Ushahidi “Eldoret” (v0.1) is Released!

I’m very excited to take a moment to give a big thanks to some very special people who have taken a lot of their time to make Ushahidi’s first release of the new engine come together. Each release is named after an African city or town which has seen a large crisis or disaster overtake it. The “Eldoret” release is in recognition of the problems that were centered around that town in Kenya earlier this year.

Ushahidi Alpha

A special round of thanks goes out to the following people for going the extra mile and getting this done:

It’s really looking good too, in no small thanks to Caleb and Jared. Check out the demo for yourself. More on it at the Ushahidi blog.

Bugs

Of course, there are bugs that need to be found and squashed. Many bugs, legions of them I’m sure, as this is just the alpha. Send all of your errors, bugs and failures to bugs.ushahidi.com – Thanks!

v0.2

The partying isn’t even done, but it’s time to finalize features and start building in the new ones. Check out the task list at http://wiki.ushahididev.com/doku.php?id=october_tasklist_2 if you want to get started.

Re-framing Brand Africa (Tech)

I’ve had some recurring thoughts over the last couple weeks, mostly pertaining to how technologists in Africa present ourselves, and how those outside Africa see us. How does “Brand Africa” – from the technology angle – play out, and why? What is unique that we offer to the world, and why should African technology matter in the global context?

It’s about “Brand Africa”

We need to re-frame the way we think about technology in Africa before we can expect others outside of Africa to do the same. Our challenge is to get people to realize that there is a real competitive advantage to developing and testing software in Africa. After all, if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.

The development conditions are unreliable and the environment is harsh. It isn’t fun to work off slow internet connections or deal with expensive and poor mobile phone networks. All of these things, and more, make just the technological side of developing in Africa a challenge, which is why it’s also a particularly good place to try new things.

If we embrace those handicaps, we might find that there’s a silver-lining inside.

African technology exported to the world

Fring and Ubuntu are two popular products coming out of South Africa that have gone global. There are more though. When Ken Banks built FrontlineSMS, he first tested and developed it within the African context. Ushahidi is being developed in Africa because these are the conditions that will make it work anywhere in the world.

In the enterprise solutions space there are a couple companies that do some good work. Two examples of this are Herman Chinery-Hesse‘s Softtribe in Ghana, and Microhouse in Kenya. Some of their solutions are for the local markets, and some are used in bidding on international projects.

Africa as a testing grounds for new applications

There’s a really neat application called Qik, which allows you to stream video live from your phone to a website. It has amazing potential for live video reporting, especially in a war zone. So, that’s just what David Axe did – and it failed miserably. Why? Because Qik designed their application not thinking of the unreliable and poor data connections found in much of the developing world.

David gives a couple suggestions:

First, there should be a “store” function, whereby you can shoot a video in some austere location, save it to your phone’s memory, then stream it later once you’ve got a solid network.

Second, Qik needs some way to buffer videos so that, if the software briefly loses its wireless network connection, it doesn’t also lose the whole video.

Granted, Qik is probably not aiming at a global market, just the US and Europe. However, it’s a good example of how creating or testing software to work in harsh settings can make your product more robust and help you think of simple solutions (like David’s) that can make your product better for everyone.

Final Thoughts

Most people outside of Africa don’t align any type of technological edge to what we do here on the continent. In fact, most are surprised when a developer from Africa pops up on the international stage at all. Though there are fewer software developers in Africa per capita relative to their Western counterparts, what most don’t realize is that those few are really quite talented.

This means the South Africans as well as their counter parts in Ghana, Uganda and Senegal. We’re all in this together, whether we like it or not. Remember, to outsiders we’re one homogeneous landmass. What we each do reflects on everyone, whether we’re creating for local or global markets.

Finally, let’s first realize that the challenges we face also provide excellent opportunities and a competitive advantage. Then, let’s start creating world-class software here, and start exporting it to the world.

(Brand Africa image via Brand Africa Project)

[Update June 2009: A great example of just this is seen by Google with their Gmail Preview release.]

Local Software for Local Needs

I happened to be in Nairobi for the first Skunkworks organized conference on local-grown mobile, web and desktop software – setup by Alex Gakuru. It’s a mixture of demos, with a scattering of talks by high-level sponsors and the Permanent Secretary of Information Dr. Ndemo.

Skunkworks@Innovate conference in Kenya

Tulipe – An African Payment System

Kenneth Mwangi just gave a presentation on his new web and mobile payment application called Tulipe, which means “let’s pay” in Swahili. It’s most similar to PayPal in how it is setup, where you signup to use it on the web, and then can start using mobile phones for payment after the account is set up.

Kenneth is in is final year at Strathmore University, well known for their tech programs, and this is his final project. The prototype is still being built, but it has a lot of potential. This is one of those ideas that a savvy business investor should jump on.

Tulipe - Kenyan payment application

TimeTabler – School Scheduling Application

Bonn Ndegwa is part of a company called Unwired Technologies, based out of Western Kenya, that works on what we call “tropically tolerant software”. In other words, they create desktop applications that work in rural, unconnected Africa on old computers. It’s a perfect example of Africans developing software for their own needs, instead of just importing solutions created for a different world.

TimeTabler

TimeTabler has a specific niche, they focus on serving the needs of schools putting together their schedules for both classes and teachers. It doesn’t sound that exciting, but it is if you’re a headmaster that used to spend a week trying to do what now takes only an hour with TimeTabler. It’s simple, working off of an Access database, but it works – and that’s all that matters.

Reasonably priced, they have 3 pricing levels, with a one-time cost of:

  • Primary schools – 9,000 ($125)
  • Secondary schools – 19,000/= ($250)
  • Universities – 90,000/= ($1250)

Kikwe – Send Airtime Across Africa

Sam Kitanye and Victor Murage are talking about the Kikwe application that allows you to send airtime anywhere in the world (not just Africa). They use electronic inventory, so they bypass the need of keeping physical voucher inventory, which is very useful when you think about times when the shops run out.

Scalable to any network, because you’re sending a pin number – if you tried to do this by keeping an account, SIM card or modem, that wouldn’t work. The airtime is sent instantly.

Fraud is always a problem with these kinds of international transactions – especially when you’re dealing with airtime in Africa as it has become its own pseudo-currency. Victor talks about the ways they are tracking fraudulent activity, but past experience in this space reminds me of how difficult it is, made even harder as their product is instant.

This is a good business idea for making money from the diaspora, assuming you can manage the fraud. However, the achilles heel for use within Africa is (again) the lack of local payment systems to actually create the transaction. Hopefully they’ll get together with Kenneth of Tulipe (above) and figure something out.

Jahazi – Local Kenyan Internet Content

Mugambi is giving a review of the newer version of Jahazi (which I reviewed in it’s earlier stages). One place where you can get all your local information for Kenya. Mixing things, including email, news reader, SMS and local internet content.

It’s another good example of home-grown software made for local markets, challenges and content.