Chasing the Sun (Tanzania to Zambia)

Catching up on a few updates at once here, you can read about Day 2 of our trip here.

It’s 6am in Lusaka, Zambia as I write this. The last two days have been a blur as we covered over 1,700 kilometers from Dodoma to Lusaka in what can only be considered as marathon sessions from sunup to just after sundown. Fortunately, both Tanzania and Zambia have some of the best roads we’ve seen, and the motorcycles and car all behaved well with only one slow puncture the whole way. We took small breaks every 100-200km in order to rest and move around a bit, but we’re still quite sore and ready for this day to do no travel.

Some twisty's on the road to Iringa

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Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

The border crossing from Tanzania into Zambia at Dunduma left a little something to be desired. What felt like it should have taken about 1.5 hours at most, ended up taking 3+ hours, which meant our last 50km into a campsite were done in the dark on the only section of bad road we’ve seen. People did warn us of this, so it wasn’t unexpected. However, the reason wasn’t because of long lines of trucks slowing us down, it was due to inefficiency in the process itself at both immigration and customs.

From here, our days get a little more sane, with a run down through Victoria Falls into Botswana and then finally Johannesburg. As an aside, it turns out that half-way between Nairobi and Jo’burg is almost exactly at a small town called Serenje, Zambia – 2,200km from each.

Time at Bongohive

We pushed so hard to get to Lusaka by now so that we would be here in time for the events at Bongohive, Lusaka’s tech hub, which were all scheduled for today.

1pm – Demo of BRCK (Philip Walton and Reg Orton of the BRCK team)
3pm – Meeting with Startups (Mark Kamauof the iHub UX Lab) – HCD, UX, DT
4:30pm – Meeting with Startups (Erik) – Investment readiness, experiences with Savannah Fund, getting into new markets etc
6pm – Keynote at Startup Weekend Lusaka (Erik and Juliana Rotich)

Lukongo Lindunda is the co-founder of the space, and we’ve known each other for years, since before they got it started back in 2011. I’ve been looking forward to seeing everyone here in the tech space for a while, and I’m interested in hearing what’s brewing in the startup scene.

Some of the startups that I’ve heard about from Zambia include: 

  • ShopZed.com
  • Bantu Babel 
  • Venivi
  • DotCom Zambia, BusTickets
  • TeleDoctor 
  • SCND Genesis

If you’re part of the tech community in Zambia, I hope you can swing by, and we’re all looking forward to seeing you as well.

Lessons From the Trip

Since we’ve started this trip I’ve been thinking a lot about communications, as one would expect with a BRCK expedition, and especially mobile comms. We outfitted the truck with a omni-directional Poynting antenna on the front bumper, hooked up into the car, where we can also connect it to an amplifier if needed. As we drive down the road, we have a pretty good mobile WiFi hotspot, as long as we’re in range of a tower.

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The last few years have seen a number of countries implement a registration process to buy SIM cards (ostensibly this is for security though it’s not been proven to be useful for anything more than big brother activities by governments). Even buying a SIM card is then a process of identification (usually passport or drivers license), so you have to budget for that 30-60 minutes to get that done, since it’s usually filling out a form by hand.

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

You then purchase credit for the SIM card and load it up – this is the easiest part.

Now you get into the “mystery meat” part of the process, which is how do you turn that airtime you just bought into internet credit? Each network in each country has a different way of doing this, some combination of USSD or SMS to get it going.

A couple things come to mind now when we look at the BRCK.

First, we need a terminal screen in the BRCK interface for us to do all of this from the device itself. Right now we find ourselves popping out the SIM card and using a phone (Mozilla’s 3-SIM phone is amazing for this purpose), and then inserting it back into the BRCK when done.

Second, there needs to be a database of this “airtime to internet data” information that we can all use. I’m not sure how best to get this going, but I know it would be immensely useful when you drop into a new country to have this at your fingertips.

We’re already working on the first issue, of USSD/SMS interface, but it’s complicated, so it’s taking longer than we’d like. This trip is about learning, and we’re already finding a lot of things to do better. Look for more posts on the BRCK blog from the others as well.

Great roads and a bit of engine trouble (day 1)

(Cross posted from the BRCK blog)

I’m writing this blog post using my Mac, connected to a BRCK which is connected to a satellite internet connection using an Inmarsat iSavi device, somewhere about 100km from Arusha towards Dodoma. Inmarsat gave us this test device, a small unit, made for global travelers, so we could test out what worked and give them feedback on their tools. It also helps us figure out what connecting to the internet looks like when you’re beyond the edge of the mobile phone signal in Africa.

Here’s Reg, using his phone to do the same at our campground this evening:

Reg using the BRCK and iSavi in Tanzania

Reg using the BRCK and iSavi in Tanzania

The Journey

We left at 5:30am from Nairobi to beat the traffic out of the city. With the beautiful new roads, we were at the Namanga border by 8am and cleared by 10am. Before you go on one of these trips, make it easy for yourself and get the following:

  • Carnet de Passage for each vehicle (get this via AA)
  • COMESA insurance (get via your insurance company, or buy at the border)
  • International driver’s license (get via AA)
  • Yellow fever card
  • Passport

By noon we were in Arusha, and took a chance to see the cafe that Pete Owiti (of Pete’s Coffee in Nairobi) set up with some Tanzanians, called Africafe. If you ever find yourself in Arusha, this is the first place you should go. Great food, good coffee, right in the middle of everything.

Knowing we were only going about 100km more today, we set off around 1pm. We got to a roundabout, and I knew which direction the main road was, so even though Philip mentioned we should go right, I went left to the main road. 45 minutes later we realized my mistake when Philip checked his GPS and realized we were further away than we were supposed to be.

Lesson learned: always listen to your cofounders (especially the one with the GPS).

With many sighs, we turned around and went back to Arusha, where Reg had been smart enough to stay with the Land Rover when he realized we went the wrong way. We quickly split off in the correct direction, aiming to get to the camping spot by 4pm latest.

As we were sitting in traffic in Arusha, Joel says, “Erik, your bike is smoking.” I replied that it was likely just the car I was parked next to. Nope. Sure enough, I was leaking oil… For those of you who don’t ride motorcycles, this is the last thing you want to hear when on the front end of a 4,400km trip. I ride a 2007 Suzuki DR650 – they have some of the most bullet-proof engines, and are perfect for Africa’s roads.

Working on the DR650 in Arusha

Working on the DR650 in Arusha

Fortune smiled upon us, and we were pointed towards Arusha Art Limited, which turned out to be an amazing garage (the best I’ve ever seen in Africa). Their director, Hemal Sachdev helped us out by helping to troubleshoot what could be wrong, and even fabricating a high-pressure oil hose, with compression fittings on the spot. There was oil everywhere, so we washed it off and kept going.

Lesson learned: there are a lot of people willing to help you in your journey, especially if you ask nicely.

5 km down the road, I was still smoking… Thanks to Hemal’s help, we knew what the problem wasn’t. It was now that we chanced to notice that the problem seemed to be coming from the timing chain setting hole. We realized this could be filled by a normal M5 screw, so got trucking to the campground where we could let the engine cool down and screw it in.

Now, I sit here in Wild Palms Camp, some place we saw on the side of the road near the Tarangiri game reserve. For 10,000 Tanzania Shillings ($6) each, you get a patch of ground to put a tent, there is a banda with table/chairs, and there are even some showers and toilets. Not real camping, but definitely nice after a day on the bike!

Gear Worth Buying for Africa: PowerMonkey Extreme

I’m lucky enough to have friends like Toby Shapshak who, being the Publisher and Editor of Stuff Magazine, ends up having tons of people give him cool tech to write about. Every once in a while he dumps some stuff on me, things that I normally wouldn’t have bought, but am grateful for later. Toby is a bit of a road warrior, so he and I have a good understanding of what actually works and try not to carry useless stuff with us.

Some travel organizers from Shapshak

Recently he gave me some more self-organizing bits, like this blue Moleskine case, some color-coded cable ties and a smaller Micro-USB cable.

The Powermonkey Extreme

The last time I was in Jo’burg Toby casually handed me this solar kit. At first glance it seemed a bit big, but I stuck it in my bag and headed for the airport. A week later, I found myself camping with the family and broke out this thing with a funny name, the PowerMonkey Extreme ($200). Inside, there’s an inbuilt 3v solar panel, a 9000mAh battery and some cables for plugging it into the wall, computer or solar panel for charging.

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquacable

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquastrap

What’s cool about it:

  • The battery seems to charge pretty quickly using the solar or DC-in cable.
  • The battery is watertight, with a clip down cover over the ports. With the Aquastrap, it’s also IP65 rated for dust and water even when the ports are plugged in.
  • It has two power-out ports, so you can charge two things at once.
  • The case is well designed for packing it all in.
  • The digital readout is easy to see, and watertight controls
  • A velcro strap on the solar panels let you attach it to things in awkward places.
  • The folding mechanism for the solar panels means it can pack better, and this also helps for positioning it towards the sun.

What I wish were different:

  • The device has this strange touch-sensitive button that I didn’t know was a button until I hit it.
  • I couldn’t understand what the readout meant right away, I had to go look it up. The power charging vs the battery icon confused me.

Keep in mind that the pictures you’re seeing are of the PowerMonkey Extreme after being battle tested, not just on little camping trips with the family either. I took this device up into the northern deserts of Kenya on our BRCK expedition to Lake Turkana and back. On the last day, this was the only thing keeping people’s phones charged as it was the last thing standing, and it could fit in a Land Rover window to keep trickle charged. This is a serious device for real adventure.

Some more pictures:

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Watertight seals

Watertight seals

Power-in port

Power-in port

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Plugging it into the solar panel

Plugging it into the solar panel

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

All packed up and ready to zip.

All packed up and ready to zip.

Zipped up.

Zipped up.

Africa: The 2nd Safest Continent to Surf the Web

Here’s an interesting study by AVG on internet security, asking “Where in the World are you most likely to be hit by a malicious computer attack or virus?”.

Apparently, and surprisingly to me, the answer is “not Africa” or South America.

“During the last week of July, AVG researchers compiled a list of virus and malware attacks by country picked up by AVG security software. This means we have compiled data from over 127 million computers in 144 countries to determine the incidence rates of virus attacks by country.”

Dirk Singer, of AVG sent over the list of African countries, here they are country-by-country. As you can see, sub-saharan Africa is compatively ‘safe’ compared to other areas of the World. Your chances of being attacked while surfing the web in each country are:

North Africa

  • Egypt 1 in 62.4
  • Algeria 1 in 86.9
  • Libya 1 in 87.7
  • Mauritania 1 in 92.4
  • Tunisia 1 in 110.7
  • Morocco 1 in 112.1

Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Mali 1 in 49.9
  • Sudan 1 in 53.9
  • Nigeria 1 in 67.5
  • Benin 1 in 76.6
  • Ghana 1 in 99.4
  • Ivory Coast 1 in 101.5
  • Gabon 1 in 113.1
  • Angola 1 in 129.7
  • Botswana 1 in 134.4
  • Ethiopia 1 in 135.8
  • Senegal 1 in 140.6
  • Uganda 1 in 153.6
  • Liberia 1 in 153.8
  • Burkina Faso 1 in 163.4
  • South Africa 1 in 172.3
  • Tanzania 1 in 180.6
  • Kenya 1 in 216.1
  • Zambia 1 in 262.2
  • Mozambique 1 in 263.8
  • Zambia 1 in 262.2
  • Namibia 1 in 353.1
  • Togo 1 in 359.4
  • Niger 1 in 442.0
  • Sierra Leone 1 in 696.0

Keep in mind, this was over one week and it also doesn’t point directly towards where the attacks are originating from. Interesting data though, and not what I would have expected to see.

Strategic Retreats

[Note: this is a long story about the last couple days in Northern Kenya, where I still am]

Reaching Lake Turkana was one of the big steps we needed to do along the way for our excursion into the Northern part of Kenya. It was adventurous, but little did we know that it was just setting the tone for the rest of the trip.

Larachi is a small town East of Loyangalani as you head towards Mt Kulal. It’s nestled in a ravine with a about 170 families consisting of the odd mixture if the warring Samburu, Turkana and Arial people groups. They have a school, but no teacher, since all teachers refuse to come due to lack of water. We spent a warm day in the hot sun discussing this with their elders and the possible building out of a gravity water system by Food for the Hungry.

We started to see clouds coming together around noon, deciding it was prudent to make a move away from the mountain into the stony soil around the lake. This also gave us another chance for a quick dip to cool off, Erik some time to fish, and to drink a pot of chai.

This is when the rain started.

Contrary to popular belief, it does rain in the NFD, but not much. Currently it’s green and vibrant, contrasting with the normal dry, brown, dusty and arid state that you usually find it. That too isn’t abnormal. What is, is the fact that it’s been raining across the north for the last 3 days, flooding an already wet desert. People who have lived here for over 20 years have never seen it this way.

Mt Kulal

We made it to the top of Mt Kulal, to the town of Gatab that sits at 5800 feet, that evening. Kulal is God’s viewing point for all of the north. It’s a lush, green, forested environment that serves as an oasis in the desert and haven for weary travelers, such as ourselves. We could see it raining all across the horizon, from Marsabit to South Horr and even over Lake Turkana.

Besides having the chance to sleep in a non-convection oven type environment, it also provided us access to the only other hospital in the area to re-bandage my hand (Frankenstein stitches and all). We pitched the tents in a friend’s plot of land, after a great evening of chai and fish (Talapia) that we had brought up from Lake Turkana.

At 2:00am it started to rain. Not just any rain though, this was big rain, the type that feels like someone is pelting your tent with golf balls. After 10 minutes it let up. A hasty debate on the merits of pride and honor verses the fact that we had sited the tent on a strategically poor “river valley-like” side of the hill ensued. Shortly after, we made a strategic retreat for our friend’s house and piled onto the floor. That whole night I slept with a grin on my face as I heard the rain battering the mabati (sheet metal) roofing, while I remained dry and comfortable.

The next morning we found our tent 10 feet further down the hill, upside down and swamped with water. Barak and Pam’s tent was of better quality and better sited, so they emerged dry and calm the next morning. Lessons were learned.

The Run to Korr

Arapal, a town directly on the other side of Mt Kulal from Larachi was our aim for yesterday. They have had a water project going for a while, and their community has benefited greatly from it. Our goal was to hit their community, and then try to make it to Korr by the end of the day. A long day of driving, but very doable (most of the time).

By midday we again saw clouds forming, big thunderheads forming to bring the hammer of rain down on the desert. Our planned route from Arapal to Korr via Karagi we were told would be a great risk. Plan B was hatched to make a run back south of Mt Kulal and to the gap between the mountains where South Horr resides. This would be two times as long of a trip, 6 hours instead of 3.

We made a mad dash for South Horr, knowing that the rains we had seen over the area the day prior and the clouds we saw forming that day, were likely to leave us with some tough choices. By now those who know the North will realize just how much crisscrossing of the area we were doing. Our diesel was starting to run low, and there are no petrol stations anywhere. We begged some from the nun at the catholic mission in South Horr and set off for the gap.

Just after the mountains, the road splits. One branch heads directly towards Korr, the other takes you through a beautiful valley within enclosing arms of high cliffs, where you will find the town of Ngurunyet. The branch towards Korr was closed. We gamely turned towards Ngurunyet and ran until after dark to get there, only to find out that the rains had closed down the road from there to Korr completely.

It was time to camp again. We found a place by the river and held out until morning, hoping and praying that it didn’t rain. It didn’t.

Hitting Korr

At this time, you can imagine what this feels like. You’re trying like mad to get to a location, thinking through every path and camel track that you know of to get there. Obstacles keep forming, being overcome, and reforming along the way.

Everything looks better in the morning, as it did for us today.

Marsabit was closed to us, which would get us to the main road. Maralal could get us towards Nairobi, but we’re very hesitant to go that way due to the number of shootings by the ngoroko (the Turkana bandits) along that route. Korr, is where Erik used to live, where he has a house and where we can camp out for a few days, hoping that the land dries out so that we can make a run for the main road and Nairobi.

Distances are deceiving in Africa. You might be only 30-40 kilometers from another town, but that town could as well be another continent if you try to reach there during the wrong season.

Under hastily muttered prayers and hopes of a nyama choma feast in Korr, we set off. Things were going well, we had been joined 2 days previously by another vehicle full of Kenyan Food for the Hungry staff. They knew the paths, and knew how to drive. Unfortunately, like us, they were driving a large, long wheel base Landcruiser.

A Short Aside on the Merits of Landcruisers vs Land Rovers

There is a long-standing battle on which is better: Landcruisers or Land Rovers. Erik and I represent the two opposing factions, with him in the Land Rover side of the debate and myself on the Landcruiser side. Regardless of what your emotions might tell you, the Land Rover’s weak aluminum body does make it lighter so it does perform better in boggy and muddy conditions.

As we were the first to trek out upon this road since the rains, we had to do a lot of testing before we entered into questionable areas. Fine driving by Erik and Peter got us through most of it, until we found an area that looked like dry sand, but which had about four feet of soupy mud beneath. An hour of digging, finding rocks and lifting the vehicle later, and we were free.

I now sit in Korr, drinking some homemade lemon juice and basking in the glory that is a cool breeze after a much needed shower. We’re completely boxed into Korr now, but there is a small airfield here, even if there is no internet of mobile phone connection. For now, I’m just happy to have a dry place to sleep, a healing hand, and the knowledge of an adventure now behind me.

The Road to Turkana

We finally made it to Loyangalani near the shores of Lake Turkana last night. A day-long drive that took us from Korr through the Ndoto Mountains and South Horr (where we had to clean out some rotten fruit in the wheel well – left overs from our time being stuck).

It’s amazing how green everything is. Even on the shores of the sunburnt and wind-blasted lake there is some grass and greenery – unusual, so I’m told. We took an hour to jump in the lake and do some fishing, but Erik only caught Tigerfish.

Along the way we got our first flat tire. The innertube became so hot that it separated itself. While we were changing it, Barak got out his sling. This is your stock David vs Goliath type device and it’s amazing just how far he can throw a stone with it. 200 meters is normal.

Barak grew up as a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea, besides the sling he’s got all kinds of neat gadgets and bush devices that I’d never seen before.

We capped the night off with a camp/cabin setup in Loyangalani, the night was warm and windy, and we ended up sweating most of the night in the tent. Today we head off to see a couple of water projects in the area, and I’m hopeing we make it to Gatab on the top of Mount Kulal for dinner and a cool night’s rest.

Northern Frontier District Expedition

Due to a series of mishaps and bad luck on our trek up to northern Kenya, I find myself sitting in a hoteli by the side of the road in Laisamis eating goat stew and trying to type with only one hand (my left).

Let me start at the beginning.

My childhood friend works for Food for the Hungry in Kenya, and he invited me to come on a trip with him and his funders from Blood:Water Mission into the wild west of Kenya, the NFD (Northern Frontier District). I haven’t been up to the Lake Turkana area for years, so was happy to join up, especially as it gave me a chance to test mobile connectivity and try out some GPS mapping of water projects.

I was greeted early yesterday morning by a Landcruiser with the pungent smell of goats and birds. It turned out that the vehicle had just been used to ferry goats, and that we were presently carrying 10 guinea fowl and one peacock as we were to deliver them to the Mount Kenya Safari Club on our way. A few fowl got loose along the way, and I only received one head wound in my efforts to wrestle three of them into a box while hurtling down the road at 100 Kph.

The rains have come to these usually arid lands, and all is incredibly green and lush. By about 6pm we knew we were running late as we tried to reach Korr for the evening. We took a less well-known road, that locals said they had seen a car pass through that very day. It was dark by now, and we were able to follow the tracks quite well, even through a small river and a kilometer of boggy trails.

This is why when we reached a small stream, tested and waded it, that we weren’t overly concerned. Erik (my friend) gunned the engine and we dropped down into the water. What we hadn’t considered was that the already long wheelbase was made longer by a substantial bull-bar in the front and a big bumper in the rear. We promptly lodged ourselves between the two banks with only 2 wheels touching. We rushed to dig and push, but before a few minutes had passed, the river had eaten the soil out from under the tires.

For the next 3 hours we dug, pushed, rocked, cut branches and got no where, except about 2 feet deeper… At this point I would like to point out that the vehicle had shown up with 4 bad shocks and a flat tire (repaired and replaced in Nanyuki), no shovel, no winch, and a hi-lift jack that we soon found was broken. Not an optimal situation.
To keep the vehicle from becoming more submerged we built a dam near the front and dug about 5 feet of earth in the rear as a new stronger channel for the water to flow through. Our only tools were caveman-like sticks and a “simi”, a panga-like dual-sided fighting and all-purpose blade. The blade was excellent for cutting back the soil.
Unfortunately, at about 11pm, I was cutting the clay-like mud back and my hand slipped. Cold, muddy steel sliced deeply into all four fingers and the palm of my right hand. Quick action by the team cleaned and dressed the wounds, but I was stuck uselessly watching until we set up camp and fell to sleep exhausted.

The next morning Erik set off towards some hills 10 kilometers away, while we stayed with the mired down vehicle. He got through, and by 2pm our relief came walking in. He couldn’t reach us by vehicle from the front, as it appeared that the road was washed out there as well. I badly needed to get my hand stitched up and cleaned, so I slogged the 5k back with him through a road that had become a river. He dropped me off at a Catholic-run clinic in Laisamis as he went on to pull the others out from behind. The nurses sewed me up with stitches the size you’d use on a football, and the needle sticks into the wound felt great.

My goat stew is delicious, and Erik has just walked in. He tells me that they were able to jack up the rear and winch out the vehicle backwards just as another flood of water hit. The hi-lift jack and the shovel brought by the other vehicle were lost in the mad scramble for the quickly receding dry ground. Our gear is wet, scattered and dirty, but we’re all fine and on our way to Korr and, more adventure.

Pics by @justbarak

Testing Google Driving Directions in Kenya

Gone are the days where you had to have lived in Nairobi for a couple years before you understood all the backroads and neighborhoods in order to get from one place to another. Kenya has an advantage as the only non-sales office in all of Africa for Google is here. When they create new tools, or customize a feature from the developing world, for Africa they do it here in their own backyard first (and sometimes Uganda).

Google Maps in KenyaA couple weeks ago Google turned on mapping directions for Kenya. Like me, most of the people who know Nairobi were shocked and didn’t believe it. Could this really work? It does, and it works well.

I’ve been testing it out for the last week to see what type of results I get, and I’ve been impressed with the results. Fortunately I have my iPhone with me, and it allows me to do things like challenge Google/Apple to find my current location and then give directions from that location to somewhere in Nairobi that I happen know every backroad, alley and footpath between.

Shortcomings

No control for traffic
As omnipotent as Google seems to be, what they’re unable to do is track the vagaries of Nairobi traffic. So, as logical as the directions you get from Google might seem, they are not the best way to go much of the time. While they give accurate directions for new people to Nairobi to follow, they are also the “obvious” route and will cost you hours of sitting in gridlock while you watch the matatu’s clog the road even further.

Alternate route to gigiri

Lack of detail on the maps
Some areas, even large towns like Ongata Rongai aren’t even shown on the map. Below is the failure screen for getting directions from Rongai to Eastleigh. I had to go with Langata instead, as that was the next closest “town” in Google Maps. This pattern holds true for dirt roads and paths that are usable by vehicles, but which don’t show up on the map.

Lack of data - fail on Google map direction in Nairobi

I’ve also seen this in regards to offices and buildings, where they are put on the wrong part of the road, sometimes off by a good half kilometer, as was my father’s office in Upper Hill shown below.

Finding the BTL office in Upper Hill, Nairobi

Final Thoughts

Anyone living or working in Kenya should buy a drink for every intern and Google employee who has done the manual work to get Kenya mapped to the level that it is. It’s an iterative process that only gets better as time goes by and more people work on it.

As Google states:

“This essential tool is by no means Google’s effort alone – we’re enormously grateful to Kenya’s active online cartographers who have helped us build these maps from ground up with the use of Google Map Maker, a tool that allows people to help create a map by adding or editing features such as roads, businesses, parks, schools and more.”

The directions provided by Google in Nairobi (I haven’t tested up-country) are adequate. They’ll get you to and from the locations in Nairobi that you need to go. You’re better off now than you were before, and as someone new to the city you’ll have a lot better luck with Google’s maps and directions than you’ll have with asking someone on the side of the road.

15 Travel Tips for Africa

Apparently, when you’re a foreigner traveling in the developing world, your biggest problems are that you’ll be set upon by bandits or get in a horrible car wreck. Nicholas Kristof is a well-traveled journalist for the NY Times, going to some of the most far-flung reaches of the world, so he does have good advice for travelers. It’s just a pity, as Chris Blattman points out, Kristof ends up undermining his own stated reason for writing the piece (to get more college students traveling in the developing world) by fostering this idea that international travel is inherently dangerous.

Here’s one of my favorites (can’t you just see everyone lining up to visit the Philippines after reading this?):

“10. Don’t wear a nice watch, for that suggests a fat wallet and also makes a target. I learned that lesson on my first trip to the Philippines: a robber with a machete had just encountered a Japanese businessman with a Rolex — who now, alas, has only one hand.”

My African tech travel kit for a few days on the road

In response to Kristof’s op-ed, here are my take. Not all about your kit, but also some thoughts on traveling in general.

15 Africa travel tips (not related to bandits, thugs and murder):

1. Take only one bag. “Suitcases are for suits, check-in for suckers” as my well-heeled friend Jan Chipchase points out. My choice is the Northface Heckler backpack (in black). It’s got a convenient sleeve for my computer, and plenty of room for the camera and other items – your mileage will vary.

2. Pack less. This is what makes #1 work. You’re going to be tempted to pack for every eventuality. Don’t. only to find out when you get there that you only need 1/3 of what you brought.

3. Carry a power bar. Usually you can find food wherever you are, however for the small cost in space having something handy that gives you some energy and that you can trust to not get a stomach bug over, this is my first choice.

4. For the techies… USB devices are great for transferring information, applications and pictures use one. However, remember that there are no condoms for USB devices and that every PC and internet cafe device should be treated as a pox-ridden carrier of digital STDs for your virgin device. Keep it faithful to only your computer (and vice versa).

5. Paperbacks trump hardbacks. There’s a lot of waiting around when traveling, which makes it nice to have a book handy.

6. On mobile phones. You have two choices on your phone. a) buy a cheap one when you get there ($20-40) and get a local SIM card. b) get an unlocked phone before you leave and just buy a SIM card when you hit the ground. For multi-country travel I suggest going with “b”, which is what I do. If you lose a lot of phones, or are terrified of being robbed, go with “a”.

7. Bargain for everything. Have a great conversation with the first seller of whatever service or product you’re interested in. Never buy from that person. Instead, figure out exactly where the line is and then haggle harder with the next vendor, tout or merchant. (How can I state this delicately…? If you’re paying 25% of the asking price, you’re still being ripped off.)

8. On Cameras. A lot could be written about this, but suffice it to say that smaller is better unless you really like to take good pictures. I would suggest something that is waterproof. My personal favorite is the Sanyo Xacti – I love this thing. However, I could equally suggest getting something that runs off just a couple AA batteries. (Pros and Prosumers who, like me, carry a larger body DSLR ignore this one. You have your own rules to live by).

9. Spread your money out. Never carry all your money in one place. This isn’t just for security reasons, its for bargaining as well. I suggest carrying varying amounts of cash in 3 different spots and knowing what the amounts are so that you never pull out too much.

10. Eat local. This is especially true if you’re going on the cheap, don’t be afraid to eat the cooked foods at the road-side kiosks. You’ll see me regularly eating beans and chapatis on the streets of Nairobi for lunch. At $.50 I’m getting a good full meal and I can do it in a hurry if need be. If that’s too adventurous for you, you can choose other local spots, just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to eat at the “westernized” establishments.

11. Mosquitos are made in hell and must be killed. I could write a whole post on the epic battles I’ve had with these satanic insects. Buy a can of Doom (insect spray), get insect repellent, sit on the smoky side of the fire, use a mosquito net – whatever it takes. My favorite way to kill them is a wadded up t-shirt as it has a wide area of impact – if you’re good you can smash them up against the wall/ceiling from a good distance away.

12. Remember your power adapter. Know what the outlets are going to be like where you’re going so you can recharge your computer and/or camera. Not knowing where you’re going, I would suggest this one – though a little big, it does fit almost everywhere you’re likely to travel.

13. Watches are overrated. It’s just one more thing to carry, use your cell phone for the time. Time doesn’t matter as much anyway to be honest… I haven’t worn one for years, but it could be I’m missing something here.

14. Drink a lot. I’m not going to get into it on whether you drink bottled water, sodas, beer or tap water – just make sure you’re drinking. You’ll end up sweating more, walking more and not realizing just how dehydrated you are until you notice that you haven’t gone to the restroom all day.

15. Toss out your expectations, embrace the differences. It’s not all going to fit the “standard” (as I reminded myself when I nearly bashed my skull in) that you think it should be. Just roll with it and keep a light-approach to life. When something goes wrong, which it will, remember that a smile, a shake of your head and a laugh will take you a lot further than the angry, frustrated and shouting “white person in Africa act” will.

The bonus tip is this: make friends locally and listen to them. They know the area and can point you towards people and places that you’ll get a lot out of. They also know most of the dangerous and dark corners of the region that you should stay away from, which Kristof talks of. People, at the end of the day, are your greatest assets when traveling, not your gear, knowledge or prior experience in the region.

Have tips of your own to add?

The best ones in the comments will be added here (so leave a link so I can attribute it to you).

From Ethan Zuckerman:

  • Bring a hat. One you don’t mind wearing all the time, one you can wash in the sink or a bucket every night, one that keeps the sun from frying your brain. Or buy one. But this is a “don’t leave home without it” item for me.
  • Undershirts keep you cooler. I rarely wear one in the States, but they’re essential equipment in tropical climes, and one of the few ways to remain presentable if you’ve got to do a business meeting.
  • And an urban Africa tip – a cheap flashlight/torch is your friend when the power goes out and you’re staggering home from the bar at 2am. We refer to them in Ghana as “sewer avoidance systems” – trust me, fall into one open sewer and you’ll carry a torch with you for the rest of your life.

From Kari:

  • Live as much like an average-incomed local as possible (very poor by US standards). it leads to richness.

From Patrick Meier:

  • listen and make friends locally. Stress on all those words. Take the time to greet and exchange greetings with people whose paths you cross, everyone is important, chat with the guard outside your hostel, make every effort to learn the local language, it’s a sign of respect and is appreciated, say a warm hello to the mama selling the peanuts on the street, make friends with taxi drivers, and know how to ask questions, and then how to listen.

From Alan Davidson:

  • Carry a copy of your passport and an international driving license. Don’t know how many times a copy of my passport and not the original has saved me a world of trouble.

From JKE:

  • I used to carry a USB-2-mobile cable instead that plugs into any USB port and also comes with an adapter for the 12v socket in any car. Helps you get some energy where there’s no socket and is much lighter than most power adapters.

From Tony Durham:

  • If you can’t patch holes in the mosquito net, apply some repellent around the hole.

From Christopher Fabian:

  • Nokia phone with built in flashlight becomes a clock, alarm, torch and phone…magically!
  • Two each of small packets of tylenol cold (2 daytime / 2 nightime) are great if you get slammed with some bug and just need to get through a day and a night somewhere.

From SW:

  • Always have tissues with you as the lavs are seldom well stocked.

From Catherine:

  • Especially in very busy areas like indoor markets, hugely populated street corners, etc, I carry my day backpack on my front.

The Grid in Tanzania and an African Mobile Phone Documentary

The Grid by VodacomThere have been a couple new entrants into the mobile and web space in Africa that I haven’t had a chance to review adequately. One of them is The Grid, by Vodacom. Also in this post is a new documentary on mobile phone use in Africa.

The Grid (Tanzania)

“The grid connects your cellphone and web browser into a social network that is aware of where you are. It uses cellphone mast triangulation to detect where you and your friends are and helps you leave notes on the places you go to”

The Grid launched into Tanzania in April. According to Vincent Maher, who heads up the project, there has been very favorable growth rates of the service.

Besides being a well designed and well integrated mobile/web social network, what I’m really looking forward to hearing about is The Grid’s location-based advertising unfold. For launch, they have partnered with Nandos, Sportscene, Jay Jays and Synergy pharmacies to deliver advertising within radii ranging from 0 – 10km from a users physical location. Vodacom has the muscle to pull this type of thing off, and the connections to create the advertiser relationships.

The Grid is really a direct competitor to Google Latitude (I’ve written about this here), something I’m really excited to see coming out of Africa.

Hello Africa

A documentary about mobile phone culture in Africa. I was excited to see the trailer for this last month, and the full version is now available. Find out more at ICT4D.at

Hello Africa from UZI MAGAZINE on Vimeo.

Before 2001, the year the first cell tower was erected in Zanzibar, people had very limited means of communicating with each other from a distance. Today, the situation is completely the opposite. Cell towers from main operators cover the whole island and people communicate all the time with their mobile phones. It is difficult to imagine how it once was before.

There are plenty of aspects about the ongoing changes that could be covered in a documentary, but the purpose of this fillm is not to elaborate and draw conclusions. The purpose is to catch the vibe, the know, show what’s going on right now. A snapshot of the Zanzibarian zeitgeist.