Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: internet (page 3 of 5)

3G Internet as Backup

One of the products of Seacom’s undersea cable reaching East Africa is that we’re now getting faster internet, and more of it, in Nairobi (note, I didn’t say cheaper). For many, it means coming up with a plan for backup internet is plausible and it’s actually quite easy. Though more expensive than an ethernet connection, the mobile carrier’s with 3G internet access work well for this. Plus, they have the added advantage that you can take the modem with you and have mobile connectivity anywhere.

This time, I wanted to get a router that I could connect my Safaricom (or other) 3G dongle into and provide internet for more than one device and backup for my other “main” connection. With this thought in mind, a couple weeks ago I picked up a Cradlepoint MBR1000 router due to it’s ability to accept 3G modems, whether USB, ExpressCard or phone.

Cradlepoint MBR1000 and Safaricom Huawei 3g modem

It’s interesting to note that Cradlepoint also have a battery operated version for those really on the go, making it a completely wireless hotspot in your pocket. You can read more about this in a case study [PDF} where some university students from Canada used this in conjunction with Safaricom 3G modems and the OLPC while upcountry.

The only tricky part is knowing what settings to put into the router’s setup area in order to activate the modem. Below is all you need to know to make a Cradlepoint MBR1000 work in Kenya with Safaricom:

Settings for a Safaricom 3G modem on a Cradlepoint MBR1000 router

Will this work with Zain and Orange? I’m not sure yet, but I’d tend to think that it should. I’m using the Huawei e160 modem for Safaricom, and Zain uses the Huawei e220, which is also listed under Cradlepoint’s generic UMTS/GSM devices.

African Connectivity Visualized

Jon Gosier’s Appfrica Labs has put together an amazing infographic on internet connectivity in Africa. Amazing work!

Infostate of Africa 2009

“The African continent is rapidly changing. In the next two years 2 billion dollars will bring 12 terabits of connectivity to the continent. Will africa become the world’s newest outsourcing hub? Will it foster it’s own tech and startup culture? The image above explores the ‘infostate’ of Africa in 2009.”
(Read More)

Flickr set here
Full-resolution version here
Buy it in print here

When do You Need Funding?

I’ve spent the last couple days in scenic Salzburg, Austria with 20 other people from both traditional journalism and new media backgrounds. Our goal: discuss strategies for more effective engagement and investment in “tomorrow’s media“. There are a mixture of organizations in the room, some established and others start-ups, like myself representing Ushahidi.

One of the questions posed, and which I’ve been ruminating on, is “when do you need funding?” (At this particular meeting, we’re talking grants primarily, but this applies to traditional seed and VC funding as well.)

Invest in Doers not Talkers

972816_tape_measureI don’t think it’s as early as most people think. There are a lot of people out there who claim they need funds in order to build a product. I disagree. Your first job is to build it. It might be in your nights and weekends, but that’s to be expected.

Yes, at a certain level you need funding that allows you to live, feed yourself and grow a business, but that’s not until you actually have something to show. Why would you expect someone to pay you money for a good idea? There are good ideas everywhere, but few examples of great execution upon these ideas.

A great presentation, Powerpoint or speech will get you a long way, and the ability to communicate is essential in both getting funding and getting user adoption or partners to work with you. However, nothing sells a good idea like a working product.

Whether it’s building a prototype, like we did with Ushahidi in Kenya, or a couple guys in a garage creating a new search algorithm and having to shop the product of that research around before they find investors, it’s too be expected that the work comes first, the funds second.


When is funding needed then? It’s needed when you have a product and it shows potential for success. Where you can talk to smaller investors who can support your work a little longer so that it can be refined and grow into something that has a real chance to make a difference, make money or both.

The second level of funding is about scale. It’s when you have a proven product that already has some success and needs more than it’s current cash-flow, or personnel, to take it to make a broader impact.

Never Good Enough: Speed (pt 1/3)

We’re never good enough when it comes to speed, stability or simplicity of our mobile and web applications. This is a three-part series where I unpack my experience building apps on each of these subjects. It’s not just for those of us working on Ushahidi, these are the three most crucial abilities of any web or mobile application.

Me in a cyber cafe in Monrovia

Let me tell you a personal story:

Libera, March 2009

I’m sitting, sweating in the sweltering heat of a Monrovia cyber cafe, I have my notebook out and my am watching the clock. My goal is to see how fast I can load up the Ushahidi home page for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it has a map, timeline and list of recent events tracking the current level of unrest in the country.

It’s not looking good. As I look around, waiting for the page to load, I count 8 others in the room – 6 of which have fired up stuttering and unusable Yahoo and Skype video chat windows. Why this is the channel and usage of choice, when it so obviously doesn’t work, I cannot answer. But this is reality, and if we expect ordinary Africans to use our application, we had better make sure that it loads up relatively fast on the low-bandwidth, shared internet connections that proliferate across the continent.

Utter failure. After 20 minutes painfully watching the page load byte by byte, I give up. I quickly type out a message to our team, imploring everyone to streamline this “fat, squeeling pig of a page”. Peppering them with questions… Can I buy some caching please? What can we do with this map to make it not kill the load? Can we get rid of 75% of the images on the page? Do we need to redesign this from the ground up?

Granted, Liberia’s internet situation is worse than almost any other on the continent. Especially when it comes to the grinding halt you see in the cyber cafes during the daylight hours as the local population piles on at the same time, completely overwhelming the limited satellite connection. That’s no excuse though. Ushahidi is built on the idea that the lowest common denominator, whether it’s PC or mobile-phone based access, will work. The PC-side is clearly failing.

Worst of all, my patience is short, Liberia is pissing me off with the heat, humidity, lack of bandwidth and no electricity grid. Objectively, this is the perfect state to be in, I am now able to come up with a solution for normal users in Africa.

What other’s know

Speed… if there’s only one thing that you do with your application, make it faster. No, it’s not fast enough.

This isn’t news to anyone, or it shouldn’t be. For years the major web sites around the world have known this and have been building for it. Mozilla, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all aware of just how critical speed is to their success. It boils down to attention threshold and what we, as users ourselves, are willing to put up with.

There is no area in which our team has felt more pain than in trying to speed up the page loads of our apps. Maps tend to be page killers by themselves. Once we add multiple calls to the database we start to get some truly agonizing speeds. It’s a constant pressure that sits on every one of our development cycles, and for which we dedicate a great deal of energy.

User experience research needed in Africa

One area that hasn’t seen enough true user experience testing is Africa. We know that internet speeds are slower, sometimes by orders of magnitude. I’ve got a lot of questions, more than answers at this point. Should we cut out the maps and all images? What’s the true cost of a page load +/- 7 seconds? What is the real value of maps in Africa compared to the West – do they matter?

Jessica Colaco is a top-notch programmer who has shifted to doing research in Kenya. I hope that she, and others like Eric Osiakwan and his team from Internet Research in Ghana, will help us dig out these answers. More than that, I hope they will help us ask the right questions.

African Tech Quicklinks

PayPal’s Electronic Profiling
Jon Gosier captures the emotions of so many people with his rant on PayPal’s blanket policies against anyone transacting business in Africa (black or white, with track record or not).

Maker Faire Africa as “Bushpunk”
Bunmi Oloruntoba asks if the normal Maker Faire’s feel more like Victorian HG Wells England’s steampunk, then could Maker Faire Africa be considered “bushpunk”? (a new term as far as I know…)

Mapping the Cloud
Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent essay on the cloud, while at Ars Electronica in Austria.

Kenya’s Internet Grows Up
Shashank Bengali, in Nairobi, talks about Craigslist going live in Kenya and points to Kenya’s largest newspaper’s efforts in the same space, N-Soko. I actually disagree, until we have an electronic means to transact business on the web/mobile, then we’re stuck.

Seed funding in African tech entrepreneurs
Sean at AfricaFeed has some real-world insight and thoughts on seed investing in African tech entrepreneurs.

Innovation in Africa (panel)
A couple of us were at the SoCap conference in California last week, talking on a panel on innovation in Africa. NextBillion’s writeup captured the discussion best.

Web Hosting and IXP Issues in Uganda

The Uganda IXP

I’ve spent the last couple days talking to web designers, programmers, systems administrators and businessmen about the situation in Uganda.

Technologists in Uganda have quite a job on their hands. Sitting, land-locked, behind Kenya and Tanzania they share most of those two countries problems, find that everything is more expensive, and then have to deal with a government who has little to know understanding of how technology can spur economic growth. On top of that, the local ISPs and the mobile operators are happily providing sub-par services at larcenous rates.

It’s no surprise then that we see a lot fewer quality programmers and web designers in Kampala than in Nairobi. However, though there are fewer, there is a great depth of talent available here in those that are doing this work, whether it’s Solomon King‘s Node Six, Jon Gosier‘s Appfrica Labs or Software Factory the creators of Kiva’s rival MYC4.

Local web hosting and the IXP

From what I could tell, there is only one hosting company setup for anyone to get started with a website in Uganda that runs a server from within the country. Few government websites are hosted locally, and the same remains true for almost all business or personal sites. Though there is excellent bandwidth locally, the international bandwidth is what is used, which means that no one (local) is winning.

What is surprising is that there is no local caching of international content going on at the Uganda IXP. If the Google Global Cache was being used, that alone would speed up local performance and make a better user experience. There are rumors of a Google Cache being used at either the ISP-level or Makerere, but that since it’s not using the UIXP, it cannot provide the service to all of the ISPs.

However, more important than that is the fact that it would significantly decrease the amount of international traffic. What’s mind boggling is that the local providers would still be able to charge the same rates, but decreasing international traffic through caching would increase their profit margins. I’m not quite sure why this isn’t being done, I wonder if the ISPs and mobile operators are just making too much money as it is and this is seen as more work than it’s worth.

Uganda’s IXP (international exchange point) is something of a mess too. Apparently, the two founders are in a bit of a squabble, with means each neutralizes the others decisions and nothing gets done. To make matters worse, the environment where it resides can only be considered as hostile to any type of electrical equipment. It’s in the basement of a parking garage where people wash cars providing a healthy dose of moisture, dust is in the air, and there is a general lack of upkeep on it.

Basically, all of the money ($106m) that the Ugandan government and the local ISPs and mobile operators are pouring into the infrastructure is reliant upon this one poor excuse for an IXP. It works, and the packets are switching, it’s just that the operation is not working in the optimal environment – physically or organizationally.

This is troubling for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason why it sits so poorly with me is that the government has a stated aim of getting more “local content” online. So, while there might be 10 Wimax providers going live by the end of the year in Kampala, there is little foundational infrastructure to support the peering between providers locally, regionally or internationally.

It seems that the biggest problems within the Uganda internet space is more about lack of holistic focus by the government and local ISPs and mobile operators. With a little effort, the peering, content hosting, costs and speed could be improved.

Reactions to SEACOM Going Live Today

People all over East and Southern Africa have been awaiting faster internet speeds for a LONG time. I, for one, won’t miss hearing the infamous, when the cable comes… quote that plagues so many of our conversations. It’s here. Now.

Seacom MapSEACOM has done a good with PR and reaching out to people via their blog and Twitter accounts. SEACOM’s media team was also uploading video in real-time to their YouTube channel, so click there if you want to hear really bad audio of the speeches… 🙂 They have their new press release out here, if you’re looking for the “official” talk.

SEACOM in Tweets and Blogs

(note: if I missed one, link it in the comments below and I’ll add it here)

Kung Fu Baby and the SEACOM Cable Launch by Joshua Goldstein (Uganda)
“We launched Kung Fu baby and for the first time in Africa, I saw a YouTube video load completely and play in 6 seconds. We ran a speed test and showed 1.8mbps, 10x what we have in the Appfrica office.”

“1.28 Terabits per second-now that’s what I call digital heaven! Seacom, dare I say I love you? Now, don’t make the Africans pay too much!” by @zanibots

Seacom is here but don’t be surprised if nothing changes by Kachwanya (Kenya)
“Shockingly the people at Seacom think that revealing the names of their clients (ISPs) will jeopardize their relationship with others which are not yet on board. May be I am not getting something here but ISPs will only buy the bandwidth from the Seacom if they have somewhere to sell it.”

SEACOM broadband speed test“This is one small MB for my laptop, one giant TB for Africa …” by @Akianastasiou on Twitter

How fast can you read this article? by Arthur Goldstuck (South Africa)
“However, the most dramatic indication of the power of SEACOM was the quality of live video links to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique. Addresses by, among other, a range of dignitaries, executives and the President of Tanzania, were carried live to large screens at simultaneous events in each of these countries.”

“This is turning to be another major hoax. Why is the internet so slow as ever? Why is it Seacom not telling us which ISP’s are enrolled?” by @KenyaFocus

“The President of Tanzania envisions having a “Silicon Valley” in Africa – This could have only be imagined thanks to #Seacom” by @SeacomLive

Oh Kenyans, we have been duped again by TrueKenyan
“According to the information already on the public domain, Safaricom have said that the cost of internet will reduce by upto 30-33% over the next five years. Access Kenya still remains mum since it’s charges are exorbitant compared to other ISP’s. Recently UUnet CEO Tom Omariba claimed that cables will only bring down costs by 20-30 percent.”

In the News

Map and Stats for Africa’s Undersea Internet Cables

Steve Song has put together a great interactive map that helps you visualize what undersea internet cables go where in Africa. There’s also a helpful table of statistics and data on each of the cables. Head on over to his site and check it out.

A map of Africas undersea internet cables

More on the history of this project.

Hurdles of High-Tech Entrepreneurs in Africa

Morris Mbetsa is a 19 year old Kenyan with a lot of good ideas. If that was all, he wouldn’t be that special, however, he actually builds prototypes of his ideas and they end up being quite extraordinary. The first time we covered his “Block and Track” SMS-based vehicle security system on AfriGadget. This time he’s come up with a web application – the “Wakenya” system for tracking Kenyan citizens virtually via mobile and web.

The frustrations of tech entrepreneurship in Africa

Morris and I got together shortly after his first system was created. He shared a couple other ideas beyond that first invention with me.

He had received a lot of attention due to the Kenyan TV coverage, but it hadn’t turned into any real money for him. No one within Kenya was interested, either as a business partner or funder. There were a couple international groups that were trying to angle in on him, but when I spoke to him he didn’t know or trust them. What he had was all the makings of a sad story of inventiveness leading to… nothing.

This is our story in Africa isn’t it? How so?

  • We’re continually fighting to get our own money people interested in what we’re doing. We lack seed capital and no one locally cares.
  • We need business mentors that we can trust, ones that we’re not always worried about being fleeced by overnight. Ones that aren’t just looking out for how they can either steal the idea, the IP or the equity.
  • Lacking any local funding or business partners, we hope that an international funder will notice us.
  • If we’re able to get international attention, the next trick is trying to figure out if any of these people are real, honest or legitimate.

It’s frustrating. Why won’t anyone locally come in and fund an idea? Not just an idea, as in the case of Morris Mbetsa and others like Steve Mutinda, but real prototypes. These are working models. (I could go off on a tangent talking about all of the great software developers in Africa who talk a lot about good ideas but never build them – but that’s another post). No, these kinds of guys actually build the prototype first, then try to find someone to fund it. Basically, they’re doing it the right way.

Does the government have a role?

It should, but only in so much as they create a system which limits the hurdles that entrepreneurs need to overcome to create a business, get funding and bring their ideas to market (not just for tech, but for everything). Private investment should be the lion’s share of this type of growth for the country, but in Morris’ case, he’s created a system for Government, so there should be some government funding for just this type of activity.

In fact, Kenya went so far as to create the ICT Board a couple years ago for this express reason:

“To rapidly and innovatively transform Kenya through promotion of ICT for socio-economic enrichment of our society.”

Here we have a young Kenyan with (many) good ideas and prototypes. He needs some structural support though, and we hope he gets it before the vultures descend. I know Paul Kukubo, Al Kags and a couple others within this group – they’re good people and have big ideas themselves. I know that they’re trying to come up with big structural ways for Kenyans to access ICT services and for Kenya to become an global ICT hub.

My question is this: How will that ever be the case if guys like Morris Mbetsa don’t have the requisite government structures in place to allow them to succeed?

3 groups and food for thought

We have a foundational investment-in-innovation problem in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. If Kenya is one of the top 5 African hubs for technology, then we know that the rest of the countries are in similar or worse conditions than this. What is it going to take for us to truly setup an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and the structures that support innovation, especially in the tech sphere?

1. Outside investment as catalyst
I’m starting to wonder if it will take a concerted effort by investors in the international space who can inject large amounts of capital into business ideas that have potential. Why international, isn’t local good enough? Normally it would be, but international investment comes with some benefits that local investment doesn’t. As anyone who lives in places like Nairobi knows, almost any money you take locally comes with two problems. First, it’s usually a small amount given for an excessive demand on equity. Second, it comes with political ramifications that tend to compromise the receiver of the funds.

Is what we really need a shakeup? A wake-up call for the local investor to realize that they will miss out on the big ideas and products if they don’t create a local system that allows real innovation to flourish, grow and enrich the inventors.

2. Government mechanisms for entrepreneurs
Outside investment as a catalyst for change in this space is one possible idea, but it’s not enough. As mentioned earlier we also need someone within our highly-bureaucratic government system to create a channel for entrepreneurs and investors to act. This could be accelerated business entity creation, and it would likely include lowering certain licensing terms and restrictions. My guess is it would also mean a structure for low-interest business loans as well.

3. A united technology community
Lastly, we need the technology community itself to band together. This is coming into being in a few countries, places where we have techies networking and creating relationships with business people and government. We’re starting to see when an investor comes into town, people okay with sharing the names of other entrepreneurs that have good ideas, and not trying to just tie that investor down with their own stuff.

While there will always be competition, lets put aside the tendency to pull someone else down when they’ve achieved some modicum of success. Instead, trumpet the small wins and help each other get ahead. Goodwill pays off so much better in the long run.


You can see this is something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal, and it bothers me to no end. For, if we don’t fix this we’ll continue to have the best and brightest head to other parts of the world – there is no industry where this is easier to do than the digital one. With them goes all the intellectual capital, inspiration and revenue that would further enrich our own continent.

I’m determined to play my part in seeing change happen. I want to see real technology powerhouses grow within Africa – ultimately with African investors and with solutions that will take the world by storm.

[Interesting update on Morris]

Interactive Marketing in Africa

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with two people that I have a lot of respect for in the interactive marketing space in Africa. First was Rob Stokes, CEO of the well known Quirk marketing firm in South Africa. Later in the week I got to catch up with Joshua Wanyama of Pamoja Media.

Before I get into that though, you should take a look at these numbers.

Africa’s exploding internet growth

Currently, Africa is the second fastest growing internet market after it was passed with the Middle East in terms of connectivity. The growth rate is 1,100% with only 5.6% of Africa’s 975 million people online.

The 10 largest internet markets in Africa are seen below. These 10 countries account for a staggering 86% of the 54.2 million Africans online:

1. Egypt – 10.5 million
2. Nigeria – 10 million
3. Morocco – 6.6 million
4. South Africa – 4.6 million
5. Algeria – 3.5 million
6. Sudan – 3.5 million
7. Kenya – 3 million
8. Tunisia – 2.8 million
9. Zimbabwe – 1.4 million
10. Ghana – 0.9 million

(Research number are from the Internet World Stats)

Education and Charlatans

Quirk is successful, and they’re looking to expand into other parts of Africa. However, one of the hurdles that they face is that there just aren’t that many people who understand why web marketing is needed, and that there is a need for a real strategy behind everything from your website to links to emails. It’s a problem of education in the business sector, and it comes with two problems.

Rob Stokes of Quirk in Nairobi

First, low-bandwidth has caused most internet usage to be lower than normal in Africa. So, a lot of businesses don’t recognize the value of good web marketing, since most of the executives never get online to see their work anyway. For instance, think about the tourism industry in Africa, it is plagued with slow, ugly and hard to find websites. Most of them don’t even realize the business they’re missing out on.

Second, there are any number of people who will tell you that they can do your internet marketing or help with your online strategy and execute upon it. However, that’s simply not true for many claimants. There are likely only a handful of real experts in online marketing in any sub-Saharan African country. In Kenya alone, I can only think of a couple firms or individuals who really know what they’re talking about, and even fewer who can execute upon what they speak.

So, Rob has a challenge in addressing this market in Africa. It’s a big market if it can be cracked, but it takes more than just sales skills, it takes someone with the patience to educate and grow an industry.

Redefining yourself for the market

Joshua Wanyama found himself in a bind. He had just moved back to Kenya after growing a successful web firm in the US. Now he wanted to put Pamoja Media on the map in Africa, and he realized quite quickly that there was a major knowledge-gap in the interactive marketing space. How could he sell the connections that his ad network gave him if the very people he was selling to didn’t have an online strategy at all?

Joshua Wanyama of Pamoja Media

This realization caused him to change his strategic direction of the Kenyan operations to gain a customers. He changed it from being just about his ad network, and added on 5 more areas of expertise that would really give his clients positive returns:

  • Interactive strategy – how to scale a company’s operations and marketing online
  • Creative Development – Interactive ads, landing pages, enewsletters & micro sites
  • Placement – We run ads on the Pamoja Media Network, Yahoo, Google and Facebook network of sites
  • Social Media Marketing – This works for clients seeking long term social engagement with customers. We handle blogging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other accounts for such clients
  • Online PR – We also handle online PR for companies seeking to grow their reputations outside of advertising African Market online

It’s a lot of work to sell yourself into new accounts and then keep up with the demands of high profile clients. I know, I’ve been there. I know Joshua, and I know he’ll be successful with this.

What I also know is this, it’s terribly hard to scale a service organization. It takes more people. My hope is that Pamoja Media will be able to gather enough clients in the ad network space so that that remains the core business. This can scale, and it can be done efficiently.

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