Archives For Technology

A few months ago I cam across a fascinating study by Daniel Evans and Dr. Charles Thomas, two researchers at The Network Science Center at West Point. They set out to undertake one of the more ambitious studies of the business space in Africa, a network mapping study about who the key players in each market and how the influence or affect one another. Why? To quantify the entrepreneurial network in such a way that the analysis provides concrete policy recommendations.

The results tend to look something like this, where each node represents different key players or actors in the respective entrepreneurial spaces of each hub or country:

West Point Africa Research

The trip was several months long, taking them to various countries and innovation hubs all over the continent and the results are fascinating. A description from the authors themselves from their first paper “Who do you know?” Developing and Analyzing Entrepreneur Networks:

Our research goal is to quantify the entrepreneurial network in such a way that the analysis provides concrete policy recommendations. Our Center has experimented with several data collection methodologies and we have developed an innovative yet simple technique that allows us to develop quantifiable entrepreneur networks. Our innovation is not to develop each individual entrepreneur’s network but to understand the entire entrepreneurial network of the community in which the entrepreneur lives and operates. In order to develop this model, we have adapted a technique used in sociology to measure social capital called the Position Generator (Lin & Dumin,1986; Lin et al, 2001). This technique circumvents the massive effort of mapping an individual’s social network before locating the social resources in it. By approaching the entrepreneur’s network through the analysis of his connections to prominent structural positions in the community or society, researchers are able to construct measures that obtain information on the strength of ties and structural holes (Lin, 2001).

Dan Evans has been doign a fantastic job blogging his research over at the WestPoint blog but gave us permission to make his work available through our open data portal, Statfrica.  The first of three of their papers are now available for download here.  They are:

  • “Who do you know?”- Developing and Analyzing Entrepreneur Networks
  • Quantifying Entrepreneurial Networks: Data Collection in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • Network Science Center Research Team’s Visit to Kampala, Uganda Daniel Evans and Dr. Charles Thomas

Each paper is supported by even more in-depth supplemental material at his blog.  For instiance here, here, here, here, and here…there’s way to much to link to so I encourage those of you who are data-driven to dow your own digging to find out some of of their fascinating discoveries. These papers are freely available here and elsewhere but please contact the authors for citations, references, or future publishing.

We’ll post follow up research of our own based on these papers in the coming months.

Download Network Analysis of Africa’s Tech Hubs and Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

For more details on these particular studies, contact: Network Science Center at West Point | http://www.netscience.usma.edu

Next week 40 of Africa’s finest startups will descend upon Nairobi, Kenya for the second annual DEMO Africa 2013. DEMO Africa has quickly risen to become the must-attend event for investors, entrepreneurs, tech media and others looking for Africa’s “next big thing”.

On Wednesday, October 23, we here at Appfrica and our partners at VC4Africa are hosting an invitation-only investor reception. If you’re an investor interested in early stage companies coming from emerging markets I encourage you to contact either our team or ben@vc4Africa.com to see if there are slots left. We couldn’t be more excited to be working with the V4Africa team who have truly pioneered a platform that I can only describe as ‘the AngelList’ of Africa!

What’s the purpose of the reception? Ben described it best on his blogpost earlier today:

Part of this year’s activities will include special networking events for investors. This is in the continued effort to foster a culture of investing in innovative early stage companies that have the potential to become Pan African if not global success stories. In addition to well known firms like Intel Capital, Jacana Partners, eVentures Africa, Fanisi Capital and The Blue Mirror Fund, there will be a growing number of ‘new breed’ angel investors mixing in the crowd. Take for example Jerome Kisting, the backer of Kenyan based m-Kazi, or Pule Taukobong, an investor in 7 companies including Wabona and Enzi. These individuals represent an emerging class of investor now coming up across the continent. They provide a critical link for entrepreneurs looking to break rank and they offer entrepreneurs much more than their cash, often sharing critical insights and a rolodex of valuable contacts entrepreneurs would struggle to gain access to otherwise.

Entrepreneurs from across the continent who are in attendance who might be interested in our own Apps4Africa Acceleration program, are encouraged to look for Appfrica staff onsite at DEMO where they’ll be scouting. In case you want know what goes on at DEMO, check out this mini-documentary which our team shot last year called Inside DEMO Africa 2012. You can find similar video at cheetahcode.com

We extend a special thanks to our friends at DEMO Africa, Lions@frica, the U.S. Department of State and AfriLabs for their support of another awesome event!

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida about the changing business landscape of Africa the opportunities that exist on the continent. I shared about the general market trends of the African continent as well as specific examples from the tech sector, from startups to companies worth over $100 million that are still Africa based and African owned. The slides I used can be downloaded from Statfrica.com or here on Slideshare.

For those looking for information on Africa’s internet penetration, visit the deck below…

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.

I was extremely humbled to be invited and proud to participate in the British Airways Ungrounded flight from SFO to LHR. It was certainly the craziest 11 hours I’ve ever spent above the Atlantic Ocean.

The UnGrounded concept began as a partnership between the United Kingdom Trade and Investment council, British Airways, the G8 Summit and IDEO. The goal was to spend the 11 hour flight brainstorming about how to encourage the pursuit of STEM careers in emerging markets. Obviously, quite relevant to Appfrica given our role in accelerating the growth of Africa’s technology sector.

British Airways UnGrounded Flight

The participants literally spent the entire 11 hour flight running up and down the plane, scribbling down their ideas on how to address increasing women participation in STEM careers, STEM in emerging markets, Western companies and their relationship with talent in emerging markets, and STEM in education. The end result was around 20 ideas for companies and projects that can address these issues that were presented to attendees at the G8 Summit.

British Airways Ungrounded

How did the UnGrounded flight come about?

Participants were nominated by global technology leaders in both Silicon Valley and London, with primary input from the UnGrounded advisory board. The advisory board is made up of senior representation from RocketSpace, Silicon Valley Bank, Andreessen Horowitz, Stanford University and Innovation Endeavors. All participants have been hand-selected to participate based on their experience and passion for driving the acceleration of innovation within developed and emerging communities across the world.

Upon landing, the ideas and solutions created on the flight were received by the United Nations ITU Secretary General at the DNA Summit, in association with the G8 Innovation Conference, in London.

You can find out more at ungroundedthinking.com

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.

Jon Gosier (Founder, Appfrica & MetaLayer) talks about why data needs to be open and how to make it more accesible to non-technical users.

In Uganda, no one can hear you scream…..at your computer while waiting for a file to download or a video to buffer. Fortunately, there are number of reasons these frustrations may soon be a constraint of the past.

On Saturday I spent the afternoon with Thibaud Weick, CCO, and Mark Pritchard, Head of Sales & Marketing of Smile Communications (U) Ltd. Smile is one of few organizations bringing super-fast internet connectivity to Africa’s urban centers and rural areas. There are a number of things that Smile is doing very different to other mobile operators in the region that make them a company to watch in the coming years.

smile

Their LTE technology is new to the continent, having only been deployed in two other African countries to date. Thus, their launch in Uganda earlier this year puts the country on the bleeding edge of innovation when it comes consumer accessible mobile telecom solutions. Because LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology works over long distances, Smile is keen to service rural African markets as well, not just the densely populated urban markets.

The Smile Communication Uganda headquarters in the Bukoto area is an unassuming campus, located just around the corner from the local Nakumatt grocery store. It’s easy to forget you’re visiting a telecom company, that is, until you enter their data center.

smile

One of the advantages Smile has over their competitors is that their infrastructure is new, optimized for LTE from end-to-end. This is vastly different from the incumbents in the market who, more often than not, have to maintain legacy GSM equipment in addition to any new systems they wish to deploy. This makes deploying new technologies like LTE much more cumbersome and expensive for them, one of the many reasons innovation with local telecom infrastructure may appear to have stagnated.

At Smile, their data center is compact, small enough to fit in a mid-sized bedroom. If the team there ever wants to expand, and realistically only utilizes about a third of the room it’s contained in, so there is plenty of room for expansion.

network

The Smile team performed a test on my behalf downloading 35 gigs of the RACHEL courseware repository. Download speeds peaked at 17mbps by averaged at closer to 4mbps. The team assures me that this was during peak hours (2pm on a Saturday) and that during non-peak hours the speeds increase dramatically (for instance, at night).

The most exciting thing about Smile is their commitment to driving the local market forward instead of simply maintaining the standard.

Cheetah Trailer 45 from Jon Gos on Vimeo.

Why aren’t there more of a focus in books or film, about African innovations in business?

Not about its colonial history, its artists and musicians, its Dictators and tribes, its poverty and wars, its animals and wildlife…but work simply about doing business in Africa?

That was the question I asked myself before undertaking THE CHEETAH CODE. After spending several years living and working in the continent, it dawned on me that there were few resources available to those interested in doing business in, or with, the continent.

THE CHEETAH CODE is the culmination of several years of research in my time as a technologist, small investor, and activist. The book is about Africa’s young creative class, its expanding technical capacity, and entrepreneurs.

It is not a about philanthropy, poverty, or scapegoating foreign corporations. It is about contemporary business, economics, societal trends, and technology that happens to be told from the African perspective. It will be made available as a documentary film, and book.

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If you find the above concept compelling, you can help make this project a reality by backing it on KickStarter.com! Those of you interested in the project who live abroad, email me privately at j.gosier@appfrica.org

BACK THE CHEETAH CODE

Barbara Birungi

Barbara Birungi, Director of Uganda’s innovation hub HiveColab, wrote this great piece for the BBC last week…

I believe that when you educate a woman, you educate a nation – because that one woman will share what she has learnt with other women and pass it on to the generations below hers.

This is why it’s so important that women are taught how to integrate technology into their businesses if the businesswomen of the future are to follow suit.

Women in Africa are taking to business in a big way, and playing a crucial part in the economic development of their countries

Read The Article