Local Innovation and Entrepreneurs

I gave a keynote yesterday at the opening of the infoDev Global Forum in Helsinki, which has a specific focus on innovation. The m:lab funding comes from them, and they are exploring new ways to help entrepreneurs in the high-tech space, specifically mobiles, to make their businesses a reality.

Innovation: Knowledge and Resources

I’ve already stated that I think innovation is spread equally across the world. No one region has a monopoly on it. The kind of innovation that you see is dependent upon a number of things, but the foremost in my mind are knowledge and resources.

It’s what you’re educated about and in, it’s your skills, training and ability. When you mix that with the resources available around a creative and inventive person, then innovation happens. Let’s take a look at it.

Low-tech example
In Gikomba, a market place of jua kali workers in Nairobi, you find that their resources are made up of re-usable metal and they have deep training in non-traditional metal working methods and tools.

It comes as no surprise then, that the products they create look like this. Parafin lamps and other low-tech consumer products that sell cheaply and yet took a good deal of local ingenious thinking to craft (originally).

High-tech example
There is a group of women coders in the Nairobi area that call themselves the Akirachix. They often work out of the iHub, and their knowledge is about PHP, MySQL, USSD and SMS application building. The resources around them are mobile phones, and computers to work with.

It comes as no surprise that a couple of these gals (Jamila and Susan) develop mobile and web applications, targeted towards a demographic that they understand: farmers. M-Farm is a USSD and SMS app for farmer information, and organized buying by coops and suppliers.

What you see

What’s interesting here is that it’s often difficult for someone coming from one society and cultural background to appreciate the level of innovation coming from a completely different one. I used a couple examples of this in my discussion yesterday. How the low-tech innovation that we see at Maker Faire Africa is still innovation, and they have business value and provide efficiencies to the community that created them.

What’s difficult for people to do is see. It’s hard to look through another set of lenses and appreciate the inventiveness that got something so far. It’s a challenge to understand the needs of a culture that you don’t share and then create a product for it. This is why so many of the platforms and products designed in the West fail in Africa. It’s not that they’re not well designed, they’re just not designed by people who truly understand the needs of the customers in Africa.

It’s why rugged and efficient seed planting devices will be created in rural Ghana. It’s why Ushahidi and Mpesa had to come from a place like Kenya. It’s why South Africa’s Mxit has 35m users.

Finally, it’s why we should continue to invest in local inventors and entrepreneurs – instead of importing foreign solutions, let’s grow our own.

Quick Hits Around African Tech

Umbono: Google’s South African Incubator

In Cape Town, Google has initiated a tech incubator that gives 6 months of free space, $25-50k startup funding and access to an extensive mentoring network. The secret sauce here is in the angel & mentor network, who will be providing 50% of all investment money, while Google provides the rest. Johanna Kollar leads this initiative, and tells me they’re looking for at least 5 companies to get behind in this first go at it, though if there are enough exceptional applicants, they might do more. If you’re a registered business in South Africa, then you can participate. (more on the Google Africa blog)

The BoBs

Deutsche Welle runs the “Best of Blogs” awards each year, showcasing excellent blogs from all over the world. If you haven’t yet, take a few minutes and vote for your favorites. There are quite a few from North Africa.

21st Century Challenges: Digital Technology in Africa

I’ll be a guest to the Royal Geographic Society in London on May 18th for a discussion on technology in Africa with Nicholas Negroponte, Herman Chinery-Hesse and moderated by Bog Geldof. Our main topic:

“Can digital technology such as laptops and mobile phones offer the countries of Africa realistic economic and educational opportunities?”

If you’re in London, you can get a ticket to the event and join us.

Ushahidi moves

There are over 10,000 deployments of the Ushahidi platform around the world, and as you might imagine, a lot has been happening at Ushahidi, including:

  • The launch of Crowdmap Checkins at SXSW, a way to “roll your own Foursquare-type service”. It’s in it’s beta stage, but you can play with it now, as others have already using the Ushahidi Android or iOS apps.
  • Some amazing people created a Japan deployment after the earthquake and tsunami there, we helped by getting our SwiftRiver Sweeper app to do real-time translation using Google’s APIs.
  • Japan earthquake Ushahidi data, heatmapped

    Japan earthquake Ushahidi data, heatmapped

  • We’ve released some reports on past deployments and are part way through an evaluation by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.
  • One of our volunteer deployers, Anahi Ayala Iacucci, spent a great deal of time and created a 90+ page Ushahidi manual for anyone looking to deploy Ushahidi. Having worked on over 20 deployments of her own, she’s one of the best placed people in the world to do this.

Samsung Seeks to Grow in Africa

Samsung is opening a new Electronics Engineering Academy for youth in Boksburg, South Africa. As Afrinnovator states, they have about 20% of the market, which will only increase as they’ve been smart enough to get behind Android in their devices (currently with 22 models). We’ve felt this presence at the iHub in Nairobi as well, where Samsung has a great interest in reaching out to Android programmers.

What would you say to Nokia Africa?

On Friday I’ll be addressing some of the top business decision makers for Nokia in Africa. My goal is to shake them up a little, make them think deeply and differently about the African market.

Nokia in Africa - little innovation since the nokia 1100 flashlight on a phone

Nokia hasn’t truly innovated in Africa since they put a flashlight in a Nokia 1100 in 2003.

I’ve been asked to discuss my views on how the handset and mobile services business situation is developing, what the opportunities are in those areas and suggestions on how Nokia could lead in this market.

Therein lies the problem: I’m only one person with one opinion, they need to hear from others with different experiences.

What would you say?

Add yours in the comments below. The best will be brought to the Nokia executives attention:

Here are a couple from Twitter.

  • Top-end or low-end handsets, what does Nokia stand for here? (via Niti Bhan)
  • Innovate on the user experience for low-end handsets. (via Rombo)
  • Is Nokia serious about social impact, or is that just face paint?
  • Africa is ripe for experimental phones and financing models, what is new coming out of Africa first?

Don’t just think cheap handsets. What else would you do within business models and solutions?

A Rising Tide: Africa’s Tech Entrepreneurs

[This post is my talk from NetProphet 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. Keep in mind it was aimed at a crowd that was close to 100% South African, and my purpose was to show what was going on north of the South African border.]

The idea for this talk came from a conversation that I had with a programmer that I met in Jo’burg when I first visited 3 years ago. After a talk that I gave, he told me, “Someday I’d like to visit Africa.” As you can imagine, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

Now, I think he meant this Africa

I would rather speak to you about this Africa

This map color codes countries by their level of internet penetration. As you can see, all of Africa has a fairly poor internet penetration rate compared to the rest of the world.

South Africans sometimes forget that they are a part of a much larger continent, choosing to align themselves closer with far-away Europe than their bordering countries, and they miss all types of opportunities due to this.

So, when Tim asked me what I wanted to talk about at NetProphet this year, I thought it a great opportunity to highlight some of the entrepreneurs and opportunities that lie just north of this great country.

Most of us look at this map and say, “that’s pathetic”. A few say, “blue ocean”, a completely untapped market ripe for the picking.

I’d like to start off then by telling you about two people, Karanja and Fritz, who are of the latter type, and they’re making good money working in this market. First mover advantage in the tech space has always been a key, and their early inroads into the space position them perfectly for taking advantage of a growing mass of consumers.

A story of 2 entrepreneurs

Karanja Macharia is the founder and CEO of Mobile Planet, a mobile company in Kenya that provides third party services to both the main mobile providers and other corporate clients. They’ve been around for a number of years, Google invested in them 2 years ago, and most importantly, they’re profitable.

I carry around a Nexus One and an iPhone. Karanja carries around a Nokia 1600, the cheapest data-enabled phone you can buy ($25). Why? He does this so that he understands what his customers need and use. His clients aren’t your upper-class Blackberry toting professionals, they’re the “wananchi” (the ordinary person).

It takes a paradigm shift in the understanding of people, culture and spending habits to tackle this market. It’s not a population that understands the PC-web in the same way that you, me or anyone from the West does. It takes a different perspective, and a different type of entrepreneur.

In Kenya, approximately 40% of mobile users don’t keep a balance on their mobile phone. This means, they might top up with 10-20 Ksh from time to time to keep their phone active, but most of the time they have the phone for people to call them. At the same time, there’s a burgeoning opportunity and demand for mobile web content. So, the question is, how do you get that 40% active on the web with the current pre-paid model in Africa, where everything has a cost?

Talking to someone like Karanja is an eye opener, you quickly realize how deftly he wields his knowledge of mobile consumers in Kenya against the realities of the mobile operator’s business culture and the “freemium” pricing of the web as it too grows in penetration here.

Karanja represents this new technology entrepreneur in Africa. He’s a seasoned businessman, not some wet behind the ears University student. Karanja understands cash flow and business management, as well as the differences between a PC-web based culture and the mobile-base culture that is sub-Saharan Africa.

_______

Fritz Ekwoge is the founder of iYam.mobi, he too comes from a professional background, though as a programmer and developer, not pure business. He represents a different type of entrepreneur, a younger generation that knows and cares about the web world beyond his Cameroonian borders, and tries to figure out how the two can work together.

Last year I wrote about his first application, iYam.mobi, which is a mobile phone based mobile directory. It works off of the assumption that no one using it ever touches a PC and therefore won’t need it when they look for contact information of service providers via an SMS command to the server. It’s simple, and it works. Fritz has taken the original iYam.mobi ‘mobile mobile’ directory concept and run with it.  It’s evolved into a generalized SMS-based content publishing platform with virtual currency that anyone can use to create and consume local content services.

That application has been rewritten and is now onto another application that might be even more interesting. Fritz has created a new SMS Apps Store at iYam.mobi, and his company has been named FeePerfect. Fritz is in the process of obtaining his VAS (value added services) license.  The platform is undergoing testing and will be released as private beta next month.

Fritz represents this new technology entrepreneur in Africa as well. He’s done his time at firms like PriceWaterhouseCooper, sees the digital landscape both internationally and in Cameroon, and realizes the opportunities available in his home market that are difficult for outsiders to bridge.

Many people claim that, “the future isn’t SMS” with too many limitations and a horrible cost structure. That might be true. However, it’s also the present reality. What Fritz understands is that you build for what people need, not for what tech pundits in the West and upper class Africans idealize about.

Why do these stories matter?

Both Fritz and Karanja come from completely different backgrounds. Business, culture and technological penetration vary greatly between Cameroon and Kenya. In one, you’re not surprised to hear of entrepreneurial success and innovative thinking while in the other you do wonder about the consumer-side viability of mobile or web-based products.

I believe these stories are important because they take us outside of our comfort zones. We are forced to come to the realization that our understanding of the business potential of technology entrepreneurs in Africa is far greater than we had thought. We consistently underestimate the viability of consumer markets in Africa because we do not truly understand the customer there.

One other point I’d like to make on entrepreneurs. Justin Spratt wrote an excellent piece on the new Memeburn site, called “10 Lessons for Founders“. In one of his last paragraphs he talks about the Ideal Founder. All of these same traits are clearly visible in the new tech entrepreneur in Africa, so they’re not that different than their Western counterparts on a personality level. Where they do differ is in their understanding of how to bridge their culture and technology.

Where is it happening?

There are a couple major cities that act as hubs for technology innovation in Africa.

  • Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa
  • Nairobi, Kenya
  • Accra, Ghana
  • Lagos, Nigeria
  • Cairo, Egypt

Looking at maps like this and talking to individuals in this space, I tend to disagree that the digital divide is primarily between rich and poor in Africa. My theory is that it’s more urban versus rural than anything else. I do travel quite a bit, and I’ve found that you’re much more likely to see a data-enabled phone in use in the slums of Kampala than in the rural backwoods of Liberia.

These cities are the ones to continue focusing on and encouraging a critical mass of programmers, businesses, universities who focus on tech and funds and investor groups to formulate.

One of the projects that I’ve been heavily involved with since the beginning of the year is a new tech innovation hub in Nairobi, called the iHub. Our goal is to create a nexus point for the tech community in Nairobi.

It’s an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.

I’m firmly of the belief that spaces like the iHub in Nairobi, Limbe Labs in Cameroon, Appfrica Labs in Uganda, Banta Labs in Senegal , and a new Geekspace here in South Africa (where there are more) are just the types of place that we need to get behind. These are the places that draw in the interesting people and projects, and they also serve as a filter and trusted intermediary for outside investors and businesses.

Thus far we’ve only seen the first generation of mobile and web entrepreneurs. There are a few good successes stories, but not enough. What these cities represent, and the hubs within them, is a space for that next generation of entrepreneurs to rise up. Locations to look for the newest and best ideas, invest in them, and then help them grow beyond the urban boundaries that pen them in right now.

Finally

Still don’t believe that the Africa north of you is worth taking a look at?

“Kenya is proving more lucrative per subscriber than South Africa for mobile advertising.”

Hearing someone tell me that, from one of the leading mobile advertising networks, was surprising. But, I’m guessing not nearly as surprising for me (who lives in Kenya) as it probably is for you, who live in South Africa.

We have a rising tide of technology beating against our continent’s shores, and it comes as no surprise to me that we have entrepreneurs rising up to meet it.