Quick Hits Around African Tech

Umbono: Google’s South African Incubator

In Cape Town, Google has initiated a tech incubator that gives 6 months of free space, $25-50k startup funding and access to an extensive mentoring network. The secret sauce here is in the angel & mentor network, who will be providing 50% of all investment money, while Google provides the rest. Johanna Kollar leads this initiative, and tells me they’re looking for at least 5 companies to get behind in this first go at it, though if there are enough exceptional applicants, they might do more. If you’re a registered business in South Africa, then you can participate. (more on the Google Africa blog)

The BoBs

Deutsche Welle runs the “Best of Blogs” awards each year, showcasing excellent blogs from all over the world. If you haven’t yet, take a few minutes and vote for your favorites. There are quite a few from North Africa.

21st Century Challenges: Digital Technology in Africa

I’ll be a guest to the Royal Geographic Society in London on May 18th for a discussion on technology in Africa with Nicholas Negroponte, Herman Chinery-Hesse and moderated by Bog Geldof. Our main topic:

“Can digital technology such as laptops and mobile phones offer the countries of Africa realistic economic and educational opportunities?”

If you’re in London, you can get a ticket to the event and join us.

Ushahidi moves

There are over 10,000 deployments of the Ushahidi platform around the world, and as you might imagine, a lot has been happening at Ushahidi, including:

  • The launch of Crowdmap Checkins at SXSW, a way to “roll your own Foursquare-type service”. It’s in it’s beta stage, but you can play with it now, as others have already using the Ushahidi Android or iOS apps.
  • Some amazing people created a Japan deployment after the earthquake and tsunami there, we helped by getting our SwiftRiver Sweeper app to do real-time translation using Google’s APIs.
  • Japan earthquake Ushahidi data, heatmapped

    Japan earthquake Ushahidi data, heatmapped

  • We’ve released some reports on past deployments and are part way through an evaluation by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.
  • One of our volunteer deployers, Anahi Ayala Iacucci, spent a great deal of time and created a 90+ page Ushahidi manual for anyone looking to deploy Ushahidi. Having worked on over 20 deployments of her own, she’s one of the best placed people in the world to do this.

Samsung Seeks to Grow in Africa

Samsung is opening a new Electronics Engineering Academy for youth in Boksburg, South Africa. As Afrinnovator states, they have about 20% of the market, which will only increase as they’ve been smart enough to get behind Android in their devices (currently with 22 models). We’ve felt this presence at the iHub in Nairobi as well, where Samsung has a great interest in reaching out to Android programmers.

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.

Uganda’s Appfrica Labs

Jon Gosier runs Appfrica Labs. He’s been hard at work over the last year promoting technology all over Africa on his blog, and at the same time building a base for the technology incubator Appfrica Labs that he launched late last year with some external funding from European VC firm Kuv Capital. Jon is one of the most capable, energetic and social programmers that I know. He is entrepreneurial, understands the business side of things as well as the nuts and bolts of developing. In short, he’s about the perfect person to put your money behind if you’re going to invest in the African startup tech space.

Appfrica Labs Staff

Innovation in Uganda, by Ugandans, for Uganda

There’s something very powerful about the focus that Jon is applying to Appfrica Labs. I’m sure that there are opportunities and applications that he will incubate that stretch beyond Uganda, but he’s taking a measured approach. There’s enough low-hanging fruit in Uganda for him work on, so he’s starting there.

“The mission is to offer opportunities and work experience for East African software entrepreneurs so that they can then use their talents to bolster the growing local markets by creating their own products and companies. We pick up where local colleges like Makerere University leave off by offering hand-on experience in Java, C++, C#, Ruby on Rails, Django and Python, PHP, Perl, Kannel and various other programming languages that often can’t be taught in-depth in classes due to budget restraints.”

Jon notes that there are over 60,000 Facebook users in Kampala, and instead of creating yet another social network, he has decided to focus a fair bit of early development into this platform. He doesn’t focus on Twitter or other “hot Web 2.0 apps” which aren’t being used there by enough people yet.

Proof is in the development

A good example of this local Uganda focus is the apps and tools that are being developed right now. Here are just a couple examples, and I know first-hand that there are more on the way shortly:

Status.ug – an inexpensive, and efficient, mobile gateway for Ugandans to update Facebook via their mobile phone.

Answer Bird - UgandaAnswer Bird – Uses Facebook Connect to allow questions to be asked and answered in a Twitter-like interface more here).

OhmSMS – Get an SMS when your power is off at home or at the office, simply by keeping a cheap mobile phone plugged into an outlet.

Why this works

Appfrica Labs is not only a great idea, but it’s a blueprint for a new way for technologists to band together and create something in the face of a lot of difficulties in Africa. We all know of the problems faced when trying to get seed capital, or of the lack of traction when trying to sell ideas to the government or big businesses within a country.

What Jon has been able to do is create a brand which others can rally around and push their efforts forward as a collective. It’s about marketing, messaging and communication. He’s made a lot of headway for not just himself, but the other entrepreneurs in Uganda due in no small part to the hard work and late nights put into his blog, creating his own code, and promoting his message at conferences.

We have yet to see the final outcome of all this labor, but it’s an extremely strong start that leaves me optimistic about the future of Appfrica Labs and any other innovation hubs that pop up around Africa. Rebecca Wanjiku is right, Africans should stop whining and work smart, collectively to get new technology built, released and adopted throughout the continent.