Africa: Turning the World Upside Down

Whitespace in business is defined as a place, “…where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear…” It’s the space between the organizational chart, where the real innovation happens. It’s also a great definition for what we see in Africa, and it’s the reason why it’s one of the most exciting places to be a technology entrepreneur today.

I just finished with a talk at PopTech on Saturday where I talked about “The Idea of Africa” and how Western abstractions of the continent are often mired in the past. It’s not just safaris and athletes, poverty and corruption – it’s more nuanced than that.

Today I’m in London for Nokia World 2011 and am speaking on a panel about “The next billion” and how it might/might not turn the world upside down. In my comments tomorrow, I’ll probably be echoing many of the same thoughts that came out over the weekend at PopTech.

Here are a few of the points that we might get into tomorrow:

Horizontal vs Vertical scaling

I talk a lot about this with my friend Ken Banks, where we look to scale our own products (Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS) in a less traditional format. As entrepreneurs you’re driven to scale, but our definition of scale in the West tends to be monolithic. Creating verticals that are incredibly efficient, but which decreases resilience.

In places like Africa, we have this idea of horizontal scaling, where the product or service is grown in smaller units, but spread over multiple populations and communities. Where a smaller size has its own benefits.

In this time of corporate and government cuts, where seemingly oversized companies are propped up in order to not fail, there are some lessons here for the West. We shouldn’t be surprised that the solutions to the West’s problems will increasingly come from places like Africa.

Instead of thinking of Africa as a place that needs to be more like the West, we’re now looking at Africa and realizing the West need to be more like Africa.

Reverse distribution

Will we increasingly see a new set of innovative ideas, products and services coming from places like Africa and spreading to the rest of the world? Why is Africa such a fertile ground for a different type of innovation, a more practical one – or is it?

Disruptive ideas happen at the edge.

Africa is on the edge. While the world talks at great length about the shifting of power from the West (US/Europe) to the East (India/China), Africa is overlooked. That works in our favor (sometimes).

A couple of the ideas and products that have started in Africa and been exported beyond the continent include; Mpesa, Ushahidi and Mxit.


Mpesa – the idea came from Vodafone, but product met it’s success in Kenya. Over $8 billion has been transferred through it’s peer-to-peer payment system. Vodafone has failed to make the brand go global, but the model itself is being dissected and mimicked the world over.


Ushahidi – we started small, from Kenya again, and driven by our Crowdmap platform now have over 20,000 deployments of our software around the world. It’s in 132 countries, and the biggest uses of it are in places like Japan, Russia, Mexico and the US.


Mxit – the famous mobile chat software from South Africa has 3x the number of Facebook users in that country, and has over 25 million users globally.

Like we see at Maker Faire Africa, these innovative solutions are based on needs locally, many of them due to budgetary constraints. Some of them due to cultural idiosyncrasies. Often times, people from the West can’t imagine, nor create, the solutions needed in emerging markets, they don’t have the context and the “mobile first” paradigm isn’t understood.

A good example of this is Okoa Jihazi, a way to get a small loan of credit for your mobile phone minutes when you’re out of cash to buy them, from the operator. They’ve built some safeguards in to protect against abuse, such as you have to have had the SIM for 6 months in order to get the service. It works though, because the company selling it (and many of the mobile operators do across Africa) understands the nuanced life of Africa.

We hold on to technology longer, experiment on it, abuse it even. SMS and USSD are great examples of this, while much of the Western world is jumping on the next big technology bandwagon, there are really crazy things coming out in emerging markets, like USSD internet, payment systems, ticketing and more.

Throughout the world, the basic foundation of any technology success is based on finding a problem, a need, and solving it. This is what we’re doing in Africa. We have different use cases and cultures, which means that there will be many solutions. Some will only be valuable for local needs and won’t scale beyond the country or region. Others will go global. Both solutions are “right”, it’s not a failure to have a product that profitably serves 100,000 people instead of 100 million.

Turning the world upside down has as much to do with accepting this idea of localized success as an acceptable answer as it does with explosive global growth and massive vertical scale.

The Two Big Trends

Trend #1: Adoption by Africans as consumers is increasing.
Trend #2: Technology costs are decreasing

Let’s get back to my talk for tomorrow at Nokia… 87% of sub-$100 phones sold by Nokia are sold in emerging markets. 34% of Africa’s population (313 million) are now considered middle class. The fastest growing economy in the world is Ghana, 5 of the top 10 are African countries (including Liberia, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique). Across the continent, the average GDP growth is expected to be at 5+% going forward.

At the same time, we’re seeing bandwidth increase, and bandwidth costs decrease. Mobile operators are the continents major ISPs, and they’re getting creative on their data plans. Handset costs are going down. Smart(er) phones are available for less than ever before. We even have one of the lease expensive Android phones in the world at $80 in Kenya, the IDEOS by Huawei.

Is it all bright and rosy? Not at all. You’re on the edge, you have to create new markets, not just new businesses. But in that challenge lies opportunity, for it’s from these hard, rough and disruptive spaces that great wealth is grown. If you’re an African entrepreneur, why would you want to be anywhere else?

The Blackboard Blogger of Monrovia

Alfred Sirleaf is an analog blogger. He take runs the “Daily News”, a news hut by the side of a major road in the middle of Monrovia. He started it a number of years ago, stating that he wanted to get news into the hands of those who couldn’t afford newspapers, in the language that they could understand.

Liberias Blackboard Blogger

Alfred serves as a reminder to the rest of us, that simple is often better, just because it works. The lack of electricity never throws him off. The lack of funding means he’s creative in ways that he recruits people from around the city and country to report news to him. He uses his cell phone as the major point of connection between him and the 10,000 (he says) that read his blackboard daily.


Liberia’s Blackboard Blogger from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

Not all Liberians who read his news are literate, so he makes use of symbols. Whether it’s a UN or military helmet, a poster of a soccer player or a bottle of colored water to denote gas prices, he is determined to get the message out in any way that he can.

Liberia - Daily News props

Advertising works here too. It’s $5 to be on the bottom level, $10 to be on the sideboard and $25 on the main section. He doesn’t get a lot of advertising, and but he manages to scrape by.

His plans for the future include decentralizing his work, this means opening up identical locations in other parts of Monrovia, and in a few of the larger cities around the country. I don’t put it past Alfred either, he’s a scrappy entrepreneur on a mission to bring information and news to ordinary Liberians. He’s succeeded thus far, and I would put my money on him growing it even further.

Alfred Sirleaf talking to a news reader

(Also, read the NYT piece on him from 3 years ago)

(note: title for this post stolen shamelessly from Rebecca’s Pocket)

Radio Gbarpolu and Travel in Liberia


Liberian Bush Trip from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

I took an opportunity to travel to Bopolu, a small town in the Liberian bush that is the center of government for Gbarpolu county (don’t say the “G”).

My goal was to talk to someone from a rural community radio station. I also wanted to talk to the local leaders to determine how information flows in the community, and how it gets from local villages to Monrovia.

Here is a quick video that I put together showing some of the highlights of this trip.

Liberian Bush Radio Escapades

Today finds me off in Bopola, a town well off the beaten track North of Monrovia, Liberia – where I’ve taken a lot of pictures and had a good time getting out of the city. I hitched a ride with an American NGO taking breeding rabbits upcountry, so the back of the pickup truck had 80 furry big-ears in it. It smelled some, since they had picked them up in Guinea 2 days before.

Handing out rabbits in Liberia

I saw this fascinating creation called a BUV on their station before I left too. 3 wheels, and it looks like it can haul anything.

BUV

The ride was just what I was looking for; providing me a chance to get out and see how the country really breathes and moves. The outskirts of Monrovia are hectic, as you would expect, but as soon as you get out it slows waaaay down.

Radio Gbarpola

One of my main missions while out is to talk to some rural community radio managers. When we got in, I made contact with the owner/manager of Radio Gbarpola and we had a good 2-hour discussion on their technology, programming, practices and business growth possibilities.

radio gbarpola in liberia

International Alert has pumped a decent amount of money into a number of strategically located community radio facilities. Radio Gbarpola is one of them, and boasts a bank of solar powered batteries, a 300 watt transmitter, a split studio, a 2-deck CD and tape player, and a motorcycle (for the news reporter to visit locations on). That’s some spread!

As I had expected, this radio station is one of the only ways anyone in much of the county can find out what is going on within the county. They currently cover 2/3 of it, and with a repaired or new antenna, they can reach all of it. The only mobile phone antennas are owned by Lonestar, and it doesn’t have nearly the reach of the radio station.

Getting interviewed at Radio Gbarpola

While there, they insisted on a quick interview as well – I hope the Liberians in Gbarpola county can understand my American English… :)

New technology injection

Being myself, after exhausting my question supply, I started demo’ing what you could do with just a SIM card, mobile phone, and a computer. The first thing out was a quick test of FrontlineSMS there, which worked like a charm. I explained how a setup like that could add a new revenue stream as well, if they started selling text ads.

Then, I went on to talk about what we did in Kenya with Ushahidi, and ask about what they thought of similar technology in Liberia. Interestingly enough, it turns out that all “important” information seems to filter into the radio quickly. It’s either direct to, or direct to police-to-radio.

That that has started me thinking about is using the 50+ community radio stations in Liberia as nodes in a larger network. I’m thinking it might be possible to set up a number of them with a FrontlineSMS system that uses Mesh4x to sync certain information between them and up to Headquarters in Monrovia. Just an idea at this point, but well worth doing more discovery on.

[Note: How did I manage to post way out in the middle of nowhere? Aforementioned NGO has a nice slow connection, and I have all night to upload these resized images…]

How Aid and Government are Failing Higher Ed in Liberia

Professors Robert and Bropleh

Today I stopped by the University of Liberia, which is situated right between (and across the street from) the massive UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) building and the equally large Liberian capital building. I had the chance to sit down with Professors Bropleh, the Associate Dean of Engineering, and Professor Damalo Robert, the Director of Computer Information Systems.

It turns out there is no computer science program offered at all. I asked if they knew of any student that was a programmer, if there were any groups that did some type of hacking on their own. Nothing. Below is the sorry story of this saga.

The computer science center story

DSC_0403

On April 27, 2007 the president opened the new “Center for information and communication technology” at the University of Liberia. It has 150 computers, a VSAT connection and a video conferencing machine. Sounds good!

That operation was shut down 6 months ago.

The power and the building are paid for by the university, but the nice internet connection cost about $5000 per month and no one was paying the bill. There is some muddy story involving Socketworks Global’s digital bridge project and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), where Socketworks put in a $100k+ expecting to be reimbursed by the IFC, only to have it not happen.

“In post-conflict Liberia, where students cannot absorb a fee increase for education, SocketWorks is self-funding the initial investment and seeking support from the World Bank to subsidize the student subscription fees. This is the first time SocketWorks is changing its business model to accommodate donor subsidies.”

What we’re left with is a padlocked door to a 150 working computers, with a dormant VSAT connection sitting unused in the middle of the demographic that could do the most with it. The very same demographic that will be called upon to lead the next generation of government and business in Liberia.

Aid money and Liberia’s higher education

Since the war ended in 2003, there has been well over a billion dollars of AID money pumped into this country. It appears as if the young children are more important than the older youth, as almost all education money is funneled to primary schools. On average, out of an engineering student population of 500 students, only 30 graduate. There is a whole generation missing out on real higher education opportunities.

The University of Liberia is an eyesore – a mess of buildings falling apart and crumbling before your eyes. That might be okay though, as the Chinese have built a brand new university complex 30 miles out of town, which is supposed to go into use next year. Maybe they have other plans for this land now, but in the interim, it just seems an embarrassment to the system – both government and aid organizations.

What next?

It seems such a shame to have the futures of this current generation of “could be” programmers and developers held hostage by a system not of their making. Where the very purpose is to be educated in areas that will help the country exponentially in the years ahead. It makes you wonder…

We see the big tech foundations dumping their money into all kinds of projects. With a running cost of under $100k per year, why doesn’t some white knight from a big tech company put their money here? Surely this is a place and a project worth that much. That number equates to an accounting error for most of them anyway.

I find myself torn between excitement of the potential that these 150 computers represent and the disappointment of the current muck up.

A Whirl Through the Liberian Tech Community

Yesterday had good meetings, but today was amazing.

Cellcom in Liberia

I had a chance to sit down with the CEO of Cellcom today, Avishai Marziano. Cellcom is the second largest mobile phone operator in Liberia by subscription, right behind Lonestar. They have very good coverage of the country (all the main roads and towns), and they do a great job of marketing their services. We got into a nice heated debate over the value of Ushahidi, and if there is any business model to use it for carriers like him (turns out there isn’t, except that the long-term health of the country is in his best interest).

We then got into some great discussions about mobile phone payments and banking. Specifically, the pros and cons of an MPESA approach (carrier monopoly, bank agnostic) compared to a Wizzit (carrier agnostic, bank monopoly). How everyone is jumping at using these services to gain more subscribers, and not to really add another value added revenue stream into their company.

The final part was when he showed me their newest prototype of an iPhone-like touchscreen mobile phone that runs with dual SIM cards, has radio and all the other goodies you would expect. Right now, it needs a little more polish, though the form feel is good and if they drop the price point down it will find buyers. Selling a dual SIM phone is a tricky business though. It’s definitely what African users want, but it’s also a tricky thing to market, when you’re basically giving a free slot away to a competitor. (no pictures, sorry)

John Etherton

john-etherton

Lunch was at a local dive, over a bowl of rice and spicy fish gravy/soup. It had no airflow, and was really much like eating in a sauna. However, it was worth it because I think I might have found one of the only true hardcore hacker types that is in Monrovia today. John Etherton has been here for a year, working on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from Georgia Tech. He’s done some really cool stuff with GPS-enabled PDAs in rural Liberia, and is the only guy I’ve met who could give me true rundown of all things mobile and internet in the area.

It turns out that there is decent mobile coverage of the populated areas of the country. The best any operator can do is Edge/GPRS, so no 3G anywhere, but that’s better than nothing. It also means that almost everywhere that you get network access, you can also send data. Cellcom and Lonestar have the best rural coverage, and Comium is the easiest ISP to start using, but for dedicated access most go through Cellcom or one of the smaller ISPs.

Alie and the Youth Crime Watch team

Alie is the newest Ushahidi dev, originally an ASP and .NET guy, he’s now starting to get involved with the program. You can read the full story of how I got to meet him and how this transpired on the Ushahidi blog.

Alie, a developer in Monrovia, Liberia

Liberian Tech: Barriers to Entry

Today was my first full day on the ground in Liberia, which I spent talking to a number of people about the mobile, internet and radio infrastructure – and, more importantly, the realities of their usage on the ground in the country. I try to not only talk to high-level executives and business officials, but also the implementers (people who really do the work), and laymen who just use the technology, but have no major tech background themselves.

A TV antenna in Monrovia, Liberia

Two of the guys I talked to run the IT department for a medium-sized NGO. One of these two, Joshua, is an engineering student at a local polytechnic, and we had a good discussion on why I’ve been having such a hard time finding young hackers and programmers in Monrovia. They came back with an interesting response on how the barriers in their country make it quite difficult to even get started.

A (very) brief background

Liberia came out of a civil war only a few short years ago. The infrastructure was torn apart (there is no electricity grid, rich people run generators), the university and education system are still trying to catch up, and no computer science degree is available. The mobile phone companies, due to not needing as much foundational infrastructure, have built out quickly and cover much of the main roads and major towns (I’ll have to do a whole post on this subject later). All internet connections come through VSAT connections, and they’re not reliable or cheap.

Barriers

Barrier: You can’t get online to get to all the free knowledge. Unlike many other parts of Africa, there are very few internet cafes here. Joshua explained that young people find it very hard to get out to them to get free knowledge online.

Barrier: The few jobs that there are in the ICT sector are generally with NGOs, a few businesses and government organizations. Only those with good connections get in, so a lot of smart young people miss. Why is this important? Only those in these jobs are able to get the training and certification to do higher paying jobs because they have to be flown out to the training centers – none are in-country.

Caveat

I’m on my first day here and will meet more people, so I still have more discovery to do on this topic. Though I do find it interesting that today, of the 5 tech people I met, not one was a Liberian grown and trained in Liberia. I think it’s fair to say that Liberia presents challenges that are steep to overcome, even by African standards.