MedAfrica Pitches at DEMO

Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda were the overall winners at the Pivot 25 event earlier this year with their MedKenya app, which has since turned into MedAfrica. Their prize was a chance to pitch at DEMO, the big startup pitching event in Silicon Valley. Here’s their team last week giving the pitch.

MedAfrica is just the tip of the iceberg, as we see more startup spaces, pitching events and seed capital entering the continent.

Why Mobile Operators Can’t Make Services That You Like

Last month I had a surreal experience as I sat in the Global Messaging Congress in London, listening to mobile operators talk about mobile phone services from their perspective. It’s a crazy world really, one where the providers of the infrastructure also mercilessly try to hold onto and strangle every drop of profit from any service that sits on their network.

We’re all born in a small “company town“, where the mobile operators are the landlord and the bank, the grocery store and the mafia.

Interestingly enough, there is a completely different industry built on a much more open standard that separates infrastructure from content, transactions and use. That is, the internet. So, as we get closer to a world where there is less of a difference between the mobile and web worlds, then we see what happens when a strangling monopoly won’t give in to an open system. The open system bypasses it.

Some examples

Multimedia
It starts getting humorous when you start looking at value-added services like location, video or images. I sat there and listened to the mobile operators talk about how “MMS will never be the equivalent of SMS” – their cash cow. Of course, not with them running it.

However, 2 days later we see this headline from YouTube, “just since last Friday, when the iPhone 3GS came out, uploads increased by 400% a day.” What? Yes, that’s a staggering number and it’s due to the fact that no operator is running it, they’re just selling the underlying data structure.

Messaging
Twitter is a great service that allows personal networks to form and SMS messaging to take place on an ever extending one-to-many and many-to-many basis. It also works on the web, in fact, that’s one of it’s great strengths – the ability to treat any channel as native. When I look at Twitter, which is 3 years old now, I have to wonder why we still don’t see a Twitter-clone offered up by any of the operators working in the 192 countries that Twitter isn’t in. For goodness sake, the only major cost for Twitter is the “to-many” part of it, and that’s virtually free to an operator on their own network.

Location based services
When the mobile operators of the world wanted to control their location services, in the early 2000s they kept their prices too high for large and small consumer-facing organizations to buy their services. So, the web went around them… The entrepreneurs saw an advantage to going out and getting the number off of every mobile phone tower and doing basic triangulation from them and WiFi signals. Voila, the operator is bypassed and now makes no revenue off of a service that it could have provided for a lower fee.

Operators can’t build real consumer services

I’ve heard a a number of comments from within the industry like this:

“we’ve had the ability to do such-and-such (insert your favorite third-party service here) for a long time, there’s nothing special about YouTube/Twitter/Apple doing this.”

This is a true statement (most of the time), so why are there millions clamoring for these other services and not the ones that the operators offer?

The release of increasingly more user-friendly phones, coupled with services that bypass the traditional restrictions placed upon everyone by the operators, has created a way for the internet players to replicate or make irrelevant many of these same services offered by the operators. This will continue to be the pattern too, as the two industries collide.

What the operators should do is open up their basic infrastructure for third-parties to build consumer-facing applications on. Take a smaller cut on each application or service, and create a true ecosystem that supports more developers and companies trying to figure out ways to make more money off of your framework.

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.

Mobile Phones in Africa (Video)

I found out about the “Mobile phones in Africa” video project that Martin Konzett and the team at ICT4D Austria were up to when I ran into him at the MobileActive’08 conference last year. He was shooting a lot of stuff with his Nikon D90 (video and images). I had no idea that it would be this good!

This video embedded here is a low-res version of the trailer. I was able to watch the high-res version today at the Africa Gathering in London, and have to say it’s amazing. Very impressive stuff, and I can’t wait to see the whole video. It will be out on May 8th.

30 Great African Tech Blogs

A conversation on Twitter with Marshall Kirkpatrick of RWW about the top tech blogs to read in Africa made me realize that there is no great list to start from. Most of us just have them in our head, RSS feeds or blogrolls. Some of them don’t update frequently enough, and many of the range across topics, but all of them are useful if you are trying to figure out what is going on in technology around Africa.

Here is a list of African tech blogs that I follow. Hopefully it can be a resource, and a good place for everyone to start from when exploring the mobile, web and general tech space in Africa:

General Web and African Tech

AfriGadget – Stories of low-tech African ingenuity and innovation
Afromusing – Juliana’s insights and thoughts on alternative energy in Africa
Appfrica – Pan-African and Ugandan web and mobile tech developments
Bandwidth Blog – Charl Norman’s blog in South Africa
Bankelele – One of East Africa’s top business bloggers, also has great insights into the business side of African technology
Build Africa – Matt’s musings on technology in Africa
Charl van Niekerk – Always insightful post from one of South Africa’s great coders
Coda.co.za – One of Africa’s very best web designers
Dewberry – Shaun’s frenetic blog on general, and South African tech
My Hearts in Accra – More of generalist these days, but excellent analysis of African tech space by Ethan Zuckerman
Henry Addo – A perspective on tech from Henry in Ghana
Geek Rebel – Henk’s blog on entrepreneurship and technology
Matthew Buckland – From one of the pioneers, and big thinkers, in the South African media space
Mike Stopforth – Entrepreneur and South African social media nexus point
Nubian Cheetah – Thoughts and news on West African tech
Oluniyi David Ajao – Web coverage from Ghana
Open Source Africa – Just what the name describes… talking about open source development in Africa
Paul in Sierra Leone – hardware tech news from a very hard place to get news/info from
Startup Africa – Tracking mostly South African web startups
Startups Nigeria – Just what the title says
Stii – One of my favorite true coder blogs out of South Africa
Timbuktu Chronicles – A must-read covering pan-African technology, from web to mobile to hardware
Bits/Bytes – Coding thoughts by the unique and always hilarious “M” from Thinker’s Room.
Vincent Maher – Vincent’s excellent, fun and controversial blog on all things South African tech
Web Addict(s) – From the mind of Rafiq, opinionated coverage and thoughts on South African tech

African Mobile-focused Blogs

Epic Mobile – mobile phone tips and tricks from South Africa
Jopsa.org – (aka Mobiles in Malawi), thoughts by Josh Nesbit in Malawi
Kiwanja – Ken Banks on mobile usage and his FrontlineSMS app, much of it in Africa
Mobile Africa – A great resource for mobile news across Africa
Mobility Nigeria – track what’s happening in the Nigerian mobile phone space
Fring – the only tool/app on this list

5 Non-blog Tech Sites and Tools for Africa

Afrigator – the defacto blog tracking tool for African blogs
Amatomu – the South African blogosphere tracker
Mobile Active – Katrin does a good job of finding reports and stories about mobiles in Africa
Muti – mostly South African tech news and gossip, a reddit/digg for interesting African news/blog links
Videoreporter.nl – Ruud’s videos consistently have great tech stories
Akouaba – A French language blog tracker for West Africa

The, “If I missed it”…

I likely missed many blogs that should be on this list. Please add them to the comments below. I know I’ve missed quite a few Francophone and Arabic ones, so PLEASE add those especially.

Additions (aka, ones I missed):

Many Possibilities – Steve Song on open source in Africa
Africa 2.0 – A French language blog talking about all things new media in Africa
Subsaharska – Miquel, building a blogging tool for Africa (Maneno)
Arthur Devriendt – French blog on web tech in Africa

Zoopy: From Strength to Strength

If you follow a lot of web startups, you see that many have a hard time reaching critical mass. Even more have a hard time staying in business, so “time alive” becomes an important measuring stick. Zoopy, a web video hosting site, has gone from strength-to-strength ever since they first launched in two years ago. They have done this by working very hard, and by focusing on their niche: South Africa.

Zoopy Upgrades

A recent investment partnership by Vodacom put them in a position to announce some major new upgrades this week.

  • Local South Africa hosting – This allows for much faster speeds, particularly important when dealing with video and images.
  • Doubled file sizes – Users can now upload 200Mb files, as opposed to the old 100Mb limit.
  • A new video player – A spiffed up and much more usable video player.

The Importance of Being Local

I’m particularly impressed with the move to local servers for their content. Besides local goodwill issues, South Africans are very patriotic and like to see stuff succeed in-country. International hosting is cheaper, but the user experience is eroded due to lag. However, as Jason mentions in a comment,

“The biggest question here for us was: how could we afford NOT to move in this direction for the South African online community at Zoopy? Our users deserve more, and we’re happy to deliver.”

Right now, Jason Elk and some of the Zoopy team are in New York at the Web 2.0 Expo, measuring their product against the competition, and learning from their peers.

I’m a big fan of Zoopy, enough so that we’ve moved to Zoopy as AfriGadget’s video hosting site as of this Summer. Congrats guys, and keep up the great work!

Meeting Videographer Ruud Elmendorp

Ruud Elmendorp is a well-known freelance videographer in East Africa, and someone I have been meaning to meet-up with while there. Last month while in Nairobi we finally got to link up for a coffee and discuss a little about his business and the kinds of stories he does. When you get a chance to talk to someone who has interviewed the infamous Joseph Kony in person, you don’t pass it up!

Interestingly enough, six years ago he decided to just pick up and move to Kenya to begin his business. It came after having done some work in Southern Sudan, and at a time when life beckoned for him to leave the Netherlands behind. It’s how a lot of first-timers get to Africa, for some it sticks and they thrive, others it breaks them.

Of course, we got started talking about equipment, me showing my little Sanyo Xacti vpc-E1 (an ultra-small waterproof video camera), and I swear I saw a little drool escape him at that point… It’s good to know he’s another gadget-head, and was neat to see how he used his mobile phone for a lot of his work (Nokia E-51).

A Video by Ruud

Here’s a recent video showing MTN’s Village Phone Project in Uganda:

‘I never expected to start a business.’ The 49-years-old Nakakande Uvumba got herself a Village Phone, where people can make cheap phone calls. 15,000 others in Uganda have a new future.

Interesting Facts

Ruud is the national correspondent for RTL (Netherlands) and a regular field correspondent for Rocketboom. He also runs the booming Facebook Videojournalist group.

One of these days I’ll be able to afford Ruud doing an AfriGadget documentary. Until then, I’ll enjoy his videos – doing stories that are interesting and always compelling.

Note: the funny picture above was taken using the Xacti video camera’s still image capture (6 Megapixel). Needless to say, Ruud wasn’t quite ready for it…
(hat tip to James Neal for jogging my memory on this story)

Barcamp Nairobi ’08 – Final Recap

Barcamp Nairobi ended up being quite an event, with 228 attendees and an overwhelming amount of good conversations. The list included bloggers, web and mobile developers, government officials and students. We had people from all over Kenya, as well as a couple who came in from Tanzania. It was truly eclectic and exactly what we were hoping it would be. Josiah Mugambi has the full run-down of topics covered in each room.

Pictures
Can be found on Picasa, Flickr and Facebook (you’ll have to friend John Wesonga for the Facebook ones).

Videos
I’m working on uploading a couple videos from Barcamp Nairobi. There were some really good conversations started, not all of which I was able to get on video, or even be in the room for. Hopefully, we’ll get some blog posts and videos from others who were there as well.

I’ll continue uploading additional videos throughout the week on YouTube.

Barcamp Nairobi Bloggers (let me know if I missed you):

O’Reilly Radar
(Programming Languages Survey)
Al Kags (gov’t perspective)
Rob Rooker
The Deeper Meaning of Life (Liz)
John Wesonga
Wilfred Mworia
Josiah Mugambi
Clement “Omesa” Ongera
Peperuka
Frontline Interactive
69mb (poster) (post #2)
Louder than Swahili (post #2)
Startup Africa
Notes from the Road (on Ndemo)
SportsKenya
Tech Talk (NY Times columnist)
Girl in the Meadow
The Gitts Zone
Brian Longwe
Kenyan Poet
Open Source Africa
Do Good Well
Business in Focus
Odyssean
Network World

Steve Mutinda: Brains, Initiative and J2ME Skills

Every once in a while, in this line of work, you get a genuinely welcome and unexpected surprise. That’s what happened the other night when I met up with some local tech guys and a certain Steve Mutinda showed up just happening to mention that he did some J2ME programming. He has created two mobile phone apps (and working on a third), which I’ll review over a couple of posts.

In brief, LiveQuotes let’s you track the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) from your GPRS enabled phone.

The NSE updates their data every time a trade happens, and that information can be downloaded as a CSV. Steve has it setup so that he checks it every minute, allowing you to have near real-time access to the exchange, and a scrolling ticker for your selected portfolio. Want to see how your stock has done over time? No problem, there is a basic line chart showing how your shares have done historically.

Steve started this about 3 months ago, soft-launching it to a few friends as he worked on new features and fixed things up. So far there are 200 users. I would expect that to change soon. 800,000 Kenyans have just bought into the Safaricom IPO was his inspiration, and a good one because it means there are hundreds of thousands of new stock owners in Kenya.

While it’s fee right now, plans are to charge 30/= Kenya Shillings per week ($0.50 cents) per user. Anyone can receive the application through a simple SMS with a link to the URL, and then registering on the spot. Safaricom or Celtel (depending on which carrier the end user has) will act as middleman for transactions, paying Steve on a monthly basis.

A little math will tell you that by getting just 10,000 users he will make about 300,000/= per week ($4,665). $18,000/month is a nice salary by almost anyone’s standards. I’ll be asking for a loan from him soon, I hope.

What else is in the future? Uganda and Tanzania for one, possibly the rest of Africa if things go well. On the technology side, look for some type of API that will allow others to access the same pre-parsed information.

See it in action in the video below: