for-profit businesses, local NGOs and non-profit tech organizations.

I remember a conversation a couple months back with Sian Townsend (Google) and Ken Banks (FrontlineSMS) about how they did the field studies for this project. Sian shared with us some of her research on mobile user experience while in Uganda – it was extensive. Through a month of rapid prototyping and studying how users were actually using the new services, the team quickly learned what was important and how to better serve information up to the end-user.

Though I haven’t been able to personally test the services yet, with this group, I would expect the results to be better than average. For instance, Google doesn’t tend to get involved with ideas that don’t scale. I imagine that they see replicability with both SMS Search and Google Trader in many other countries as well. Rachel Payne, the country manager for Google in Uganda, has a blog post here, but not much more information on the long-term plans for Google Trader. I’d be interested in seeing how this compares to Esoko out of Ghana.

google-trader-picture

Gmail Preview Starts in Africa

Reading about the newest feature in Gmail, called “Inbox Preview” from Google has made me quite happy today. You see, it’s got a lot to do with the “If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere” theory that I expounded upon first here and here.

gmail-inbox-preview

“Inbox Preview is now launched in Gmail Labs – while Gmail is loading, a simple, static preview of your inbox with your ten most recent messages is displayed. This will allow users like myself to be productive even before Gmail has completed loading.”

A perfect example

Basically, Google realized what slow connections were doing to people’s interaction with their email accounts. So, they sent in a team of engineers to work in cyber cafes in Ethiopia to test out where the bottlenecks were and to come up with a solution.

So, besides building in Africa to serve just African audiences with web specific solutions, we can see solutions coming from Africa that also serve the rest of the world. On top of that you can also use our continent as a testing and R&D grounds for new or improved services.

Location, Mobiles and Social Networks

It’s all beginning to come together, at least on the fringe where all of us technocrats live. Social networks have been humming along quite nicely, many people you know are now part of a service like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo or Mxit. On the edges, some applications have started to pair up location-based services around them, thus the rise of smaller applications like FireEagle, Loopt and Brightkite.

What’s always seemed to be missing is a way for location, mobile phones and social networks to coalesce. A way for you to communicate with people, be it updates, comments or chat – and then apply location to that as you chose. Those social networks that tried to do it all couldn’t do it at this level, because they didn’t have critical mass (such as Brightkite). Those that had reach, like Twitter or Facebook, don’t have a simple way to play with location for everyone.

Enter Google Latitude

Just over a week ago, Google Latitude launched. It’s a location-based service that mashes up Google’s own mapping products with Google’s communication products; Gmail and gTalk (chat). One week later, they announced that a million people were already using the service in the 27 countries that they had released it into.

Google Latitude Screenshot

While people are discussing how great the technology works, and it does seem to be quite impressive if you carry one of the supported smart phones platforms (BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android), I believe there’s something even bigger going on here. Google has not had much success in the social network space, so they are taking a rather nontraditional approach to getting embedded into people’s lives at a much more foundational level. Gmail has a base of 50 million+ accounts, and each comes with a chat service, which has gained quite a bit of popularity. Not to mention, SMS was enabled within chat just a couple months ago, in December.

What Google appears to be doing, is leveraging its massive user base, tied together through email and chat services, and pairing it together into a larger community that works within it’s mapping infrastructure.

(Putting on my Ushahidi hat, this has some pretty big ramifications for disaster and emergency work in locations where Google use is heavy.)

The competition

It also has the potential to change the game for some other large services. What happens if people start using Google Latitude for their status updates instead of Twitter and Facebook? What service do you use to find out what’s happening on a Friday night?

It will be very interesting to see what types of reactions to this service arise out of the large social networks, especially those with a large international footprint. Getting location, mobile and social networks to play together isn’t easy, yet these organizations will not sit by as Google whittles away at their empire.

Here’s something to think about. If you didn’t realize this before, pay attention: the big international showdown in this space is between Google and Nokia in the coming years. They have been gaming each other for over two years, and as the race to the edges begins, you’ll see them come head-to-head more often.

Nokia Ovi

1.5 years ago Nokia bought mapping service Navteq in a mega-deal at over $8 billion. Last summer they launched Ovi, which allows remote sync capability for photos, contacts and calender, gains access to music and games, and marries up their mapping and sharing capabilities. It’s what Nokia is banking on for their consumer value-added services in the future.

I’m not sure who will win out on usage in the end, but I do think that Google’s Latitude is an incredibly strong and under-the-radar type play that should be watched very closely. One thing is for sure though, the organization that opens up for easy third-party development on their platform will have a better chance.

Google’s SMS Search in Ghana and Nigeria

Yesterday Google announced that they had enabled searching for information by mobile phones in Nigeria and Ghana. You simply text in your query in to Google’s shortcode, which is 4664, and wait for a response by SMS.

Google SMS Search in Nigeria

After a quick check with someone at Google Kenya, I verified that these are the only two African countries that Google has released SMS search in at this point. It seems that this would be quite simple for Google to turn on in almost every country in Africa, so I wonder if one of the bottlenecks is actually getting the specific shortcode that they want (4664 or “GOOG”).

Though it’s hit or miss on some of the queries right now, at least it was as I tested it through the web interface, it’s still a valuable service that I hope the make available in more countries soon. They’re following the basic rules for technology in Africa, which is to design for the lowest common denominator: SMS-only mobile phones.

Linking the “Other 3 Billion” to the Web

I admit, I’m a little confused.

Yesterday Google, HSBC bank and Liberty Global cable company launched O3b Networks (which stands for “other 3 billion”), a satellite service to bring high-speed low-cost internet connections to the world’s poorest people starting in 2010 – many of them in Africa.

On the Google Africa blog, they state:

O3b plans to deliver fiber-like Internet backhaul service using a constellation of medium-orbit satellites. This means data can be quickly transmitted to and from even the most remote locations such as inland Africa or small Pacific islands. The O3b satellite constellation will provide high-speed, low-latency backhaul services at speeds reaching into the gigabits per second.

The Good

This is the type of technology chess move that makes me sit back and truly laugh out loud. It bypasses inefficient, greedy or corrupt government bureaucracies and gives power to the local people. I’m absolutely thrilled with it and wish them the best of luck – hoping that they can execute on the deployment.

The Confusion…

The founder of O3b is a certain Greg Wyler. You know, the guy behind the big “wiring of Rwanda” initiative with his company Terracom. Well, his record hasn’t been stellar, and so I wonder why he is leading this whole initiative?

It might very well be that they’ve learned their lessons from Rwanda. I’d rather have a guy who has tried and failed and LEARNED from it, than some wide-eyed idealist. Let’s hope that’s the case here.