Learning from Lagos

Earlier this month I finally got a chance to go to Lagos, Nigeria. It left an indelible mark in my mind. Lagos is a gorgeous city, intoxicating and yes, a little gritty but all in all completely intriguing. Intriguing in its scale, its people, and its location. Free flow of thoughts below on what I learned and observed.

You can either experience the Lagos of possibility or of gridlock. It depends on your mental frame. One of the hosts told me that you can attract your own Lagos. You just need to bring an effortless and authentic personality.

You can either be an Afro-pessimist or an Afro-optimist. Either way, you’d better be hustling.  I see several newcomers in Kenya putting down entrepreneurs and regurgitating old stereotypes, even referring to friends in co-working spaces like iHub as ‘monkeys’. (Whole other story that I won’t even get into right now.)

Being in Lagos, I was quite encouraged and happy to see the forward momentum in service provision, infrastructure and even waste management.
I was part of a small group that was given a tour of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system complete with NFC technology for easy payment. The BRT system moves Lagosians quickly through the city in a very efficient manner. The fleet I saw was impressive, not in the shiny super new kind of way…more so in a functional, well maintained somewhat old fleet, yet orderly kind of way. The investment in infrastructure is continuing, with a new light rail system that is on course to be opened in 2016.
As you make your way around the city, there are people with orange coats emblazoned with LAWMA. This stands for Lagos Waste Management Authority, which is ensuring that the city is cleaned up and waste is processed. Clearly there is order from the chaos you thought Lagos was wrought and overrun with.

Lagosian

 

The infrastructure of the mind: This is a key idea that I encountered when Moji Rhodes gave an overview of the efforts by the state of Lagos to not only improve the lives of Lagosians, but to empower them. As is similar in most parts of Africa, there is no escaping the colonial baggage that saddles culture, inefficient legacy systems, land allocation problems…the list can go on and on. The infrastructure of the mind alludes to the cultural renaissance that I think needs to be fostered even more. It is as essential as economic growth in the betterment of African cities. Lagos is ahead in this regard.

What remained in my mind most of all is the immense potential to leverage technology in the service of citizens. EIE – Enough is Enough Nigeria, Sahara Reporters, CCHub, Wennovation, and so many other examples of initiatives that will be integral to helping Lagos youth to engage, have a say and to give back.
I am reminded of the seminal quote for 2012
The role of citizen does not end with a vote – President Barack Obama during his acceptance speech.
How can we set up end to end systems that help citizens beyond elections?
In the case of Lagos, there is potential of impacting almost 8 million people with information services. I am awe struck by the immense opportunity and hats of to the people already investing their time and energy to doing this.

The larger question that I think many cities are trying to answer is how can cities provide services in order to draw the creative, maker, entrepreneurial class? Small and medium sized businesses still power many economies. In Africa, it becomes even more important to invest in growing this segment of the economy. I saw many MTN Mobile money ads, this is likely to be a major growth area for Lagos.

I am curious about culture based design in African cities. From architecture of technology systems that can provide utility and help tackle the unique problem sets of Lagos and Nairobi. Perhaps just effective design in a global sense needs to be applied to the many problems of a complex, growing, vibrant city like Lagos. There is lots to learn, but more so, I think there is so much more to do to connect innovators globally to the important problem sets on the ground. The hard work is of course the end to end workflow of making sure we do not just think of the tech, but the Technium and the ecosystems of the future. The most famous example of a truly unique, effective and Lagosian ecosystem is ofcourse Nollywood.

Through music and fashion I saw glimpses of even more ecosystems being redefined right now in Lagos.

Pictures: Lagos on Africa Knows
Follow: Moji Rhodes, Teju Cole
Read: Omoluwabi 2.0 A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria by Adewale Ajadi
Monopoly Game: City of Lagos Edition
Jam to: Davido – Dami Duro
Chidinma: Kedike,
D’banj – Oliver Twist

On Africa, Growth and Transformation

Below are some thoughts I wanted to share today at the closing plenary of the World Economic Forum on Africa. Many thanks to Mike Macharia, Bill Hoffman, Lorna Irungu-Macharia and Paul Cohen for their thoughts. [More edits later when I get time!]

With population growth of < 30 who could be disaffected, unemployed uneducated or we could be investing in this generation to make them innovative entrepreneurs who are participants in shaping a better future. Africa is at an inflection point of engaging and training the future. From Large corp, Civil Society, innovation hubs like iHub. We should engage on transforming Africa, or we give up a century.

McKinsey estimates Africa’s gross domestic product at about US $2.6 trillion, with US $1.4 in consumer spending. Africa’s population growth and urbanization rates are among the highest in the world and these are the statistics generating demand for innovative new ways to handle the problems they raise

Be careful not to confuse growth with transformation. Growth statistics can provide confidence to invest and a willingness to change. Change cannot be orchestrated, sometimes it happens often from the bottom up. Tolerance for this change and actually support for these changes. One of those positive changes is the growth of innovation and business hubs like the iHub in Nairobi, Bongohive in Tanzania and IceAddis here in Ethiopia. e.g Tax Breaks and incentives for innovation hubs Africa wide. Connect, Invest and scale the work happening here.

A connected world has different velocities, power structures, different risks but transformative opportunities. We are in a hyper connected century of not just consumers, but producers, diverse micro economies and We cannot be afraid of complexity, diversity and gender equity. Empowerment of women and education. Although only 1 in 5 women is a legislator it is higher than the global rate.

Solutions need to be Demand based From my perspective: We can learn from Technology adoption worldwide can provide near term benefits in areas in Agriculture, a woman with a mobile phone and access to an Ushahidi system to get information about appropriate plant disease in Argentina. Adoption of these kinds of systems in Africa can help. The best uses of open source technology is often not under our control. We can provide a great skeleton on which various stakeholders can flesh out appropriate, local solutions. In addition there are homegrown startups like Mfarm and iCow in Kenya. These are young tech women creating solutions for the agricultural sector. We need to support and scale what they are doing to other parts of Africa.

Illusion of a nexus between education, entrepreneurship and innovation. There are real gaps that need to be filled. Focus needs to be on bridging these gaps in a real way and not just in talk. Digital and financial literacy need to be embedded into education systems. Nevertheless, In a nation of 34 million, over 28 million Kenyans own a mobile phone, representing 71.3% of the total population. There is an opportunity to do more to impact more people with the technology they have in their pockets.

Unbelievable paucity of intra-african trade, cost of a 40% of US trade is within NAFTA, 60% of European trade is within Europe, 12% of African Trade is within Africa. The cost of a phone call from Kenya to the US is 10kes, India and China 18kes, and within Africa, 30. Clearly there is more to do here from infrastructure perspective to even internet access where only 13% of Africans have internet access.

Culture: Reimagining “This is Africa” When faced with Process and resource efficiencies, we need to be impatient and demand better. It is not enough to have 600 million mobile subscribers we have answer the question of access to what. Do people have access to healthcare, education, finance and agriculture information and services via those mobile phones or do we have another digital divide emerging. What needs to happen is to figure out the economics for provision of services everywhere even in rural areas. In 10 years Europer could look to Africa on how to crack this.

Linking the digital and physical world in a coordinated way can provide efficiencies. The Transportation sector could benefit greatly transnational communications.
The African opportunity is not just theoretical, given the right opportunity; people can make incredible contributions; as we have seen with several African business leaders from Africa and this year’s Social Entrepenuers. Talent is universal opportunity is not. In order to transform Africa, we need to create opportunities. I was greatly encouraged to see Bethhelem’s sole rebels workshop. She is creating opportunities and is already transforming Ethiopia with a global business. Mxit is an instant messaging and social network platform that processes over 500 million transactions every single day. Fantastic contributions.

The transparency we see with the open data movement, presents opportunity in creating a new asset class. When governments provide data that is accessible, relevant and useful. Many government agencies have fantastic information on historical weather patterns, water levels in rivers and even consumer protection information. Providing that data in an accessible and meaningful way could lead to a new data economy where entrepreneurs leverage that data to reduce inefficiencies.

Hyper local innovation that can make a difference on a village level. It matters and we need open platforms to support these kinds of innovations.

Innovative ideas? Draw on the open source culture that helped grow Ushahidi. global entrepreneurship index is at 2.49: Kenya is at 2.63, second only to Nigeria at 2.7 in Africa among others like the US at 2.8. This number clearly depicts the great potential for Kenya to become a globally- recognized ICT center and more so, an environment for nurturing entrepreneurs talent to a higher level.

Making the case for open source technology as an investment not only by ministries, to invest in the youth in a truly concerted way to build future businesses. What if the national innovation ecosystem is not driven by local needs and culture, its great to partner with multinationals in clusters, but that needs to happen in partnership with local firms. To enable knowledge and skill transfer. That is key in various industries.

On Innovation

There are many tomes, missives and observations on Innovation, that it demands freedom, that it is evenly distributed and should be fostered organizationally and even on a country level

 

Allow me to add one.
To be innovative, you need a healthy modicum of humility. Many a conference has the theme of innovation as part of discussion in almost anything. Innovation in technological context, in development and most recently, innovation in philanthropy. Innovation is something many technologists, futurists and business leaders are in search of. It is like the modern day holy grail in the face of disruptive tech trends that usurp business models, not to mention Moore’s law being ever more apropos with every product launch cycle.

 

As part of the Co-Founding team of Ushahidi, I have the privilege of working with an incredible team that is globally dispersed, with our team call every week encompassing 7 timezones. I mention this because as we have built platforms and tools over the past 3 years, I am continually learning about what it means to innovate. I say continually, because it is a process that is ongoing and does not stop at having a cloud based service (Crowdmap) mobile applications and a semantic data collection curation tools in the pipeline (SwiftRiver). One of the key things I have learned about innovation is that it takes humility to get on the ground; sometimes quite literally, to appreciate the view of an issue or a problem or simply someone else’s story. This became quite clear to me when I was in Zambia last September for the elections, the Ushahidi platform was used to crowd source information about the electoral process. Problem: Being surrounded by rowdy youth, as we approached a polling station; this after checking with the police station and being told that all was well. I did not sign up for alerts from Bantuwatch.org. If I had done so, I would have realized that the reality on the ground was quite different. The view from the ground or the crowd is one you need when assessing any situation.

 

 

As part of the Ushahidi strategy we started an innovation hub in Nairobi. My colleagues and I agreed that we needed to give back to the tech community that helped us get to the global stage plus, we needed a base and office in Kenya. With generous support of The Omidyar Network and Hivos we set out to create a space for technologists, business leaders, developers, designers and the larger tech community. The space helps us convene, collaborate and celebrate this narrative of African tech. Each day, developers congregate, work through their vision of what utility they can provide, we hack, play foosball, have coffee and hack some more, get on Skype calls at odd times of the night, then yes…hack some more after that. Ushahidi is still largely virtual, it is in our DNA after all; the iHub is one of those nodes of communities that is a key part of our interactions. Other nodes are the offices of our partners in the bay area, Mozilla who let us organize meet ups and the countless coffee shops and co-working spaces that cater to the modern day location agnostic web worker, volunteer or simply…geek.

 

Being on the ground, connecting with each node in our global interconnected community is something I can honestly term a gift. In September I travelled to Lusaka, Zambia on the eve of elections. There, I got to see first hand how our platform was being deployed on the ground, publicized over radio; to give citizens a voice during the elections there. While I was there, I met with a group of young developers, volunteers and journalists who were exploring how to grow the nascent tech community in Lusaka. It reminded me of the early days pre-Ushahidi, where Erik, myself, Jason Mule, Shashank Bengali, Brian Muita and others would meet at restaurants that had wifi, to connect. To share, and later, to collaborate. That network that exists in real life and virtually, is one that is without the brick and mortar of co-working spaces and set the foundation for what happened after. I think that is what I helped us innovate. A mix of on-the-ground reality, David Kobia’s coding jujitsu and most of all the open source community online. This is a mix that works for us and we learn together to build the global Ushahidi community. It is not easy. One thing is that when people are gathered based on passion for what they do that is when you see innovations. When there is a direct correlation between the problem and the possible solution, the promise of the tech entrepreneur or mobile developer is to architect the avenue. Pierre Omidyar observed this at ONEF 2011 and I see it in Africa’s techies. We have a long way to go, but we can imagine the world differently and go about building out our vision. Having the tools and the team to do this is like being handed Thor’s hammer.

 

I notice the growth of similar spaces like the iHub in Africa (with glee!) and I notice that countries and philanthropic organizations are setting up self styled tech cities. Some will work, some will not work. In Kenya there is the idea of Konza City. While it looks great on paper and I really would like to see it happen, but I am cautiously optimistic. Why? Partly because of what Roger Malina’s analysis, that most governments haven’t a clue how to innovate, much less foster it. He included much more than I can add here, if you have 21 minutes, definitely watch his talk.

 

For nations and Foundations; If the goal is to spur innovation, it takes humility to listen, to look around and participate with innovators wherever they may be first. To see potential where others see trash, to support and uplift without supplanting and dictating. To connect with others based on passion, that is where where the most influence happens. There is a need for acknowledgment that innovation is a culture with a thumbprint that can be unique, dynamic and most of all long range. One has to think about social Impact, philanthropy or investing. To see solutions where others see problems you have to get back on the ground and listen. This is something we are striving for as we grow Ushahidi around the world and invite others to join us in translating, localizing and Crowdmapping the issues you care about, build communities around the issues and explore solutions collaboratively.

 

PS: Currently heading to Davos from DLD2012 if you’d like to collaborate on Innovation, Tech, Africa, ping me using the contact form above or @afromusing on twitter.

Welcome to Mobisoko

Mobisoko is Africa’s mobile app marketplace. It is the place for you to find location and language relevant applications for mobiles, especially geared to the African market.

mobilogo

Inspiration

In June of 2009 I had the good fortune of attending Nairobi University Techfest. It was an event that showcased the final year projects done by University students. It became clear to me and after discussions with Mulumba and Jessica, that mobile developers in Kenya have the ideas and skills to solve the myriad technology problems we have in Africa. They are creating applications that provide unique, localized utility for Africans.

An example of this is the text to speech application that Simon Ndunda developed. It allows Kikamba (one of the tribes in Kenya) speakers to hear audio versions of SMS in the proper pronunciation. This is particularly useful for blind people, and the library of sounds can later be used for GPS navigation instructions.

video from last year’s techfest, featuring Simon’s app

Simon and other mobile developers have inspired Mobisoko to be a repository for their ideas and a marketplace for the applications they bring to you. We look forward to providing more local apps for Africa and we invite you to join us by:

- Downloading the applications, providing feedback for the developers on the product page. This will help them improve their apps.

- Mobile developers simply email info at Mobisoko dot com with your application, a description and your contact information. We shall test, review and make it available for download on the site.

Karibu! (Welcome!)

**crossposted on the Mobisoko blog. For those in Kenya, come by the ihub 6pm-7:30pm for Mobile Monday, I will be doing a brief presentation about Mobisoko.

Transmediale: The future of Tech in Africa

Written for the Transmediale festival in Berlin – Feb 2nd -7th 2010

The transmediale festival is examinining futurity now what the ‘future’ as a conditional and creative enterprise can be. At its heart lays the intricate need to counter political and economic turmoil with visionary futures. With FUTURITY NOW! transmediale.10 explores what roles internet evolution, global network practice, open source methodologies, sustainable design and mobile technology play in forming new cultural, ideological and political templates.

What follows is my perspective on where the future is headed, particularly as it regards thinking of futurism, technology and Africa.

Before I get to the five ideas that shape my perspective on futurity in Africa, I found myself asking, where are the African futurists? In the discourse of futurist manifestos, there is a dearth of the African perspective. Perhaps its a hold over from the old and tired meme of colonization, post-colonial construct that characterized the 20th century.

Or perhaps its because African futurists are few and far between. This remains an open question for many Afrophiles I encounter.

Let me begin with a big disclaimer. When I speak of Africa, it is a major generalization, though in the technical space many of the trends we see appear to be similar in several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kindly allow me to generalize by using the term Africa to refer to the grouping of countries comprising, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana. Many examples that i will refer to will be from East Africa, particularly Kenya.

There are five points i’d like to make.

1. There is a new meme emerging. As we begin 2010 in earnest, Africa is growing, and some might even say it is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. The future of the web is already here, and it is in Africa.

The growth of mobile phone tech has been explosive. 550% in the last 5 years. The word leapfrogging doesn’t even begin to describe the transformative effect mobiles have had in Africa. Its been revolutionary. It has led to innovations that have applications around the world. Case in point, MPESA (#MPESAishowdoit) a service that started with 52,000 subscribers in April of 2007, it currently has 8.5 million users and processes nearly 10 percent of Kenya’s GDP in transactions that average less than $20. Since its launch, the cumulative amount of money transferred from person to person is 300 Billion kes. When it comes mobile money, the third world is first That this innovation took hold in Kenya first before its adoption in other parts of the world like Afghanistan is something that no futurists could have foreseen.

Many new users of the internet will experience the web through their mobile phones. The development of user interfaces and key research is happening in Africa, with Nokia and IBM setting up research centres on the continent, and home grown innovation hubs such as ihub present exciting possibilities.
My colleague and friend Erik Hersman wrote that if it works in Africa, it works everywhere, from current events in the African tech space, we could go further and posit that If its awesome in Africa, its awesome everywhere.

2. The promise of technology for social change. With the influence of writers like Dambisa Moyo challenging previously held beliefs about aid, and pushing the idea of microfinance aided by technology in the form of projects like Kiva, we see the potential of technology being used for real social change. Making Africans less poor by investing in their enterpreneurial drive as opposed to financing dictator’s lavish lifestyles. There are myriad organizations incorporating mobile tech in provision of services. Its not just mobile, just as Twitter aims to be the pulse of the planet when it reaches a billion years; We are seeing use of crowdsourcing software Ushahidi as an interesting indicator of what can happen when information is crowdsourced and visualized. Tighter coupling of the SMS realm, mobile and the cloud are exciting prospects in Africa.

3. Note: The knowledge economy is not an enclave of the west. The myths about the developing world being left behind have already been debunked by noted statisticians like Hans Rosling. It is a fact that technology is transforming Africa, and it has an important role to play in increasing GDP. As the tech space grows and matures, there will be more localized applications to help increase efficiency and overcome bottlenecks. There is alot of room for growth here, we will see the continued growth of Mixit (SA stats and Africa growth for this innovative application -stats) Pesa Pal, OboPay, Black Star Lines and other companies betting on the mobile and tech growth opportunities in Africa. Students in Africa will have to rise up to the occasion to provide these localized applications. We are clearly not there yet, but i would wager that the brilliant minds in African universities will step into the Global economy and fill an important gap.

4. I grew up in a country where authoritarianism/post cold war stupor? was the other of the day (80′s and early 90′s). There was a sense of oppression, even artistically there wasn’t as much self expression as we’ve seen in the late 90′s and early 2000′s (noughties). There was the age of conversation – with forums and IRC. This gave way to the age of participation, with blogs twitter and social networking, characterised with co-creation and well, the mashup culture (and LOLcats) For African’s online this trajectory has closely mirrored the global phenomenon of social networks, though it was only accessible to the well heeled or diaspora Africans. The problem was basically a lack of large pipes connecting Africa to the world. This is changing. With the arrival of Seacom cable in September 2009, streaming a you tube video is no longer an exercise in futility. What this means is we are likely to see the age of participation and co-creation as more new users get online. Twitter-like services are gaining popularity with the growth of Naija Pulse (uses Laconica) and aggregation services like Afrigator just to name a few. Take for instance KBC – Kenya Broadcasting service – When I was growing up it was the only tv station. Now they have a twitter account for their breakfast show and for some strange reason asked me a trivia question without giving me a prize.Its a new time. You’ve got foursquare, we’ve got smoke signals – Just kidding, there is growing use of google latitude. Hipster Kenyans with smart-phones were turning on their google latitude to find out where their friends are and where the party is during the holidays. One guy and his dad use google latitude to pinpoint their locations and triangulate the nearest bar to meet up for after work drinks. With the introduction of low cost GPS enabled phones in the African market, we are going to see some interesting uses of this technology and innovations that we cant completely foresee.

So what else is in store. I am going to harken to Clive Thompson’s observation about twitter, that it gives the user some sort of prio-perception/ social sixth sense. I do have to mention too that Clive Thompson also wrote about the point in social networks where the conversation stops because the social network gets too big.

5. The internet has enabled the diaspora to keep in contact with their countries, and with this comes the cultural exchange that’s been part of globalization in general. Project Diaspora is a great example of this. Teddy Ruge and his team are using the internet to support a community whose only source of income is from back breaking work at a stone quarry. The diaspora is part of the solution to poverty in Africa, and the internet is the medium.

There are transnational activists (some of them are my friends) participants in what Ethan Zuckerman calls the polyglot internet,
and whom David Sasaki calls ‘Believers without Borders’. They are participants in the mashup culture and could even be called cultural mashups if there was such a term. They may have been born in Africa, but; are global citizens by identity.

This cultural mashup sees an exciting time revealing itself through the retelling of old stories with technology, breathing a fresh perspective into African identity and self expression online. We already see this with the emergence of African Digital Arts, Animations made in Kenya (Just A Band) Senegal (Tree Lion), and the incredible creativity seen as part of the brand tourism around World Cup 2010 in South Africa.

The old memes are almost dead or as Fergie of black eyed peas would say, its so 2000 late. The new meme of Africa is unfolding in front of us. Technologically and culturally the future of Africa is absolutely refreshing.

Below are the slides

- Many thanks to Jepchumba for helping me out, and the Transmediale organizers for inviting me.

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Broadband In Kenya: Small Businesses, Big Pipes

**free flow thoughts on Broadband in general and the advent of SEACOM cable in Kenya**

The 3 SAT3 countries of South Africa, Egypt and Senegal could be said to have fibre optic connections to the rest of the world or what others may call ‘true broadband’, the rest of the countries in Africa have to contend with VSAT connections or have their internet traffic routed through the above named SAT3 countries.

In the case of Kenya, fibre has been laid by companies such as Kenya Data Networks for communication within the country. The problem has been connecting Kenya to the rest of the world. That is where the bottleneck has been. The government of Kenya has been laying cable in many parts of the country, so is just a matter of time before high speed internet access is made available to urban areas and even smaller towns.

Do note the VSAT connections can have broadband-like speeds, so what we should look at is the connection costs and amount of bandwidth available.
For example, an E1 line (equivalent to the American T1) of 2 Mbps to ISPs costs 4000 USD in Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, 7000 USD in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, 32,000 USD in Cameroon, 25,000 USD in SA.

In residential access Telkom Orange charges about 5990 Ksh (approx. 75 dollars) for home access line of 256 kpbs downloads and 128 kpbs uploads per month. Many people use the Huawei wireless modems E220, E160 particularly in Nairobi with the 3G connections, utilizing a pay-as-you-go plan. Kenyan readers, how much do you pay for your internet access? what kind of speed do you get? Do you have a preferred service provider?

By and large, broadband access is very expensive. There are also other projects like TEAMS and EASSY (Quasi-Govt. consortium: Telkom Kenya/Orange is a member, as is Safaricom and Econet) that plan to connect parts of Africa to the rest of the world by Fibre optic Cable. So far SEACOM has arrived first and the prospect of having more competition could result in the cost coming down. Though that may indeed take time. For now, companies herald the arrival of SEACOM’s fibre optic line because it would mean an increase in productivity for businesses that depend on the internet. For example, there is a young businessman in Nairobi with an IT outsourcing company, with his relatively decent connection, he still has to wait for more than 5 minutes to download a 26MB file. In a few months with the SEACOM cable reaching Nairobi, the same download could take less than a minute and he can move on to other tasks. He has employees who often have to upload files via ftp to servers in the US. With the faster speeds it will make their jobs that much easier. He is not even too concerned about the cost right now, the overarching benefit is well…broadband.

There are other factors such as open access, latency, and reliability, but talking about that would be tantamount to counting chicks before they hatch no?

As always, feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments or via twitter if you prefer to be pithy.

Africa popping up in Trend Watch

Now this is positively surprising, though not to many Africa-watchers…
Africa is hot for business now, and its popping up in Time Mag’s trend watch. Great to see that ideas espoused at TEDGlobal Arusha 2007 are reaching the ‘center’ from the fringes.

It’s great to see Time magazine present some trends that are not obvious, well-worn, are already over. They take a chance in this list of ‘10 Ideas Changing The World Right Now.‘ The line up includes not your usual suspects. With any list like this, there is no telling which are likely, but they are at least plausible. Two extra points for a positive African scenario. The ten trends are featured in the pic below; details at the link.

Picture 38

(Via KK Lifestream.)

In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wonder…what of the global economic crisis? Wouldn’t that put a dent in this positive outlook? Oz has a great run down of how the global crisis affects Africa.

Blurb:

1. A slump in external demand affects exports and remittances.
2. A slump in external demand lowers commodity prices. Oil producing nations such as Nigeria are particularly vulnerable.
3. Lack of credit is stifling capital inflows and trade finance in the more advanced markets like Nigeria, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
4 The region is not immune to financial problems of its own. Credit has ballooned in many countries. Banks’ loan books are often concentrated in commodity-related industries.
5. Some retail investors borrowed heavily to punt on local stock markets.

You can also follow OZ on twitter.

\o/ Data Gathering With Mobile Phones

For those in the African technology space, the challenges of gathering data from the field in areas that are not quite ‘on-the-grid’ are apparent. Let me just keep it short by saying ‘Houston, we have a power problem’. Charging laptops when you are off-grid is not easy, but if you have a Nokia E71 that can stay for 3 days without needing a re-charge…well, you get the idea.

Last October I excitedly proclaimed just how much I loved Nokia because they had a data gathering app for E71′s, which they were making available for NGO’s to test out. Please forgive me for not blogging about it. but you can find more info on the mobile active wiki, or watch this 2 minute you-tube clip on tracking the Dengue fever in Brazil.

This brings me to the latest news from FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS forms provides a killer functionality of basically using SMS as the data carrying pigeon. This is how it works. The person running the FrontlineSMS hub creates forms with questions for the person in the field to fill in with information. The field agent only needs to have downloaded the forms client from http://forms.frontlinesms.com/, this will work on any Java enabled phone, which is preety much a whole lotta phones. They can then receive a form from the hub via sms, fill it in and send it back again via SMS. Hmm I like my data-pigeon metaphor! This eliminates the need for a GPRS connection. If the person is entering the data at a place with no mobile signal, the information is still saved in ‘offline’ mode until the phone has a mobile signal. I do have to point out that with \o/ forms you do not require an E71 or high end PDA like with the Nokia data gathering tool. I still heart Nokia, and would highly recommend the E71 if you need a smartphone.

formsclient.jpg

Read more about it over at Ken’s blog, Erik’s thoughts on the Ushahidi blog and Jon Thompson’s coverage on Aid Worker Daily.

This functionality adds more fuel to the mobile => Cloud paradigm that I feel will redefine the participation and engagement with communities in rural areas. Once the information gets back to the hub, it can sync with a web app like Ushahidi or any other web enabled implementation that takes input from the Frontline SMS hub. The pretty graphs and visualizations are best presented on the web IMO. Personally, I am looking forward to using FrontlineSMS \o/ forms to plan a kick-ass tree planting party!

PS: For \o/ users in Kenya, do note that FrontlineSMS works with the Safaricom E220 modem. If it works with the new USB stick version E160? kindly leave a comment.

When I met Ken during the Plan International workshop in Kenya, he said something that I cant help but pass along.
“Do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” Keep doing whatever it is you love to do, and do not be afraid to try something new. I think Tonee and I co-opted that for our new-years motto. Seriously though, if you have ideas for using \o/ in your work, check out www.frontlinesms.com. Ken and his team have built a very useful data gathering tool that could give your project even more reach. Plus, the folks in the forums are super-nice. Really.

Why Localization Matters

Define:Localization
“In computing, internationalization and localization (also spelled internationalisation and localisation) are means of adapting computer software to different languages and regional differences. Internationalization is the process of designing a software application so that it can be adapted to various languages and regions without engineering changes. Localization is the process of adapting software for a specific region or language by adding locale-specific components and translating text.”

Whenever I think about technology and Africa, the importance of localization really sticks out in my mind. I harken back to the posts by Ethan Zuckerman and Koranteng Ofusu Amaah to revisit this issue. Ever had problems with images you uploaded to flickr?

As a software designer, Koranteng understands how hard it is to get the details of localization right – full support for different character sets and text that reads right to left instead of left to right. But he’s also interested in the cultural details of software design, which can be so subtle that you’re unlikely to detect them unless you’re directly effected by them:

Koranteng wrote:

The first thing I very quickly noticed: somehow all the photos that I uploaded to Yahoo Photos turned out darker than on Flickr (the services both resize uploaded photos). The photo-resizing algorithm used by Yahoo Photos was giving worse results. This was noticeable to me because a large number of photos featured darker-skinned people such as myself. The originals were fine and where there were lighter skin tones everything looked good, but with darker skintones, the resized photos were not so good.

Ethan noted that Koranteng found similar problems with Flickr’s flash plug-in and slideshow feature, as well as with Adobe Photoshops Quick Fix and Auto Correct options. Has anything changed since 2005 when Ethan wrote about this? I do not think so, but correct me if i am wrong.

Localization matters because cultural sensitivity in technology is paramount to designing products that work as well as possible for all communities.

Localization matters because, as this African technologist’s said…
“if it’s meant to be local, it should be locally developed” – Paa Kwesi Imbeah

So where are we today in terms of localization of software in Africa?

The most successful story that illustrates what opportunities there are in solving African (sw localization) problems with African solutions is that of Ted Kidane of Feedelix. Feedelix is currently providing products that allow SMS editing in Hindi, Chinese and Ethiopic. Software made by an African and now providing products to the world.

Another organization to watch and take note of is Kasahorow in Ghana. These guys are doing some incredibly cool stuff.
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Kasahorow has been working on the Africa keyboards to aid in writing African content, in African languages. They are doing this for all the major operating systems. More info can be found here, including a downloadable package that you can try out. If your main language is Akan, Gaa, Gbe, Hausa, Igbo, Kikuyu, Luo, Swahili, Tswana and Youruba be sure to download that package.

Kasahorow is working on the ANLoc Project; a partnership with other organizations to address the issue of localization by creating locales, building tools, terminologies, standards, etc. More info about ANLoc can be found on African localisation dot net. Gotta love their tag line ‘The African Network for Localization’

There is a firefox add-on that Kasahorow released: Ladies and gentlemen, the Akan Dictionary for Firefox 3.0. Dare I say, cool stuff indeed.

Localization matters because it is empowering.
If ANLOC can succeed in its mission to enable Africans to participate in the digital age by making it easier for people to use technology in the language they are comfortable with, this only bodes well for the preservation of African languages and even fostering innovation. Ideas expressed in many ways, not just in English. (Yes, i do enjoy pointing out the obvious sometimes)

Like Jeremy Clarke of Global Voices put it simply: English != Global. The GV Lingua project, translates GV content from English to 15 languages, with Swahili and Polish translations having been added recently. Translations work best when the person has cultural context to allow for expressions in slang and language structures that are difficult to build into machine language. This is another example of localization + aggregation of content. Dare i say again, cool stuff indeed.

Another site to keep an eye on is AppAfrica, If i am not mistaken, there will be a project to translate tutorials from English to Swahili on their code repository.

On a global level, the ubiquity (firefox) experiment from Mozilla labs seeks to empower users and lusers heh heh to control the web browser with language based instruction. They want to make this available in more than 60 languages. Check it out here, and contribute to it if you can.
Watch this clip of Aza Raskin showing how ubiquity works.


Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

All in all, in real estate they always say location, location, location…when it comes to African tech i would categorically say localization, localisation, localization. (thank the Brits and Americans for the spelling differences). I would like to hear your thoughts on localization, if you have other examples, and of course more on the mobile web, which I did not touch on on this post.