Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: conference (page 2 of 4)

A Rising Tide: Africa’s Tech Entrepreneurs

[This post is my talk from NetProphet 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. Keep in mind it was aimed at a crowd that was close to 100% South African, and my purpose was to show what was going on north of the South African border.]

The idea for this talk came from a conversation that I had with a programmer that I met in Jo’burg when I first visited 3 years ago. After a talk that I gave, he told me, “Someday I’d like to visit Africa.” As you can imagine, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

Now, I think he meant this Africa

I would rather speak to you about this Africa

This map color codes countries by their level of internet penetration. As you can see, all of Africa has a fairly poor internet penetration rate compared to the rest of the world.

South Africans sometimes forget that they are a part of a much larger continent, choosing to align themselves closer with far-away Europe than their bordering countries, and they miss all types of opportunities due to this.

So, when Tim asked me what I wanted to talk about at NetProphet this year, I thought it a great opportunity to highlight some of the entrepreneurs and opportunities that lie just north of this great country.

Most of us look at this map and say, “that’s pathetic”. A few say, “blue ocean”, a completely untapped market ripe for the picking.

I’d like to start off then by telling you about two people, Karanja and Fritz, who are of the latter type, and they’re making good money working in this market. First mover advantage in the tech space has always been a key, and their early inroads into the space position them perfectly for taking advantage of a growing mass of consumers.

A story of 2 entrepreneurs

Karanja Macharia is the founder and CEO of Mobile Planet, a mobile company in Kenya that provides third party services to both the main mobile providers and other corporate clients. They’ve been around for a number of years, Google invested in them 2 years ago, and most importantly, they’re profitable.

I carry around a Nexus One and an iPhone. Karanja carries around a Nokia 1600, the cheapest data-enabled phone you can buy ($25). Why? He does this so that he understands what his customers need and use. His clients aren’t your upper-class Blackberry toting professionals, they’re the “wananchi” (the ordinary person).

It takes a paradigm shift in the understanding of people, culture and spending habits to tackle this market. It’s not a population that understands the PC-web in the same way that you, me or anyone from the West does. It takes a different perspective, and a different type of entrepreneur.

In Kenya, approximately 40% of mobile users don’t keep a balance on their mobile phone. This means, they might top up with 10-20 Ksh from time to time to keep their phone active, but most of the time they have the phone for people to call them. At the same time, there’s a burgeoning opportunity and demand for mobile web content. So, the question is, how do you get that 40% active on the web with the current pre-paid model in Africa, where everything has a cost?

Talking to someone like Karanja is an eye opener, you quickly realize how deftly he wields his knowledge of mobile consumers in Kenya against the realities of the mobile operator’s business culture and the “freemium” pricing of the web as it too grows in penetration here.

Karanja represents this new technology entrepreneur in Africa. He’s a seasoned businessman, not some wet behind the ears University student. Karanja understands cash flow and business management, as well as the differences between a PC-web based culture and the mobile-base culture that is sub-Saharan Africa.


Fritz Ekwoge is the founder of iYam.mobi, he too comes from a professional background, though as a programmer and developer, not pure business. He represents a different type of entrepreneur, a younger generation that knows and cares about the web world beyond his Cameroonian borders, and tries to figure out how the two can work together.

Last year I wrote about his first application, iYam.mobi, which is a mobile phone based mobile directory. It works off of the assumption that no one using it ever touches a PC and therefore won’t need it when they look for contact information of service providers via an SMS command to the server. It’s simple, and it works. Fritz has taken the original iYam.mobi ‘mobile mobile’ directory concept and run with it.  It’s evolved into a generalized SMS-based content publishing platform with virtual currency that anyone can use to create and consume local content services.

That application has been rewritten and is now onto another application that might be even more interesting. Fritz has created a new SMS Apps Store at iYam.mobi, and his company has been named FeePerfect. Fritz is in the process of obtaining his VAS (value added services) license.  The platform is undergoing testing and will be released as private beta next month.

Fritz represents this new technology entrepreneur in Africa as well. He’s done his time at firms like PriceWaterhouseCooper, sees the digital landscape both internationally and in Cameroon, and realizes the opportunities available in his home market that are difficult for outsiders to bridge.

Many people claim that, “the future isn’t SMS” with too many limitations and a horrible cost structure. That might be true. However, it’s also the present reality. What Fritz understands is that you build for what people need, not for what tech pundits in the West and upper class Africans idealize about.

Why do these stories matter?

Both Fritz and Karanja come from completely different backgrounds. Business, culture and technological penetration vary greatly between Cameroon and Kenya. In one, you’re not surprised to hear of entrepreneurial success and innovative thinking while in the other you do wonder about the consumer-side viability of mobile or web-based products.

I believe these stories are important because they take us outside of our comfort zones. We are forced to come to the realization that our understanding of the business potential of technology entrepreneurs in Africa is far greater than we had thought. We consistently underestimate the viability of consumer markets in Africa because we do not truly understand the customer there.

One other point I’d like to make on entrepreneurs. Justin Spratt wrote an excellent piece on the new Memeburn site, called “10 Lessons for Founders“. In one of his last paragraphs he talks about the Ideal Founder. All of these same traits are clearly visible in the new tech entrepreneur in Africa, so they’re not that different than their Western counterparts on a personality level. Where they do differ is in their understanding of how to bridge their culture and technology.

Where is it happening?

There are a couple major cities that act as hubs for technology innovation in Africa.

  • Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa
  • Nairobi, Kenya
  • Accra, Ghana
  • Lagos, Nigeria
  • Cairo, Egypt

Looking at maps like this and talking to individuals in this space, I tend to disagree that the digital divide is primarily between rich and poor in Africa. My theory is that it’s more urban versus rural than anything else. I do travel quite a bit, and I’ve found that you’re much more likely to see a data-enabled phone in use in the slums of Kampala than in the rural backwoods of Liberia.

These cities are the ones to continue focusing on and encouraging a critical mass of programmers, businesses, universities who focus on tech and funds and investor groups to formulate.

One of the projects that I’ve been heavily involved with since the beginning of the year is a new tech innovation hub in Nairobi, called the iHub. Our goal is to create a nexus point for the tech community in Nairobi.

It’s an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.

I’m firmly of the belief that spaces like the iHub in Nairobi, Limbe Labs in Cameroon, Appfrica Labs in Uganda, Banta Labs in Senegal , and a new Geekspace here in South Africa (where there are more) are just the types of place that we need to get behind. These are the places that draw in the interesting people and projects, and they also serve as a filter and trusted intermediary for outside investors and businesses.

Thus far we’ve only seen the first generation of mobile and web entrepreneurs. There are a few good successes stories, but not enough. What these cities represent, and the hubs within them, is a space for that next generation of entrepreneurs to rise up. Locations to look for the newest and best ideas, invest in them, and then help them grow beyond the urban boundaries that pen them in right now.


Still don’t believe that the Africa north of you is worth taking a look at?

“Kenya is proving more lucrative per subscriber than South Africa for mobile advertising.”

Hearing someone tell me that, from one of the leading mobile advertising networks, was surprising. But, I’m guessing not nearly as surprising for me (who lives in Kenya) as it probably is for you, who live in South Africa.

We have a rising tide of technology beating against our continent’s shores, and it comes as no surprise to me that we have entrepreneurs rising up to meet it.

Tandaa Kenya Meeting: Local Digital Content

“If Africans are to get online en masse, they need a reason to go there. Their lives, their stories”

– Dennis Gikunda of Google Kenya, requoting Alim Walji who was at Google.org and is now at the World Bank.

The Kenya ICT Board is throwing the Tandaa event today in Nairobi at the iHub, sponsored by Google Kenya. It’s all about getting more local Kenyan content online, and it’s a good mixture of speakers so far, with Dennis Gikunda starting off, giving us examples of successful local content plays.

A “remember when” session just started, talking about how slow the internet used to be just a couple short years ago. Jimmy Gitonga scolds us for not doing more with what we have, figuring out business models and ways to make money off of our fast connections. He also reminds us that 2 million Kenyans access Facebook on their phones today. Moses Kemibaro steps up to give the real numbers showing the costs of internet, and the speeds, that has happened over the last year.

Joshua Wanyama, of Pamoja Media and Africa Knows, is up to talk about “The internet at 500Mb” – how to help Kenyan companies make money online. He’s giving us a short summary of his background, about how he started a web development company from the ground up in the US, then how he’s brought that same mindset back to Kenya.

“If I were to go online and try to find all the dentists nearby me in Nairobi, I couldn’t find it since it has not been digitized yet.” – Joshua Wanyama

Josh goes on to say that we don’t have enough success stories, though he does reference Ushahidi and Safaricom’s Mpesa. We need more of them, as it will help get more young, smart entrepreneurs operating in the internet space. Most of the internet traffic from Africa goes to websites like Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo, all outside of Africa. What are we doing to get our own content up and make it more of a viable business alternative for our own society?

Eddie Malitt of Sega Silicon Valley is here to talk about turning Sega village, a remote village of over 10,000 inhabitants located in Ugenya district – 25 km from the Kenya- Uganda border, into a “Silicon Valley” – an African ICT hub. One of the interesting findings that Eddie shared with us is that the children are leading the training of their parents and other adults. It doesn’t sound like their operations are self-sustainable, but that good things happen due to them being there.

[More of the Tandaa event will be going on today, but I’ll be unable to keep up with it due to other meetings. Follow it on Twitter at #Tandaa or @TandaaKENYA. I’m sure that Moses and Mbugua will also have something up later today.]

TED 2010: Session 1 Highlights

Session 1 at TED just ended, and it can only be described as an “only at TED” moment for me.


Simply because it showcased just how eclectic and fascinating this event is. Where else do you start with a talk by professor Daniel Khaneman who originated the study of Behavioral Economics, move on to the London and here a talk live from David Cameron who is leading the Conservative party in the UK, and then on to Jake Shimabukuro an amazing ukelele player…


Khaneman gave an engaging talk on “happiness”, where he talked about the difference between “being happy with your life versus being happy in your life.” There’s a difference between how we experience life and how we remember our experiences of life.

“If you knew that all of your pictures would be destroyed and that you would get amnesia, would you choose the same vacation?”

David Cameron is expected to be the next Prime Minister of the UK, he was the surprise talk this morning, telecasting in from London. He asked, “How do we make things better without spending more money?”. Pointing out that the global debt level is over 32 trillion (Pounds?).

His answer: use behavioral economics plus the information revolution and let’s see how we can change society.

Cameron’s prescription for this comes in three parts:

  1. He wants to see greater transparency of government data. Stating that we have only scratched the surface of what can be done with open government data.
  2. Choice. What happens if the government doesn’t mandate, but allows people to choose? He uses examples of web-based shopping engines and wonders how that can be applied to things like healthcare.
  3. Accountability. Using an example of the Chicago crime map he wonders what will happen as we give the people power to see what is happening and hold the government and police to account for what happens.


Esther Duflo, from the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, gave a mesmerizing talk on the aid and development sphere, using examples from Africa and India. She’s asking the hard questions and trying to answer them scientifically, pointing out that much of the arguments (ie, Easterly vs Sachs) being made for/against things like bed nets in Africa are more emotional than substantial.

“It’s not the middle ages any more, it’s the 21st century.”

We can find answers to these questions using randomized control trials. She gave examples like the one where they ran test of 130+ communities using a control, camps and camps with incentives to test if children would be brought in more/less often for immunizations if they were given an incentive of a kilo of lentils.

The answer: they were, 38% more actually. That, and the fact that it was actually cheaper to run the incentivized camps than the normal ones.

TED 2010 – Fellows Program

TED 2010 Fellows

I’m in Long Beach, California for the annual TED conference. This year I’m a Senior Fellow, which means that I get to see and spend time with old friends like Jon Gosier and Juliana Rotich, other Fellows from year’s past and enjoy some first class discussions and mentoring from groups like McKinsey and Duarte Design.

I’ve been taking pictures of the TED Fellows, you can find them on my Flickr set. The really great shots are by the TED photographers, and you can find those here and the TED Blog. More on the amazing and eclectic group that is this years TED Fellows.

Some TED Fellows Talks highlights:

I met Hugo Van Vuuren, a fellow white African, at PopTech last year. He’s doing some amazing work in Africa around creating energy with off-grid technologies. Figuring out how to use simple things like dirt to create power at Lebone. Hugo says that they’ll be ready to sell this type of product by summer 2010.

I was mesmerized by Angelo Vermeulen‘s talk on “Biomodd“, which is a riff off of the gaming communities case modding trend.

Nigerian Ndubuisi Ekekwe, an engineer, inventor, author and founder of the African Institution of Technology, an organization seeking to develop microelectronics in Africa.

TED 2010 Fellows - Talks

Kellee Santiago is a gamer and creates games based on emotions. She gave a great talk on what her company “That Game Company” does, with games like Flower.

Ben Gulak is a 20 year old inventor. He’s created the UNO, an electronic motorized unicycle and the DTV (Dual Tracked Vehicle), taking the best characteristics of a snow mobile, a skateboard and motorcross bike.

This new TED Fellows class is an eclectic group of polymaths. People who have expertise and interest in multiple areas. What sets them apart though is the fact that they actually “DO” things, not just talk about them. Seeing their work, talking to them about their projects and realizing just how special it is to be able to do that is what makes being a TED Fellow an amazing experience.

Africa Gathering Nairobi 2009 (day 2)

I’m here at day 2 of Africa Gathering in Nairobi, but can only spend part of the day here today, so it won’t be a full listing of all the talks. Day 1 talks are here.

I missed Nkeiru Joe’s talk about the sea and fibre cables. However, I’ve known and debated this with her for a long time. 🙂 Here’s her presentation on this topic, but to get the flavor on it you should talk to her or hear her speak.

Nkeiru Joes Africa Gathering Presentation – 2009

Digital Integration (lifestyle and webstyle)

David Nahinga, one of the organizers for Africa Gathering. He’s taking a few minutes to talk about the difference between digital culture and everyone else. How we need to use our time effectively, not try to be on 20 social networks and to prioritize the tools and platforms that we use that help us reach our goals.

It’s interesting, David is really doing a primer on why social media and digital tools are useful, and a reminder to use the “hard disk as another lobe of our brain.” Having a tight digital framework helps us to adapt quickly to a constant change, which is a characteristic of web lifestyle.


Got Issuez Christmas logoMark Kaigwa is here to talk about his startup project called GotIssuez, which I’ve blogged about before. They are creating a digital means for Kenyans to talk about customer service issues – by mobile phone and the web. It’s an African social platform that crowdsources rants and resolutions from Eastern Africans on Products, Brands and Service Delivery. Users rant, rate and resolve issues, and where companies can get involved is in acting on the feedback.

Mark asks, “Do we as Africans have a problem with really listening?”

He draws lines from everyday customer service by businesses in Kenya, with the way that politicians operate, how police try to direct traffic and to the post-election violence last year.

“If the ballot box can’t bring me change, why should a suggestion box?”

The suggestion box is dead, or at the least it’s in need of a revamp. That’s why tools like GotIssuez, which is similar to Get Satisfaction in ideology, are important.

4 things that GotIssuez is doing to create change in the customer service space in Africa. (How do you get an African to believe in change?)

1. Creating community
Their community is made of people from Generation Y, with a very strong presence in universities. They’re the ones who will have a large voice in the future of Kenya. Providing a digital way to complain, but also a way to come up with solutions.

They’re using gifts and prizes as an incentive to get more people to use the platform.

2. Evolve Culture
In the beginning, the users who came to the site were there complaining about non-issue type items, like why they couldn’t get a date for valentines. Now however, the complaints are about mobile phone operators, ISPs, restaurants and things that others are having problems with as well.

3. Involve Companies
How do companies get feedback? How do they engage with customers online and offline? GotIssuez is trying to become the official voice of the people by providing a platform that both consumers and companies can use.

4. Change Circumstances
Actually create change by involving both ordinary people and companies. The example he used here was a popular coffee shop called Savannah that only has one bathroom. People weren’t happy about this and created a GotIssuez report on it. The managing director of Savannah was directed towards this and came up with a solution (finding nearby restrooms that people could use).

Mobile Cloud Computing

Simeon Oriko is a 3rd year student at University of Eastern Africa Beraton and he’s here to talk about mobile phones and cloud computing, and where the two meet. Mobile Cloud Computing is a combination of two major emerging technologies: Mobile computing and Cloud Computing. Both these technologies are increasingly growing at a high rate. The concept of Mobile Cloud Computing involves the integration of mobile phones and the internet (the ‘cloud’) to create a cheaper, more convenient way of accessing information and other resources on the internet.


“How do we give people access to information and other resources that allow them to be all that they can be?”

Simeon was driven to think about this knowledge gap as he went to different high schools and talked to students who wanted to learn about things, but couldn’t, which was holding them back from different professions and futures. The example he gives is of a young lady who wanted to be a pilot, but had no idea where to start.

The Mobile Web
Mobile phones are not the same as desktop computers, but people create sites and applications that don’t allow true access via the mobile phone. We have this hugely fractured space, with browsers, phones, operating systems that are so different that it’s impossible to operate in them.

4 problems:

  • Limited memory and storage – Various data formats are used and it depends on the device as to how powerful it is. Data storage is expensive. There are major interoperability issues between phones, so a different application needs to be created for each device.
  • Small display screens – Desktop version websites are optimized for 1024×768 pixels – and there’s no good solution for that on a mobile phone. Technical solutions exist using CSS and javascript… if your phone renders them
  • Flaky browsers – There are MANY mobile browsers (Android, Safari, Opera, s60, Opera Mini, Blackberry, NetFront, IE Mobile (old), Iris, Bolt, Skyfire, Obigo, Fennec, Teashark, etc…). They all vary in standards and modes of rendering
  • Bad Connections – Connectivity is spotty outside urban areas.

Cloud Computing

Take processing away from the mobile phone and into the cloud – put it on the internet. For instance, if you want to upload a picture, you should be able to expand the storage space online from that which you have on your phone/memory stick.

Create a common platform that all the mobile phones try to share in common. Examples are the mobile web, SMS and USSD.

What will mobile cloud computing look like?

“Smartphones will increase in percentage, but that will not be the future. Feature phones will become more sophisticated, as more of the processing is taken away from the device and put in the cloud. Lower end phones will be the driving force, using SMS and USSD, even if they don’t have the mobile web.”

Applications will be of two types:

  1. Native apps will still be there (Android, iPhone, WinMo, etc.)
  2. Web apps will be used a lot more.

Faster mobile networks and improved network connectivity.

Simeon is working on Kuyu, a mobile web application that allows African devs to build African apps for real world African solutions.

Africa Gathering Nairobi 2009

Today I’m at AfricaGathering, a small conference focused on tech in Africa. I was at the first one in London earlier this year, and we had a great time, so I hope this will be just as good. This is the third one of it’s kind, but the first to take place in Africa – in this case Nairobi, Kenya at the British Council. I’ve decided to do one long running post today, where I’ll just keep adding to the post as the day goes on – refresh the page for more.

British Council in Nairobi

Today’s speaker list


PesaPal logoRight now Agosta Liko, a smart tech businessman who runs Verviant, is talking. He launched PesaPal just 2 months ago as a web-based mobile payments system for Kenya. Now that I’ve moved back to Kenya, I’m looking forward to trying PesaPal out in person.

“Life is 98% boring, work is boring and operational. 2% is inspiration and that’s where you get all the press. Make no mistake, the boring stuff is where you grow your business.” – Agosta Liko

There is no consumer oriented web payment system in Kenya. It’s a way for the unbanked (and banked) to buy online in Kenya. Agosta thinks that they are well positioned to be the most efficient transaction system in Africa. PesaPal is trying to find equilibrium between value, payment systems and real money. Making a transaction of beans or cows equivalent to one made by credit cards or PayPal.

PesaPal value flow

The transaction rate for merchants holding an account with PesaPal is currently 2.75%. PayPal, the closest comparable online payment system is set at 2.9%.

Kenyans for Change

Kenyans for ChangeJane Munga is here to tell us about a social movement called Kenyans for Change (K4C). They’ve been working on uniting Kenyans worldwide, starting with a group on Facebook and quickly moving around the world with 10,000 users in the diaspora and in Kenya itself. It’s a voice for national reform online.

Jane Munga of Kenyans for Change

Jane is talking about what’s needed to restore hope in the “Kenyan Dream”. This dream is defined by the Harambee spirit, equality, national unity and sound leadership. With last year’s post-election violence, the poor state of roads and hospitals and all the other ails that we face in Kenya, it’s a hard sell. What’s interesting to me here is to see that the impetus for this initiative seems to come from the diaspora, after all, Jane lives in Alabama most of the time. This begs the questions, will it take the diaspora taking part to make real change happen?

One of the projects that Kenyans for Change is working on is called Project Amani (“peace” in Swahili), focused on the youth by the youth.

Africa Rural Connect

Africa Rural Connect logoMolly Mattessich is here to talk to us about an initiative by the US National Peace Corps Association, Africa Rural Connect is an online platform with a mission to connect current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers with the African Diaspora, development practitioners, scholars, technologists and innovators to discuss rural agricultural development challenges and solutions in Africa.

“Find answers to Africa’s rural agricultural problems”

ARC is a way to use global collaboration to solve endemic agricultural issues across the continent. They focused the project on two main groups. First, Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived in the rural areas and who have a good understanding of what is going on at the village level as they lived there for two years. The second is the Afrian diaspora living around the world.

The $20k grand prize winner is actually here in the room, Jacky Foo with his “The Ndekero Challenge: A Systems Approach for Rabbit Keeping by a Rural Community in Partnership with a Commercial Rabbit Farm”.

The ARC project is built on Wegora, a tool that’s part blogging, commenting and voting. It’s built specifically for use by communities and collaboration amongst them. It’s really well designed platform and I’d expect to see it used by a lot of other organizations in the future.

Low Tech Social Networking at Africa Gathering Nairobi

We’re currently running through a workshop on collaboration (Low-tech social networking), where we write down our “big dream” and the steps we need to get there. Others in the room can then come up and offer help on what can be done to make it happen.

Kenya Airways

Rose Ohingo and Ann Muthui (who’s in charge of the social networking side of customer service) are here to talk about how Kenya Airways has created an online presence and a social networking strategy. They are here to talk about how the airline is using social media networks like twitter to attract new business and keep in touch with it’s client base to great success.

Look for Kenya Airways on Twitter at @KenyaAirways, on YouTube and Facebook.

What have we learned about “being out there“?

First off, people are surprised and impressed to find Kenya Airways interacting with them on social networks where they are online. Where they build relationships with people on a personal basis. People try to verify if it really is a KQ representative, and then they dig even deeper trying to find the names of the people behind the account(s).

Kenya Airways stats on Twitter

Using analytics, Kenya Airways really tries to understand who is following them and who is interacting with them online. It turns out that 17% of their Twitter followers are travel guides, they have almost 2200+ followers, and their greatest growth has been 26% in the month of December (more stats).

“It’s a human face that they’ve never seen. They ask about jobs and how it is to work for KQ. They want to have a look inside the company.”

Marketing on social media has been very successful, case-in-point was the KQ tweet on the ability to use Mpesa to pay for flights using mobile phones.

Access Kenya

Kris Senanu is here representing Access Kenya, one of the countries largest ISPs, which services the corporate market. Kris will be talking about: “Fibre – the dawn of a new era”.

Kris Senanu of Access Kenya

In 1995 Kris was graduating out of college, and the fastest internet connection you could get was 9.6kb and you needed a phone line – at that time there were only about 210,000 working phone lines, most within Nairobi and Mombasa. If it was raining, you had even less of a chance getting online. Times have changed.

Ultimately, the world is now flat, now that we have fibre in Kenya – we can compete and connect at a global level in ways we could never do before. Job creation and lifestyles will change as knowledge workers, who are needed in the new economy, now have access to the same level of connectivity as anyone in else in the world. Africa would have followed Europe and the West by going towards eCommerce – we have the ability to leapfrog that and go straight to mCommerce. We have the ability to do transactions that you would have spent a long time doing before, getting in 2 hour long lines and dealing with city traffic, just withour mobile phones.

Technology is a key enabler and facilitator for our transformation in Africa.

I agreed with Kris about the technology gap decreasing. I asked him if the challenge wasn’t any longer a technological one, is it a cultural one? Is it an issue of Africans using technology in a way that truly makes them equal on the global level – on time, reliability, quality?

Kris had a brilliant answer, starting with Kenya having a culture of excusability, where peopel always have an excuse for why things are late or shoddy. He then went into the difference between “Matatu-time” vs “train-time”. The train leaves at 8:05 on the dot, if you’re not on it by that time, your loss. Matatu-time leaves at 8-ish – time isn’t as important. This cultural understanding of time is an area where there is a gap that might be the biggest issue between Africa and the rest of the world.

On Customer Service
Juliana aksed, “How does Access Kenya deal with customer service and support when there are high expectations in the market?”

Kris goes on to talk about the way Access Kenya grew from being a company that dealt with corporate clients. They would rather pass up business than deal with consumers. Now however, they found that they had excess bandwidth, especially in the evenings – so they decided to create a consumer-focused service. This hasn’t worked out so well. Kris fell on his sword, stating that they are trying to improve their consumer services, but they are no where near where they need to be and are trying to make it better, trying to make it as good as their corporate services.

Essential Africa

Jimmy Gitonga & Juliet Mukunga are here to talk about Essential Africa, an African search engine, portal, and free web directory with comprehensive listings covering all African countries on one single virtual platform.

Jimmy tells us how in Africa, there’s not normal street names or directories for things. In Africa, you need a guy. As in, “I know a guy…” who can help you as you’re trying to find something.

An example, you’re trying to plan a trip across Africa on a bicycle, how do you know where to stop, eat, sleep and visit? There is no directory. There is no content.

This is why they created Essential Africa, a way for people to get a free African listing. He gets an address, map directions, contact number, and a description and a URL to the company’s website.

“Everyone thinks that we’re philanthropic. No, we’re not blue-eyed like that. We make money off of the eyeballs and the advertising.” – Jimmy Gitonga

I Know a Guy...

Essential Africa has been at it for two years. They started with spidering the web (with limited success) and then getting people to start entering their own information. It’s been a long road, but they’ve started to gather a lot of information, a lot of listings for organizations and small businesses who have never been on the internet at all.

They are hoping to be the African “human” search engine. It’s built for computer and mobile devices, covering all African countries on one single virtual comprehensive platform. They’re hoping to be the gateway for Africans and the friends of Africa who are visiting.


Christine Ogonji is here as one of the newest members of Movirtu. They are creating a way for poor people to share a phone, but not a phone number. They target services to the bottom of the pyramid, for profit – the classic “do well by doing good”.

Out of 3.4 billion people in the world who have a handset and a SIM card, 1 billion only have a SIM card, but no phone. Their income is $1-2 per day, but they spend 5-30% of their income on mobile communications.

Here’s a video about Movirtu, and why it’s a product that could make a big difference in Africa:

Funding for Movirtu has come from Gray Chost Ventures and Grassroots Business Fund.

Right now Christine says that Movirtu is looking to provide an Mpesa-like account for people using the virtual phone numbers. The name for this service is MXPay, and is going to have mobile money integration with a regular account and one time use. Distribution of monies or acceptance of payment from specific people below the poverty line who do now own a phone or a SIM card.

They’re targeting their first 1 million customers in 2010.

The End

A big thanks to Ed Scotcher and team for today. Tomorrow is the big “open” day here at the British Council. Get here by 9AM if you want to get a seat.

Announcing the TED Senior Fellowships

It all started with a TED Fellowship to Arusha, Tanzania in 2007, and today it’s a great honor to be selected as one of the inaugural 20 TED Senior Fellows, especially as it’s in the company of people that I know and respect greatly. It’s also neat to see that 25% of us represent Africa (in bold below), no doubt a nod to the African roots of the TED Fellowship program.

Joshua Wanyama, Sheila Ochugboju and myself at the TED Talks viewing in Nairobi earlier this year.

Joshua Wanyama, Sheila Ochugboju and myself at the TED Talks viewing in Nairobi earlier this year.

The TED Fellows program brings together extraordinary individuals who are working on an eclectic group of projects and programs, or are building organizations and companies that are changing the world. Our role as TED Senior Fellows will be to mentor the newer Fellows, help with TEDx events in our communities, post on the TED Fellows blog, and continued year-round participation in the TED community.

The greatest benefit to being a TED Senior Fellow is being able to attend five additional TED conferences (TED and TEDGlobal), participating in five Senior Fellows pre-conferences, the potential to deliver a full-length talk on the TED University or main TED stage, and the possibility to have that talk posted on TED.com.

That’s a lot, but maybe the greatest advantage this type of opportunity provides is the chance to be part of the TED community on a long-term basis. Something that’s hard for those of us who are doing interesting things, but don’t necessarily have the resources to spend on getting to multiple TED conferences.

Check out the TED Fellows site if you’re interested in becoming a Fellow, or want to know more about the program. The TED Fellows blog is also a good source of eclectic information from people doing amazing things around the world.

My TED Senior Fellow colleagues:

  • Taghi Amirani (Iran/UK) – Documentary filmmaker, Amirani Films
  • Rachel Armstrong (UK) – Teaching fellow, The Bartlett School of Architecture; physician; science-fiction author
  • Frederick Balagadde (Uganda/US) – Research scientist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; co-inventor of the microchemostat, a medical diagnostic chip
  • April Karen Baptiste (Trinidad) – Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Colgate University
  • Faisal Chohan (Pakistan) – CEO, Cogilent Solutions; founder, Brightspyre, Pakistan’s largest online job portal
  • Colleen Flanigan (US) – Fine artist; stop-motion armaturist, coral reef restoration expert
  • Gabriella Gómez-Mont (Mexico) – Founder, Tóxico Cultura, a Mexico City-based artistic think tank
  • Jonathan Gosier (US/Uganda) – Founder, Appfrica, a business incubator in Kampala
  • Peter Haas (US/Haiti/Guatemala) – Founder, Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG)
  • Erik Hersman(Kenya) – Co-founder, Ushahidi; blogger, AfriGadget and White African
  • Adrian Hong (US/North Korea/South Korea) – Director, The Pegasus Project; former director, Liberty in North Korea
  • Juliette LaMontagne (US) – Education consultant; innovation facilitator
  • Alexander MacDonald (US) – Economist, NASA Ames Research Center
  • Juliana Machado-Ferreira (Brazil) – Biologist, SOS FAUNA; PhD candidate, Sao Paulo University
  • VK Madhavan (India) – Executive Director, Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (Chirag)
  • Naomi Natale (Italy/US) – Founder, One Million Bones, a large-scale social activism art installation
  • Bola Olabisi (Nigeria/UK) – Founder, Global Women Inventors and Innovators Network (GWIIN)
  • Alexander Petroff (US/Democratic Republic of the Congo) – Founder, Working Villages International
  • Juliana Rotich (Kenya/US) – Co-founder, Ushahidi; blogger, Afromusing and Global Voices
  • Mohammad Tauheed (Bangladesh) – Architect; founder, ArchSociety

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.”

Maker Faire: Africa

Maker Faire Africa (MFA) is a new event celebrating the innovation, ingenuity and invention within Africa – happening August 13-15 of this year in Accra, Ghana.

Maker Faire Africa in Ghana

We came at this event from a specific angle – we mixed the types of individuals who show up on AfriGadget and Timbuktu Chronicles, and the ethos of the greater MAKE community, all with the blessings of the good folks at Maker Faire. The dates were chosen to coincide with Amy Smith’s and MIT’s International Development and Design Summit (IDDS), which will run for 3 weeks before MFA, also in Ghana.

As Emeka puts it:

The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations, inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated, etc. Maker Faire Africa asks the question, “What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix?”

How You can Support MFA

get a Maker Faire Africa badge!First off, help spread the word! Let people know where and when it will be. Share the link to the site, grab a badge, blog it.

Second, help us find sponsors. If you know an organization or individual who would like to support this amazing event, put us in touch with them. It could be monetary, or it could be donating some cool gadgets, gear, tools or devices for people to hack on while there. (example idea: we’d love to get some LEGO Mindstorm kits for the local high schools).

Third, come. If you have the time and ability, we’d love to have you, your ideas and your gadgets at MFA.

The Team

In my role as founder of AfriGadget, I’m part of the organizing team to put together Maker Faire Africa, joined by my an excellent group of people including:

Want to get involved yourself? Get in touch!

Thoughts and Talks at web4dev

I’m in New York City for the next few days at the web4dev conference taking place at UNICEF. I’ll be speaking tomorrow on Ushahidi and using technology for monitoring and evaluation. I got in a little late, so I’m only throwing up some of this afternoon’s notes.

Clay Shirky is leading this session, of whom most know I’m a big fan of his book. My favorite quote:

“Access to information is such an abstraction, but mainly what people use communications platforms for is for communication, which everyone seems so surprised about.”

Participation vs Information

Steve Vosloo, a Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa leads off this afternoon’s discussion around the importance of access to participation, not access to information. He’s not saying that access to information, especially in an African context isn’t necessary, but that when there is a network of participation, it is much more powerful.

Steve asked, “are we a participatory culture (in Africa)?” Yes, we are. It just looks different. It’s mobile and it’s light, low-tech and works in ways that those with a Western paradigm find it hard to grasp. Nothing new, but different: cheaper, easier, faster, more visible and has the potential for more people to be included.

The Challenges in Rural Africa

Grant Cambridge, of Digital Doorway, makes tough, rugged computer terminals for rural Africa. He spends a great deal of his time talking about the reality of doing tech work in rural Africa, not the fantasies talked about in the gilded halls of the West (like here in the UN…). 🙂

Some takeaways.

On internet and computers:

  • Virtually no access to computers
  • Limited access to knowledge and information
  • Where a child’s potential to learn is directly proportional to the knowledge of the teacher
  • Many people have never typed their names on a keyboard
  • Where the edge of your world is as far as you can walk in a day

On mobiles:

  • Reasonably widespread due to prepaid approach
  • Seen as a status symbol
  • People walking up to 3 miles several times per week to recharge the battery
  • Users sometimes forgo basic necessities and skip meals to maintain the phone
  • In rural communities, resources are diverted to purchase airtime

On challenges:

  • Exposure to technology is limited
  • Hard to get parts, things break way out there. Servicing.
  • Information literacy and computer literacy
  • Connectivity: cost, bandwidth, theft of copper & optical fibres, vast distances
  • Robust solutions for harsh environmental conditions and vandals
  • Cost (affordable, local manufacture)
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