In San Francisco this week

I’ve spent this week in the San Francisco bay area going to meetings, speaking and discussing everything from the iHub to Ushahidi and AfriGadget.

University Students and the Aid Industry

Last night I spoke to a group of university students for 3 hours at the University of San Francisco to Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg’s class on “the Politics of International Aid and Development”. My bent is towards technology and the practical applications of such in Africa. I’m no expert on international aid, but that didn’t stop us from having a lively debate on what works and doesn’t work in Africa.

My main points were centered around technology allowing people to bypass government (and other) inefficiencies in Africa – creating opportunity where none existed before. In my experience, most aid programs don’t work, in fact we’ve seen more good come out of the mobile phone industry’s foray into Africa over the last 10 years than we’ve seen in the past 50 years of aid work.

Some questions that arose during the conversation, each of which we could have spent a day unpacking and dissecting in detail:

  • Can wealth generation alleviate the ills of Africa?
  • Is corruption trickle up or trickle down?
  • Should corruption just be seen as a “cost of doing business”?
  • What’s the most compelling innovation that you’ve seen come out of Africa?
  • Is there such a thing as “good aid”?

Google

This morning I spent some time with the Google.org and the Google crisis mapping team discussing ideas and thoughts about what we all did in the digital space around Haiti. More importantly we asked the question, “what are we going to do the next time a huge global disaster strikes?”

That’s an important question because we need to ensure that we’re further along next time. That, the next time disaster strikes we’re ready with a toolkit of useful applications and platforms that can all be deployed within just a few short hours.

One of the cool things to see was the Google street mapping vehicles parked in a row.

Citizen Space

There are more and more co-working spaces showing up all over the world, including our own iHub in Nairobi. However, one of the early pioneers in this was Citizen Space started by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt. My main purpose visiting was to see how it’s setup and how it has changed since I last visited a couple years ago.

My takeaways: big open space, desks and cool eclectic design. Rent desk space and have a cool vibe about it. I’m sure there’s more than this, but it’s what struck me during my short visit.

Twitter

Most of the afternoon was spent at Twitter where I gave a lunchtime presentation. Ryan Sarver, head of platforms and the API, asked me to do more general talk on innovation in Africa starting with AfriGadget. Having a good 50-60 Twitter employees listening in on AfriGadget, then a talk on mobile phones in Africa, and finishing with the Ushahidi usage in Haiti was interesting to say the least.

The questions asked made me realize that there’s a good opportunity for top-end Twitter employees (and likely other high-level techies from Silicon Valley) to stretch themselves a little bit, head out to Africa and really see what’s going on. They would probably get some ideas that caused them to be a little more creative back in the US.

A longer discussion was had with the leads for the Geo/Mapping team and the Internationalization team. More refreshing than anything else was realizing how open they were to outside ideas and how willing they were to listen. Twitter is doing a lot of things to make sure that their platform is more accessible all over the world, and I think we’ll see some pleasant surprises this year in Africa.

Summary

There’s obviously much more to discuss than this brief summary can do justice to, but not all of it can be put down at one time, or is even relevant at this stage in the game. What I’m excited about is the fact that more people in the Bay Area are talking about relevant issues to African technologists and that there are opportunities for the two groups to start interacting in ways that haven’t been that common in the past. There’s room for both sides to learn from the other.

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.