Lessons from the mLearning Summit in Zambia

There’s an excellent post up on MobileActive about the recent mLearning Summit held in Zambia, titled “Go Mobile: Using Mobile Learning to Teach 21st Century Skills”. Steve Vosloo is a South African who has spent a lot of time researching how mobile phones can be used in education, here’s a video put together by him from this event.

“Steve Vosloo noted that m-learning summits have two main goals: To introduce and popularize the mobile phone as a tool for engaging students, and secondly, to identify local content needs. Examples of this may include applications that support grade submissions and attendance in remote locations or projects that explore how texting can be used in literacy.”

Kazang: A Truly Mobile Prepaid Service Terminal for Africa

Psitek is a company that deeply understands the African market, I’m convinced that this is due to them having all of their work done on the continent. The last time I wrote about them was after I came across the nearly indestructible Streetwise mobile-accessible computer for children.

As Hannes notes:

“They are the inventors of that trusted voice access device that anyone that ever travelled to Africa would know about: the Adondo. Designed for Africa with anti-insect electronics, high temperature and humidity tolerance, their devices still ship with car-battery ready clamps.”

The Kazang service and terminal

Kazang - prepaid service terminals for Africa

This time it’s about Kazang, a prepaid terminal for merchants selling mobile phone services, such as prepaid airtime, paying of electricity bills or insurance. The service is a year and a half old now, and boasts nearly 5,000 vendors ranging from South Africa to Kenya to Zambia.

Kazang Terminal - Timpa

The newest device, the Timpa, comes with all of the necessary requirements for the challenges that a merchant running a business in a rural (or urban) setting in Africa would need. It has a built-in printer and rechargeable battery which makes it fully mobile, uses GPRS technology to communicate with the Content Ready (back-end) server (just plug in a data SIM card), and a large LCD with backlighting. They have also built in fail-safes for when the GPRS connection drops, or the electricity goes out, so that the merchant doesn’t get charged for a voucher that they didn’t receive.

Psitek claims that clearing $1000/month is a reasonable to expect by vendors, which would bring home about $80/month of profit (8% margin). This alone makes it a fairly good proposition for a lot of merchants, meaning they can add a Kazang terminal to their shop as an added draw for more customers and it acts as to supplement their other revenue streams.

Not written about much relative to their impact, Psitek is one of those tech firms offering devices that run behind the scenes of many businesses in the southern part of Africa.

African Digerati: Adii Pienaar of Woothemes

African Digerati Interview: Adii Pienaar

Adii Pienaar (aka Adii Rockstar) is the 7th in the African Digerati series of interviews. At only 24 he’s the youngest one on the list – he’s here because he represents the success that can be achieved as a young digital entrepreneur in Africa. Just under a year ago Woothemes splashed onto the stage as a new seller of WordPress (blogging tool) themes.

Rumor has it that this might be the most monetarily successful startup in the new media scene coming out of South Africa… That’s in less than one year. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the fact is that Woothemes is one of the top WordPress theme sites in the world, and it’s grown out of Africa with a lot of work, an eye for design and passion.

Woothemes just launched version 2 of itself, called WOO2. This interview is in response to that, and a chance to take a look at one of the visionaries behind it. After reading the interview, take a look at Adii’s blog. You’ll realize he’s light-hearted and doesn’t take himself to seriously, personality traits that I appreciate.

Woothemes version 2: woo2

When was the seed of Woothemes planted in your mind, and what was it’s genesis? What caused you to go from idea to actually building something, and how did you do that?
I don’t really know… Magnus, Mark & I had been collaborating a bit more loosely and the business was growing quite steadily. So I think it was just a natural progression to formalize the collaborations into a business and brand it as WooThemes. Luckily for us, we had a good following at that stage and the foundations were good all round to launch WooThemes.

What inspires you?
Would I be egotistical to say that I inspire myself? :) Honestly though, I’m inspired by a bunch of different things on a daily basis; and those things are random at best. The “being inspired” bit, along with willingness to act on said inspiration is a result of me absolutely loving a challenge and thus being completely driven to pursue those challenges.

Who are your biggest influences?
Online, I’ve got a lot of respect for entrepreneurs like Ryan Carson & Collis Ta’eed, who are at the top end of this new wave of entrepreneurs. Offline I’ve always appreciated Richard Branson’s way of going about business and marketing his ideas. And then closer to home… I’ve learned a helluva lot from both my business partners – Magnus & Mark – whilst I’d be lying if I said that my dad didn’t influence my business mind a lot – especially when I was younger.

Woo2 is a redesign of the Woothemes site and the community platform behind it. What are the big changes, and why do they matter?
Facing outwards, I think WOO2 signals our intent with regards to further growth and also improving the current experiences on WooThemes.

On a business level, I think WOO2 is more professional and we put a lot more strategic thinking into it. So again, it’s some kind of natural progression of how we’ve grown. WOO2 is the next step and the next part of the journey ahead.

Woothemes is expanding to other platforms beyond WordPress (Drupal, Expression Engine, etc.). What is your strategy here, and when will we start seeing these themes for different platforms?
The strategy is basically one that aims to diversify our offerings (and also our risk of having all our eggs in one basket), along with the growth aspects (new products = new markets = new users). And whilst I’m reluctant to commit to any schedule in this regard, we will start rolling out the Drupal themes in the next 2 / 3 weeks, and we’ve already started work on the EE & Magento stuff.

There’s always been the debate amongst the WordPress intelligensia about some theme providers not honoring the WordPress GPL licensing. iThemes, Brian Gardner and others have changed stances. I noticed you have as well. Is this where you wanted to go, or was it something that the greater community forced upon you? How will this help your business?

I can categorically say that this wasn’t something we did because we felt forced to do so. Way back in August 2008, I told Matt Mullenweg (at WordCamp SA) that going GPL was on the horizon for us and we’d do so when we felt comfortable doing so.

And as for how it will affect / help our business… I don’t know yet. We’ve only been GPL for a day, so I guess we’ll have to wait & see. :)

How big is Woothemes and how active is your community? Can you give any numbers?
This is tempting, but I’d rather not share these numbers… Maybe in the next couple of months, we’ll adopt a more open approach and share some of these numbers, but we’re not into boasting about supposed success.

I can however say that our support forum has racked up almost 45K posts, which means that the community is active. And our free themes (6 of them) have been downloaded about 35 000 times in the last month… :)

You’ve successfully created a web business out of South Africa that has impacted people around the world. You’re tapped into the web in a way that few others are. What’s next? What does the big picture look like from a the Rockstar perspective?
I’m taking over the world, one WordPress installation at a time.

LOL no… I’m very content with what I’m doing at the moment and very happy with the space & freedom that WooThemes has afforded me. I’m still young (24), so at this stage I’d like to think that I’m trying to revolutionize my own life, in terms of how I work and how I act outside of business hours. Beyond further growing WooThemes, that’s probably my main focus, because I want to do this now and not when I turn 30 / 40 and realize that I’ve work my life away.

And a shameless punt… I’m writing a book called Rockstar Business that basically airs my thoughts & experiences within this journey! :)

Finally, what are your thoughts on the impact of blogging in your own continent: Africa?
I’m ashamed to admit this, but Africa is generally a deep dark place for me (which I’m planning on rectifying with a proper journey into Africa – for holiday – later this year). So I’ve honestly not met many Africans who are bloggers.

BUT… In theory I think blogging gives everyone a voice; a voice they didn’t have before. And that’s true freedom & power for me, which we’ll ultimately see itself manifest when Africa becomes one of the strongest nations / economies in the world.

[Disclosure: I’m a customer of Woothemes, having purchased (full-price) one of their themes for the Maker Faire Africa website. I’m very happy with this too, everything is rock solid.]

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.

Representing African Technology to the World

Vinny Lingham 2007Vinny Lingham has had two big hits in the last couple weeks. Just a week ago, in the midst of this down economy where web apps are dying every day, he managed to pull out a second round of funding for Synthasite worth $20 million. That’s a lot of money in a good economy, in a down one it’s huge.

Today, he was announced as one of the World Economic Forum – Young Global Leaders for this year. The others joining him from the Bay Area include the likes of Zuckerberg (Facebook). There have been others from Africa (full list), and it’s quite a group to be associated with.

Vinny is proving to be a great example of the type of tech entrepreneur that Africa creates. My hope is that he continues to be a resounding success in the global market, thereby bringing more investors and businesses hunting for real investment opportunities, not just looking to give handouts.

10 Great Reads Around Africa

Nigerian Banking Survey

Jeremy has a quick rundown of some numbers, such as:

“53% of Nigerian adults have access to a mobile phone, yet 74% of the adult population has never been banked”

(Full report: 7.3Mb PDF)

Vodacom South Africa’s Mobikasi

Vincent breaks out with his first new tech release since moving to Vodacom, it’s a location-based mobile phone accessible documentary on Soweto in South Africa.

“The location-based documentary looks at people, music, fashion, social issues and places of interest. Instead of showing the twenty-five minute documentary in a linear fashion from start to finish, Mobikasi splits the content up into twenty-five inserts of one minute each.”

Nominating Peace Heroes in Kenya

Unsung Peace Heroes in Kenya

The Ushahidi Engine is being used to run a new non-disaster related site called Peace Heroes, which hopes to highlight ordinary Kenyans who did extraordinary things to promote peace during and after the post-election crisis earlier this year.

Thoughts on a web cloud for Africa

“While all the pieces had been floating around in my head for a while I am just now understanding that we really need to drag very little out to Africa for them to have incredibly powerful technology in the palm of their hand (and that such thinking is inherently poisonous) and that we are better off attempting to facilitate the connection of their handsets to The Cloud in order to assist with effecting positive social change.”

O3b’s first internet package

The O3b Network is offering it’s first bundle. “Quick Start Africa” is a, Carrier Managed Service designed for Telcos and ISPs on the African continent who need a high capacity, ultra low latency, carrier class IP trunking solution.

“Life is Hard”

Niti Bhan talked about this at the Better World by Design conference. Breaking down why life is so difficult for the poorest people in the world and what can be done when trying to address these issues.

Facebook Garage in Uganda

Jon Gosier of Appfrica.net is heading up a Facebook Garage in Kampala on December 13. It’s a great chance for programmers to get out and get comfortable with the Facebook platform, and also to meet some of the devs. Get more info at the Facebook event page, and the Appfrica wiki.

Mobile finance – indigenous, ingenious, or both?

A must-read post by Ken Banks. “It’s not that people don’t understand banking concepts, it’s just that for them things go by a different name.”

A GPS in every SIM card

Talk about a game changer:

“…a highly accurate GPS receiver and an antenna into the SIM card, enabling network providers to deploy both legally-mandated and commercial applications for all mobile phones, with no need for software or hardware changes.”

Uganda-Congo border images


Congo-Uganda border picture by Glenna Gordon

Glenna Gordon writes a blog out of Uganda called Scarlett Lion, besides great insights, she also has some of the most amazing photography I’ve seen from there in a while. Check out here professional website to see more.

African Meetups, Barcamps and Conferences

African Tech Events CalendarThings are definitely heating up in the African tech sphere according to my calendar of African tech events (Events RSS feed) for the remainder of the year. From Madagascar to Mauritius there are unconferences, conferences and adhoc meetups happening at a rate I haven’t seen before. The African tech scene is definitely getting bigger and noisier.

Barcamp Nairobi

In the next two weeks we have 8 events covering 6 countries:

** I’ll be attending these
* I will stream in live to Barcamp Africa with the South Africans, but it’s also open in Kenya and Ghana.

On top of these scheduled conferences and unconferences, there are many meetups happening all over the place – from the monthly 27Dinner in cities around South Africa to the bi-monthly Skunkworks meetings in Kenya.

Africa’s a happening place – just watch!

[As always, if you know of an upcoming African tech event, let me know and I’ll add it to the calendar]

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!

Mapping Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa

The Ushahidi engine (version 1) is being used to map reports of the current xenophobic attacks happening in South Africa on a site called UnitedforAfrica.co.za. The attacks are a product of foreigners moving across the borders, especially Zimbabwean, and encroaching on the lives of South Africans. I suggest reading this BBC article for more information.

United for Africa: Mapping reports of xenophobia in South Africa

Quirk, a web marketing agency in Cape Town is leading this charge, with Tim Shier, Rafiq and David Kobia all pulling VERY late nights last night to make this come together. Quirk will act as administrators on this build, and the Ushahidi team will step away from it as soon as the build is done.

The most important part of this type of campaign is to get the word out. SMS, email, call your friends and family all over South Africa and get them to tell their friends so that more reports come in. The more that come in, the better the tool.

A couple resources for this crisis in South Africa:

So, what’s up with this “Ushahidi engine”?
As you might/might not be aware, we’ve worked up a plan for a new version of Ushahidi (v2) that would replace what we’ve done as a free and open source tool for crowdsourcing crisis information and then visualizing that on a map. We’ll be presenting that idea next week at the NetSquared challenge in California, and are already building the basic architecture for that. This collaboration with the guys in South Africa ends up being a perfect example of the need for a rapid deployment tool like Ushahidi.

What we could use is more developers from around the world to help us. We already have a good dozen who have committed to helping in some way or other, ranging from the Bay area in California to Kenya to South Africa and Malawi. If you’d like to take part, please get in touch!