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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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iWarrior: an African iPhone Game

There aren’t a lot of African gamers, as would be expected due to the general lack of access to gaming technology and platforms in Africa, relative to other parts of the world. There are even fewer game developers on the continent. Due to being a gamer myself, I like to keep track of this as much as possible, and it’s always fun to announce a new one.

iWarrior - an African iPhone gameiWarrior is an iPhone game (iTunes link), created by the cross-Afrian team of Kenyan Wesley Kirinya and Ghanaian Eyram Tawia of Leti Games. It’s a unique top-down shooter game that utilizes the iPhone’s inbuilt accelerometer to both move and shoot. Your goal: protect your village, livestock and garden from the incoming marauding animals.

It’s a great first-effort from the team, and I believe it’s the first game created by a team in Africa. This itself is a much more difficult task than what many might expect. Just to get an iTunes account and a way to be be paid for your application is a challenge due to Apple’s inbuilt prejudice against Africa (they’re not alone in this, as many other platforms, like PayPal’s or Google Checkout’s are the same). That seems like a dramatic statement to make, but I ask you to stay your judgment until you’ve walked in the shoes of an African programmer.

Gameplay
I’m not an exceptionally talented twitch gamer, so I found the unique movement plus shooting actions hard to come to terms with. However, as I played it longer, I found myself slowly figuring it out and getting better at it. Thankfully, the team has built in a completely different way to play using your finger to slide and tap, you can move and shoot. So, for the accelerometer-challenged (like me) there’s another option. 🙂

iWarrior also allows you to play your own music while playing the game. This might seem small, but it’s something a lot of game maker’s overlook, and it’s a lot more fun than listening to the same repetitious in-game music.

The game costs $2.99, which is a little steep for new games on the iPhone. For many reasons the costs of most applications (games or otherwise) on the App Store have been driven to about 99cents. So, it takes either a really big name or an app that has hard to replicate features in order to break past $1.99 and sell a lot. In the team’s defense, it’s difficult for them to download paid games to test and see if they compare to their own prior to putting it on the market (again, due to them being in Africa).

Graphics
The graphics are okay. I’m a stickler on this type of thing though, and I go for either over-the-top quality or simplicity. Examples of this is comparing Fieldrunners to Doodle Jump, both excellent graphically, yet with completely different aesthetics.

iPhone game design - fieldrunners vs doodle jump

So, I’m going to ding the team on this part of the game. This, after a lengthy discussion in Ghana with Eyram over the difficulties of finding quality digital artists. It’s not an easy thing to do, the best designers aren’t digitally literate, with a few exceptions. So, you get great sketching and painting, but few can put that into vector graphics, 3d or even Photoshop.

Though the challenge is high, we live in a digitally connected world where top quality digital artists from Asia and Eastern Europe can be found to do the work at acceptable rates. There are other options, and a game can be made or broken on looks alone.

Summary

iWarrior is an excellent first game on the iPhone platform from two highly talented and creative African game developers. I expect that there will be a lot of good games, and other applications, coming from this team over time – both on the iPhone and other platforms. It’s a game to be proud of and one that I hope a lot of others will buy.

Text2Fly: Flight Schedules by SMS in Nigeria

Timi Agama was frustrated with his experiences in trying to get information about flights in Nigeria. It just didn’t make sense that there was no electronic means to track flight schedules. About five years ago he set out on a path to create a mobile solution for the problem. Out of that came Text2Fly, a mobile service that let’s you search for flight schedules by sending an SMS.

Text2Fly Nigeria

“The simple task of finding the next available flight is an inefficient and labor intensive undertaking for the Nigerian business traveller. Nigerian airlines don’t operate call centers and the Internet is slow. So the business traveller must assign staff to search all airline web sites or even send them to the ticketing office through stifling traffic.”

How it Works

A user sends in a text message to +447786201082 with a simple command, like “From Lagos to Abuja on Monday at 8am”. In response, the system gathers the information about all of the flights in Nigeria that fit your requirements, and sends them back to you as an SMS message.

As Timi states, this is ” A Nigerian solution to a Nigerian problem”. Interestingly, it’s not only useful in Nigeria, and I could see this same application being used elsewhere, not just in Africa but in the developed world as well.

I’m curious as to why the service is only available via SMS. It seems that if you have the data, then it’s easy to make it web-accessible. The advantage there is that you also can start creating ways for people to purchase tickets and thereby have another revenue stream.

The Business Behind Text2Fly

Text2Fly QuoteIn terms of business model Text2Fly is paid for by premium SMS once it officially launches. It’s free right now though, so definitely worth testing out to see how much it helps in your daily life.

User numbers are still modest because the site and backend system was only flipped on 3 weeks ago. There has been very limited marketing to this point, but there is a plan to launch a real-world and digital campaign once the service is fully tested and stable.

When I asked Timi about how local Nigerians are taking to the product, he stated:

The reactions from people who have used the service has been far better than I could have imagined. One chap I spoke to on the phone enthused about how Text2Fly is not just for busy business people but for “everybody”. Another told me a story of how he showed it to some friends while they were having a drink and all 7 of them stored the Text2Fly number.

[Note: David Ajao has also done a review, worth reading as he’s a fellow Nigerian.]

Is There Technology Arbitrage in Africa?

The term arbitrage traditionally refers to taking advantage of the price differential (the gap) between two or more markets. One example is how search engine marketers use arbitrage to make money off of Google Adwords with keyword buying and landing pages. Another is when traders take advantage of differences in exchange rates on currencies in two separate markets.

Is there technology arbitrage in Africa?

Tucked away in a blog post on Calestous Juma talking about the future of African communications, Ethan Zuckerman states:

“The spread of connection infrastructure into Africa now points to the need for devices that can access the internet, content to be delivered and applications. These, in turn, point to the need for institutions, laws and policies to regulate this space, which are currently lagging far behind the technology.

We all like to discuss the technology gap in Africa, which is this space between those who have access to technology and can use it (the West) and those who do not (Africa). Does this create the environment to take advantage of technology arbitrage?

From a certain perspective that can all seem very bleak and depressing. From another, it smells like opportunity.

This time and knowledge lag between government “institutions, laws and policies” that Calestous Juma and Ethan are discussing is just the sort of gap that allows arbitrage to happen. You should be able to turn the lack of technology in one place, or at least information, compared to the other to your advantage.

Put another way, when a government is too slow, inefficient and technologically incompetent to keep up with the rest of the world, what happens?

I think we see the answer in a number of places already, not all of them savory. We see this in business executives who corner a market, like we’ve seen with Safaricom in Kenya, or the notorious 419 scammers in Nigeria. We read about it when Egyptian youth use Twitter to broadcast police brutality, or when Zimbabweans send MMS images of completed ballot counts from voting precincts in advance of those trying to perpetrate fraud.

Two main groups seem to take advantage of this: businesses and activists.

The natural inclination of the market is to leverage these gaps and inefficiencies, to create opportunities out of the void, that technology can often overcome. The best businesses in our current era are built to do this as are the activist groups with the greatest impact.

[Authors note: I’ve made up this term “technology arbitrage”, but I couldn’t think of a better way to describe what I’ve been thinking about. Speaking of which, I’ve been muddling this over in my head for a week and just wanted to air it out to hear other’s thoughts.]

Quick Hits around African Tech

Understanding what drives Mpesa agents
Growing the agent network is one of the most challenging parts of a mobile payment system.

“The number one cost for most agents was liquidity management – moving cash. Agents report a host of expenses, including bank charges, transport costs, and fees to aggregators who advance commissions and provide easy float/cash swaps for agents. On average, liquidity management consumed 30% of total expenses.”

Asynchronous Info, Disjointed Data and Crisis Reporting
Jon Gosier talks about Uganda’s riots and what he’s learned in the process.

Africa’s diaspora and the cloud
Teddy Ruge writes a great essay on the web and Africa’s diaspora.

“There’s a cloud gathering over Africa; a storm of connected thoughts and ideas that are pushing African countries violently forward. The Diaspora is using emerging web technologies in increasing numbers, frequency, and variety to stay connect with Africa, simultaneously charting a new digital course for it’s economic independence on the world stage.”

New Africa broadband ‘ready’
The BBC Digital Planet team is in Kenya and doing a knock-up job of interviewing people about what’s going on around the tech space there.

Emmanuel Kala in Nairobi
(Note: all the people in the BBC “in pictures” for this day are part of the Ushahidi extended dev team in Kenya)

Mobiles offer lifelines in Africa
Ken Banks writes about mobile phone growth and development in Africa, stating “Africans are not the passive recipients of technology many people seem to think they are.”

GotIssuez: Exposing Bad Customer Service in Kenya

How do we call out problems with businesses, customer service interaction and lack of service? That’s what Mark Kaigwa and team are trying to answer in Kenya and East Africa. The header on the GotIssuez website states:

GotIssuez logo

“The customer is always right. Gotissuez.com is a platform where customers exercise their right to expose product shortcomings, poor service delivery or suggest ways of improving the products or services.”

GotIssuez is an on-line market research company primarily concentrating on three areas: consumer research, product research and service delivery. Their website is a tool to address the real shortcomings that many in East Africa face when trying to deal with the unusually bad customer service that permeates most of the businesses that operate in the region.

Their tool is mainly focused on the younger generation, people who are web and mobile phone savvy and who aren’t hesitant to raise their voice in protest of bad customer service or bad experiences. At any given time you might see complaints on the “crappy YU (mobile) network”, “Ngong Hills – A poor welcome at the entrance” or griping about political issues. Other users can go in and agree, disagree or help solve the problem the stated problem.

It’s a play to the crowd, a home-brewed combination of what we see on sites like Digg married up with the functionality of sites like Dell’s IdeaStorm.

GotIssuez - comment and votes for customer service issues in Kenya

I was intrigued by the one above actually, as it’s a complaint over the campaign to save endangered lions in Kenya. It’s had a pretty big impact on a certain group of people, mainly businesses and the upper class (so the poster to GotIssuez states). It’s also a good reminder that one mans treasure is another mans trash… 🙂

Campaign to save endangered lions in Kenya

The Business

GotIssuez is currently implementing a large research and development project called ‘Tangaza.’ With this they have already began looking and measuring high-end statistics and detailed metrics on trends, opinions, comparisons and key information relevant to brands. Their focus is to continue to work on this as their business model develops and evolves.

It’s important to note that their tool is not their only effort in the brand monitoring, consumer research and service delivery space. While that is a primary outreach and awareness tool, much of their business comes from the services that they offer to organizations offline.

Maker Faire Africa video compilation

The good folks at AfricaNews really helped us out a lot in Ghana by doing a lot of interviews and then putting together this video compilation of Maker Faire Africa.

We’ll be holding Maker Faire Africa again next year in August, this time in Nairobi, Kenya. Get ready for an even bigger and more festive event!

Should we be Building SMS or Internet Services for Africa?

Interesting mobile phone

Probably one of my favorite discussions of this trip was entered into after the Uganda Linux User Group (LUG) meeting here in Kampala. It was about whether we should be providing internet protocol (IP) services first, rather than SMS. If cost is the single most important factor for any mobile service aimed at ordinary Africans, then what will it take to move the ball from the SMS court to the IP court? This isn’t just for non-profits to consider, but everyday businesses as well.

Phones that can access data networks have always been in short supply here, so the easy answer has always been to use SMS, just because that’s what people have in their pocket and can use right now. While there are great arguments for either decreasing the costs of SMS, or of moving to IP, the practicality of that was remote due to the costs involved. Either you need a big organization, or a government, who can force the mobile operators to lower their rates on SMS (their cash cow), or you need to have the costs of data-enabled phones to decrease enough that the majority of users switch to them.

There is an argument that says that Grameen’s and Google’s recent deal with MTN Uganda didn’t go far enough in pushing for free, or cheaper, messaging for their new services. Whether you agree or disagree on that matter isn’t relevant if you bypass the argument altogether and provide services via data, which is drastically cheaper, using SMS as the backup.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that for the first time, last year, mobile phones shipped to Africa with data service capabilities outnumbered the simple SMS-only phones that are so prevalent on the continent (Gartner 2009). Of course, this doesn’t mean that there will be a majority of IP accessible phone users immediately, but it is on its way.

Equally important to understand, and a point that increases the momentum of the mobile services over IP argument, is the fact that where there is mobile penetration, there is also available data services. This stands true in Uganda, where MTN says there is 92% GPRS coverage on their network. It’s even true in countries still trying to catch up, like Liberia, where though there are only islands of coverage, that coverage generally comes with data.

Reinier Battenberg, who runs the only local hosting in Uganda, brought up a great point. The fact that Google and Grameen weren’t able to significantly alter MTN’s position on the prices of SMS doesn’t matter. What matters is that Google didn’t offer an IP-based solution for their new Google Trader that they launched. That’s simply unbelievable! It’s doubtful if that type of work would take more than a day for an engineer to implement. Instead of effectively providing an end-run on the strategy around SMS, they just played the same game that the operator wants to play and will win. Something that Google really wants to do is drive people to the web, so why not at least provide web-services for those that can use it? It doesn’t make sense… all around it’s both curious and a questionable strategy.

Web Hosting and IXP Issues in Uganda

The Uganda IXP

I’ve spent the last couple days talking to web designers, programmers, systems administrators and businessmen about the situation in Uganda.

Technologists in Uganda have quite a job on their hands. Sitting, land-locked, behind Kenya and Tanzania they share most of those two countries problems, find that everything is more expensive, and then have to deal with a government who has little to know understanding of how technology can spur economic growth. On top of that, the local ISPs and the mobile operators are happily providing sub-par services at larcenous rates.

It’s no surprise then that we see a lot fewer quality programmers and web designers in Kampala than in Nairobi. However, though there are fewer, there is a great depth of talent available here in those that are doing this work, whether it’s Solomon King‘s Node Six, Jon Gosier‘s Appfrica Labs or Software Factory the creators of Kiva’s rival MYC4.

Local web hosting and the IXP

From what I could tell, there is only one hosting company setup for anyone to get started with a website in Uganda that runs a server from within the country. Few government websites are hosted locally, and the same remains true for almost all business or personal sites. Though there is excellent bandwidth locally, the international bandwidth is what is used, which means that no one (local) is winning.

What is surprising is that there is no local caching of international content going on at the Uganda IXP. If the Google Global Cache was being used, that alone would speed up local performance and make a better user experience. There are rumors of a Google Cache being used at either the ISP-level or Makerere, but that since it’s not using the UIXP, it cannot provide the service to all of the ISPs.

However, more important than that is the fact that it would significantly decrease the amount of international traffic. What’s mind boggling is that the local providers would still be able to charge the same rates, but decreasing international traffic through caching would increase their profit margins. I’m not quite sure why this isn’t being done, I wonder if the ISPs and mobile operators are just making too much money as it is and this is seen as more work than it’s worth.

Uganda’s IXP (international exchange point) is something of a mess too. Apparently, the two founders are in a bit of a squabble, with means each neutralizes the others decisions and nothing gets done. To make matters worse, the environment where it resides can only be considered as hostile to any type of electrical equipment. It’s in the basement of a parking garage where people wash cars providing a healthy dose of moisture, dust is in the air, and there is a general lack of upkeep on it.

Basically, all of the money ($106m) that the Ugandan government and the local ISPs and mobile operators are pouring into the infrastructure is reliant upon this one poor excuse for an IXP. It works, and the packets are switching, it’s just that the operation is not working in the optimal environment – physically or organizationally.

This is troubling for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason why it sits so poorly with me is that the government has a stated aim of getting more “local content” online. So, while there might be 10 Wimax providers going live by the end of the year in Kampala, there is little foundational infrastructure to support the peering between providers locally, regionally or internationally.

It seems that the biggest problems within the Uganda internet space is more about lack of holistic focus by the government and local ISPs and mobile operators. With a little effort, the peering, content hosting, costs and speed could be improved.

Meltwater: Training Tech Entrepreneurs in Ghana

Before I left Ghana yesterday I had a chance to run by the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) and spoke to Ylva Strander, the managing director of this two year old institution. Their mission is to train up technology entrepreneurs with the skills and acumen to take part on the global stage. It’s run out of a large building in Accra with enough space to run the program for 60 students and their trainers.

Meltwater - Eyram

Every six months, hundreds of potential “Entrepreneurs in Training” go through a rigorous screening process, which are finally whittled down to 20 finalists. It’s a two year program where young technologists are taught business and refined technology skills.

Their goal: by the end of their time at MEST, come up with a viable business plan for the Meltwater Incubator to fund.

The first graduating class is due to walk out of the building to present their business plan this year. They will have the opportunity for seed funding, which teams of them have been working on since they began this process almost 24 months ago. These are all supposed to be internationally-focused businesses, not locally-focused on Ghana.

The whole operation is a not-for profit, funded by the Meltwater Foundation, part of the Meltwater Group in Europe. The idea is for the Foundation to hold an undisclosed equity stake in the startups, then sink that money back into the educational institution for sustainability. The seed capital used to get the startups going was also unclear, but probably in the $15-50k range.

I asked Ylva why they chose Ghana, after all, there are a couple of good spots to do this type of operation across the continent. Ghana was chosen due to it being an English speaking country with good connectivity, proximity to the US and Europe, a stated government focus on ICT and political stability. It came down to a choice between Ghana and Uganda, with Ghana winning out due to stability and the general higher level of business ambition.

MEST is an impressive undertaking, and one that is hard to duplicate due to the upfront costs of running an institution and the time needed to prove it out as being successful or not. All of the students that I met, and I met a good number, were incredibly bright and engaging. If MEST truly does arm them with the best training, then I believe there could be a higher than average number of “wins” coming from the graduates.

Talking community with Ghanian devs

I was supposed to put on a talk to day at Maker Faire Africa (high-tech side) about mapping on mobiles and web, but when the time came it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Instead, with the mix of people at the room I launched into a discussion about what I saw as a lack of communication and cohesion with in the Ghanaian programming community.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

Everyone agreed that there is a lack of general communication and collaboration in this space, though there are a few user groups for things like Linux and a new one for Java. It’s too bad really, because I don’t think there is less talent in Ghana, but that this lack of cohesion of the tech community means that it’s hard for people to “announce” new things and/or get help for areas that they need to get assistance in. The reason I see this is due to the great activity that I see on the Kenyan Skunkworks email list – the contrast between Accra and Nairobi in this is quite stark.

At the end of the discussion, everyone in the room decided to try for the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 7pm. Daisy Baffoe is the one with the list and is going to get in touch with everyone with a location. Hopefully we’ll see the beginnings of a general programmer community in Ghana!

A picture with the Mozilla guys

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