African Tech News Tidbits: Week of April 17th

dotAfricaA lot happening and since my schedule cleared up a bit, let’s do a quick round of what’s been happening in the world of AfricaTech.

  • First, this is a must read by Prof. Chukwuma Charles Soludo, titled “Will Europe Underdevelop Africa Again?“, on the inequities of the new Economic Partnership Agreements or EPAs being negotiated right now between between the EU and African Countries. The first two or three paragraphs are a summary of policy talk, it might discourage you but keep on because when Soludo comes around to his own thorough and “meticulate”(meticulous and articulate) analysis of why EPAs are a bad deal for African countries, you will most certainly find a lot of gems. It is my Pick of the Week.
  • An African Renaissance is still 10 to 15 years away says Frost and Sullivan, still within my lifetime God willing!
  • An inside look at the emerging startup scene in Nairobi, by Bertil van Vugt who does a good job at summarizing the issues on the ground for entrepreneurs and investors in Kenya. It seems the whole technology industry in Kenya is undergoing a major transformation, or at least the beginning of it due to its growth.The questions I keep hearing now is “How do we make money of it?” which is different from the “How cool or useful is it that we can do this app!” from a few years ago. Signs of growth.
  • Kuzima, a useful app by a Ghanaian entrepreneur to hold companies accountable for the level of service by providing a public Praise or Shame feedback mechanism.
  • Cameroon, listed as one of the countries with the least use of ICTs (in the latest release of the World Economic Forum ICT for Growth rankings) is launching a project to connect all 234 post offices in the country over the next 18 months through a high speed network connected to a data center. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, a Chinese company has been awarded the job for a total cost of $60M. That same company has just been denied a $38 billion high speed network contract in Australia for “security reasons”. Huawei Technologies operates in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and last year the Netherlands’secret services reported that China was collecting economical and technological information using a network of surrogates. The company’s CEO Ren Zhengfei served in the Chinese Army and his second in command worked at the Interior Ministry. Just saying…
  • Investigative journalists from a few different West African countries(Bénin, Cameroun, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambie, Ghana, Libéria, Nigéria et Sénégal) are in Dakar, Senegal since Tuesday April 17th 2012 for a 3 day training on using the Web for Investigative Journalism put together by FAIR, the Forum for African Investigative Reporters. You can follow the updates from the conference here. Of note a presentation by Hamadou Tidiane Sy, founder of Ouestaf, a West African online news site, where he drove home the fact that credibility is the lifeblood of journalism and because of the speed of the news cycle brought about by he Web, journalists should ensure the credibility of the information they relay because once it is out, there is no going back even if clarifications or rectifications are appended later.
  • $1,000,000. One million dollars, that’s the amount of the monthly phone bill racked up by the now Ex-president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. Again, good riddance. Like a friend of mine used to sarcastically say: “Third world? It’s the country that’s poor, the people? they are rich!”
  • Still in Senegal, the new president, Macky Sall, has nominated a former Senegalese expatriate in Germany, Abou Lo, as his Minister of ICT. Lo hopes to be able to perform well by using his experience in the fields, coupled with his respect for German pragmatism and the help from all of his team and the collaborators of his Ministry. Lo is a Master Degree graduate in Actuarial Science who worked in Germany as a development consultant in insurance software and is the topic of a mini-controversy right now, since it seems he renounced his Senegalese citizenship when he became German. Nevertheless and more pressing, a hot issue in Senegal that Lo even admits to being a victim of is a tax on incoming international calls imposed by the Wade government that had the population fuming. Senegal has a big diaspora community and incoming international calls dropped 15% on application of the tax. Lo said that he was too early for him to have an opinion on what would happen to the tax at this point.
  • Two hackers in Senegal, Pape Meissa Ndiaye and Woura Ba, risk 5 years in jail for the hacking of the Wari money transfer service and the theft of $27500.Wari has reported losing customers as a result of the incident and is asking for $40,000 in reparations.
  • The former prime minister of Ivory Coast and now Head of the National Assembly Guillaume Soro and 2o members of his team have completed a training on social media (Facebook, Twitter) in order to improve their outreach and communication capacities. I’ve personally seen him try his hand on Twitter. Good deal and hope he becomes as active as Alain Lobognon, who is the most socially active member of the current government.
  • Trend: Because of the very competitive mobile market in West Africa, the current trend for customers is to use double-SIM cell phones(French) (Nokia, Samsung and LG offers a number of these models) that effectively allow you to carry two numbers from two different carriers . This might seem foreign to US residents who are used to the 2-year long term contracts of the American market but in Africa, and the rest of the world, mobile markets are a lot more fluid. In West Africa, the mobile market is dominated by prepaid, and operators are always running promotions to entice customers to switch. Having a double-SIM cell effectively allows customers to save on their communications and all levels of society are cashing in on the deals. Chinese phone models are in hot demand because of their cheap prices, you can score a double-SIM card for as little as $30, with higher end phones with MP3 players, cameras and FM radio going for $60. Customers nevertheless complain of the short battery life these phones suffer from.
  • African domain names are still having a hard time taking off. Where France has 2 million registered .fr domain names, Mali counts 400, Burkina Faso 1000, Cote d’Ivoire 2000 and Senegal 4000. This is due in part to the registration process being more cumbersome and expensive for certain countries whereas generic names (.com and .net) are processed in a matter of seconds and are definitely cheaper.
  • The Ipad 3 is launching officially in South Africa on April 27th. It’s not like folks waited.
  • Last but not least, a long but interesting article on the growth of the middle class in Africa and its impact on the economy and what it means in terms for ICT.

That should keep you busy for a week, enjoy and share. Until such time!

Kenyan startups: As real businesses or social impact projects?


In an interesting reflection, Dinfin Mulupi over at HowWeMadeItInAfrica brings up a worry from investors in Kenya that the emphasis on social impact technology is distracting entrepreneurs from building real tech businesses. That’s a  good question to ask I believe, and legitimate from an investor point of view. As argued by Nikolai Barnwell of 88mph, an investment fund:

“[…]There are the entrepreneurs with social apps and they get a lot of media coverage. These are the people considered to be successful. There is not enough focus on businesses that make money.[…] The information is disproportionally skewed towards social impact. People are getting the idea that African tech is all about social impact.”

Sean Smith, an analyst and manager of new investments at Invested Development, concurs but with the nuance that it is possible to have both social impact innovations and profit-driven businesses in the same ecosystem provided that “entrepreneurs need to have the rigours to build sustainable businesses using the money they get. They need to have some level of discipline”. On the other side of the debate, Su Kahumbu-Stephanou sums it up nicely:

“Su Kahumbu-Stephanou, the developer of iCow, a platform that enables farmers to access agricultural education and extension services, says that social impact projects play a critical role, especially in a country where millions of people live below the poverty line. “In a country like Kenya, a continent like Africa, our focus should be on poverty alleviation and impact, not money in the bank,” says Kahumbu-Stephanou.”

Furthermore, she points out that “it is incredibly important for entrepreneurs to maintain the majority shareholding in their companies, adding that receiving VC investment too early often results in the entrepreneur having little leverage”, which any startup founder can definitely agree with and I am more of this opinion. I can not discount however the point brought out by Sean Smith in that, if applicable and appropriate, social impact applications should also include a sustainable business model, because after all, the longevity and prosperity of the business affects its social impact as well. In the end, I think the startup ecosystem is reflective of the society it evolves in, and as progress is made as a whole in the Kenyan economy, the ecosystem will adapt as well to the realities of the terrain.

Website design rules for the African market

Will Mutua at Afrinnovator writes an interesting article on how to design websites for the African market and supports it with some facts on the ground. Looking at the examples of the most successful websites in Kenya and Nigeria, Will comes down with the following nuggets when it comes to designing for the African market:

  • First to market:
    Bottom line: If you are offering a great service, and customers catch on and engage with your service, it is unlikely that they’ll jump ship when someone else comes by who’s offering exactly what you are offering with a better looking skin on it.
  • User Experience Design trumps Graphic Design:
    You may not want to hold up the product because of the graphic design side of things but user experience is everything. If you’re going to spend time on design, spend as much of it as you can on getting aspects of user experience and user interaction just right.
  • Mobile Web Rules in Africa Design Specifically for it:
    […]It would be wise to invest in creating a custom site for mobile, or making your website mobile friendly. As far as web design for mobile goes, the cardinal principle is to minimize. Minimize on the number of graphics you have, minimize on the number of actions a user needs to do or number of pages it takes to accomplish a task.

Great advice very in tune with my own experience so far. Read the whole article here and you should also be a frequent reader of the Afrinnovator website.


Kenyan startup Mocality Vs Google

It’s kind of interesting, and not frequent to have a mini-scandal going in the African technology scene and the latest one involves Mocality, a Kenyan mobile business directory startup and contractors/employees (???) of Google Africa that used Mocality’s client call list and misrepresented themselves as working with Mocality in order to in fact, steal customers away from them. According to Mashable:

Nelson Mattos, Google’s vice president for product and engineering for Europe and emerging markets, stated on his Google+ account: “We were mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality’s data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites.” […] Mocality employees decided to do some investigative work, setting up dummy numbers, and found out that employees from Google’s GKBO were calling prospective customers and current Mocality customers, identifying themselves as GKBO employees partnered up with Mocality.

Shady salespeople using shadier tactics to meet to sales quota, but the interesting twist to this story came from give-it-to-you-raw Kenyan technology journalist Robert Alai who posted an article titled “Mocality Should not Play Victim, they Also Scrape Data and Fake Listings” that you should definitely read where he accuses Mocality of being “guilty by association” of fraud i.e scraping other sites listing and posting fake data. Alai also argues that the publicity will most certainly save Mocality from certain bankruptcy. He accuses Mocality and other local players of various ethical breaches that in the end reinforce to end users the idea that the internet is not trustworthy and is counter productive to the growth of their business models. The vitriol in the comments indicated to me that he touched a nerve somehow so I highly encourage you to give it a read and read the comments as well.

Have you heard about Konza City?

Konza City
Konza City

When it comes to ICTs, Kenya has demonstrated that it is deservedly one of the leaders in the new Africa. I was recently directed to learn about Konza City by Amadou Daffe of Coders4Africa, who came back impressed with the Kenya and its ICT community from a recent trip to Kenya for a conference. What is Konza City? First you need to head over and visit the site to see the blue prints, 3D rendering of the vision for this new technopolis the government of Kenya wants to create.

Konza City is a foray into the future, and the intention here is to create a 2000 hectare (~7.7 square miles for the metric system challegend readers), $7 billion technopolis 60KM from downtown Nairobi and 50KM from Jomo Kenyatta International airport on a clean sheet site based on successful new town projects around the world put together by an international team of experts, drawing on best practice from places such as the UK, China and Brazil to ensure global competitiveness. Konza City will provide the best ICT infrastructure in Kenya, and probably in Eastern Africa and will also function as a business center with excellent transport and communication links. The city layout will include a modern transport infrastructure, a BPO technological park, a  business district, a science park, a university campus and overall, green and open spaces. The city will be developed in 4 phases to allow phased development permitting rapid growth whilst ensuring that the civic amenities and infrastructure grow with the population’s needs.

Konza City is at the center of the vision for the Silicon Savannah and if this vision comes to fruition, it will truly be an achievement to celebrate and to emulate, especially in Western Africa. We don’t lack blueprints, 3d renderings and visualizations for grand brand new projects from our “leadership” when they are campaigning or when they just take power, but more than often, they stay at that stage so I remain skeptical with a see it to believe it attitude but in ICT, Kenya as already proven its dedication to investing in this sector so with plans finalized this past summer and firms currently looking for projects to invest in, i am confident that Konza City will see the light of the day and not suffer the fate of a similar technopolis president Wade had presented in Senegal who last I heard, was morphed into a traditional wrestling mega-arena…

Mobile: Comparative View Between Kenya and South Africa.

Comparison between Kenya and South Africa. Image by @mariskaza
Comparison between Kenya and South Africa. Image by @mariskaza

I’d like to direct you to this article by Mariska Du Preez titled “Mobile Technology: a comparative view between Kenya and South Africa“. Some hard numbers are given from research on the mobile market in both coutries, as well the state of the developer communities. With populations roughly equal (42 M Kenyans to 50M South Africans) mobile penetration is way ahead in SA (84 % to 56%), and what’s interesting was the labor force statisticsw which reveals that for all the advances and investment made in ICTs Kenya is still primarily an agriculture driven economy with a labour force composed of 75% of agricultural workers compared to 25 % of mixed Industry and Services. This highly contrasts with South Africa where only 9% of the labour force comes from agriculture while Industry by itself brings 26% of the force and services a whopping 65%. Interestingly both countries have about the same ratio of internet users (4.2M to  6.8M) and data is substantially cheaper in Kenya while smartphone penetration is still weak.

Du Preez makes some interesting parallels about the developer communities in both countries, for example:

  • Lots of young Kenyan obtain their degrees overseas and bring those skills back home
  • South Africans on the contrary obtain their degrees locally then go overseas to gain international experience
  • Kenyan developers are very “local solutions/socially” oriented while South Africans are more commercially and internationally driven. Erik Hersman founder of iHub in Nairobi dubs a globalized/regionalized focus amd gives Kenya an edge in mobile, not web innovation.
  • Kenya smartphone penetration is very weak, so most developers develop for feature phones. Telling statistics, Mocality, a business listing app with 67000 member accounts about 2% of combined Apple RIM and Android usage (150 000 member businesses and 21% Android traffic as of November 2011 thanks to a clarification from Stefan Magdalinski).

A very interesting read indeed with good insight. Click here to read the full article.

Mariska also provided some good links on getting Internet stats for Africa

For African Internet Stats

For Mobile and Social Media Stats

Update 12-13-2011: As Stefan Magdalinski remarked out in the comments, take the stats with a grain of salt as they date from 18 months ago as of December 2011 and Kenya is a rapidly changing market. He also pointed out that Mocality now has 150000 member businesses and sees 21% traffic from Android devices as of November 2011

African Mobile Tablets: A Reality

VMK TabletI ran into this recent article  from the sharp African Tech Evangelist Robert Alai discussing the topic of African tablets with Professor Ndubuisi Ekekwe, an inventor who holds a patent on a microchip used in minimally invasive surgical robots. I’ve first heard about African tablets earlier this year around June from this Engadget article about the Way C, dubbed the First African Tablet (which as with any “First” proclamation is subject to challenge), which pleasantly surprised me as I wasn’t aware of any such initiative being started on the continent. That was the work of Verone Mankou, a 25 year old Congolese entrepreneur and the news soon made the rounds on Twitter, with good coverage in local newspapers and French media.

What was even surprising to me was the mini controversy that soon followed as some critics questioned the “African” epithet in African Tablet due to the fact that even though the tablet was designed by an African, it was manufactured in China. I did not see the point of such an argument, iPhones are manufactured in China, yet they are not called Chinese phones. I guess the point of that argument could be more targeted at the fact that no new component was created by an African and the tablet is just assembled from existing components but that point is still moot with me. I am more encouraged by the fact that a tablet is being brought to market by an African, for the African market, than in how it is made. This is a starting point and it is needed. The Chinese started with R&D, Repatriated and Duplicate, and knowing how to reverse engineer can be a good starting point to innovation.

So when I read Robert’s article, I learned two new things: first that I was not the only one feeling that way, and second that there were other African tablets being released (Kaboo by a Kenyan, and Encipher/INYE by a Nigerian, Nigeria has also the Ovim tablet). Robert writes that:

Some of the claims from the pundits and journalists were that the Kenyan, Nigerian or Congolese could not have launched or managed to design a tablet so soon without 2 or so years of R&D. Most of these arguments were lame and just brought out the stupidity of the bloggers, pundits and journos. They forgot that many Africans have created far greater ideas without having to go the formal way of innovation.

Harsh terms but it illustrates the irritation that these arguments did indeed evoke in me. In the video accompanying the article, Robert discusses that issue with Professor Ndubuisi Ekekwe, dubbed by Robert as “one of the great young African minds out there”, and Professor Ndubuisi agrees:

He wondered why Africans should be forced to produce new processors, screens and other parts of a tablets while others have already done so. Ndubuisi is of the opinion that to create some of these ideas you just need to know how to assemble a product, make it look African and solve African problems. Africans need not reinvent the wheel.

In my computer science curriculum, this was one of the mantras that was stressed and oft repeated: “Do  not re-invent the wheel” so creating a tablet from existing components totally makes sense to me. I hope these initiatives do indeed capture the market and grow because tablets can be used in Africa for example at the education level, and this is one of the goals of Project Elimu, an open source SaaS School Administration & Management initiative by Coders4Africa, the non profit I work with. Having tablets mass adopted and incorporated in the African public psyche the way mobile phones are is key in ensuring that we can create solutions that make sense in our context.