Archives For Data

Cherae Robinson

This past weekend I attended Diaspora Demo Day, the inaugural startup competition organized by the people at TipHub and held at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.. The day was not without its hiccups but for a first-time event really exceeded my expectations.

As the name implies, Diaspora Demo Day is an event where the best companies founded by Africans or targeting Africa are invited to pitch their concepts to an audience of attendees and esteemed judges (which included myself). Oddly, the judges didn’t judge anything, the audience choose the ‘winners’, we were there just to offer our opinion’s and advice on each companies presentation and business model. However, as the founder of The Appfrica Fund, the trip helped me survey new investment opportunities.

Overall, I was impressed by the quality of pitches but three really stood out when rated on three criteria: the organization of the deck, their ability to succinctly explain their business, and the viability of their business. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Hello Tractor

Description – A company that combines software with hardware to build affordable ‘smart tractors’ that they sell to small scale farmers in rural parts of Nigeria (and later the rest of Africa). I like to call them ‘the Tesla of tractors’.

Opportunity – As pointed out in the majority of the African continent is touched by the agricultural sector. This is huge market and getting even bigger as more of the world comes to depend upon Africa’s exports.

Risks – What business are these guys in? Are they making and selling hardware or software? Are they in the business of financing farming equipment or selling to third-parties who can handle distribution? I think the fact that they (seemingly) are trying to do it all is a huge potential risk for the company.

2. Tastemakers Africa*

Description – TSTMKRS Africa is like Jetsetter.com meets Lonely Planet meets Conde Nast. It focuses on style and exclusivity. Travel in Africa has been done to death, but a focus on luxury experiences and hip nightlife in Africa (Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically) feels fresh and timely.

Opportunity – The African continent has some 300 million people rapidly ascending into the middle class which means expendable income and free time. Where will they spend that money? They increasingly don’t want to live like their parents and grandparents who came from rural parts, rather they want to live the lives portrayed in shows like An African City or any number of Western pop culture shows and music videos. Likewise, millennials around the world do not travel like their parents. They want to meet people, have a great time clubbing (no matter where they are on the planet), and enjoy the finer things. My prediction is that African countries become the home of the world’s next *must* visit travel destinations…because, well, have you been to Europe lately?

Risks – Although travel trends are rapidly changing, public perception and bias against the African continent (and its people) is a much tougher enemy to conquer. Tastemakers biggest risk is that it’s too early to market and that the world may not be ready for that penthouse vacation suite in Kenya for another 20 years.

3. Afritrade

Description – Like Scottrade for the Nigerian stock market. Buy, sell, and manage a portfolio of listed Nigerian companies.

Opportunity – Of the 22 stock exchanges on the continent, the Nigerian Stock Exchange is one of the most vibrant and attractive. By focusing on Nigeria first, Afritrade have ensured that they have both demand for their product and a healthy supply of inventory (attractive stocks) to sell.

Risks – Afritrade is in a great space. Africa’s private equity markets are screaming for more efficiency, transparency and accessibility. However, it’s going to be a long haul to get there. Right now users of their product have to essentially be savvy investors in the NSE already. They need a broker, they need to do their own due-diligence, they need to have navigated the countries regulatory framework etc. If AfriTrade can figure out how to make all of this “push button” simple then they are a clear winner with a huge advantage. If they can’t there’s still an opportunity to be a niche product for savvy investors.


* I’m currently an advisor to, and a potential investor in, Tastemakers Africa. Other portfolio companies in attendance were Market Atlas (via my other fund) and Upstream Analytics (which couldn’t make the event).

Diaspora Demo Day

Statfrica Africa Research Trends

A portal for learning, sharing and discovering more about Africa.

Over the years we’ve collected more data about Africa than we can hope to ever use as one company. However, we know from meeting many other companies, NGOs, schools, investors and others that there is a huge amount of demand for all things Africa. The problem most of these groups have is not that they can’t find information, but that things are changing so rapidly, they can’t find up-to-date information. Usually articles are three to five years old. Its also hard to find information on topics that is immediately applicable like information on contemporary African social entrepreneurs, consumer behavior, and research around trends that haven’t quite caught the attention of corporates global research firms.

With Statfrica we’re making of our incredible amounts of research on these subjects available to all, for free!

Open Courseware, Open Research, Open Data

Perhaps the biggest opportunity though, is to change how classrooms teach Africa to students. I recently spoke at an international business school where much of the knowledge being offered about Africa was from the 80s and 90s, when the most recent text books were published. There was little information about contemporary phenomena like the growing strength of ‘south-south’ trade (from developing nation to developing nation).

The other problem we noticed was that corporations, universities, bloggers, entrepreneurs etc. were spending their time collecting the same information over-and-over again for different purposes. This is an incredible waste of time and while there are options for hiring firms to do this kind of research for you, it can be unbelievably expensive — obviously not a solution for students, smaller non-profits, or young entrepreneurs.

Many Options

For professional analysts and universities, all of our material is available in a way that is modification friendly. We realized that it was rare to find files that can be completely remixed or modified so that they fit within a lesson. With Statfrica Pro, subscribers can download the raw files used to make each presentation in multiple formats (.pptx, .key, .pdf, .html, .ai, .psd). This gives you 100% control over what you use or don’t use in a classroom, boardroom, or conference presentation. There’s also a lot of supplemental material that isn’t available at the free rate.

Take an infographic like the one above and remix it completely!

Interested in a free or paid subscription? Check out pricing here.

By opening up our research repository, we hope to create a community that’s more aware of Africa, and an Africa that’s more aware of itself. In fact, we like to use the tagline “Africa’s Quantified Self”!

For updates specifically related to our research initiatives, please follow us @statfrica on Twitter or visit statfrica.com.

United Nations

Appfrica is excited to be participating in the United Nation’s Innovation Fair next week in Geneva, Switzerland.

The United Nations will organize an Innovation Fair during the Annual Ministerial Review (AMR) at the High-level segment of the annual substantive session of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which will be devoted to “Science, technology and innovation (STI), and the potential of culture, for promoting sustainable development and achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)”. The primary objective of the Fair is to showcase innovative practices, approaches and projects in science, technology, innovation and culture from around the world.

Objectives of the Fair

The Innovation Fair will contribute to the objectives of the 2013 AMR, in particular, by:

  1. Sharing innovative products and projects in the area of STI and culture for promoting global and sustainable development;
  2. Demonstrating the strong links between STI and the potential of culture for promoting sustainable development and achieving the MDGs;
  3. Encouraging interaction among participants taking part in the Fair and Member States, which could possibly lead to the replication and scaling up of successful projects and encourage the creation of partnerships; and
  4. Promoting broad multi-stakeholder engagement in the work of the Council.

Link – http://www.un.org/en/ecosoc//innovfair2013/about.shtml

We’re honored to be the recipients of the Knight Foundation’s generous support for our new Abayima initiative! The press this morning has been fantastic as well [Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4].

But what is Abayima? In a post this morning on the Abayima Blog, I recounted the history of the project:

The Abayima project began back in 2011 with frustration. The Ugandan presidential elections were coming up and people were both excited to make their voices heard, but fearful that what was becoming a heated debate between candidates would turn to something worse. Regardless of where they placed the blame, or which candidate they targeted their ire at, citizens were talking.

In Africa, the most widely accessible form of long distance communication is SMS. In fact, this year the World Bank predicts that mobile penetration will reach 80% across the continent by the end of March. The specific numbers vary up and down per country, but the trend remains the same, Africa is a mobile-first (and some would argue ‘mobile only‘) continent.

Uganda is no different, its citizens utilize mobile networks for paying for goods, researching sports scores, ordering food, checking medical records etc. But the number one use-case for mobile SMS is to simply communicate.

During the days leading up to the election if one were to send a message expressing dislike for the President, the messages strangely never reached their targets. Activist and NGO friends of mine took to Facebook to complain about the mobile networks being slow, only to see that their friends and colleagues were complaining about the same. Only it seemed that most messages were in fact just fine, it was only the ones with a political tone that were ‘lost’. We soon realized what we thought was a typical network problem might be something more deliberate.

As the anxiety of the public grew, journalists both local to the country and abroad began to investigate. Was this a systematic attempt to silence citizen protest? Even worse, it seemed that not only were political messages being blocked, but political messages from the sitting party were being broadcast! “Vote for the guy in the hat” the messages read. Out of context that may not make sense, but if you walked the streets of Kampala on February 2011, they were littered with pamphlets branding the visage of Yoweri Museveni wearing what looked like a cowboy hat.

Kampala (Uganda) - Museveni Propaganda

Meanwhile, a friend of mine who shall remain nameless wanted to send this message, “Chase the guy out of power!” but the message kept failing. He’d call his friend shortly after sending it to them and they hadn’t received it. So instead, as a test, he sent this message instead: “chs gy ut ov pwr!” He called his friend back. This time it had gone through. There seemed to be some sort of monitoring system in place that targeted keywords related to the elections or violence. If an SMS contained words like ‘power’, ‘dictator’, or ‘bullet’, the message was intercepted by the mobile network who would normally just forward them on to their intended recipients.

It wasn’t long before the international and local press discovered what was going on. From a local news outlet, February 18, 2011:

A quick test sending sms messages with the banned words revealed that indeed some of the messages were blocked. Or they just did not go through as is sometimes the case in Uganda.

According to an an internal email , SMS messages with words like “dictator”, “egypt”, “mubarak”, “police”, “bullet”, “Ben Ali” and “people power” will be blocked.

We sent an SMS from an Orange line to an Airtel number and an MTN number with this text: “Favourite movies: The Great Dictator, Police Academy and Bullet with Steve McQueen”. The message did not go through.

As a software developer, when faced with a challenge, my first impulse is to figure out if there is, in fact, a software solution to the problem. If there is, and it’s the best solution, I start thinking of ways to do something about it.

The problem was that something shady was going on with the mobile network millions rely upon as their only means of communication. It’s understandable that the Uganda government would want to suppress messages that might be perceived as calls for violence or that otherwise incited the public, but the exercise illustrated to me just how vulnerable mobile networks were to attack in other scenarios where perhaps the intent is more malicious.

In countries like Egypt, Libya, and Syria the world has witnessed the mass disruption of communication channels. ‘Internet black-outs’ have become a weapon in the war between citizen and state. In our increasingly connected world, this represents a disturbing trend.

Internet Blackouts

There are few solutions that truly ‘circumvent’ mobile networks in such scenarios. A few have attempted mesh-bluetooth networks, hyper-local wifi networks, and even ad-hoc GSM towers. We’re rooting for all those technologies, but we also recognized that more might be possible. After all, feature phones (also known as ‘dumb phones’) don’t have wifi or bluetooth capabilities. And though the cost of smart phones has plummeted in the past few years, the cost of data has not. At least not proportionate to the income of the majority of working individuals in developing countries.

So I asked myself how might it be possible to leverage feature phones as a platform for resilient communication during times of crisis, natural disaster, or power outages. SMS wasn’t the solution, it was part of the problem. When the networks went down, the ability to send messages also went with it. Or did it?

knight.003

It occurred to me that SIM cards are as ubiquitous as mobile phones themselves. SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module. Ss the name implies, the technology is used to decouple the phone from the networks that want to serve it. If I place an AT&T SIM in my phone, my phone identifies itself as being ready to use the MTN network; if I change the SIM, I change the network my phone is communicating with. In fact, it’s quite common in developing countries that users swap SIMs frequently to take advantage of the cheapest rates individual networks offer at different times.

So what if the SIM itself became the carrier of content? Sure, you’d lose the ability to instantly communicate with almost the entire planet at the touch of the button, but assuming the networks are down, you’ve lost that anyways. What you gain is the ability to discreetly store and share information on these SIM Cards and use it to distribute information on a very local level. So we began developing Open SIM Kit, an open source solution for writing content to SIM cards.

There are indeed quite a few constraints, the carrying capacity of a SIM is something like 164kbs where we usually talk about modern digital content in Mbs. They are also incredibly difficult to program with most of the SDKs being propretary and kept out of the hands of the general public.

So, for the past two years, I’ve gone back and forth on the idea, working on the project off and on with collaborators who more or less are still involved. This SIM hacking project evolved to become known as Open SIM Kit.

Open SIM Kit

But this is just where Abayima starts. SIM Kit has many other commercial purposes than the scenario described above, as does the open source version. Activists and journalists have many other needs than simply being able to store content to SIM cards and malicious actors have many other ways of suppressing citizen voices. Abayima was established as a constant provider of solutions for problems where communication networks become a barrier.

We’re excited to have received early support of the Knight Foundation and IndigoTrust as with out them this would have been far more difficult endeavor to pursue.

Jonathan Gosier, founder of Appfrica speaks about examples of good mobile technology initiatives in Africa at Fill the Gap 9 in NEMO, Amsterdam. Moving ‘beyond the mobile hype’ requires asking different questions about what we do and what we’re trying to accomplish. Moving forward we should consider not just the effects of technology projects but its affects across society.

References Ushahidi, Apps4Africa, Appfrica, Question Box, African top-level domains and nurturing future African talent.

The slides are below…

In the American and European tech space there’s a growing problem. There’s so much funding available for early stage startups that everyone and their college dropout buddy is starting-up, leaving no one out there to hire.

It’s one of those first world problems: “We just raised 4 million dollars for our social network for redheads but we can’t find any developers…frowny face.”

If Silicon Valley is having trouble hiring top tech talent, then it means that there’s also a drought in the NGO space. Even the biggest non-profits are suffering from the same lack of technical resources.

If you’re an African developer, this is a huge opportunity. Focus on acquiring (or maturing) some of the following skills. Talent in these areas is elusive even in the U.S. and Europe, being good at them will make you far more employable (or fundable if you want to start a company), globally as well as locally:

For Technical People

  • Ruby on Rails A lot of web startups use RoR because it’s a great language and it also impresses investors. However, they quickly realize that it impresses because Rails developers regularly command high salaries due to such high demand.
  • Python and or Django The Jan Brady to Ruby’s Macia. Actually, Python is probably more in demand these days simply because more developers are competent in it. It’s also great for mobile app development which makes it useful for all those SMS apps local firms are dying to build.
  • iOS – the iPhone continues to dominate the smart phone arena. It’s less relevant if you’re targeting a local audience (there go with Android or stick with Java), but if you are building apps that you want to sell internationally then there’s no app store with a richer economy for developers than Apple’s.
  • Data visualization All that ‘open data’ out there is irrelevant. What’s relevant is data that can be used by anyone at any organization, with minimal fuss. Visualization makes it easy to relate complex datasets to those too busy (or too lazy) to analyze them. Data vis goes beyond any specific programing language, but it is a skill and it’s one that Africans can find a great deal of opportunity in.
  • Math/Statistics Before one can visualize anything they need the components to visualize. If you’ve got a strong grasp of statistics and analysis, distilling information so that it’s actionable for others (who usually don’t share this skill) is a highly lucrative path to pursue.
  • Semantic Analysis Despite what everyone thought, the semantic web is here to stay. It hasn’t become a ‘new web’ like some once thought it might, but semantic technologies (sentiment analysis, natural language processing, text parsing) have become the methods that are routinely used to power some of the web’s most popular applications. These skills are incredibly lucrative. The growth of the ‘Big Data’ industry is fueled by them.
  • NoSQL & NewSQL Modern web apps require a great deal of backend engineering to deal with and keep track of all the byproducts of social, sharing, and content creation. There’s two schools of thoughts on this: one is that by doing more of the work on the application side (on request), applications can scale faster while handling more operations from more users. That’s the non-relational approach. The other school of thought is that there was nothing wrong with the old way of doing things, which stores data with the values the application uses for retrieving them later. The challenge was that this created a bottleneck at the database level which often lead to slow or stagnant apps. The new thinking around NewSQL is to keep the relational model and simply build better database software that allows for more throughput. Entire companies are being built of each type of database (see: Cloudera, Vertica, 10Gen), pick the one that makes sense for you. Also, this is the fuel for the Big Data/Open Data rocket ship.
  • jQuery/Javascript/Ajax Modern web apps do most of their processing on the front-end. As I mention above, this often means the application side is where most of the logic for the web app lives, while the database becomes a place to store and retrieve. For these types of web apps, front end logic is critical. Given the rise of the Jquery framework this is probably obvious, yet solid front-end developers are few and far between.
  • Hardware Engineering The ‘maker’ movement amplified by Afrigadget and Maker Faire Africa highlights another opportunity on the continent, the localization of manufacturing. Whether it’s bicycles or mobile devices, companies local to the continent that design and build things are scarce.

For Less Technical People

  • Design Look at the majority of African websites. Most websites made by African developers still look like they were made in 1999 using the GeoCities default templates (translation: Fugly). Blegh. There is a bounty out for good African designers. The mistake a lot of programmers make is they assume design is about technical know-how. It’s not – it’s about a sense of aesthetic and attention to detail. If you are a lazy designer, you’re not a designer. If you are a programmer who thinks design is superfluous to your application, then you’re doing it wrong. There’s also a dearth of design talent in the U.S. and Europe and a good designer can command the salary of a top programmer. Where are the African designers?
  • Writing You would be surprised at the number of people who can’t string together a well-written, cohesive, consistant thought in written form. Coupled with the rapid proliferation of social media (which, by the way, consists of mostly written messaging) the ability to write and write well has become incredibly important. I say this because you are not at a disadvantage if you are a non-native speaker. Example: Ariana Huffington is a non-native english speaker and she built a highly influential and powerful new media outlet that rivals old-school powerhouses like CNN and FOX on the web. It’s about being able to convey your thoughts cohesively and convincingly. It takes practice, so keep blogging!
  • Project Management Being the person who can cultivate the best traits from your team of peers is a huge asset that has always been rare. Many people manage, few excel at it.
  • Videography – We’ve all heard that there isn’t enough local content being produced for African audiences. One of the reasons is the lack of local producers. However, this is changing. More countries are becoming home to an African creative class who are producing film, television, and web shows locally. Can this be lucrative? I think so. As bandwidth falls in cost, eventually the demand for local content may not come from international viewers but the pan-African audience.
  • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving Deductive reasoning. The ability to deduce conclusions and the reasons why they have occurred. To do this, you have to be able to consider all sides and all aspects of a problem…even the ones that you don’t like. You have to be able to challenge assumptions, this includes your own. It is a skill to be able to analyze the intricacies of why things happen or if someone’s argument isn’t grounded in reality, and to be able to explain your conclusions to others. This will make you a better anything.

There are companies all over the world looking to hire people with aptitude in these areas, but being in Africa puts you in a position of power because there will be as great a demand for you at home as there is abroad. Does this mean you’d have to relocate to another country? Not necessarily, many of these skills can be outsourced to you or your company.

In 2012 learn the things that are in demand so you can build firms (or offer services) that capitalize on these global trends.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Maawy & Apps4Africa.org

Last week at Tech4Africa in Johannesburg I gave a short talk. It was meant to be much longer but I got confused on how much time I had, so apologies to the T4A people. Anyways, the topic of the presentation was “The 5 Most Disruptive Innovations I’ve Seen” and it discusses industries and concepts which are rapidly changing in the wake of new technology.

// The Future

The first of these themes is ‘the future’ itself. To be exact, predictive technologies that are being used to improve decision making.

“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” – William Gibson

This is a favorite quote of mine.  It sums up so much about the post-60’s world we live in. Why the 60’s? Because that was the last time, as far as I can tell (because I wasn’t alive then), that man’s wildest dreams were more sci-fi than reality.  In 1960, even astronauts still dreamed of one day walking on the moon like it was a fantasy. By 1970 it was history. But I digress…

I want to update this quote to read…

“The future is here…and you can buy it!” – me.

What we’re talking about is predictive technologies.  Algorithms that take massive amounts of historic data and analyze it for trends that can be projected outwards.  This is not new science, it’s statistics, but it’s statistics when applied to prediction that is the exploding business.

How effective are predictive technologies?  Well, if you want to see this type of technology in action, go to Google.com right now.  Activate Google Instant and type one or two letters, Google will offer suggestions based upon previous searches by all the people using their search engine and what they type after those two letters. This increases Google’s ability to make an educated guess about what you will type next.

There’s real science behind all of this. It’s not magic. It only works so well, but it does work.

So the future is available for sale from a few companies. To mention a few…Recorded Futures, Palantir, PAX.

Recorded Futures is a good example. They offer their ‘future’ as a service. That’s right, The Future is for sale as a restful API! You can use this API to get your future hand delivered as JSON or XML for the low price of $150 a month! Power your app with the future!

All kidding aside, how is this relevant to Africa?

Well, I can tell you as someone who’s company does work for Governments, Defense contractors, NGOs large and small, these technologies are in use to try to enhance decision making. These predictive technologies are being used all over the continent. To predict conflict & uprisings, crime, the affects of climate change…it goes on and on.  To decide where to spend budgets, enact military action, where to distribute medical resources.

The CDC has been in the business of predicting the future for decades. For them, spotting an outbreak before it spreads is essential.  More and more businesses from marketers, to law enforcement, to medical facilities have grown to appreciate these methodologies.

Heritage Provider Network is offering a $3 million dollar prize to any team who can develop an algorithm that can accurately detect within a year, using only patient and public data, when a patient will need to return to a medical facility.  It’s like the Netflix Prize for medicine.

This is all fascinating, but what happens when prediction goes wrong?

Right now, in Italy, six scientists (seismologists) and one elected official are on trial for not being able to sufficiently predict the future. You read that correctly.

Given their resources, their expertise, and sufficient historic data, the expectation is that something more could, or should, have been done to protect the public from a wrong.  That’s the precedent being set here. It’s not good enough to be an expert, you also now have to be a genie.

If this sounds strangely like the premise of the Minority Report, then you would be correct.  Again, this is William Gibson’s future that we’re living in.

// Data 

The future of data is in everyday things. Networked Objects. Internet of Things. Nanotechnology. These are all names for this type of innovation.

It is important to note: information exists, and has always existed everywhere. Atoms, molecules, DNA…these are all types of information.  What’s changing is our ability to imprint human generated data into the everyday objects around us, and to extract that information using technology.

Medic Mobile from Frontline:SMS aims to be able to allow patients to be photographed using mobile phones, using those photos for the basis of remote diagnosis.  Right now this is a manual process, with actual doctors trying to make diagnoses, but one day this might be done by matching incoming photos with a database of  pre-existing photos. When this becomes a mostly algorithmic process for diagnosing ailments, we’ve arrived at an incredible future.

So being able to extract meaning from every day objects using devices, that’s the future of data.

There’s groups here who are working on it. CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) has researchers in South Africa exploring the Internet of Things.

But this, too, comes at with huge price.  The easier it is to do things for good with these technologies, the easier, and more tempting it becomes to do harm.

There will come a day at some point in the future (and it’s arguably already here) that genocide could come at the click of a button.  A group of people who aren’t liked could be annihilated with the ease of tapping backspace. Parents will soon be able to go to a medical facility and request more or less of certain types of gene in their children. These are great advancements in technology that can equally become disturbing examples of innovating our way to atrocity.

// Diplomacy

Diplomacy is being disrupted as well.

Even the crudest of technologies is being used to reshape the way government works, both positively and negatively.

Ushahidi is an example of a positive disruption.  In essence, it’s a way to collect information from the public, and put it on a map.  But, as I’ve frequently said, the innovation isn’t the technology. The innovation of Ushahidi lies in the fact that anyone, no matter how amateurish or well-trained, has access to the same tools as professionals.  More importantly, those tools can then be used to deliver services more effectively than the people who are traditionally expected to.

That’s the disruption, service delivery that bypasses Government organizations and Non-Government Organizations, and to be frank, makes them look silly by being faster, more efficient, and scalable.

This type of disruption puts pressure on governments to engage the public, less they appear to be ineffective.  This represents a good exchange.  Positive disruption.

Besides, when governments have too much authority, they tend to ignore public demands.  When the public have too much authority, it leads to anarchy, or they self-organize into communities which later require governing.

The current trend is in what I call equalizing disruption, tech or methods that undermine the power of government authority. The Ushahidis of the world, the WikiLeaks, the Anonymous groups.  In different ways, each of these has out-maneuvered the power or ability of government to exert power.

This doesn’t always play out reluctantly.

Last year the U.S. Department of State began sponsoring an innovation contest where they rewarded African innovators for solving local problems. They have no interest in owning IP, recruiting these individuals, or engaging them in any other way.  They simply wanted to experiment with new ways of reaching out to countries and people.

This competition, Apps4Africa, is one example of a new type of diplomacy.

// Education

In Uganda, Benge Solomon King is teaching basic and advanced robotics to youth across the country – in urban centers and in remote villages. What’s fascinating about Solomon is that he’s entirely self-taught, learning from tutorials and instruction from the internet.

This isn’t rural California where there are a number of places even the poorest will have available to learn (libraries, public schools, experienced adults). This is someone who learned basic electronics, programing, circuitry, and engineering in what is essentially a vacuum.

In Malawi, William Kamkwamba built an electricity producing windmill by reverse engineering its construction from a photograph.

In Nigeria, Muhammed Abdullahi builds working helicopters from scrap metal, with no prior knowledge of aviation or access to resources.

What do all these three stories have in common?  They may well be example of genius on display, randomly spread across the world.  But, I actually think what’s occurring is evidence of how education is broken, and three individuals who circumvented this broken system. Some of the aforementioned individuals have gone on to study engineering formally, but lacking formal education didn’t prevent them from learning in the first place.

It’s clear that the organizations we’ve put in place to deliver a service (education) are ineffective, perhaps even failed.  Replicating this Western model of education in Africa hasn’t scaled beyond urban capitals and is highly ineffective where it has. These individuals may represent what the alternative looks like.

Khan Academy, Kiip, Teach for America…all of these programs have arisen to patch holes in a broken system in the United States, some completely flipping the old education model on its head. Thus, self-instruction, open courseware, and remote video instruction are the technologies that seem to be winning the future of education.

// Disparity

Finally, we can look at the present, and we can look at the past, and with no special prediction technology, conclude that the future will be grossly unequal.

We have to be cautious that we aren’t building a future where the aforementioned technologies and others aren’t only available only to the highest classes of society.

In “A Cultural Thought Experiment”, a post from blogger Charlie Stross, he argues that if and when interplanetary space travel and colonization become a possibility, it will only be a possibility for the wealthiest among us.  In other words, the future will be awesome if you’re in the right class.  Much like the 14th Century being fantastic if you were royalty in Europe.

The people who discovered new lands hundreds of years ago, the explorers that shaped the modern world, were also either rich or had rich financiers.  The future will be as defined by disparity as the present is, and the past was.

Charlie Stross is not being paranoid in the least. If you have a spare $350,000 to $1 million lying around you can go to space tomorrow.

It goes without saying that if there is a race to get tourists to space, it will likely echo the rate at which countries were able to get to space in the first place. If that’s true, then African countries would be among the last to go – they ever went at all.

So as I conclude, I want us all to think about the future.  Let’s make our own predictions so that we can correct for mistakes yet to be made.  Let’s strive to make it trend towards the positive. For all of these innovations and disruptions have great implications…as well as implications for great evil.  This is our future in the making and it’s we who will decide how, and if, it’s evenly distributed.

For the past several months I’ve been working on a project for moving data around when there’s no internet.  I talked a bit about this at the Power of Information conference earlier this year in London, but I thought I’d share more here.

Abayima applies cold war tactics to mobile data storage and distribution.

Abayima targets anyone living in oppressive, restrictive, societies around the globe. It was inspired by the information networks during the most recent Uganda elections and the Arab Spring — both situations where electronic communication networks were compromised (or complete shutdown) by authorities.

As a strategy it will work in any country where there are low-end mobile phones, the most accessible communication technology on the planet. As a technology, it works for groups who wish to disseminate messages discretely in a way that mimics one of the oldest forms of communication,  pen and paper.

The History

Two recent events inspired the development of Abayima. In 2011 the internet in Egypt was shut off, preventing activists and dissidents from communicating with each other or the outside world. A few months later, in Uganda, during the reelection campaign for President Yoweri Museveni, the mobile carriers were compromised and monitored for voices of dissent. This allowed for the filtering of text messages that were deemed unacceptable, while the same networks were used to spread electronic propaganda in the form of SMS and MMS messages to the public.

As a Strategy

This conversation shaping using communication technologies for propaganda echoes the intimidation and propaganda techniques used by the German and Soviet governments during World War II and by many other oppressive governments since.  Anyone with two phones and a sim can do this right now but to do it more efficiently we’ll be developing an application to support this type of message storage.

Abayima is largely a strategy for moving messages sans telecom infrastructure. It’s also a toolkit which assumes electronic communication via internet or mobile carrier has been compromised completely and allows activists and journalists to use the SIM cards themselves to publish or distribute information freely.

As a Product

Rather than rely upon high-tech infrastructure, Abayima relies upon centuries old information networks inspired by the Jewish resistance, the underground slave escape routes in the United States, Navajo code talkers, the war scouts of Sparta etc. There is a long lineage of using no or low technical means of encryption to protect sensitive information.

As a technology Abayima is a way of storing information on SIM chips which can then be placed in a mobile phone on the other end to be read.

Examples:

  • A journalist writes several sensitive details and stores them to a SIM that isn’t used for texting, but to share the message with only a designated party whom they would hand deliver it to. Because the SIM isn’t used for calls, the only way to intercept the message is physically.
  • A group of activists could send messages between two locations using a ‘runner’. When the runner arrives he hands off the SIM which will contain messages for the recipient.
  • SIM cards are as ubiquitous as mobile phones and its generally understood how to use them across most populations. Thus, the SIM card itself could be a publishing/distribution mechanism for content of all types.
  • For advanced users with access to higher-end technology the messages could be written using a computer and our software, encrypted with software, and stored on the SIM. The receiver would need technology with a key to decrypt the message.  This adds a layer of protection against interception as it becomes necessary to crack the encryption algorithm first.

F.A.Q.

Why not use thumb drives?

Because thumb drives require two computers on either side, a level of infrastructure that exceeds the means of the poorest. The number of people with low end mobile phones, globally, far exceeds the number with access to computers.

Can’t these messages be intercepted?

Yes. Electronic communication like SMS can be ‘sniffed’ while passing through the air.  Paper with notes can be stolen.  People can be tortured to extract information.  There will always be a way to intercept communication.

That said, SIM cards are small, easy to destroy or swallow, and can’t be read without some sort of assistive device. Abayima (the product) can be used to encrypt whatever message is contained, adding another layer of protection.

Aren’t there better ways to distribute information?

Yes. This publishing method is more akin to pen and paper communication. By design, it is inefficient. But it’s highly practical if you have limited resources as it leverages local infrastructure. This is intended to be carried out in ‘last ditch’ scenarios where the more efficient methods of delivery like email, instant messaging, text messaging, VOIP or others have either been compromised by hackers, are being monitored by authorities, or completely disabled.  It’s a work around when the alternative is no long-distance communication at all.

What is a sneakernet? 

It refers to using your feet (sneakers) to move information around, particularly data storage devices. The implication is that though there are clearly other ways to access that information, the sneakernet is the fallback.

Visit the project at http://abayima.com


The environment is rich in phenomena that has been observed, analyzed, commoditized and, in many cases, exploited. But much like the precious mineral and natural gas resources of the continent, for local societies, the tools for extraction are sparse or absent. In this context we aren’t talking about refineries, we’re talking about the capacity to collect, understand, and manipulate statistics and quantitative research to build narratives that change behavior or encourage action.

Shanta Devarajan recently pointed out this ‘statistical tragedy’ of Africa:

To show that this is not an arcane point, consider the case of Ghana, which decided to update its GDP last year to the 1993 system. When they did so, they found that their GDP was 62 percent higher than previously thought. Ghana’s per capita GDP is now over $1,000, making it a middle-income country. The “tragedy” is that we were happily publishing GDP statistics and growth figures for Ghana over the last decades, when in fact the national accounts were understating GDP by 62 percent…. The tragedy is that donors, including the World Bank, undertake statistical activities without ensuring that they are consistent with the NSDS. Why? Because they need data for their own purpose—to publish reports—and this means getting it faster, with little time to strengthen the countries’ statistical capacity. But just as Africans turned around their growth tragedy, they can turn around their statistical tragedy.

It’s no secret that high-level skills in the areas of science, technology, and the maths are rare. This is inevitable in an environment with sparse resources for good education or in countries that have been too politically volatile for education to be possible. For instance, Liberia, where two generations essentially had no access to any sort of modern education due to civil war and ongoing conflict.

But if data is truly the new oil, then mining it, understanding it and building on it is essential to the continent’s future. How do we solve this problem? Education, for teaching basic and advanced maths are one necessity. Building more technical skills like programing is another. Open data initiatives, like the one launched in Kenya earlier this year, are also important. But the more critical need is to build capacity for the conceptual, abstract, and analytic disciplines made up all of these skills combined. This problem is being addressed by a growing number of institutions like the African Leadership Academy.

Where these skills already exist, it’s also necessary to help to surface and distribute the results to the international community. From the Database of African Theses and Dissertations (DATAD):

For many reasons, African research results are rarely indexed in major international databases, a problem that is further exacerbated by the inaccessibility of theses and dissertations completed in the region, many of which contain local empirical data that is not available in international literature. This inability to learn about and access African material is frustrating to students and scholars–both on the continent and overseas.

That said, there are a lot of great resources for quantitative research and analysis related to African countries. Most of them from international NGOs, local governments, or passionate foreigners (like myself), as well as resources like Afrographique, OAfrica, The World Bank, and too many open data initiatives to list here. Hopefully, these resources and others are serving to help build capacity for Africa to craft its own data narratives…refineries for new oil.

Photo Credit: Jon