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.

Innovation Kills the Status Quo

This is from a blog post that I wrote for the Skoll World Forum, coming up in a couple weeks, that I titled, “Innovation Comes from the Edges“.

A phone booth graveyard, displaced by the mobile phone, in Lamu, Kenya

I was recently asked, “how do you find innovators?” It’s an odd question really, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that is valuable to think through. You have to dig deeper and think why innovations happen at all, and what the power structures are that make them be identified as innovative. After all, innovation is just a new way of doing things than what is currently the norm.

In any industry, society or business there are status quo powers at play. These are generally legacy structures, setup for a time and place that needed that design. Think big media in broadcasting and print, how has it been disrupted by the internet, mobiles and social media in the last 10 years? How about government? How about the humanitarian space? How about the energy industry?

All of these industries were seen as “innovative” when they came into their own, decades and centuries ago. Now they are legacy in both infrastructure and design, and their relevancy in their current state is in question. By their nature they fight to maintain the power structures that keep them in the position that they hold. Changes to the foundations on which they stand is not only scary, it’s deadly.

Innovation comes from the edges, so it comes as no surprise that innovators are found in the margins. They are the misfits among us, the ones who see and do things differently. They challenge the status quo and the power sources that prop that up, so are generally marginalized as a reflexive and defensive action.

Think about what you’re really asking for when you say you want innovation in your space. Because, when you do, you’re asking for the outliers, the disruptors and the rebels to have their way. You’re asking for a new way of thinking and doing – and if you’re in a position of power within an industry, you’re likely going to be upset along the way.

Innovation and Social Entrepreneurs

I’ve seen my fair share of “social entrepreneurs” as a TED Senior Fellow and a PopTech Faculty Fellow, at the iHub – and of course as a co-founder of Ushahidi I’ve been labeled as one as well.

I’m still not sure that I buy into this term (but that’s a longer discussion for another time).

All successful social entrepreneurs are innovators, though all innovators aren’t social entrepreneurs. This space is being defined as one where the innovation has to be something that empowers the disempowered, strengthens the weak, or enriches the lives of the poor. These are loose boundaries, but ones that allow the subjectivity of founders and funders to define their work. Since it’s fairly new, this works for everyone quite well.

At the end of the day what I do, and what the other social entrepreneurs that I’ve gotten to know over the years do, is disrupt something. Simply put, we’re working from the outside, or the edges of an industry, with less money and less buy in, trying to change the way that it works. Sometimes undermining it entirely, sometimes coming up with new markets and new industries, all in our search for a better way.

On Funding Innovation

Many of the people who say they want change, and aren’t happy with the current solutions found in the world, aren’t actually serious about wanting that change. It’s lip service. There are very few funders and forums for game changers to be heard and for them to find funding to take their idea, product or service to market. The same people who say that they don’t want the same traditional approach, apply traditional ways of thinking to finding and funding innovators.

There is precious little innovation in the funding space, even as these same funders look to find the next organization that will turn the world on its head. In a space overflowing with grand claims of disruption, which funders are actually that themselves? How many “social impact” funders actually fund anything? In the social entrepreneurs world, it’s a lot less painful to get funding from traditional VCs and angels than it is this new social impact investor type.

I can think of a few funding organizations that actually try new things, and can count them on one hand: Skoll, Omidyar Network, Knight, Indigo Trust. I’ve probably missed a couple, but you get the drift, this isn’t an area where people are changing with the times.

Thoughts on Africa’s Mobile Operators and Disruption

Generally speaking, mobile network operators (MNOs) were highly disruptive in the 90’s, but have continued to decrease in this over the last decade. Operators are no longer the offensive, attacking force of yesteryear, instead they’re putting up barriers and defensive walls trying to protect what they have and hide.

Instead, the disruption comes from the open web. Whenever the operators put up a blocker to what users want, usually in the form of price or access to their infrastructure, the web finds a way of displacing them. Examples abound in location based services, text messaging, video and photos.

There’s a reason operator revenue is shifting away from voice and SMS towards data. The products that got the operators here are receding in relative value. The user wants what’s available in the open web, and that’s just not found, or being provided, by the operators.

So, what is an MNO to do?

Change. Disrupt someone else. Innovate.

One of the biggest disruptors, even in this decade of MNO mediocrity, has been Safaricom – the 800lbs gorilla in my own back yard. They’ve invested in new technology, products and business models like few others, and are reaping the rewards of those strategic moves.

Do I like having a monopoly player in my market? No.
Do I feel bad for the other MNOs (Orange, Airtel and Yu) who are crying now? No, they did this to themselves.

Let’s dig into their golden-child, Mpesa, the mobile peer-to-peer payment system that’s did $3.15 billion in transaction in just the last 6 months(!). How do you know they succeeded in innovating? Well, the easy answer is looking at their profitability and user tie-in that they get from Mpesa. Look more closely and you’ll notice the other signal, all of the bank lobbies in other countries have put up huge walls, blockading an aberration like Mpesa from having sway in their country.

[Sidebar: A warning to everyone who wants to see innovation in their country. Over regulation of telecommunications and banking strangles it. South Africa and Nigeria are cases in point.]

So, Mpesa sounds to everyone like a huge success story. It is, and it’s not. What we think of as an amazing disruptive product is really only halfway up the mountain. There are too many corks being popped while money lies sitting on the table. This stems from 2 main things, which seem to be an issue of Vodafone primarily, since they own the IP for Mpesa and own a 40% stake in Safaricom:

  1. The lack of leadership by Vodafone to NOT open up an API that other businesses could build on and increase usage. They’ve stifled innovation on their own product.
  2. Their lack of vision in the global payments space. Their shortsideness in not spinning out Mpesa as its own company to take on Visa and Mastercard directly. This was one of the few products and business models that could do that.

More MNO Innovation

So, Safaricom might be stifling its own product, but they’re still not short on disruptive features and products. They do fall prey to bureaucracy and political infighting, but they’re also one of the most aggressive MNOs globally, always trying new things. Three more examples:

  • Creativity in 3g data pricing and accessibility down market.
  • First-movers in 3g and exceptional data coverage countrywide.
  • Okoa Jihazi, their product that gives a loan of credit from the operator to users who are tight on cash.

Other examples of MNOs who are innovating in Africa are:

Airtel Madagascar working with Movirtu with their new Cloud Phone, a way for people to share a phone, but keep the SIM card in the cloud.

MTN, testing Mobile Phonebook by FeePerfect out of Cameroon, a product that puts a phone book into everyone’s phone.

Small + Big

Clearly, innovative products can come to market through MNOs. What’s the common denominator on these products though? Most of them came from small companies and were then incorporated into the MNO.

Ideas come from outside, they come from the edge. Scale comes from inside, from the massive infrastructure provided by the MNO. They have to work together to succeed.

I work with, and talk to, hundreds of entrepreneurs. They have ideas, prototypes and products that just might be what the users want. They lack the access to the infrastructure to roll it out.

As an MNO, you boost your chances of success in this increasingly chaotic space by not walling everything off, but by opening it up.

What makes the iHub work?

I often get asked what the iHub is, what happens here, and why it has worked. Often followed by the question of whether or not this model could work elsewhere in Africa. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

The iHub is Nairobi’s nerve center for technology; a place where we can grab coffee, create apps, find funders and build businesses. It’s where the community of web and mobile programmers connect with each other, businesses, the government and academia.

[TLDR version: Championed by credible people, alongside advisors from the community. Experimental mindset. Strong connections to corporates. Strict community focus.]

A brief history

Juliana, Erik and David

There was a discussion at Barcamp Nairobi 2008 about how valuable it would be for the Kenyan tech community to have a static space of our own. No one would fund that idea. My organization, Ushahidi, decided that we liked it the idea enough that we would fund it. It fit with our overall thoughts on being “open”, it would serve as Ushahidi’s home in the region, and most of all, we thought we could use our good fortune to find and help the next startups in Kenya.

Thus, I moved back to Nairobi in 2009, with funding from Ushahidi via Omidyar Network and Hivos, to build the iHub. I quickly selected a space, and picked the energetic and gifted Jessica Colaco as the Manager. In March 2010 we started work on the space, and in June it was open for use.

Though we had provided funding for the first 2 years, the iHub is an independent Ushahidi initiative. Meaning, that it runs outside of the normal Ushahidi operations and organization. Though the Ushahidi team has full access for the space, we have a very light footprint, and use it the same way everyone else in the community does. We knew that even though we were the most neutral of parties, with a ton of local credibility, trying to “own” the space would fail – just as it would if it had been named the “Google iHub” or the “Nokia Innovation Hub”. It had to be owned by the community, and that meant name and usage both.

The community

IMG_8629

At the heart of all that happens at the iHub is the community. They designed the room layout and logo, run the network, hold events, built the website, create the house rules and drive the direction of the space. The management of the space is there to provide basic infrastructure support, a foundation, which the community then builds on to make the space what it is today.

What’s important to understand is that we come from this community too, we are it. We knew it could work because it was ourselves we were building for. When people ask me if I could do the same thing in another city, I respond that it would be questionable. A space like the iHub needs to be put together by someone from that community of techies who understands at a basic level the needs and has the credibility within it to make it happen.

As the iHub grew, we realized that all of the administrative duties, mixed with community interaction, were too much for one person. Thus we brought on Tosh to be the community manager, where he is in charge of working with people, memberships and events. His job is to aggregate, translate and enable the communities needs.

The advisors

That “being part of the community” was what drove me to start looking for a small team of advisors who could help make decisions, especially early on. This iHub advisory board was made up of 4 influential and highly credible technology players from Nairobi, plus myself. The greater community could appreciate that they were being represented well, and it provided a small enough team to move quickly.

Initial roles for this team were to make the final decision on build out design, logo and name, as well as figure out how to deal with an influx of members in a tiered membership model if the need arose (and it did, quickly). With over 4,300 white-level members, this team is also responsible for making the decisions on who gets green-level membership, the people who ultimately get to have free and unfettered access to the iHub facility.

The design

IHub Nairobi Incubator 3D

The design of the space was very important, and we were lucky to have Fady Rostom and Kwame Nyongo to lead the design team. They spent a lot of time listening to the ideas and thoughts of the advisory team before they started drawing, and it shows in what was built.

We needed a place that was open, and could be flexibly turned from community commons to event space. We wanted a subsection of the space to be rentable desks, for pre-incubation and co-working activities. At no time was a coffee shop not included – it was seen as core to the vibe and culture of what would happen here. We’d need a secure server room, and plenty of ethernet and electrical points, both inside and outside.

Most of all, the iHub needed to be a place where Kenyan techies were proud of. A place that was uniquely ours, and that we could show off to our visiting friends from abroad. It had to have the feel of being any high-tech community space in the world, with a Kenyan flavor. And it is.

The sustainability strategy

Early on we had no idea how we would pay for things beyond the first 2 years. We projected costs, but didn’t know where the revenue would come from. We had some ideas, but instead of creating a grand plan, we decided to take a very experimental approach, iterating on what worked and killing ideas that didn’t fit.

Right now the iHub has revenue coming in from red members (co-working desk rental), events and the new research arm. Events and desk rental were obvious and worked from very early on. The R@iHub arm didn’t come into being until January of this year, and was very much a big experiment – which appears to be working marvelously well. Jessica’s background is as a technology researcher, and she’s built a brilliant team around her to focus on this. Already we can see that 50%+ of future income will come from this initiative.

The other experiment was taking lead on the m:lab, a space the same size as the iHub which sits one floor beneath us. It’s an incubator. It plays the iHub’s foil, where upstairs is about community, openness and fun, the m:lab downstairs is about professional tech companies building quality products and making it into the market. We took the lead on the consortium behind this, and it is seen as a sister-facility to the iHub, with many shared services between the two.

The corporates

Both the iHub and the m:lab have strong corporate partners. Early on, before the first brush of paint was dry in the iHub, we had started talking to big technology corporates who call Nairobi home. Large tech corporations need an active dev community, and the dev community needs them. Luckily, Kenya is geographically well-positioned for some great companies to make it their home in the region, which worked well for us. We also happened to know a number of them personally, which sped up the discussions and interactions considerably.

We didn’t want to just have corporate partners who were sponsors. We made it very clear early on that their money was less important to us than what value they could add to the space that would help the dev community, but that it was a 2 way street. If we couldn’t facilitate a strong value back to them from the local tech community, then it was a no-go.

Fortunately, despite our lack of a clear idea of exactly how things would work, or what our metrics of success would be, we found some great patners. Nokia, Google, Wananchi and Microsoft are corporate partners with the iHub, and downstairs we have MIH, Nokia and InMobi working with us.

A small aside here, which isn’t corporates, but we’ve also nurtured strong connections with the Kenyan government, though we take no money from them. This also applies to academia.

Final thoughts

IMG_8578

By the end of 2010 people were already claiming that the iHub was a model for technology engagement, aid stuff (gah!), etc… in Africa. I thought that was a premature statement, it was an experiment and it still is. The success of the iHub has come from a strong foundation of advisors and community members who understand their city, their peers and their region.

The success of other tech hubs across Africa will be based on leadership credibility, and ability to engage their community.

Much of the iHub’s success comes from a community that works together. In that spirit of “harambee” that is so much a part of our Kenyan life. While there is always healthy competition, we would rather work together and celebrate each others success, and ultimately help each other along with the knowledge that if more of us succeed, then we all benefit.

I hope to see many more labs and hubs across the continent, and we’re seeing them grow too, in Cameroon and Ethiopia, Uganda and Nigeria. Though some of them will need financial assistance to get going, like Ushahidi did with the iHub, they’re organic growth is what makes them viable.

Local Innovation and Entrepreneurs

I gave a keynote yesterday at the opening of the infoDev Global Forum in Helsinki, which has a specific focus on innovation. The m:lab funding comes from them, and they are exploring new ways to help entrepreneurs in the high-tech space, specifically mobiles, to make their businesses a reality.

Innovation: Knowledge and Resources

I’ve already stated that I think innovation is spread equally across the world. No one region has a monopoly on it. The kind of innovation that you see is dependent upon a number of things, but the foremost in my mind are knowledge and resources.

It’s what you’re educated about and in, it’s your skills, training and ability. When you mix that with the resources available around a creative and inventive person, then innovation happens. Let’s take a look at it.

Low-tech example
In Gikomba, a market place of jua kali workers in Nairobi, you find that their resources are made up of re-usable metal and they have deep training in non-traditional metal working methods and tools.

It comes as no surprise then, that the products they create look like this. Parafin lamps and other low-tech consumer products that sell cheaply and yet took a good deal of local ingenious thinking to craft (originally).

High-tech example
There is a group of women coders in the Nairobi area that call themselves the Akirachix. They often work out of the iHub, and their knowledge is about PHP, MySQL, USSD and SMS application building. The resources around them are mobile phones, and computers to work with.

It comes as no surprise that a couple of these gals (Jamila and Susan) develop mobile and web applications, targeted towards a demographic that they understand: farmers. M-Farm is a USSD and SMS app for farmer information, and organized buying by coops and suppliers.

What you see

What’s interesting here is that it’s often difficult for someone coming from one society and cultural background to appreciate the level of innovation coming from a completely different one. I used a couple examples of this in my discussion yesterday. How the low-tech innovation that we see at Maker Faire Africa is still innovation, and they have business value and provide efficiencies to the community that created them.

What’s difficult for people to do is see. It’s hard to look through another set of lenses and appreciate the inventiveness that got something so far. It’s a challenge to understand the needs of a culture that you don’t share and then create a product for it. This is why so many of the platforms and products designed in the West fail in Africa. It’s not that they’re not well designed, they’re just not designed by people who truly understand the needs of the customers in Africa.

It’s why rugged and efficient seed planting devices will be created in rural Ghana. It’s why Ushahidi and Mpesa had to come from a place like Kenya. It’s why South Africa’s Mxit has 35m users.

Finally, it’s why we should continue to invest in local inventors and entrepreneurs – instead of importing foreign solutions, let’s grow our own.

The Kenyan Mobile Money Ecosystem

[This is a guest post by Ben Lyon of Kopo Kopo, and recently of FrontlineSMS:Credit, who I consider to be one of the leading experts on mobile money, banking and payments in Africa. Kopo Kopo aims to make the integration of microfinance and mobile money as affordable as possible by offering a software-as-a-service that connects m-money transaction data to customer accounts in a range of common loan management systems. You can follow Kopo Kopo on Facebook and Twitter.]

Mobile Phone with Money in Kenya

Kenya is by far the most exciting, innovative mobile money market on earth. Below is an overview of some of the major and upcoming players.

MAJOR PLAYERS

Safaricom M-Pesa
Launched in March 2007, Safaricom M-Pesa was the first mobile money system in Kenya. It is now the most successful mobile money deployment on earth, boasting use by 51% of the adult population. In addition to person-to-person transfers, you can use M-Pesa to remit funds from the UK to Kenya, pay bills, purchase goods, buy airtime, and, with the launch of M-Kesho, move funds to and from an interest-bearing account with Equity Bank. Fun fact: Safaricom M-Pesa has more agents in Kenya than Wells Fargo and Wachovia have ATMs in the United States.

Airtel Money
Formerly Zain Zap, Airtel Money is the second largest mobile money system in Kenya. Prior to its acquisition, Zain was focused on creating a “cashless society” whereby any number of needs could be met via mobile money. Zain was also committed to its notion of One World, the idea that a Zain customer in Country X should be able to call a Zain customer in Country Y a at local rate. One World was the source of much speculation with regard to international person-to-person mobile money transfer. It will be interesting to see if / how Airtel changes course, especially with regard to pricing.

Orange Money
Orange Money launched in late 2010 in association with Equity Bank. Instead of offering the same features as M-Pesa, Zap, or yuCash, Orange opted to create a de facto front-end for Equity Bank accounts, allowing it to exceed regular transaction and m-wallet balance thresholds.

Essar yuCash
Essar yuCash launched in December 2009 and is powered by Obopay. yuCash offers some standard features such as person-to-person transfer and balance inquiry as well as some unique features like requesting money, adding a short message to a payment, and inviting friends to join. yuCash is also unique insofar as it offers five different front-ends: WAP, SMS, Voice, USSD, and STK.

Equity Bank
Equity Bank is the largest microfinance institution in Kenya and is nothing short of a powerhouse. It has an extensive ATM network throughout Kenya and has integrated with M-Pesa (M-Kesho), Orange Money, and yuCash.

Musoni
Musoni is at the cutting edge of microfinance, enabling loan disbursal and repayment via Safaricom M-Pesa and Airtel Money. Musoni plans to conduct country studies in Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda in the coming years.

Paynet Group
Paynet is responsible for all Visa transactions in Kenya, interchange for 2,000+ ATMs, and PesaPoint. Due to their interaction with Visa, they are PCI DSS compliant, meaning that their system is both redundant and incredibly secure. Paynet aggregates and formats transaction data for several mobile money providers in East Africa.

UPCOMING PLAYERS

iPay
A product of Intrepid Data Systems, iPay enables merchants to accept online payment via Safaricom M-Pesa, Zain Zap, and Essar yuCash. Prominent users include PewaHewa, Fenesi, and Zetu.

PesaPal
PesaPal is a product of Verviant Consulting that, according to CEO Agosta Liko, aims to “make sense of the Kenyan payment landscape”. PesaPal lets online merchants collect payments via M-Pesa, Zap, Google Checkout, and a range of common credit cards. Their latest product, e-Ticketing, allows event organizers to accept online payments for registration via mobile money.

M-Payer
A recent product of Zege Technolgies, M-Payer enables real-time mobile money transaction processing. The CEO of Zege Technologies, Kariuki, played an instrumental role in the M-Pesa / Equity Bank integration that resulted in M-Kesho.

Lipuka
Powered by Cellulant, a company that serves 60M+ subscribers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, Lipuka integrates bank and payment channels to enable music downloads, bill payments, and information services via WAP.

Moca
Formerly called ZungukaPay, Moca is a product of Symbiotic Media Corsortium. ZungukaPay enabled online merchants to accept payments via M-Pesa, Zap, yuCash, PayPal, Google Checkout, and a range of common credit / debit cards. ZungukaPay also had an open API for integration purposes. The new product, Moca, takes a different turn by enabling customers to buy ‘Moca credits’ via mobile money, which they then use to pay for goods and services on partner websites (e.g. KeleleMobile). Fun fact: selling non-refundable credits precludes Moca from being seen as an e-money issuer by the Central Bank of Kenya.

JamboPay
A product of Web Tribe Limited, JamboPay is an “Online Checkout & Micro-Payment Service” that enables merchants to accept online payments via M-Pesa, Zap, yuCash, and Visa credit/debit cards. JamboPay has a tariff structure similar to PayPal in the US: a commission per transaction + a flat fee for any transactions initiated over the JamboPay web platform.

MobiKash
MobiKash, a third party mobile money provider, is operated by MobiCom Africa Limited in partnership with Sybase 365 and Seal Systems. MobiKash leverages USSD to give Kenyans on any mobile network real-time access to accounts at participating banks, including Post Bank, National Bank of Kenya, and Trans National Bank. MobiKash uses the Sybase 365 Mobiliser Platform.

KrossPAY
Formerly PesaPot Holdings Limited, KrossPAY worked with PAYG Solutions to develop a hosted core banking and financial management platform for microfinance institutions, credit unions, and community benefit organizations. Some PAYG Solutions programmers were involved with the creation of M-Pesa, so there may be a mobile money integration in the works. KrossPAY also offers a “universal mobile money transfer and payment” service called CaribPay.

Jipange KuSave
Jipange KuSave is an initiative of Mobile Ventures Kenya Ltd., a subsidiary of Signal Point Partners. Launched as a pilot in 2010 in partnership with FSD Kenya and CGAP, Jipange KuSave aims to extend affordable micro-savings and micro-credit to the ‘mwanachi’ (Kiswahili for ‘common man’) via mobile phones.

Tangaza Limited
Managed by Mobile Pay Limited and a network of independent trustees, Tangaza enables both local and international money transfer as well as services like utility bill payment and remote airtime purchase. Tangaza is accessible via USSD and the internet and works across multiple mobile networks.

NOTABLE M-MONEY INTEGRATIONS

PewaHewa
PewaHewa is similar to the iTunes Store insofar as you can browse for musical artists, albums, genres, etc. and purchase songs via mobile money. PewaHewa is powered by iPay.

Kalahari
Often referred to as “the Amazon.com of Africa”, Kalahari offers a wide range of online goods and services, which customers can pay for via Safaricom M-Pesa.

Kilimo Salama
Kilimo Salama, Kiswahili for “safe farming”, is a crop insurance product offered by the Sygenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. Kilimo Salama enables farmers to pay crop insurance premiums and receive payouts via Safaricom M-Pesa.

Finding Africa’s Innovators

[These are my notes from my talk at TEDxAntananarivo in Madagascar today]

There are 2 things I’m going to leave you with today. One is a changing story of Africa, where the West is beginning to see Africa in a different light due to technological innovation. The second is a challenge to you here in Madagascar on how you recognize and promote the successes from your own country.

I’m going to start with a TED story, since this is a TEDx event. In 2007 I, along with Harinjaka who invited me here today, was an inaugural African TED Fellow in Tanzania. That was a life changing event for many of us – it brought together 100 young influencers from across Africa, formed the relational base that allowed Ushahidi to be created, put Harinjaka and myself on the main TED stage for short talks, and it thrust into the limelight a young Malawian who few yet had heard about anywhere in the world.

William Kamkwamba

Another Malawian TED Fellow, Soyapi Mumba, introduced me to someone I had written about but never met: William Kamkwamba. It was a great surprise and an honor to meet William in person, as we had written about him on our blog AfriGadget the year before. As a young schoolboy, he was forced to drop out of school during their big drought, he had checked out a book and hand-fabricated a windmill from old plastic, sheet metal and bicycle parts to help power his home. An amazing story that is now a book, and soon to be a film.

At that time, in 2006, it was a true outlier story. The kind you just didn’t here about that often.

I’m going to propose to you a new story, where we’re not amazed and surprised to hear of ingenuity and innovation springing from African soil. Instead we’re seeking it out and celebrating what we already know is there. Let the people in the West be surprised, but not us, because we know and value our inventors and entrepreneurs already.

I guess, if you were to boil down the last 5 years of my life, you could claim that it has been focused on finding Africa’s innovators, telling their stories, and joining them in my own high tech way.

  • I founded AfriGadget, a group blog, telling the stories of Africans solving their everyday problems with their own ingenuity.
  • My personal blog WhiteAfrican is where I highlight the high tech side of the mobile and web movement across Africa
  • This year we set up the iHub, Nairobi’s tech innovation hub, forming a nexus point in the city for Kenya’ thriving tech community.
  • I’m one of the co-founders of Ushahidi, the open source software for crowd sourcing information that started in Kenya and is now used globally.
  • Last year I co-organized Maker Faire Africa in Ghana, and this year in Kenya, which showcases 100+ inventors, innovators and ingenious solutions from that region.

That sounds like a lot, but if anything, this constant brushing together with Africa’s innovators has taught me that we’re just now scratching the surface of what’s out there. Innovative business practices mixed with a different technology paradigm are shaping a new form of business, products and services across the continent.

Let’s take a speed run through a couple so that you can get a glimpse into this world:

(Note: I won’t put all the images here, as you can find them on AfriGadget and Maker Faire Africa Flickr pools)

It goes on, and on, and it isn’t new.

I was 2 years old when I moved to Sudan, back in 1977. In that time in the South, we had to hunt for our meat. There was this tall elephant grass that grows near the Nile that made it hard to see. I remember going hunting for meat with my dad and his colleagues and having the hunters sit on top of our old Landcruiser in order to see over the tops of this growth. Here’s something that most people don’t know, for hundreds of years the Southern Sudanese have created rafts out this same grass and reeds to move themselves, their animals and goods down the Nile for trade.

It’s an ingenious use of a naturally regrowing part of their environment, from which both people and nature benefit.

My take is this:
innovative individuals are found in the same percentage here in Madagascar as they are in the rest of Africa and the world. That there is an even distribution of innovation globally.

Innovation and other’s success

Now, I know there has been trouble in this country over the last couple years. We in Kenya have our own too, as do other nations across the continent.

This is my challenge to you, despite the turmoil, figure out how you will tell the positive stories of Malagasy innovation. Don’t let the world direct the narrative of poverty, corruption and coups, instead own the narrative, be proactive in showcasing your successes, even when it’s not you that directly benefits. For, until we own this narrative about our continent, we will forever be slaves to those that do.

The organization that I co-founded with 3 other Kenyans, Ushahidi, has had quite a lot of success globally. I remember in the second year one of the other founders saying to me that they were surprised with our success, that they hadn’t believed we could get this far. I was surprised too, since I had never thought there was a limit to how far we could go.

This is about what I’m starting to refer to as the African success complex, where we don’t always believe that we can stand on the global stage toe-to-toe with our global peers. Many times this can take the form of tearing down the people in your own community because their success is somehow seen as your loss. It’s exactly the opposite. The more successes that we have, the more likely we all are to benefit. It’s much like a shopping center, where one store alone is hardly a draw for customers, but many together bring them in hordes.

The stories we tell about ourselves are what define us. They are mirrored back and become reality. When you say, “I’m going to be the best _________ in Madagascar”, you’re limiting yourself. In what we do at Ushahidi, we don’t compare ourselves to anyone in Africa, nor even globally. We choose to compare ourselves against what we expect of ourselves, not what others expect of us, and this gives us the freedom to grow and succeed beyond even our expectations.

I’ve only had one day in Madagascar, and I hope to return again to this beautiful country soon. In that time however, I walked the streets and found a story of home grown Malagasy innovation to share with the world on AfriGadget.

Yesterday I met a lady who takes the bark from a certain type of tree, pulps it and makes paper. I’m sure many of you have seen her family’s work on the way to the airport. This paper is then sold as a specialty gift paper to tourists and others. It’s an example of Malagasy entrepreneurship that has gone far, where the whole family is supported by this business.

There are already a great number of exceptional bloggers and journalists from this country, like Foko, and I look forward to seeing the next stories from you, pushed into the global sphere about the businesses, entrepreneurs, inventors and social success stories.

[The slides]

African Innovation

A couple of years ago you didn’t hear the words “Africa” and “innovation” paired up quite as much as you do today.

  • On Saturday I speak at TEDxAntananarivo in Madagascar, and my theme will be on the equal spread of innovation globally.
  • On Monday I get back to Nairobi, only to shoot off to Naivasha for 3 days of the Open Innovation Africa Summit.
  • The last year I’ve spent building out the Nairobi iHub (Innovation Hub).
  • The Maker Faire Africa events in Ghana and Kenya have been about invention, ingenuity and innovation.
  • AfriGadget is built on telling stories of African solving everyday problems with ingenuity and innovation.

By and large, these are events and stories of Africans coming up with innovative solutions and products, solving their own problems and building their own businesses. It would be easy to think that this is just a meme. This is especially true for myself as I’m involved in so much of it. It’s not.

The reality behind the meme

Sisal into rope machineLet’s take the example of Maker Faire Africa participant Alex Odundo from Kisumu in Western Kenya. Alex has spent 5 years coming up with cheaper and more efficient tools to process sisal and make rope. He did this with the mechanical use of a processing machine called Sisal Decorticator, that adds value to the sisal by turning it into rope that can be sold for 100 shillings. This nets him 95 Kenya shillings in profit per kilo.

He’s spent 5 long years refining his machines, selling them and building new ones. Going from sisal processing to rope making with the tools and engines he can fabricate and buy locally. He’s an example of the inventor-entrepreneur who won’t give up, and is trying to build a real business of his niche product. He’s akin to the Charles Goodyear of local rope manufacturing.

What Alex represents is the hardcore inventor, the industrial, non-sexy side of innovation that we don’t often hear about. What usually surfaces, and what I talk about a lot here (and what I’m sure we’ll talk about at all these other events) is the cool, sleek mobile and internet solutions and products.

We give all this airtime to the gadgets and bits, and there are great reasons to do so. Kenya’s advantage in the mobile space around payments and other items is exciting. South Africa’s social networks and global-level web apps are amazing. Ghana’s up-and-coming tech sector, Nigeria’s banks and even Somalia’s mobile networks are all compelling stories on where innovation in both African business and the African tech are taking us.

An equal spread

If there’s one thing that my years spent in this space traipsing around looking for AfriGadget stories, putting on Maker Faire Africa and starting the iHub has taught me, it’s this. That innovation is spread equally around the world. That you’ll find the same number of inventors and innovative solutions coming from people in any country around the globe. Why African innovation is trending to people internationally is because only now have people begun to notice that the same applies on this continent as their own.

African innovation might not look like the innovation you’re used to seeing if you come from another continent. You might miss it because you don’t know what you’re seeing or why a business’s strategy is different than you expect. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation

As many of you know, I’m the founder of the AfriGadget blog, and one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa, which happened in Ghana last year and Kenya this year. Though I pretty much only build software apps and services, I’ve got a soft spot for hardware hacking. Last week I put an idea into the website for this month’s Open Innovation Africa Summit taking place upcountry in Kenya, put on by Nokia, infoDev and Capgemini. This is that idea.

I’m enthralled by software, apps and platforms. It’s the low hanging fruit with very few barriers to entry, it’s the place where a great deal of innovation is happening and where money is being made. However, when we look at innovation in Africa, we often overlook the hardware – yes, the handsets, but also the other devices and accessories that local engineers (trained/untrained) can get their hands dirty with. Sometimes this is pure fabrication, other times it’s hacking existing products, many times it’s a mixture of both.

We’re already seeing stories of the way guys are doing everything from creating their own vehicle security systems, home security systems, distance-triggered food preparation and even fish catching alerts. That’s with no support at all. What happens when you provide a space to make it faster, better and possibly an avenue to manufacturers and funders?


[Image above: a porridge making machine by a Malawian inventor, triggered by an SMS.]

Maker: Simon Kimani from Butterfly Works on Vimeo.

[Video above: Kenyan inventor creates an “SMS House Automation System” where you can give a command via the phone to  perform tasks, including turning on/off the TV, Lights.]

Hardware Hacking Garage
Ever since we put up the iHub (Nairobi’s Innovation Hub) this year, I’ve been thinking a lot more about a physical space as its own platform. We deal with the software side of the web and mobile innovation. We don’t have a parallel space for doing the same with hardware. I’m talking about a tinkering, micro-fabrication and engineering environment. This would require some space, basic tools and a few specialized electronics and computers to make it work.

Here are just a few areas (If you have any more ideas, put them in the comments and I’ll add them below):

  • Power hacks = using dynamos, solar, hydro and other  ideas to hack new power systems that work off the grid and in remote rural regions (made by the people who live there).
  • SD cards = digital storage. In fact, provide these with content  already on them, including books (libraries), encyclopedias, etc.
  • Arduino Boards = an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple input/output board and a development environment that implements the Wiring language.
  • DIY Mesh Networks = Adjusting and improving upon ideas like the Village Telco project
  • [From Solomon King] – If you’re to explore physical computing, you might need a wide array of sensors for environment management, we’re talking GPS, tilt swtiches, digital gyros, sonar, etc. This stuff is pretty expensive so having a  space to play with them (on-site) would be nice.

Physical Space
It’s important that the Hardware Hacking Garage be setup as a centralized resource for the inventor community. Memberships should be available to any inventor, or student, upon application and approval. Many times access to tools and a workshop is all that enterprising inventors, micro-entrepreneurs, and youth, need to create their first innovative project.

For a sustainable approach, this Hardware Hacking Garage could have a store attached, which can serve as a sales and marketing outlet for the devices, inventions and solutions created by the community.

This is an idea that effects everyone across Africa, a space like this is accessible and usable by young and experienced, rural and urban inventors and entrepreneurs. As much as we’d like to pretend that the ideas coming from outside of Africa will be picked up and used, the truth is that the ideas need to come from Africans for themselves and their community. An open Hacking Garage platform is where real hardware innovation for Africa will come from.

Safaricom Innovation Board and the Kenya Tech Community

Safaricom is Kenya’s largest mobile operator with approximately 80% of the market. Most people don’t know this, but they get hundreds of business and technology proposals each week from people all over the country – techies and non-techies alike. It was with this problem in hand that they decided to open up an “Innovation Forum” for Kenyans to share their ideas.

In short, it was a disaster. Draconian legal terms and conditions mixed with ham-handed community engagement meant that they met with a lot of resistance and outright mockery on public channels such as Twitter and Facebook. Just a sample from one blogger:

Engaging the Community

Safaricom is now back to the drawing board. Their problem hasn’t gone away, they’re still overwhelmed with emails, letters and proposals for business ideas that might/might not make sense for them to engage on. Wadzanai Chiota-Madziva heads up their VAS (value added services) department, and is in charge of this. After the noise caused by the less-than-stellar launch of the Innovation Forum, she and CEO Michael Joseph met with one of the techies who was very concerned about the way they were handling this: Al Kags.

Al Kags has sat down in a couple of meetings with them thus far, finally he suggested a board that could serve as a buffer between Safaricom and the people sending in proposals. The Innovation Forum Board’s job would be to speak for the community to Safaricom, as well as push for better access to APIs, a developer sandbox and possibly and app store. They would also be responsible for helping to translate Safaricom’s position to the community.

I was invited, along with some other’s from the tech community, to sit down and discuss this with them last week. It was a fruitful discussion about the possibilities and the roles and responsibilities that the board would have.

Some of the discussion was about the need for a buffer to be created between Safaricom and submissions to foster fairness and openness, to provide confidence to developers to innovate without fears of intellectual property (IP) misappropriation.

“The intention is for the board to create a fair environment for innovatioin by playing the middle ground between Safaricom Ltd and the developer and innovator community”

The position is largely one of an enabler. The board would oversee the Innovation Forum by:

  • Create and agree rules of engagement with all parties
  • Advocate developers perspectives at Safaricom
  • Facilitate understanding of Safaricom position with the developer/innovator community.

Figuring out the Board

The people invited for the meeting, as the potential board, were Moses Kemibaro, Jessica Colaco, Al Kags, Karanja Macharia, Rehema Parmena and myself.

While it is up to Safaricom to decide who is on their Innovation Forum Board, those of us at the meeting pushed back a little on how they had done this. If they want to interact with the community, it might behoove them to reach out to that community for some of the nominations.

They listened, and starting today going through the end of the week, you can make your own nominations for the Innovation Forum Board for Safaricom to review on the website. This is your chance to put a name in of someone that you think would represent the community well on the board.