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iHub Nairobi Launch and IgniteNairobi

The new iHub in Nairobi isn’t completely built out yet (in fact, it’s still basically just concrete and few painted walls…), however that won’t stop us from having a party to celebrate the opening of the new innovation hub here! It starts at 5:30pm (Kenya time) at the iHub (map).

[It’s an invitation only event, just due to the size of the space and how many we can fit. Jessica is handling the invitations, so head on over to this form and fill it out if you haven’t already. If there’s room, she’ll send you a confirmation email by early afternoon.]

Things you should know:

  • There will be eight lightning-style 5-minute talks done by local techies as part of IgniteNairobi (see Global Ignite Week for more)
  • Keeping up to date with the event, we’ll be live streaming it via Ustream here.
  • The first 100 attendees – who are on the list as confirmed -will get one of the new iHub t-shirts designed by the guys at The Ark and printed by Bonk. (Yes, they are incredibly cool).
  • The floorplans and layout for the iHub are about done, but no buildout has started happening.
  • We’re having a cocktail tonight, so it’s drinks and bitings/hors d’oeuvres.

We’re looking forward to everyone coming over and seeing the new space, thanks for being a part of it!

Finding and Funding African Innovators

How do you find the entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa who need investment funding to scale?

Agosta Liko - web entrepreneur in Kenya

Agosta Liko - web entrepreneur in Kenya

That’s the question I was most intrigued by on my panel today at SoCap with Emeka Okafor, Nii Simmonds and Ashifi Gogo about identifying opportunities for innovation in Africa.

There are really two big issues at stake. First, how to find the right people. Second, what funding level is needed.

Boots on the ground

You’re not going to find the compelling African entrepreneurs while sitting in an office in the US or Europe. It’s only by spending significant time on the ground in the countries you’re wanting to invest in that you find the people you need to know. It’s there that you get past the first-level of non-expert opportunity profiteers and attention seekers and find the people who actually do the work.

Two examples:

  1. AfriGadget is a blog about finding interesting stories of African innovation. It’s not always easy to come up with the stories though. You have to look hard, teach yourself to see things, in order to find these extraordinary individuals. Without the great blogging team and the people sending in stories from the ground, we wouldn’t have anything.
  2. I grew up in Nairobi, yet it took me a solid two years of meeting people and networking within the city to get beneath the surface and find the people with the talent and drive to create actual businesses.

It’s generally not cost-effective for every funding source to have their own person canvassing the continent. The question then becomes, how do you find the trusted intermediaries who know the real story on the ground, know the players and can spot the talent?

The seed (angel) funding gap

Most of the individuals with the skills to create their own businesses in the high-tech space are working for large NGOs and multinationals. Why? They got to a place in their life where they had to make the choice of going out on their own, armed with a good idea and no hope of funding, or putting food on the table. This is similar to entrepreneurs worldwide, however in Africa the gap between success and failure is a lot less forgiving and the choices are a lot fewer.

Most of the funding available for companies in Africa comes through loans, debt financing. It’s mostly used in SMEs at the medium-sized level. There’s a gap, and that is seed funding. There are very few opportunities to get equity-based funding, especially at the levels where most entrepreneurs starting off need it. This is the $10-300k range.

Who funds them? There are a few organizations internationally who run business plan competitions with money prizes, others that fund a few startups each year (TechnoServe, Kuv and Acumen come to mind). There are also some local people and organizations that do some of the funding (as was the case for Agosta Liko pictured above), but it’s very hard to come by even within Africa’s most advanced tech/finance cities (Nairobi, Johannesburg and Accra).

Who else is out there?
How can we bridge this gap?

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.

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.

What Drives You?

I see maps like this, listing the worlds 50 most innovative companies, and I’m driven to get just one marker in Africa.

Fast Companys Map of 50 Innovative Companies

30 Great African Tech Blogs

A conversation on Twitter with Marshall Kirkpatrick of RWW about the top tech blogs to read in Africa made me realize that there is no great list to start from. Most of us just have them in our head, RSS feeds or blogrolls. Some of them don’t update frequently enough, and many of the range across topics, but all of them are useful if you are trying to figure out what is going on in technology around Africa.

Here is a list of African tech blogs that I follow. Hopefully it can be a resource, and a good place for everyone to start from when exploring the mobile, web and general tech space in Africa:

General Web and African Tech

AfriGadget – Stories of low-tech African ingenuity and innovation
Afromusing – Juliana’s insights and thoughts on alternative energy in Africa
Appfrica – Pan-African and Ugandan web and mobile tech developments
Bandwidth Blog – Charl Norman’s blog in South Africa
Bankelele – One of East Africa’s top business bloggers, also has great insights into the business side of African technology
Build Africa – Matt’s musings on technology in Africa
Charl van Niekerk – Always insightful post from one of South Africa’s great coders
Coda.co.za – One of Africa’s very best web designers
Dewberry – Shaun’s frenetic blog on general, and South African tech
My Hearts in Accra – More of generalist these days, but excellent analysis of African tech space by Ethan Zuckerman
Henry Addo – A perspective on tech from Henry in Ghana
Geek Rebel – Henk’s blog on entrepreneurship and technology
Matthew Buckland – From one of the pioneers, and big thinkers, in the South African media space
Mike Stopforth – Entrepreneur and South African social media nexus point
Nubian Cheetah – Thoughts and news on West African tech
Oluniyi David Ajao – Web coverage from Ghana
Open Source Africa – Just what the name describes… talking about open source development in Africa
Paul in Sierra Leone – hardware tech news from a very hard place to get news/info from
Startup Africa – Tracking mostly South African web startups
Startups Nigeria – Just what the title says
Stii – One of my favorite true coder blogs out of South Africa
Timbuktu Chronicles – A must-read covering pan-African technology, from web to mobile to hardware
Bits/Bytes – Coding thoughts by the unique and always hilarious “M” from Thinker’s Room.
Vincent Maher – Vincent’s excellent, fun and controversial blog on all things South African tech
Web Addict(s) – From the mind of Rafiq, opinionated coverage and thoughts on South African tech

African Mobile-focused Blogs

Epic Mobile – mobile phone tips and tricks from South Africa
Jopsa.org – (aka Mobiles in Malawi), thoughts by Josh Nesbit in Malawi
Kiwanja – Ken Banks on mobile usage and his FrontlineSMS app, much of it in Africa
Mobile Africa – A great resource for mobile news across Africa
Mobility Nigeria – track what’s happening in the Nigerian mobile phone space
Fring – the only tool/app on this list

5 Non-blog Tech Sites and Tools for Africa

Afrigator – the defacto blog tracking tool for African blogs
Amatomu – the South African blogosphere tracker
Mobile Active – Katrin does a good job of finding reports and stories about mobiles in Africa
Muti – mostly South African tech news and gossip, a reddit/digg for interesting African news/blog links
Videoreporter.nl – Ruud’s videos consistently have great tech stories
Akouaba – A French language blog tracker for West Africa

The, “If I missed it”…

I likely missed many blogs that should be on this list. Please add them to the comments below. I know I’ve missed quite a few Francophone and Arabic ones, so PLEASE add those especially.

Additions (aka, ones I missed):

Many Possibilities – Steve Song on open source in Africa
Africa 2.0 – A French language blog talking about all things new media in Africa
Subsaharska – Miquel, building a blogging tool for Africa (Maneno)
Arthur Devriendt – French blog on web tech in Africa

African Cities Need Tech Coworking Spaces

African techies need community spaces. In Africa it makes sense to have this be part coworking space and part business and idea incubator.

A little background

There is an emergent, yet disconnected, technology community growing in many of the major African cities. The digital connection happens, primarily through email lists or message boards, and from time-to-time there are local physical meet ups, like the recent surge in BarCamps and other non-traditional meetings. What isn’t available is a place to meet that is always available and is made to engage and grow the community.

The VC, investor and business communities in Africa are beginning to see the value and need for web and mobile applications and services. At the same time these same individuals and organizations have no real avenue for engagement with the distributed and independent developer community. What they need is a hub, a place to go to find the young talent, invest in it, and offer monetary opportunities that re-invest in local technology growth.

These hubs would be tech community facilities in major cities with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (coworking), part investor and VC hub and part incubator. It is the nexus point for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in that area.

What it is

These hubs are community spaces that are open to all web and mobile phone developers. They are owned and supported by the local tech community and organizations that care about seeing this community grow.

It is an incubator, with an in-house investor who acts as advisor, who also helps to vette new entrepreneurs and ideas. It primarily operates off of a micro-VC model (a la Y Combinator) whereby approved entrepreneurs are given support for 3-6 months of work to create and launch their product or service. In that time, they are also given the chance to pitch the completed product to other investors, and are given support on business, licensing and legal issues.

It is where the young and old, new and experienced developers can go to hang out, learn from each other and work on joint projects. There is a real focus on making this open and available at those odd hours which hackers are prone to want to work in. It has a free high-speed internet connection, electricity, and an upbeat and fun environment to work in. It is where the local tech guys and user groups do their monthly and weekly meetings.

It is a coworking space, where freelance developers and designers can rent space (daily/weekly/monthly) and share common meeting rooms for business meetings. They are provided with spacious desks, high-speed internet access, conference rooms, a kitchen, unlimited network printing and faxing, couches and lounging area.

What it isn’t

It isn’t just a business. The end goal of the Innovation Hub in Nairobi is not to make money and be more profitable. Instead, it is to grow a stronger technology community in African cities, one where developers, designers, VCs and businesses are all better connected and mutually benefiting from the growth.

It isn’t a place for an outside sponsor to slap their brand on and call their own. This steals ownership from the local tech community and defeats the purpose of the facility.

Examples in action

They look different in every city, they take on the personalities of the communities that support them, and
(full list of known coworking spaces around the world)

Open Innovation Lab in Cape Town

There are a couple South African coworking spots. The Open Innovation Studio just opened in Cape Town, and I know there are a couple other space like Habitaz in Johannesburg.

Independents' Hall

There are quite a few running around the US right now. The most famous coworking spaces are Independents Hall in Philadelphia (run by my friend Alex) and Citizen Space in San Francisco (run by Chris and Tara).

Colab Orlando - sign

In Orlando, Colab just opened, which I visited today to get a feel for the space. And just recently, my friend Mark Grimes opened up NedSpace in Portland, Oregon.

The Hub London

The Hub is a chain of coworking spaces, you can find one in Cairo. The image above is from their London facility.

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