Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: technology (page 2 of 3)

Quick Hits Around African Tech

Africa’s mobile industry needs to re-invent itself to meet tomorrow’s challenges
Another great zinger from Russell Southwood’s Balancing Act on the state of the mobile industry across Africa and what needs to change.

“Furthermore, although the shift to data puts a spring in the step of most mobile executives, the shift to an interest in services and apps has the potential to marginalise them as “dumb pipe” operators. The new generation of OS operators (Blackberry, iPhone, Android and others) are offering services and apps in a way that the mobile operators failed to do.”

Desert discs: How mobile phones are at the root of Saharan music.
Christopher Kirkley went to Mali to make field recordings, but returned with a mixtape of music taken from Saharan Sim cards.

African Facebook stats, by Country:

“Only 1.7% of Africans are on Facebook, but since there is only 10.9% Internet penetration, we see that 15.9% of African Internet users are on Facebook.”

Kenyan Internet users woo businesses to Twitter and Facebook

“According to the research, Kenya is ahead of its peers in East Africa in social networking with an average consumer spending atleast 6.5 hours per week, followed by Tanzania — 1.6 hours per week — and Uganda 1.5 hours per week.”

Reflections with Michael Joseph in his last week as CEO of Safaricom:
(Video 1, Video 2)

Reflections with Michael Joseph from Al Kags on Vimeo.

Wrong model. Wrong place.
Ken Banks discusses the challenges of normal business models in the ICT4D and M4D space.

The Future of Mobile in Africa:
A great deck by Rudy de Waele, from his talk at Mobile Web Africa 2010.

More Than Just Call Centers: BPO in Kenya

There has been a lot of talk, especially in East Africa, about business process outsourcing (BPO) as a big way to elevate the technology field. The logic is that while many of these jobs might not be super high-tech (ie, programmers), they’re at least in the tech field thereby allowing people to get comfortable with computers and bringing outside investment into the country.

Kenya has a great number of qualified students leaving university each year that. Enrollment in 2008/09 (public, private, part-time) was 122,847, and my friend Bankelele estimates annual graduation at about 30,000.

Kenya’s BPO strategy is best summarized and detailed by Gathara (read more):

“The general thrust of the report is that coming late to the party, Kenya has no chance of becoming a Tier 1 provider; it lacks the scale to become a global player like India or the Philippines. So the suggestion is that she leverages her relatively small pool of cheap, accent-neutral English-speaking graduates, her strong ties to the US and UK (which together account for nearly 60% of the outsourcing market), improving infrastructure and an already thriving business environment, to create a niche for herself in basic sales and customer-care services and attract large international BPO companies.”

(also, read the Kenya ICT Board’s position on BPO)

It’s a sound business area to put resources into, especially if you’re a government entity focused on growing jobs and investing in seeing the technology sector grow. However, I’ve been troubled by the idea that it’s focused mainly on the KenCall-type outfits – basic call centers. It seems that there’s more opportunity here than this. Let’s not sell East Africa short as a low-cost, low-value BPO region, but look more closely at a strategy for attracting higher margin clients for services by highly qualified BPO firms locally.

Shifting the BPO Paradigm

Beyond cloning what India or the Philippines has done, can we rethink the outsourcing paradigm?

Nairobi, due to location, climate and a number of other reasons ends up being the hub of a lot of major corporations (Google, Microsoft, IBM, Nokia, etc), large non-profit organizations (UNEP, CARE, World Vision, Hivos, etc) and a host of medium-sized companies. These represent businesses with large amounts of revenue which is mostly injected from overseas. Why are their business processes being run out of expensive central offices in regions like the US and Europe?

Earlier this week I discussed this with Wiebe Boer of the Rockefeller Foundation in Kenya, who has given the Kenya ICT Board $500k to drive their BPO strategy. He worked on the original McKinsey team to architect the six pillars of economic growth underpinning Vision 2030, of which BOP was one (and the only one being acted upon currently).

He had some good ideas, stretching the understanding of the traditional BPO definition of East Africa, and leveraging bigger organizations to shift their non-core competency work to Kenya. Instead of just outsourcing customer service, think procurement, basic HR functionality, IT, monitoring and evaluation, and accounting.

Last week the NetHope meeting came to Nairobi, their list of member organizations is impressive as far a “big NGOs” go. They represent a lot of money and a lot of potential for business for BPOs here in Kenya. Their supporters are the likes of Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, CDW and Accenture. Together, both supporters and members represent a vast pool of organizations ripe for this expanded type of BPO.

Business opportunities for seasoned entrepreneurs abound. An example would be to build a strong firm that could focus on a couple of the non-traditional outsourcing needs (think M&E and HR). Many corporations and organizations (internationally and locally) need this and don’t have the in-house capabilities to do it right. Groups like the Rockefeller Foundation are poised to pressure the groups that they support financially into using BPO companies in Kenya, so if real viable firm was available, cash flow would be less of a risk than in other enterprises.

An African Tech List on Twitter

A lot of people are on Twitter these days. So many, it seems that you can be overwhelmed by the number of people and it’s hard to find the right people to follow. To help with that, I’ve created a my own Twitter list that follows African Tech twitterers.

My plan is to keep this list pared down to only those who put out a good number of tweets regarding technology in Africa. I’ll be the biased curator, and hopefully it’ll be useful to others. This means that people will get dropped, and others added, from time-to-time. Don’t be offended if you’re not on it, it’s not personal, it’s just that I have to keep it small to be useful to others. Ping me if you think I should add someone.

You can get my curated African Tech Twitter list at http://twitter.com/whiteafrican/african-tech.

Here’s a widget with the list in it. You can get your own here, just enter “whiteafrican” and choose the “African Tech” list.

Other great Twitter lists:

Afritwit’s list of African twitterers (maxed out)
Alisdair’s development list
Sciculturalist’s Techies list
A list of Twitter employees
Tim O’Reilly’s Tech News list

Lastly, Listourious has a huge index of Twitter lists for you to peruse.

(You can always find me on Twitter at @WhiteAfrican)

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.]

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.”

A Job Board Aimed at African Devs and Designers

This week I launched a little side project: JOBS.whiteafrican.com I think of it as a place to connect freelancers and small teams with gigs and project work in the African tech sphere.

I’ve been getting a number of emails lately asking me connect people in the US, Europe or large organizations in Africa with local (as in “in-Africa”) talent. They’re usually interested in finding a knowledgeable designer, a good blogger or editor, and I’ve had quite a few people ask me to put them in touch with programmers.

The White African Job Board

At this time, it’s a simple and free place to post jobs for African technology professionals. So, what I’m really looking forward to seeing are opportunities listed specifically for people in Africa. That last bit is important, it’s for African devs, designers and bloggers.

A lot of these might be for short-term gigs and volunteer opportunities, but who knows… It’s a little bit of an experiment, so no promises on my part. If it proves popular and useful I’ll keep it around. Oh, I have the final say on what jobs go live too, so be forewarned. Think of me as the curator and friendly job board dictator… 🙂

Make sure you grab the news feed, so you don’t have to keep coming back to see what’s new. Take a look at the tips page – think about how you’ll deal with project scope, as well as how to pay, or be paid.

Real Job Boards Around Africa

Unlike my little project solely focused on technologists, there are some real job boards around the continent that are worth keeping in mind. Here are a couple of them (leave links others that I missed in the comments area):

Find a Job in Africa
Job Space – South Africa
Best Jobs – South Africa
Zebra Jobs
Sama Source – Outsourcing to Africa

Further Thoughts on Outsourcing Tech Work to Africa

It’s an encouraging sign that there are a lot of people interested in finding local African talent. What I’ve found in my travels, and in talking to technologists around the continent, is that though there are more devs and designers each year, the number of top quality ones available for work are few.

One cautionary piece of advice though… and it pains me to say this. A few of the African developers that I have come across are not time-conscious and they can come across like their client/project is not as important to them as you would find in their counterparts in the West. Of course, this means if you are timely and fulfill your responsibilities you will find clients lined up 10 deep to get to you – you’re a rare commodity.

African developers are quickly going to learn that they’re on the global stage now, and there’s nothing stopping their clients from switching to someone more reliable, even if it’s a country or continent away.

The good news is that of the many devs I’ve met, many are as good as any you’ll find anywhere else in the world. A few of them are on par with the best I’ve come across anywhere.

A related initiative

There is also an initiative called Coded in Country focused on getting programming work done within the countries that the applications and products are meant for. Keep an eye on it, and pitch in as/where you can.

New SMS Services in Uganda from Grameen, Google & MTN

Grameen Foundation’s AppLab has released a new suite of mobile phone applications developed in Uganda, using Google SMS Search and in partnership with MTN Uganda as the mobile operator. The services include:

  • Farmer’s Friend: a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts
  • Health Tips: provides sexual and reproductive health information
  • Clinic Finder: helps locate nearby health clinics and their services
  • Google Trader: matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products. Local buyers and sellers, such as small-holder farmers, are able to broaden their trading networks and reduce their transaction costs. (known locally as “Akatale SMS”)

Caterpillar Question - Grameen, MTN and Google team up in UgandaBack in 2004 Grameen started to replicate in Uganda what they had done in Bangladesh with their Village Phone Operators. That is, they would go 20km beyond the best phone signal and provide a loan to a lady in the village that would let her buy a phone and an antenna that would extend the range of the network. The lady would then resell services to local individuals who didn’t have access, or the ability to buy their own phone.

I’m actually quite impressed with this initiative, as it fits in perfectly with Grameen’s mission: providing opportunity through the most basic of mobile phones. All of these services work on SMS-only phones, so anyone with a single bar of coverage and a phone has access to a lot of knowledge in their hands.

Here is a promo video from Uganda, explaining why these services are needed:

High-powered Partnerships

Beyond the applications themselves, what I find most compelling is how the Grameen Foundation collected such a high-powered group of partners. The list reads like a who’s-who of innovative mobile services and development in Africa with Google, MTN Uganda, Technoserve, Kiwanja.net, and BRODSI to name a few. It’s a mixture of for-profit businesses, local NGOs and non-profit tech organizations.

I remember a conversation a couple months back with Sian Townsend (Google) and Ken Banks (FrontlineSMS) about how they did the field studies for this project. Sian shared with us some of her research on mobile user experience while in Uganda – it was extensive. Through a month of rapid prototyping and studying how users were actually using the new services, the team quickly learned what was important and how to better serve information up to the end-user.

Though I haven’t been able to personally test the services yet, with this group, I would expect the results to be better than average. For instance, Google doesn’t tend to get involved with ideas that don’t scale. I imagine that they see replicability with both SMS Search and Google Trader in many other countries as well. Rachel Payne, the country manager for Google in Uganda, has a blog post here, but not much more information on the long-term plans for Google Trader. I’d be interested in seeing how this compares to Esoko out of Ghana.


Map and Stats for Africa’s Undersea Internet Cables

Steve Song has put together a great interactive map that helps you visualize what undersea internet cables go where in Africa. There’s also a helpful table of statistics and data on each of the cables. Head on over to his site and check it out.

A map of Africas undersea internet cables

More on the history of this project.

Village Billboards and a National Classifieds System

Last year I had a good long conversation with Zach Lutische, a Kenyan with a big idea. It all started with this comment:

“There was a time that I went all the way to Nairobi, only to find out that what I needed was only 1 kilometer away from my farm in Eldoret.”

Zach is soft spoken, but ambitious and energetic. He splits his time between reading the Kenyan tech email lists and time upcountry in his village. He was really excited about putting up a network of rural billboards around Kenya, using them as a way to gather and create a nexus point for community information.

Zach Matere Lutische

In our day, and being technologists, we sometimes forget that simple and non-digital is still the norm in most of the world. This is especially true in rural Africa. Which is what makes Zach’s concept so intriguing. What he wants to do is marry the worlds of non-technical rural Africa with that of modernized urban Africa.

The Concept

Anyone in the village can put up a notice, news or advertisement on a village billboard by going through a site manager, who would probably be the same person that runs the local mobile phone booth (Simu ya Jamii). Depending upon the size and length of time the notice would be on the billboard, the person would pay between 10/= to 100/= Kenyan Shillings ($.12 to $1.20).

There are a lot of ways these village boards could be used, many outside of what we can think of right now, but here are some ideas for example users:

  • Mr. Njuguna has a potato plot and it will harvest approximately 50 bags in August. He runs an advertisement in June on the community billboard and find a buyer in advance.
  • A local photographer can advertise and be contacted via the message board.
  • City-based companies can go directly farmers and/or sellers in local communities, and be aware of the inventory months in advance.
  • Land for sale (with pictures).
  • Every village has a market day, the billboard makes it easier for village-based buyers to work with sellers in outlying areas.

A Network of Rural Village Billboards

As village billboards start working for the local community, they can branch out to connect to other villages in the area. News and advertisements can then start showing up on billboards beyond a single village, providing more reach to those who are willing to pay.

Zach and I spent some time drawing out and discussing what a pilot program might look like, using his rural community as the testing grounds. We took into account the villages, mapped out their relative locations to each other, their market days and the approximate number of people in each village.

Village Billboard Diagram

It turns out that each billboard would cost about between $40 and $150 to build, depending upon materials available locally, and on what additions were made – like a small roof to keep rain off of the board.

Augmenting the Rural Billboard with Technology

The above section can stand alone as a business concept. However, where it gets interesting to people like me is in how you take these village billboards and create a powerful melding of the offline and online/mobile worlds that is our present day Africa. This is where the insights and experiences of a rurally raised Kenyan, living in the city and taking part in technology discussions is irreplaceable.

Since the site manager would generally be the person running the local village phone booth, there is the opportunity to sell message space on billboards in other towns, using the mobile information pathways open by these operators. Once you have that network of site managers, you have the beginnings of some very interesting things.

For one, you can now connect these billboard operators locally, regionally and nationally. The ability for end users to both put up advertising and find goods and services is available via digital format or analog. It’s not a big jump to see a nationwide classifieds system growing organically, stitched together by mobile and web services.

Already we see newspapers, like Star, in Kenya taking free classifieds via SMS. What happens when we create a nationwide billboard and mobile phone classifieds network?

Star Newspaper in Kenya - SMS classifieds

Final Thoughts

Africans tend to not be singular. They like to act as a community, so singular actions on mobile phones are less likely than the community coming together around a notice board. So, where mobile phones act as communications between individuals, the notice board serves as communication medium between groups. So, notice boards are the nexus, augmented by the mobile phone.

I think this concept could not only work, but could become something really big. I say that with one caveat. This needs to be done by Kenyans, not some outside entity. The local communities need to be the ones who decide to create and build their own billboards. They need to value it and own it themselves.

The network needs to grow organically from the grassroots up. Not all communities will take to it or support it in the long run, however those that do and find that it makes their lives easier and adds to their lives will pass the word on to other nearby communities, and it will grow. Once a network of community-supported village billboards are up and going, you have the groundwork made for lasting change and a means to build other digitally-connecting services on top of it.

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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