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The Fifth Estate

Jon Gosier —  September 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

The title of the upcoming WikiLeaks biopic THE FIFTH ESTATE invokes the words of French philosopher Montesquieu who left us the concept of the Three Estates of the Realm (Church, Citizens, and The Government). Essentially the three exist to check the power of the others. Edmund Burke argued the Press makes up a Fourth Estate (a check on the aforementioned three). Later William Dutton argued that a Fifth Estate are not just the users of transmedia but all those connected through the internet and who use it to take action. Great recent examples of this ‘Fifth Estate’ at work are WikiLeaks, but also those who opposed SOPA in the U.S., communities like Global Voices, and my former colleagues at Ushahidi and the greater Crisis Mapping community.

The Fifth Estate

In Africa these connections look very different than they do in North America and Europe. The first four estates are roughly the same: The Church, Citizens, The Government, and The Press. But its hard for me to see how those the connections relevant to developed countries, are always relevant to those in developing countries. The needs are different. What it means to accomplish significant change is very different.

So, I argue that Africa isn’t a place, but a space — a state of mind that exists in the diaspora, those who live there, and others connected beyond borders.

Africa is not a place, it's a space.

The above image was created by Kai Krause to represent the mind-boggling scale of the physical size of Africa. However, I like it because to me it represents how, even when removed and living in other parts of the world, Africans are still the stewards of Africa.

I personally do not see the distinction between people who are African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Kenyan, Uganda, whatever. There only those who take responsibility for participating in the development of the continent and those who don’t. Focusing on to narrowly on where you’re from or where you’re physically at misses the point and further excludes you from a broader community. This difference in ‘connection’ matters, especially when you look at the untapped wealth the African diaspora holds around the world.

Untapped Wealth of African Diaspora

So I like to think that the African diaspora, is the real Fifth Estate of Africa. They have the money, the political sway, the mobility, and personal security that allows them to truly affect change in Africa. They aren’t connected specifically through technology (though many are) but mostly through heritage and community. The question is whether or not the Diaspora will exercise this power or not.

Think of it like this. Africa has vast quantities of land, minerals, solar energy, wildlife and agriculture that has been commoditized to its own exclusion and detriment. The only thing left to be exploited is its own agency and human capital. Its no wonder then that ‘The Diaspora’ is now who development agencies are turning to as a resource to fund projects and programatic work. Same story but hopefully with a different ending.

You can view the slides below or download them here.

This presentation was given at the Kongossa Web Series 2013 in Montreal, Canada. thanks for inviting me!

Investors Don’t Get African Opportunities – here’s why.

African Businessman

The Business of VCs

Very quietly, over the past few weeks the word ‘bubble’ has crept back into the English language as it relates to the investment/silicon valley/tech scene. This is because there have been some staggering valuations, startling exits, and incredible hype for companies that seem to defy common sense. Well, they seem to defy common sense because they do.

In a recent article published by the New York Times entitled “Disruptions: With No Revenue, an Illusion of Value“, Nick Bilton makes the argument that startups that have revenue (meaning they actually add value to someone who’s willing to pay for what they offer) are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting funded. The reason being, he argues, is that investors prefer to build valuation metrics on less tangible things like hype, user traction and perceived market opportunity. This is validated by serial entrepreneur/investor Paul Kedrosky who states, “It serves the interest of the investors who can come up with whatever valuation they want when there are no revenues. Once there is no revenue, there is no science, and it all just becomes finger in the wind valuations.”

Those ‘finger in the wind’ valuations tend to skew high for startups with the right network of investors and individuals involved.

Value vs. Venture

So getting back to my point, this investment thesis is in direct conflict with investments needed in developing nations where the only thing that matters is real value and hype is utterly irrelevant. So why would an African tech entrepreneur expect interest from these types of VCs? They probably shouldn’t.

In the ‘Global North’ (as Western nations prefer to refer to themselves) where GDP growth remains all but flat it’s the opposite, investors know there’re only a few ways to create real value for society. But those ways are tough, big problems that the State frequently intervenes in solving. For instance, alternative energy markets and clean transportation. We’ve already established that GDP growth is relatively flat here, so actually in Western nations the easier game to play is not to add value to society, but to either create the illusion of value for shareholders, or to simply disrupt other industries (essentially moving value from one place to another).

If you don’t believe this, let’s do some simple math. What would the GDP of America be if Facebook didn’t exist? After all, Facebook only has around 1000 employees and about $2 billion dollars in revenue. Yet, it has a $150 billion valuation. Alternatively, the collapse of General Motors almost sank the USA’s economy and it employs over 75,000 people operating on $150 billion dollars in revenue. One produces a lot of ‘likes’. The other produces a lot of physical product that in turn enables other industry. One employs those with a highly specialized skill honed at elite universities with a starting salary of $60k at the lowest, with the vast majority of non-executive making at least $80k or more. The other, General Motors if you aren’t following, employs people with less specialized skills that could be acquired at any US university, at a starting salary of $30k, with the vast majority of non-executive staff making in the realm of $60k. So the answer to the question of ‘What would the GDP of America be if Facebook didn’t exist?’ is: pretty much the same. Again, the faltering of GM nearly caused the implosion of the American economy (given how much revenue it accounts for and how many industries it touches).

But aside from the net worth of the millionaires and billionaires that run and work for it, Facebook doesn’t directly produce anything that can be commoditized by anyone, other than Facebook. Alternatively, if you buy a GM car, ride it for a few years, and sell it, although you may not have completely commoditized what they produced, their products have in effect added value to the world multiple times. First for the company that made it (General Motors), then the car dealer that sold it to you, then you, then whoever you sold it to, and whoever they sold it to, and so on and so on.

The Circle of Wealth

Tangible goods have finite value, which although may diminish over time, will never hit absolute zero. I can go to a landfill tomorrow, dig up some random junk from 1932 and sell it to ‘someone’ for ‘something’ – an antique dealer, a flea market, groups that recycle waste for profit etc. But what can I do with my five years of Facebook history? I can’t commoditize it any way, even if Facebook can. A few companies like Klout and Kred have figured out ways of commoditizing social activity, but it’s debatable how sustainable their models are.

This is not to say that intangible value is completely worthless, it just means that companies that commoditize intangible value largely rely upon investors to fuel growth until they get to a point where they are acquired for a multiple of what those investors have put in up to that point. This is what makes intangible value seem like it creates real value, when in fact all that’s occurred is a redistribution of wealth – from one company that has excess of cash – to a smaller company that has an excess of shareholders.

When you look at companies like Google, they are incredibly good at turning the actual value they offer other industries into healthy profit margins. When you look at companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, they are incredibly good at turning a steady traction of users, attention, and coverage by the press into actual value for themselves, by getting investors to pump more and more cash in to fuel growth. When these companies go public, there is increased pressure to either keep growth (and thus hype strong) or to actually start generating the kind of revenue that justifies the valuations of investors. Those investors control funds that have been created by a few wealthy individuals, but mostly other companies, usually companies that produce something of actual value seeking return on their investments.

So in a really odd way, the holy grail of investment is creating things of perceived value over things that have actual, measurable value, because it allows said investors to essentially move wealth back and forth without diluting their market. Occasionally there’s a rare moment where there is an absolutely massive exit that makes it all worthwhile (ex. Andressen-Horowitz cashing out at $78 million on a $250,000 investment into Instagram). But that money didn’t come from thin air, it came from venture capitalists. Those VCs got it from their funds, and their funds got it from companies that produce tangible goods or services seeking to maximize profits by putting money into such funds. As you can see it’s not that difficult, it’s brilliant, but very much circular in terms of where value comes from and where it ends up.

A Simple Science

So why don’t these types of investors take risks on African market opportunities? For starters, there’s the usual explanations: there’s not enough money to make it worth their while, the political and legal environments aren’t reliable enough, or the societies themselves aren’t stable enough. Then there’s other excuses like: there’s not enough talent to sustain growth, the cost of doing business is too high, or locality – they like to keep investments close and these countries are simply too far. But the real reason, it seems, is that in developing countries nothing is more necessary than something they’d rather avoid – absolute, measurable value.

When it comes to profit, many modern VCs simply aren’t interested unless that profit comes in the form of their exit from the business. For those who don’t know, ‘to exit’ means to sell the stock acquired through their investment in a company to another party. This usually comes in the form of someone else either buying them out directly, or buying the company they’ve invested in, effectively buying all the stock at a new price – when the investor bought it at an older (cheaper) price.

So if investors from the Global North are used to playing a game where the only things that matter are perceived value, why on earth would they ever enter markets where everything has to be measured in terms of actual value? It’s a simple science: stay away.

The Inverse Problem

NGOS, Charities, and traditional Philanthropists actually compound the problem immensely. With most of the wealthiest investment funds in the world looking to keep up a game of illusions and ‘wealth remixing’, Philanthropists are playing a different game.

For one, they are largely funded by thier governments (groups like USAID). The ones that aren’t are funded by private foundations and individual donors (groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). Both types of Philanthropists (Governments and Donors) think in terms of absolute value but for them that value equates societal impact. These types of investors (after all Philanthropists are investing in something too) are looking for results like reduced infant mortality rate, improved test scores at schools, and a greater standard of living for the poorest.

They tend to measure success using globally understood milestones like the Millennium Development Goals, or relative measurements of progress like ‘reduced corruption’. Thus, the value they seek by is the inverse of what Venture Capitalists seek – societal impact versus and intangible (perceived) impact.

What’s missing is that neither of these groups (VCs or Philanthropists) are interested in the actual, measurable, impact created by businesses that maybe don’t have any direct social impact but that do create actual jobs from revenue. Even the few investors who claim to be interested in investing in African businesses make the mistake of looking for either: a quick exit based on intangible value (ie. selling the company quickly to someone else), or societal impact that may or may not be tied to a sustainability model. There’s nothing wrong with either scenario, great companies are built and invested in from both spaces. But there is a gap, and it lies with those companies that simply want to to be great, long-lasting, bottom-line focused companies.

Where do they find capital to scale to keep doing what they do? In Western societies this gap is filled by banks who offer debt (loans or lines of credit) to consumers. In developing countries, this is still a problem for small business owners. Local banks don’t operate with enough liquidity to make such investments profitable and foreign banks find the markets to risky (in comparison to their less risky, highly profitable investments abroad) to even consider it.

I suppose you might be thinking that ‘microfinance’ was going to be the silver bullet that killed this beast? Well, microfinance certainly gives access to capital to the very poor, which has immeasurable positive economic impact on society. But there are negative impacts as well. Since debt is such a foreign concept (funds accessed through microfinance methods are almost always loans) the costs of taking such loans are quantifiable, while defaults have consequences (as they should). Some societal norms make it the case that women taking out loans are put at risk by envious husbands who simply take the money and spend it recreationally. Still, however helpful or detrimental micro-financing is, at loans of an average of a few hundred dollars, it doesn’t reach the most important business class of the population: local SME’s that increasingly employ the burgeoning African middle class.

Local Investors Remain Silent

You would think that given the failure of foreign investors to see the opportunity that relatively small amounts of cash could have on these societies, and the failure of Philanthropists to see the business opportunity, that local investors would be well-poised to fill the gap. Not so.

Local investors are so desperate to cling to their wealth that they tend to give their money to foreign funds for management. Or in the scenario where they feel guilty about their success or maybe philanthropic in their own right, they donate to non-profits to help acheive social impact. In that regard the local African multi-millionaire is no more knowledgable about these issues than any foreign investor would be!

Et tu, Diaspora?

Make no mistake, the African diaspora has 100% filled this gap for decades. A businessman working on wallstreet hears from his cousin in Nigeria that they need a few thousand dollars to grow their company, so he sends it; a brother who’s expatriated sends money to his younger sibling to help them start up a hair salon; the parent who works for a foreign embassy pumps money into their child’s aspirations of building the first Pan-African social network. I’ve witnessed each of these stories first-hand, they aren’t anecdotal. Remittances are great, for some people. What they aren’t is systematic and scalable, and so they are almost irrelevant.

The power of the Venture Capital industry, and likewise the Philanthropic/Non-Profit industry, is that they are in fact industries. They have been orchestrated to create jobs and wealth for huge portions of society. While the ephemeral diaspora is a great thing, it is unorganized, haphazard, and unreliable at scale.

In an article published on The Sojourner Project, A. Conerly Coleman writes, “Diaspora aid has surpassed international aid on the continent of Africa.” She then goes on to make the case that Africa ‘doesn’t need international Aid.’ Until someone can organize remittances into something that looks more like a Venture fund or even more like a Multi-national Aid agency, I’m afraid to say such thoughts are simply wishful thinking.

Whether you’re for developmental aid, or against it, at least we mostly understand how it’s distributed and it’s also non-tribal. Remittances are useless for someone starting a business in Lagos, Nigeria when they have no family who’s ever moved abroad. And they are even less likely to be successful in finding money if they start asking other random families from, say, Kampala, Uganda.

I do have huge hopes that someone will crack this problem. Companies like VC4Africa, Afrilabs and MYC4 have come close but we’d all be incredibly naive to proclaim the problem as solved.

The Middle is Still Missing

Five years ago all of this was as much of a problem as it is now. There is still no fund (that I’m aware of) that invests in African companies which lack an obvious social focus, or that that won’t result in relatively quick exits. The idea of patient capital popularized by Jacqueline Novogratz couldn’t be less-so when it somes to African SMEs. It’s often the opposite – more like a strict, catholic nun waiting with a yard stick to smack the hands of any African venture that should dare to do anything…well…normal.

Disclosure: I’ve been working for years at this problem through my ventures Appfrica and Apps4Africa, as well as the projects with others I’m involved in AfriLabs and HiveColab. As a result, I have made or participated in several investments into African SMEs professionally. However, I as an individual don’t command the kind of wealth that a fund would. The challenge is to make such things happen on a larger scale, in order to spread such opportunities around to more than just a few.

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 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.

As We Enter our 4th Year…

Jon Gosier —  September 4, 2011 — 4 Comments

In 2008, when I started about blogging about African technology, I had no idea where it would take me. I was just hoping to help draw attention to a number of inspiring stories and individuals I was learning about around the continent. Eventually, I was able to scrape up enough of my own meager funds to launch Appfrica as a physical place to incubate young technologists in Uganda. That went incredibly well, we evolved several times and eventually spawned several spin-off projects including the awesome Hive Colab and Abayima (which you’ll be hearing about soon).

Over the past few weeks I’ve been inundated with questions about what what’s going on with my own work, as well as Appfrica, Hive and my new venture, metaLayer. Well, I’m happy to say not much has changed. I had the dream opportunity to work with one of the world’s most revolutionary companies for a while leading the SwiftRiver project. What I learned from working with Ushahidi over the past few years is that my passion is technology, startups and big data problems. Eventually the pursuit of those passions was too strong to ignore. Again, it was a dream opportunity, a dream job, and they have a fantastic team so I’m really grateful for that period of my career.

I also had the opportunity to turn down several other dream job offers. But I had to ask myself why I was turning down opportunities I’d sort of waited my whole life for. The reality is, the only opportunity that I’ve been waiting for is the opportunity to control my own destiny and to empower others to do the same. I’m really grateful to still be able to do this. I’m also grateful for our team and friends in Uganda, who have all worked tirelessly in varying capacities to keep our in-country work going smoothly.

I no longer live in Uganda, Appfrica has evolved into an organization that funds HiveColab through its consulting work for enterprise companies and international NGOs. Our goal is to build capacity by engaging tech talent on the continent for the software projects we work on while directly financing philanthropic tech initiatives like Hive Colab. The more things grow and evolve, the more they remain the same.

Thanks for supporting us over the last few years so stay tuned, we’ve only just begun! =)

In this image, the country code top level domains of Africa are organized by geoposition. The top countries are scaled to reflect the number of millions of internet users in those countries. Top Countries (by millions of users): (1) Egypt (2) Nigeria (3) Morocco (4) South Africa (5) Sudan (6) Algeria (7) Kenya (8) Tunisia (9) Uganda (10) Zimbabwe.

On January 25th, 2011 “The Day of Anger” a string of protests took place across Egypt. The protests were
organized for many reasons, but largely due to frustration with the country’s government. In retaliation, the Egyptian government shut down internet traffic to and from the country and Africa’s first registered ccTLD (.EG), representing a population of 80 million (17 million regular internet users) effectively disappeared from the web.

This graphic originally visualized the ccTLDs of the African continent. It’s been adapted to represent this temporary loss of Egyptian voices online. If we could see Africa’s top level domains this would be a snapshot of the continent on the morning of Feb 1 after the last of Egypt’s ISPs was taken offline.

High-Res Version | Original Image

The original image with Egypt included.

This graphic purposefully references this similar graphic by the guys at ByteLevel Research.

Appfrica in 2011

Jon Gosier —  December 24, 2010 — Leave a comment

This blog has been uncharacteristically quiet over the past few months. Not without reason, I’ve been all over the world running SwiftRiver for Ushahidi, getting married, relocating to Washington, D.C., and with projects like Hive Colab and Apps4Africa. 2010 was a really good year for everything but it didn’t come without it’s challenges and hurdles.

I have to bite my tongue about some of the news coming up in 2011, but if you miss us, don’t worry we’ll be back! See you all in the New Year!

“The mobile phone is like the printing press, so who’s the Church?” – Emrys Schoemaker

This afternoon I had the pleasure of having lunch with Emrys Schoemaker who used the above metaphor to compare the mobile phone revolution in developing countries with that of the printing revolution in 15th century Europe spurred by the Gutenberg press.

Continue Reading…

The singularity is defined by futurist Ray Kurzweil as being the point at which technological advancement exceeds human capacity to control and fully understand it. It’s the point where artificial intelligence and replication converge and machines can strategically produce other machines without human direction. Movies like TERMINATOR and THE MATRIX are all about the horrible ways such a scenario might play out.

This post is about a different singularity. A point at which technology, progress, wealth and modern advancement converge without the inclusion of an entire continent of nearly 1 billion people, with no discernible disadvantages. This scenario is also difficult to understand and hard to control.

In this scenario, companies also often fail to represent people from the continent in their staff. Boardrooms across the world forget to mention market strategies aimed at engaging the continent’s consumers. I could tell you we hit this singularity over two decades ago but instead let’s look at the websites of a handful of leading technology companies, the corporations who are literally shaping our collective futures…


Yahoo! is among the most popular destinations to visit on the African continent. The image below is from their international page, where they showcase how they target viewers by region. Hrmm…looks like they covered all their bases…


Google has country offices all over the world. I know for a fact they operate staffed offices in Kenya and South Africa. And to be fair they’ve got an intensely involved philanthropic arm here. But on their corporate website? Hrmm…odd.

It’s hard to believe a company that lives on numbers would make such an obvious mistake, so we’ll have to assume they have their reasons. Nonetheless, since they actually do have African offices I’m not sure what message this sends the Google Kenya or Uganda teams. At least they didn’t forget…


Hrmm… which flag to I click for Kenya? Nigeria? Cairo? or South Africa?


Facebook is both the fastest growing internet destination and social network across Africa. They’re in the midst of a global expansion, specifically targeting BOP markets with apps like Facebook Zero. They have several positions open: India, Singapore, Dublin, Brazil, London and Austin, TX. There’s actually a couple missing pieces here: the Middle East, Australia and of course…

We can chalk this one up to Facebook’s being a young company. Although they claim half the users of the entire internet (500 million), this absolutely tells you where they see potential growth and markets worth chasing. A longer list of job opportunities with Facebook’s internationalization team.


Salesforce is a cloud enterprise platform that makes doing business easier. They pride themselves on their international sites. In fact, they’ve got an international site for every continent in the world accept Antarctica and…

Sony and Oracle

Two more power houses. One basically tells you to learn Arabic if you live in Africa, the other has something called “Africa Operations”. Sounds very Jack Bauer, Oracle. An indicator for a systematic, innovative approach, perhaps? Unfortunately not, clicking on that link takes you a site that has information that’s in no way different from their other sites.

Hey Africans, Oracle has an important message for you:

In my opinion, the reasons behind these oversights don’t matter at all. The reality is these choices aren’t aren’t actually putting any of these companies at a disadvantage. What matters to me is the greater implication of the scenario that’s playing out. The fact that these companies can rest comfortably as some of the biggest companies that history has ever known with little input from Africa paints a bleak future. The fact of the matter is, if one sixth the planet is being shut out of controlling or, in any meaningful way, contributing to the technologies and tools that are re-defining the future of the human race. Then they are in-turn being shut out of the future. It’s not systematic, it’s not organized; it’s happening without anyone even noticing. It’s indeed the road to technology perdition.

This is something that should scare the shit out of Africa. It should either motivate you to a point of unrelenting excellence and tenacity, or it should make you a ludite who deliberately refuses to embrace a changing world. It’s a choice. However, the business world (and in this case tech companies) need to be constantly reminded that they need you with cold hard facts. There are no other arguments. Show them the numbers, the patents, the inventions, the talent, the enthusiasm, the courage…the success stories. Don’t open your mouth tell anyone anything or ask them for anything ever again…show them.

The only way to overcome irrelevance is to do things that unequivocally matter. Things that people couldn’t ignore even if they wanted to. Things like building a windmill without an education or so much as even a toy replica; with only passion and imagination. Things like subverting an oppressive government and violent political parties. Doing things, versus reminding everyone around you how unfair it is for you in comparison to everyone else.

Stop waiting for someone to tell you you’re the Next Einstein and go out there and prove it. You have two choices, do something or do nothing. There is no in between. Decisions are binary.

Photo by: Nobodysukey

Is the growing skepticism on SMS warranted? One of the most rewarding aspects of running this company has been our International Fellows Program which invites developers from all over the world to Uganda to work alongside our staff as peers. The following post was written by one of our recent Fellows, Oliver Christopher Kaigwa Haas (we called him Ollie) who now works at Frog Design.

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At his Africa 3.0 panel at this year’s South By South West Project Diaspora’s Teddy Ruge critiqued the role the One Laptop Per Child Project has played in developing countries.

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