“Why Africa May Never Produce a Facebook” – A Valid Argument?

vc4africaI came up on this article by Mfonobong Nsehe who also wrote the article that inspired my previous blog post and it created a good Facebook conversation with a couple of friends of mine. From the comment section, you can also see that this has stirred up some passions. Nsehe’s question that serves as the premise for the article is:

Why hasn’t a globally-renown, groundbreaking software, social network or mobile application ever emerged from the continent?

You’ll notice the bold in “globally renown” as Africa has it shares of all the mentioned application but they are very localized by country. Why hasn’t Africa produced a global time-sink like Facebook? Notice we could replace Africa in that sentence with Latin America, Europe, Russia, or Asia, and the answers would obviously differ but yes, in my opinion, it would still be a valid question. So let’s look at Nsehe’s take on the matter. He identified more than competent (which means excellent for my Shakespearan challenged readers, you know yourselves!) African developers and technologists, you can check them out here(Mark Shuttleworth of Thawte),  over there (Ory Okollo),  and bam! in your face (John Waibochi of Virtual City). Great accomplishments indeed, but giving last the example of a young lady that’s developed an amazing voice-based mobile app designed to help track the oestrus stages of their cows and is having a hard time raising seed capital, Nsehe argues that “there are no venture capital firms in Africa to fund these ventures”. Boom bada bing! And from the comments on the article that is where most people disagreed. Personally, I have an outsider’s perspective on VCs in Africa (I am registered at Vc4Africa, follow some African VC groups on LinkedIn, Twitter etc and that is as close as I’ve gotten to VC activity in Africa so far) but the sector seemed to be quite dynamic but it might be my uninformed outsider view.

Nsehe identifies investor accessibility and lack of investors-taking-technology-seriously as the two main factors holding back African developers from writing their chapter in the pages of World Technology history. A commentator (mbwana) points out that:

[…]many entrepreneurs need some handholding for them to be bankable- even if they have rock solid business plans and technology- traction is also needed[…]

Another one, Koliobi, rightly argued, to Nsehe’s agreement that:

It does not take “African” investors to fund “African” startups. It takes “any” investor to fund an “African” startup

Nsehe recognizes that there are quite a few VC firms in Africa, but as he denotes “there are no firms there that provide seed capital to Tech firms”. Correct if wrong, but even then, I am sure the corrected numbers will still make this a totally valid point. I am sure Nsehe knew that this was going to be controversial argument to make and come to think of it, if we focus on the seed capital aspect of the equation, I agree that:

 Africa needs several Y Combinator-type firms who will believe in and support the dreams of entrepreneurs and get those big ideas out of the boxes and into the pages of history

Where do you stand on the issue?

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Lion’s Lair, A $1500 Youth Entrepreneurship Contest by MakingAfricaWork

Making Africa Work WebsiteMaking Africa Work is an international social enterprise dedicated to building the capacity of entrepreneurial young Africans and Canadians to create sustainable wealth and employment through internships, training and collective ingenuity. Its mission is to unlock African’s economic potential by enhancing youth oriented global interaction, exposure and partnerships using modern technology and media. To that effect, MakingAfricaWork is holding an international youth (18 to 30) entrepreneurship contest with a $1500 prize and the deadline to submit applications is approaching soon on December 5 2011. Head over to the website and download and fill the application form by clicking on the Lion’s Lair logo to the left.

For reference, check out this article in the Mobile Message blog series from the National Geographic ‘s FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. It’s fascinating to see how the mobile application “Sauti ya wakulima” (Voice of the farmers in Swahili) was used by farmers in rural Tanzania:

“A group of five men and five women gather every Monday at Chambezi. There, they use a laptop with a mobile Internet connection to view the images and listen to the sound recordings they uploaded during the week. They also hand out the two available smartphones to other participants, turning the phones into shared broadcasting tools. The smartphones are equipped with GPS modules and an application that makes it easy to upload content. So far the farmers have used them to record geographically localised observations about changes in the climate, and to interview other farmers.”

Farmers were able to learn from each other and sharing knowledge helps them cope with issues such as chaning rain patterns, and scarcity of underground water and new pests and plant diseases.

Paga: A mobile payment startup in Nigeria

Paga

I recently ran into this interesting article from Forbes highlighting Paga a Nigerian money transfer service startup. Paga launched in 2009 and has a current user base of 32000 users and $1.6M processing volume so far, attracting even US investors in the person of Tim Draper. Paga’s founder, Tayo Oviosu explains that there is a current need for this type of service in Nigeria given the fact that it is a very cash driven society and the security and logistics issues involved with carrying a lot of cash around, coupled with the ever increasing mobile ownership and phone coverage, makes a compelling case for a mobile based service such as Paga. Similar to the Kenyan M-pesa model, users who want to send money can visit a local Paga agent who will process the transaction for them minus the fee ($1 to $4), or they can transfer money directly from a prepaid Paga account using their mobile or internet enabled device.Recipients of the money do not need to be Paga customers and can withdraw the funds from Paga Agents or partner banks, or even notably in the future plans, ATMs. If you have lived in most African countries, this is a model that makes sense and works. Of course the question of stacking up to the Kenyan heavyweight M-pesa came up and Oviosu’s answer is sensible in explaining the particularities of the Nigerian market:

  • There are no efficient, secure, and universally accessible ways of transferring money across Nigeria
  • There is no dominant mobile company in Nigeria as Safaricom is in Kenya
  • The banking sector in is very fragmented in Nigeria

Tough parameters but Oviosu believes that with help from the Central Bank of Nigeria who is pushing for a Cashless Nigeria, Paga should be able to create a sustainable market that would make market entry in other African countries easier. Security, especially in Nigeria is a concern and Oviosu lays out Paga’s security architecture which includes multiple layers of authentication and access depending on the level of credibility the user has established with the system.

To the question of establishing reasons for the relative success of Paga in Nigeria, Oviosu attributes it to word of mouth while highlighting that more standard marketings efforts are in place to make more of Nigerians aware of the benefits. As for the future, Paga is looking to expand its Agent network to 40,000, which currently consists of 400 trained Agents with 4000 waiting in the pipeline. Paga also sees an opportunity for its bottom up approach to bring financial empowerment into the lower, less connected levels of Nigerian society while at the same time growing its customer base from Nigeria’s expanding middle class. A goal of 15 million users is not so far off for this Giant of Africa and I personally believe from reading this interview and analyzing Oviosu’s strategy and thinking that this goal is not so far fetched.

DCWEEK 2011 Core Conference: Mobile Sessions Wrap-Up

Trends & Innovative Uses of Mobile APIs Panel
Trends & Innovative Uses of Mobile APIs Panel

Thursday, December 10th 2011 was the big day for the DCWEEK 2011 festivities. The Core Conference, an all day affair, was held this year at the Artisphere in Rosslyn, VA. The venue was beautiful and the spaces were well set up for the sessions that would be held throughout the day. I got there a little bit before 9:00AM and took some time to find my way around the different rooms. I decided that I would be following the Mobile sessions, due to my latest interest in mobile development, and the different panels that were scheduled for the day looked interesting.

The first session of the day, a panel titled “Trends & Innovative Uses of Mobile APIs” was held in the Dome Theatre and speakers included Keith Casey of Twilio, Eric Johnson of el-studio.com, Mike Panchenko of SimpleGeo, Zvi Band of Contactually and was moderated by Hemang Gadhia of Condaptive. As implied by the title, the discussion was focused more on a high level view of APIs used to build mobile apps and their advantages and disadvantages. Panelists discussed the importance of trust as a deciding factor before picking APIs. Deprecation support was also cited as critical, as it is important for API providers to support deprecated features while providing newer ones in their latest releases. To the question of determining successful API implementation, the panel identified ease of use and documentation as examples of major factors. For API providers as well, getting their API used by bog companies serves as an endorsement for others to proceed. The panel praised the ease of entry that APIs provide to mobile developers, while pointing out that real skills now lies in creativity. APIs are so pervasive that app building can be compared to the renaissance f the mashup. As for issues of privacy, the panelists pointed out that mobile developers should be aware of the legal implications of using external providers and make sure to cover themselves in their privacy policies. Using Facebook and Twitter (OAuth) is seen as a necessary evil, because of the ease of access it provides the majority of users. The standards the panelists recommended using are built around JSON and REST. Overall this was a lively discussion with a knowledgeable panel, and the moderator Hemang asked very relevant and thoughtful questions which made for a interesting discussion.

I skipped the next session and came back for “Mobile Apps: From Smartphones to Tablets and Beyond”, which, judged by the

Mobile Apps: From Smartphones to Tablets and Beyond Panel
Mobile Apps: From Smartphones to Tablets and Beyond Panel

attendance, was the most attended mobile session of the day. The panel was moderated by Judy Thomas of EightShapes, with the participation of Nick O’Neil of Holler, Sol Lipman of AOL, Brett Battjer of Living Social and Geno Yoham of Winamp. This was a lively panel, made even more so by Sol Lipman whose quick wit kept the crowd entertained and laughing. Sol explained how AOL will become a mobile company because a lot of its content, as with the web in general is consumed through mobile. The panel touched on the topic of responsive design, which they acknowledged was tough to implement especially in a mobile e-commerce setting because of flow, which has to account for the OS and its features, but also because of content. The panel then was asked about the challenge of designing for tablets. The answers from the panel highlighted how tablets are a different animal than smartphones because tablets offer of more interactive and engaged experience. They are also used in a different context and a more cautious approached needs to be used than merely converting a smartphone app to a tablet app. No matter what, tablet development can no longer be ignored because they are an increasing part of the marketplace. As to how developers should respond to negative feedback from users, panelists answers ranged from “We go after them!”(Sol) to understanding that not all user feature requests should be acted on. Implementing a way to get crash reports from apps was also very helpful in understanding bug report and fixing issues. The panel also stressed the importance of app design as customers do pay attention to look and feel. Users look for utility in apps, complemented by two or three killer features. Advertising was touched on, and was deemed a necessary evil, especially for product managers who’d rather keep their product design free of ads. Some businesses do not make money right away and must take the long term approach but in general paid ads was the standard way of generating revenue.

Continue reading “DCWEEK 2011 Core Conference: Mobile Sessions Wrap-Up”

Self Starters: Disruptive Entrepreneurs at DCWEEK 2011 Core Conference

The Disruptive Entrepreneur session was one of the sessions outside of the Mobile track at the DCWEEK Core Conference that I attended because it caught my interest (Music & Politics). This session allowed two presenters to come and talk about their endeavor. The first speaker on the stage was Ruha Devanesan of PeaceTones, who through video and a presentation introduced PeaceTones, a non profit dedicated to working with musicians in developing countries.

PeaceTones gives workshops to musicians about music contracts, how to protect their intellectual property, social media marketing basics, and basic promotion. PeaceTones then organizes a contest amongs the trainees and the winner, by popular vote on Facebook, is given a recording contract, flown to the US to record a professional album, and tour. 90% of the profit from the album digital sales are returned to the artist, of which he must give a certain amount back to a social project in the community from which he is issued. Ruha gave the example of previous PeaceTones projects in Recife, Brazil, where the winning kids decided to invest back in a recording studio in their favela, and of musicians in Balan, Haiti, who invested back in a maternal clinic in their hometown.

The latest winner of the PeaceTones contest in Haiti is named Wanito, and through him, Ruha explained of the quandaries artists are currently faced with concerning piracy. One of Wanito’s most watched videos on Youtube came from an anonymous user who made a bootleg video out of one of his songs. Once informed of his rights, Wanito decided to let the video be, as a form of free promotion. Peacetones relies on a lot of new technologies to allow it to operate. For example, it used Kickstarter to raise funds for Wanito’s album, and prefers digital distribution of its music, as an environmentally friendly and cost effective distribution channel. Since iTunes is not available worlwide, PeaceTones also relies on Bandcamp to make its music available worldwide and marketing and promotion is mostly handled by volunteers who started campus programs at UMass for examples. This was a very inspiring example in disruptive entrepreneurship with a social good tip and I encourage you to visit the site, and as Ruha mentioned, purchase the music only if you actually do enjoy it, not as a form of charity.

Next up was Jonathan Gosier of Appfrica, an entrepreneur from DC who started his talent incubator in Uganda and is now back in the DC area with a new venture called MetaLayer, which he refers to as the InfoState of Africa. Jonathan showed many examples of data visualization (Country codes of Africa), which is his forte, and explained of MetaLayer wants to be known as the “Photoshop of Data”. Gosier explained that through its capabilities, MetaLayer wants to enable users to tell a story through data. He gave a demo of the dashboard by using Twitter feeds and sentiment analysis algoritm. Gosier covered many data related topics in his talk, giving example of companies that offer predictive technologies, how predictive technology can be used to visualize data and the dangers of relying to much on data. He predicted though that the future of data would come from extracting information from non-networked objects, which is known as The Internet of Things. Gosier ended his presentation with a introduction of the Apps4Africa challenge, sponsored by the state department, which allows African developers to compete on apps dealing with climate change for prizes going up to $20,000.

10 “Best” Code Comments

A colleague at work forwarded this link on our Dev chat channel and led me to a good session of unproductive hilarity. Code comments, when they are present, are a reflection of the personality of the programmers and it is great to see that as a community, we have quite a good sense of humor. I’ve compiled in the following list the 1o comments I found were the most hilarious or relevant. Of course this is my Top 10 and thus highly subjective:

  1. // Dear maintainer:
    // Once you are done trying to 'optimize' this routine,
    // and have realized what a terrible mistake that was, please increment the //following counter as a warning to the next guy:
    //total_hours_wasted_here = 39
  2. /** * For the brave souls who get this far: You are the chosen ones, the valiant knights of programming who toil away, without rest, fixing our most awful code. To you, true saviors, kings of men, I say this: never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye. Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you. */
  3. Exception up = new Exception("Something is really wrong."); throw up;
  4. // somedev1 - 6/7/02 Adding temporary tracking of Login screen
    // somedev2 - 5/22/07 Temporary my ass
  5. #define TRUE FALSE //Happy debugging suckers
  6. if (/*you*/ $_GET['action']) { //celebrate
  7. // If this code works, it was written by Paul DiLascia. If not, I don't know who //wrote it.
  8. //When I wrote this, only God and I understood what I was doing
    //Now, God only knows
  9. // drunk, fix later
  10. // Magic. Do not touch.

Visit the link for more nuggets and context on some the comments listed above. What is the “best” code comment you ever saw?

Africa Gathering Washington DC Wrapup

So I was off to my first event of the Digital Capital Week or better known as DCWEEK this Saturday morning and made it with a thirty minutes delay to the  Kenny Auditorium at the SAIS building of John Hopkins University on Massachussets Ave. I got my brother-in-law to tag along for once and we got a warm greeting from the Africa Gathering staff on site and were relieved to find out that in fact, the event had not yet started due to the main organizer Marieme Jamme being lost in the DC streets. This must have been one if not the only time I thanked DC’s convoluted street system. In any case we were there for the start of the event and when Marieme showed up, she wasted no time in getting the event going in her energetic, determined style.

She gave us a detailed background on Africa Gathering, how it started in London cafe and aims to give African people a voice and a way to communicate with each other. I did not understand the meaning of her words until the end of the afternoon but back to Africa Gathering, after her quick introduction, Marieme got the event first presenter introduced and set to present. We got to witness and interesting presentation from the Global Conversations team at the State department highlighting their social media outreach efforts, followed by a presentation of the Diaspora African Women Network whose mission is to “develop and support talented women & girls of the African diaspora focused on African affairs”. Semhar Araia the founder, born in America from Eritrean parents was very passionate about her cause and it translated well into the audience.

Next one started with a good laugh courtesy of Kemdi Ebi at VoteOrQuench, an online initiative “made up of 4 young, like-minded and motivated young Nigerians – 2 guys and 2 girls – who’ve never actually been in the same room at the same time but share the same belief that change MUST happen and understand that they can either Vote or Quench”. Kemdi Ebi was inspiring hearing him explain how they were able to make somewhat of a difference in getting young Nigerians involved in the political process by getting to to register to vote and hopefully turn out on Voting Day. This is a continued effort so I am expecting more out of this team. VoteOrQuench was followed by Kathering Lucey of Solar Sister, which on top of being a somehow cool name, is a non profit operating in Uganda on a Avon Ladies of solar energy platform. Basically Solar Sister empowers women in rural Uganda through Entrepreneurship in a bag. Through Solar Sister, they are able to purchase a bag of solar lamps and re-sell for profits in their villages. It was definitely an interesting talk and project which got a lot of the audience’s attention.

Continue reading “Africa Gathering Washington DC Wrapup”