Slides from my talk at Yale University to current Fellows of the White House’s Young African Leaders Initiative.
Archives For Technology
The UN Global Compact Conference, held on June 9 + 10, 2014, convened 300 public and private sector players from across the continent to facilitate knowledge sharing for local, regional and continental planning. The organizers did a great job in accomplishing something that is no small feat, bringing together U.N. agencies, NGOs and various companies from the private sector (such as consulting firms, BoP technical assistants and regional financial institutions) to discuss ways to come together to discuss the problems facing small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) in Africa.
The setting was the rather impressive: The UN Economic Council on Africa building is housed just minutes away from the Palace. The building, like much of the city of Addis, was partly under renovation, but that did nothing to take away from the feeling I had once we stepped onto the grounds: the people who worked there meant business. In fact, Addis Ababa is home to other convening bodies in Africa like The African Development Bank and the African Union. The city’s air of power, influence and rebirth is evident by the people who live and work there. And for the first time, The UN Global Compact decided to have their conference in the very place where it mattered the most: on the continent.
It was great to see so many different players committed to exploring how we can strengthen public-private partnerships. As I see it, there are two distinct challenges that have to be overcome to deepen the impact of these discussions.
The Main Challenges
First, we need to be clear about the specific ways our organizations want to support economic development, whether a company or organization has specific country, regional, or Pan-African goal they are trying to accomplish. The goals of a company like Coca-Cola has around investing in a local business will look very different than a local UNDP office trying to bring more services to local entrepreneurs. The question then to ask ourselves and our colleagues is: exactly how do we want to impact the communities we serve? Where are we lacking? How can we partner with an organization that has had success to close our gap? How can we pool resources together to accomplish a single mission?
Second, we need to have the mindset of open and inclusive knowledge sharing with local experts. To accomplish this we need to find more robust ways of working together to create environments to which foster economic growth and equitable opportunities.
Supporting Technology Hubs, Long Term
There were two panels I spoke on. The first was about strengthening public-private partnerships to support SMEs. One of my big points, was that we need a coalition of public and private supporters to pool resources to support entrepreneurship and training hubs. I am convinced this is one of the most overlooked ways to drive economic growth AND job development for youth.
What could this look like?
Think of what could be done if, similar to the Virgin Entrepreneur labs, multinationals committed $20 million USD to fund technology hubs that provide skills and training for youth? With $100,000 committed to each hub, say, in the AfriLabs Network, this could mean 3 years of organizational support for over 60 similar hubs across the continent, with $2 million to spare for a yearly convening event and small M+E team.
There are nearly 100 innovation hubs in Africa most of which are struggling to survive. I’ve spoken with many their managers who share the same concerns and struggles, lack of finance opportunities and their inability to come up with sustainable models. Their fears are often the same: “How many more months can we keep our doors open and provide consistent programming for our communities?”
If a public-private consortium came together with a larger operational grant, similar to but on a larger scale as Hivos and Indigo Trust’s recent TECH HUB INITIATIVE, we could scale up opportunities for youth to have consistent access to vibrant innovation hubs where staff salaries, internet connectivity, and space is stable.
Tech Hub sustainability will rely on committed partners, mentors and managers to determine what services they can provide their market that will add value to local businesses. This doesn’t mean renting desks or holding events. It means harnessing the power of the tech developers and organizers within the hub to provide expertise that companies are lacking. Until those gaps are filled, tech hubs will have a difficult time staying alive.
Strengthen Intellectual Property (IP) resources across the continent
For the second panel discussion, WIPO hosted a trip outside the city to the rather impressive Oromia Coffee Cooperative, where the Ethiopian organization has successfully licensed the use of coffee for the world market. As most of you may know, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. The Oromia team welcomed us with a facilities tour, special coffee ceremony and presentation about the growth of the cooperative and how their model has helped increased economic growth for the region as well as health and training services for the workers (most of those in the factory were women).
The market for coffee globally is massive and it’s Ethiopia’s primary export. Ron’s team assisted the Ethiopian government in receiving a fair share of that profit, and getting fair trade coffee retailers such as Green Mountain Coffee and Starbucks to agree to paying Ethiopian exporters for these licenses. My other panelist, Ilmari Soininen from Sanaa Consulting, spoke on the importance of these type of IP initiatives in strengthening trade relations on the continent.
From a technology perspective, I spoke about registering and protecting the IP of young African entrepreneurs- something that WIPO is keen to work on in the coming years. The point here is, if technologists can’t protect their IP, then they cannot reap the type of success and growth that their American and European counterparts have.
As we concluded the conference, there was a strong feeling of commitment to work together to create the type of equitable and stable environment for economic development that other regions have enjoyed.
It’s up to us keep working to make this happen.
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:
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.
For more details on these particular studies, contact: Network Science Center at West Point | http://www.netscience.usma.edu
Nairobi is home to the promised silicon savannah. Far from the 3-dimensional fly-throughs of the future technology park Konza City, we find a technology collective of a different kind side along North eastern Nairobi. Amidst the dusky haze over Kenya’s capital city a sunset makes way for twilight and nightfall.
The city’s newest thoroughfare, the Thika Superhighway, comes to life with streetlights and headlamps zooming to and from the outskirts and the burgeoning suburbs of Nairobi County. Beside the highway at the Safari Park Hotel and Casino, sundowners are mixed poolside. Investors, founders, writers and entrepreneurs exchange pleasantries after two chock-full days of pitches, launches and exchanges. DEMO Africa 2013 is over but the real work is only beginning.
Unpacking the previous two days is not merely a matter of reading through the program and evaluating each company and their presence on-and-off stage. Though it must be said that off-stage is where the bulk of the interactions took place. The DEMO Pit at the Jambo Conference Center was a constant corridor of backlit keyboards, keypads and keystrokes as the finalists took the benefit of time and close proximity to demonstrate their products. The ramifications of the two days this past October, now with the added benefit of the hype and media cycle slowing down, leave us with plenty to ponder.
Let’s look at 10 lessons we can take from DEMO Africa 2013 as we seek to understand trends and insights for the new year ahead.
1. The Changing Face of Tech Financing In Africa
The 40 finalists represented all corners of the continent. The benefit of reviewing the asks of each of the companies gives us context of comparing for any similarities or differences to their predecessors in 2012. Consequently, the categories and ranges of sums of investment proved similarities. Those finalists that chose to explicitly declare how much funding they had raised and what they were searching for ranged between $30,000 and $10,000,000.
When it came to the finalists, the majority were in the bootstrapping phase having involved seed capital by means of savings and personal investments. Interestingly, a fraction of them choosing to match this with grants and taking on venture funding to scale. In the cases where the lines between enterprise and social enterprise become less distinct we find some foundations and non-profit institutions taking to giving grants or in some cases investments for the pilot phase. OTGPlaya, RemoteCycle, Fairwaves, Duma among others being some examples of this trend.
This combination of grant funding and angel investing marks a key point in the African entrepreneur journey. Navigating the challenges of sources of capital and the philosophical questions around committing for a pilot/proof of concept to be non-profit in this discovery phase and transitioning to for-profit or sustainable enterprise soon after. Whether this raises some issues around transparency of intent along the startup’s life cycle remains to be seen. How much institutional investors get clarity on the source of original funding and any legal consequences for them is another question begging to be explored.
Questions around crowdfunding on the African subcontinent are also still pending in this discussion. This would be accelerated by mobile money’s advancement in key economies. Its maturity in Kenya and growth in Nigeria not to mention the mobile network operators aiming to turn the idea of Pan-African mobile money service into more than a gimmick. Is there is room for a Kickstarter of (and for?) Africa just yet or is our ambition better met out by a Kenyan/Nigerian/South African alternative of which there are several contenders?
2. Ushering in the Second Age of the African Technology Hub
Hubs, labs and accelerators across the continent have picked up over the last 3 years. From the iHub in Nairobi, ActivSpaces in Cameroon and Bantalabs among the first ones to well over 100 now all across the continent according to the famed Africa Hubs map by the team at Bongohive in Lusaka.
2014 will be a big test in the model for Nairobi specifically as the dynamics that play in the ecosystem of generating startups and cultivating entrepreneurs becomes clearer. DEMO was an opportunity to look to see any correlations between the finalists and the respective rise of technology hubs in a host of African cities. Though hard to draw a conclusive causal case for the technology hubs from the finalists, ties were evident with the use of space, connections and dissemination of information to the startups.
3. Art of the Start: Pan-African Ambition vs. World Ambition on an African Stage
Kwame Nkrumah said “Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation.” And yet the ambition for today’s African technology startups has been something questioned time and time again. Despite borders, language and geography amongst the list of complexities, there’s the assurances the internet and the mobile phone continue to make in a case for “digital PanAfricanism” and adding a currency to the late Ghanaian leader’s words.
This year’s DEMO Africa gathering confirmed that startups still took the challenge of demonstrating success at a local and micro-level in the cities, townships and capitals seriously. Phrases and notable diagrams typical of today’s lean startup a part of the founders’ vocabulary. Nevertheless there were those who took to the internet to bring the next customer – whether behind an iPad in Honolulu or by a chalet in the Swiss Alps. There was Zehoo getting into cloud computing by serving up a single search engine for one’s different cloud storage of e-mail, documents and attachments. GMobile’s look at the Kenyan Diaspora and their propensity for calling the continent connected with their remittances meant he’d uncovered a strong value proposition for connecting them and their loved ones at a fraction of the price of competing services.
2014′s African tech startup will need to look deep and wide, wrestling with questions of locality and perhaps hyperlocality with solving problems in cyberspace that could lead to a multitude of Africans signing up and signing in.
4. Social Media in Africa – less Snapchat, more Salesforce?
MXit has long been one of the continent’s leading stories for social networking. The South African juggernaut of mobile and social pioneering an age of instant-messaging and growing in emerging economies across the world. A fantastic story complete with the garage and long-haired jean-wearing hustle days and the corporate boardroom takeovers of today. But as the likes of Facebook, Whatsapp and more global social and messaging convergence takes place, the face of social media and social networking adapts in Africa.
Facebook recently surpassed MXit in South Africa as their largest social network with 9,4m active users to MXit’s 7,4m. That said for the social-oriented startups at DEMO Africa 2013 it was interesting to pick up on them choosing to bring social into specific workplace and personal scenarios rather than creating an all-encompassing African social network. Notable examples being Eventtus with events, Jooist and ChopUp with games and Famissima for mothers and families. Each one taking on a set target audience and sure not to compete with Facebook which is fast taking over the continent as the social network of choice with close to 50 million on the social network today.
The next iteration of social startups on the continent are set to pick and attempt to dominate verticals: gaming, family, jobs, small business and television (as witnessed by DEMO Africa alumni Djoss.tv) among others.
5. Gaming, gaming wherefore art thou, gaming?
The past few years have seen a steady rise in sexy African gaming startups. The winner of Pivot East 2012 was Ma3Racer – a minibus taxi racing game. One of the big winners who went on to wow at DEMO after winning in the inaugural event last year was Nigeria’s Maliyo Games. This year as well at Pivot East, we saw that Uganda’s Kola Studios was one of the winners with their Matatu card game. And yet, with all this momentum in African gaming there wasn’t a single gaming company featured in the line-up of the 40.
Gaming was a part or extension of several of this year’s finalists present but no out-and-out gaming startup present. It may have been a phase but perhaps the leisure market and content including how long it takes to scale is seeing more startups go for those untested and uncharted waters more.
5. No e-commerce, a tell-tale sign?
E-commerce also didn’t feature this year. It’s been a busy year in the race to be the continent’s digital shop of choice. Whether you look at Jumia in West Africa, Rupu in East Africa and Kalahari from South Africa the amount of money being invested and growth rates for companies in e-commerce is enough to show big bets are being made. MIH Africa, Ringier and Rocket Internet taking each other to task as the race heats up. Looks like deep pockets count for a lot in this game too.
A large exit or significant liquidity event on the continent is still pending amidst much of the hype of the consumer technology potential. That’s not stopping some interesting news and activity to lead us to believe an African marketplace play will succeed – or a group of marketplace companies together. One Africa Media being an example of this could be set to be one of the ones to watch in 2014. For the DEMO companies, an exit via acqui-hire with Spark, MIH, Ringier, Rocket or other investors might not be a bad place to aim for.
The next year would be a good time to see the shift from the fight for the market to finding technology talent and see some M&A activity too.
6. The Diaspora: Talent, Audience and Finance
The African diaspora of 30.6m according to the Brookings Institute spread across the world sent over $51.8bn to Africa in 2010. The growth of “reaspora” through brain gain is another bonus. The affectionate term for members of the diaspora who are returning and getting into business, the marketplace and service in their home countries.
DEMO exhibited founders who could be categorised by this, having lived, worked and studied abroad and having returned to form ventures that made it to the finals. In other cases international citizens traversing the world ending up mixing global perspective and experience with their local counterparts’ insights to make for formidable teams. Eduze, Karibu Solar and Save and Buy among other examples of this.
The Diaspora also prove a strong potential audience with their affinity for technology and disposable income. They form part of ChamaSoft’s secondary audience attempting to bring transparency to savings clubs and groups – which often include members of the diaspora in their target market, Kenya.
7. Hardware made in Africa, For the World
One of the most interesting aspects from this year was in the hardware category. The mixing and matching of Africa’s challenges and needs with entrepreneurs who thought of hardware, software and variations of both made for interesting viewing.
Arguably the most eye-catching example of this was ViviFi. The Egyptian startup using their patented technology to turn any wall or surface into a touchscreen computer with the help of a WiFi connection. Their unique sticker technology means you could choose to switch off your lights by pressing a part of a brick wall or turning part of the wall into a screen to scroll through goods at a store. A myriad of applications in the real-world and with some of the continent’s limitations.
Fairwaves chose to democratise the telecommunications sector with low-cost base stations powered by open-source technology. By changing the audience from the large centralised telecoms companies to allowing smaller villages and municipalities to take their connectivity into their hands they open up a new business segment for themselves. Changing the price too meant innovating around minimal power consumption and building an architecture that sacrificed on sophistication but could connect much of the interior of the continent bringing in the first wave of GSM connectivity.
However, overcoming regulation for spectrum still presents a hurdle for them but it’s not an insurmountable one with the connections they made at the DEMO 2013. Also happens that this finalist had Russian founders, making technology for the continent and beyond.
8. Content is King – Delivery and Payment Remain the Empire
Africa’s next generation of content creators are born rising through the established channels – Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress and the web at large. However even for them to fully realise success there are a number of challenges around getting content in front of an audience that mean the value chain isn’t complete.
Content delivery is still a incomplete piece of the puzzle. Telecommunications companies are noticing the chance to rewrite the path they’re set on to derive value from content rather than ending up as defined in the “dumb pipe paradox.” While their own app stores, music marketplaces and mobile TV partnerships take place there’s still plenty of room for players to add value to a growing audience.
Eduze’s technology for example has seen them create hardware that incorporates a server, router and content delivery network in what they call CLOX or the cloud in a box. Giving a local connection to cached content they are aiming to bring an in-flight entertainment experience to taxis, locations and retail. With sponsored content as well as reimaginging broadcast and radio advertising for the digital age they hope to provide more accessible content and better value for brands to reach the connected audience.
Overall DEMO Africa 2013 proved through the startups present and by those absent that the African continent that 2014 is set to be a year of discovery, surprise and disruption. The best is yet to come and with the kind of ambition of the finalists and the 300 who were shortlisted, this won’t be the last we write of many of them.
Photo by Mutua Matheka.
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…
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.
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”!
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.
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.
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
By Mariéme Jamme, Apps4Africa Consultant
Each time I return from Africa, I have the feeling that progress is happening on the ground but something is missing. People are desperately and rightly demanding change.
During my visits to Kinshasa, Ghana and Senegal for the Apps4Africa 2012 Competition brainstorming sessions in particular, I witnessed from the innovators a real desire to innovate and have their voices heard. In Senegal, I met an African news team that produces AFRIQUEITNEWS, and Stephane Ndour, finalist of Startup Weekend, who created SAMAEVENT- the only online platform providing all the tools needed to register an event in Senegal. In Ghana, I met Allosyius Attah, founder of FARMERLINE and winner of Apps4Africa 2011, whose organisation provides a mobile and web-based system to furnish farmers and investors with relevant agro industry content to improve productivity and increase income. In Kinshasa, some upcoming, enthusiastic youth technologists showed me their new linux app, and discussed their desire to establish a tech hub where they can meet and innovate, something desperately needed in the DRC.
Therefore, I truly hope that the growing competitions and gatherings, such as Apps4Africa, Startup Weekend, Africa Gathering and BarCAMPS can give visibility and credibility to young African innovators and ultimately make them more profitable. Such brainstorming sessions and gatherings, where people meet to share ideas and learn, could form the missing link by helping to create a culture of entrepreneurship and trust, to challenge and empower the technology entrepreneurs to do more for Africa.
Reality Checks and Talks in Apps4Africa Brainstorming Sessions
However, I remain unsure about how the mosaic of demands and desires will be met without an urgent change of the mind-set of policy makers in Africa and the entrepreneurs themselves. Whilst an African Technology Revolution is taking place, many of the young innovators still face huge problems of understanding how to build sustainable businesses around their innovations. Most are following their dreams, inspired mostly by the stories of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and succeeding without clear business plans or structured road maps when they started their businesses many years ago. The reality check has not yet taken place in the minds of African innovators and much time is being wasted on unrealistic ventures.
Apps4Africa is the only competition with an educational element to analyse local problems though hard-talk and debate. I found that the gap between creating ideas and creating a business around them is still massive. Hence this year’s Apps4Africa theme was very timely and relevant.
We took the journey this year wishing to find the tech CEO who can not only innovate, transform, and solve local issues, but can also start a business around their innovation, ultimately creating jobs and reducing poverty in their communities.
“Our goal is to catalyze the growth of Africa’s early-stage startups to address the issue of youth unemployment across the continent. Africa needs to create at least 120 million jobs by 2012 to maintain its current trends of a growing middle class. Those jobs are not going to come from government mandates or multi-national corporations; they are going to come from successful startups and entrepreneurs. With Apps4Africa 2012, Appfrica and our partners at the State Department, Lions@frica, and the World Bank are demonstrating our commitment to addressing this problem now and in the future!” Jonathan Gosier
A moment of Reflection
The Apps4Africa brainstorming sessions are only possible with the amazing collaboration of innovators and business experts from the African Diaspora returning in Africa and few exceptional locals, for whose support and enthusiasm I am truly grateful.
At the end of my journey, I was convinced that Africans have many great ideas, and that supporting innovation helps entrepreneurs provide jobs for their communities. They also have the ability to create many applications- we have scores of apps being developed across the continent currently. However, the great majority of entrepreneurs in Africa need more business mentoring and within their countries. There exists neither the ecosystem to address this nor a culture of entrepreneurship and risk taking required for success.
I believe that African policy makers need to invest seriously in creating more business schools and putting the right infrastructures into place to build the private sector industry of Africa.
I also believe that is an urgent need to equip young Africans with the right business innovation skills. Competitions such as Apps4Africa, where tangible results have been shown, need to happen more often to help more innovative business to be created. I believe that this will spread the culture of true entrepreneurship. Africans creating real meaningful Business in Africa is now a necessity.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.