WhiteAfrican

Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: Madagascar

Twitter is Slowly Coming Back to Africa

Over 2.5 years ago Twitter shut down all operations in Africa. Back then, in August of 2008, it really didn’t matter too much as the penetration rates for the service in Africa, and most of the world, were negligible. A lot has changed since then as Twitter has become a defacto communications too, and in many ways a new communications protocol, all over the globe.

Now, they really hadn’t “shut down” as the service is accessible always via the internet. What they had shut down was text messaging – SMS, due to non-sustainable business relationships with the mobile operators in each country. Since then, the Twitter team has grown, and their ambitions beyond North America, the UK and India have increased as well.

In Africa, three countries have it working; Nigeria, Kenya and Madagascar (Note: there used to be a fourth, but Cameroon has banned mobile Twitter as they go towards elections). Just send a text message with the word “start” to the following shortcodes in each country go get started:

Nigeria: 40404 (Airtel); 20644 (Glo Mobile)
Kenya: 8988 (Safaricom); 40404 (Airtel)
Madagascar: 40404 (VIP)

The Twitter team is working on relationships for expanding SMS service throughout a lot of countries in Africa. How those deals are structured with the network operators and why they’re slow in coming online with the service isn’t yet known.

You can find out which countries do have Twitter’s mobile SMS service on this page. You can also keep up with Jessica Verilli (@Jess), in charge of Corporate Development & Strategic Initiatives at Twitter, and the one who has been the most visibly active on the continent.

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]

Massive Africa Update on Google Maps

The Map-the-World and Map-Maker teams at Google have been making some major, and much needed, additions for Africa. With a large data push yesterday, Google Maps has one of the most impressive sets of maps on Africa that you can find.

There are now 27 more African countries that now have detailed maps, including:

Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Togo.

Comparing countries

What I wanted to do was compare old map tiles with new ones, but I didn’t have any screenshots to do that with. Instead I did a quick comparison of a few countries – those that were just announced vs ones that weren’t on the list.

A good example of this is found when comparing Mali to Burkina Faso in West Africa. There are significantly more town names in Burkina Faso, and all the roads either have names or numbers. In Mali, which hasn’t been done yet, there are some major roads outlined, few towns are named, and no minor roads to speak of.

Mali vs Burkina Faso

Also of interest, you’ll notice how the roads that should intersect at the borders, do not.

Here’s another interesting view of West Africa. You can clearly see that there has been a lot of data added for all of these countries, except for Liberia and Mali.

Google Maps in West Africa - May 2009

One other interesting map that I came across was of Mogadishu, Somalia. It appears that there either are no street names, or that the Google team working on this didn’t know what they were:

Mogadishu, Somalia - no road names

Madagascar – Barcamp Madagascar

African Meetups, Barcamps and Conferences

African Tech Events CalendarThings are definitely heating up in the African tech sphere according to my calendar of African tech events (Events RSS feed) for the remainder of the year. From Madagascar to Mauritius there are unconferences, conferences and adhoc meetups happening at a rate I haven’t seen before. The African tech scene is definitely getting bigger and noisier.

Barcamp Nairobi

In the next two weeks we have 8 events covering 6 countries:

** I’ll be attending these
* I will stream in live to Barcamp Africa with the South Africans, but it’s also open in Kenya and Ghana.

On top of these scheduled conferences and unconferences, there are many meetups happening all over the place – from the monthly 27Dinner in cities around South Africa to the bi-monthly Skunkworks meetings in Kenya.

Africa’s a happening place – just watch!

[As always, if you know of an upcoming African tech event, let me know and I’ll add it to the calendar]

iPhone Conquest Turns to Africa

iPhone Conquest of the World (June 9)

Above is the map of the, “iPhone conquest of the world” shown at Apple’s WWDC keynote today. 15 African nations are getting in on the game now that is is 3G and more affordable. Honestly, I wonder how many of the local networks can handle the data load, but that’s another conversation. Orange will be the carrier for Africa (as well as the Middle East and Europe).

The iPhone will be released in many countries on July 11th. However, the full index of countries, including all of the African nations (save South Africa), won’t see the iPhone until later in the year.

iPhones in Africa - Country List

The 15 countries are:

Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Niger, Senegal, South Africa.

The iPhone in Africa. Really?
Many people will say that the iPhone will never be of any consequence in Africa. Possibly true. Outside of Egypt and South Africa, the number of people who can afford post-paid data plans are fairly limited. The second problem is the data networks themselves, many of them aren’t ready for the stress that iPhone users will apply (as AT&T wasn’t in the US).

I reserve judgment. Blackberry’s, N95s and other smart phones can be made to work in Africa quite well. However, I don’t think what we’re seeing is “just another smart phone”. It’s a new operating system that changes the paradigm of the mobile phone/web. (I think Android is similar in many ways too – just more open).

What will happen is those who can afford the iPhone and the requisite post-paid plan will rush out and buy it. The data networks will become stronger to support it, and local developers will start building for apps (not to mention the secondary and tertiary applications and APIs that are needed).

Years from now, when the idea of the mobile web isn’t so flashy and unknown in Africa, we’ll look back and say our thanks to the iPhone as one of the catalysts that pushed development forward.

Gruber gets it right:

“The physical phone is not the story. A year from now, the iPhone 3G will be replaced by another new model. The platform is the story. Platforms have staying power, and, once entrenched, are very hard to displace.”

[image courtesy of Engadget, and full notes from keynote. Full video on Apple.com]

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