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.



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

I am in your OLPC, reverse engineering your Keyboardz

There is a developing story that could prove very embarrassing for Prof. Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC foundation. According Reg Hardware, The OLPC foundation is being sued by Lagos Analysis Corp for copyright infringement.

Lagos CEO Adé G. Oyegbọla tells El Reg that the company’s Konyin Multilingual Keyboard features four shift keys and a software driver specialized to more easily reproduce the uncommon accent marks found in Nigerian languages and dialects. Such diacritic ticks can be unwieldy in traditional keyboards, but are often essential to getting the right message through. (For example, Oyegbọla explains, without the dot below the “o” in Lagos CTO O. Walter Olúwọlé’s name, the meaning becomes “God destroys the house).

Oyegbọla claims that Nicholas Negroponte, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who founded the OLPC foundation, purchased two of the company’s keyboards in 2006 and used them to reverse-engineer its keyboard technology.

Reg Hardware includes images of the two keyboards for comparison.
The OLPC Keyboard
OLPC Keyboard
The Lagos Analysis Keyboard
lagos anaysis keyboard

You can look at the keyboards yourself and make up your mind. To me the placement of the keys seem very similar and I would even posit that the OLPC keyboard does look like it borrowed something from the Lagos Analysis one. In the reg hardware article, they are yet to receive a substantive answer from OLPC so this story will keep going for a little while at least. I am pulling up a chair ringside to watch what happens. If it is proven that OLPC lifted the design and functionality from Lagos analysis, it is very disingenuous and just plain ‘not cool’. However, this story reminded me that the functionality described is one that contextualizes technology for use in Africa. I think this is important in the future of design for Africans, (by Africans?). Is it possible that Lagos Analysis corp by virtue of being African understood the need for the features described above and thereby designed it with the African languages in mind? Can the Negroponte camp prove that they came up with the keyboard concept and if so, how did they know which special characters are important in African languages? Last year when discussing Hash’s ‘A web Technology idea for Africa’, the question of language being relevant to tech implementation came up. At the time i was not quite sure what the implications of that observation were, but I think it is now clear to me that ‘cultural sensitivity’ is a concept to be applied to web technology and as this case shows…computing.

Cultural sensitivity in technology idea was the brain child of Koranteng Ofosu Amaah’s post, which was later included in the book Best of Technology Writing 2006. It should be required reading for anyone making tech products/services. While flickr is still not too kind to us melanin blessed folks, there are some great examples of culturally sensitive services and products: Check out Ted Kidane’s story of Feedelix from TEDGlobal 2007, Arusha -sms software for Ethiopic languages, and also Suuch Solutions out of Ghana – “kasahorow’s mission is to enable local languages remain a viable form of communication for all aspects of life.” They use Open source software to do this by the way.

I was listening to the digital planet podcast (11/26) where they had a correspondent attend the launch of the OLPC in Abuja, Nigeria. You could hear the excitement and enthusiasm in the children’s voices as they spoke of what they would do with the OLPC. It was a great moment. Now to the questions that started popping into my head like Orville Redenbachers microwave popcorn. When Gareth Mitchell was talking to Bill Thompson, they mentioned how they attended the OLPC launch in Tunis and how a child was crying because they’d been given an OLPC to play with for a time, then it was taken away. That was not a good moment, rather sad really, that kid is probably traumatized right now wherever he or she may be. I mean isn’t that just a little cruel? I know i would wail like a banshee if i was in her shoes. The discussion segued into what it would mean for the children to have a laptop that they would call their own. This got me wondering, that perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the OLPC project is that it would enhance the idea of ‘mine’ rather than ‘ours’. In modern Africa do the age old African values of community and sharing still apply? Would the OLPC idea chip away at the ‘utu’, that is a societal benchmark? Is the Ndiyo project a better thought out model for computer literacy, what with the idea of USB thin clients that I am already a fan of?

(Warning: the post is about to degenerate to something entirely pedantic)
Maybe I am looking at this all wrong, Is Negroponte pimping the ‘education project’ in pursuit of…what? The next generation of Africans to be Ipod toting, consumerist driven, video game obsessed, camping out for days in front of Best buy in Timbuktu_Kabartonjo_jinja of the future? Stomping on each other to get to the newest version of the Zii during an ‘African Thanksgiving blowout!’ sale? I know i am from the begging bowl peoples of Africa, but seriously, i have to draw the line at camping out in front of Best buy. A girls’ got to have some dignity!
O.k, ok how did i get here? I blame fakestevejobs, who has a hilarious take on this whole XO lawsuit mess (via Park Paradigm). I hope the OLPC foundation and Lagos Analysis Corp can sort this soon, or you will likely see next headline on Wall street Journal being… ‘The little laptop that stole’ instead of this ‘The little laptop that could’.

*The title of this post is a riff on this. You can read some background information about the OLPC at African Loft, and see what else Africans are saying on Afrigator.

Solar tech in the medical field – Salam cardiac surgery center sudan etc.

While at TEDGlobal I met Manuel Toscano, a gentleman who works for Emergency USA. We talked shortly about solar power being a great technology for use in remote areas. He filled me in on a hospital that was designed using the following guiding principles.
-The idea of a “hollow” space and a pavilion-based system;
-The choice of the best possible technology given the context;
-The search for an ethical language for this type of architecture.

The choice of solar power for a hospital in an oil rich country might seem a bit ironic, but there is more to this. The specific details of how the energy produced by the panels is used is particularly interesting.

Solar panel: free healthcare, free energy
The average temperature in the Sudan is 29°C, and in the hottest months it can reach 45°C. In order to cool down the hospital, a number of measures were taken during construction. In addition to this, air conditioners were installed after the building was constructed. In the first case, a series of insulating techniques were used. The external walls for example are 58 cm thick and contain an insulating cavity that prevents the building from heating up. The use of traditional cooling systems would have implied high levels of electrical energy or fossil fuel consumption (the needs in terms of volumes of air to be cooled down are hefty: 28,000 m3). In a country rich in oil resources, EMERGENCY has sought out alternative sources of clean energy: the sun. Nine containers left Italy for Khartoum with 300 solar panels, bringing to the country an almost unknown technology, and one that is very seldom used in Europe. Today a plant that contains 288 solar collecting items (for an equivalent of 900 m2, or the area of 10 houses) produces 3,600 KW- as much as burning 355 kg of gas â?? without producing one gram of CO2. Each collecting item is made up of a number of copper tubes that contain water; these are themselves placed in insulated glass tubes that allow the water inside the copper tubes to heat up. The water transfers the accumulated heat to an insulated 50 m3 tank that keeps the water between 80-90°C. The heat is then cooled down to 7°C in two “chilling” machines. Solar power thus allows the center to produce cold air without discharging any particles into the atmosphere, and limits the use of electric power to water circulation pumps. Two regular boilers have also been installed in case the solar power is not sufficient to run the two “chilling” machines. The cold water is used to lower the levels of heat in the rooms that need to be chilled for medical or other purposes. The machines used for this last part of the cooling circuit are called UATs (Units of Air Treatment). There are 8, each one designed for a specific area of the hospital (CPR, surgery, administration, etc). The UATs draw air from outside and “force” it into a 7°C tube that cools it down. A second system of tubes subsequently transports the cool air to various hospital rooms according to need.

In short, the surgery center is kept cool using a combination of the water from the Nile and the Solar panels. For more detail on the design guidelines of the salam center please click here [pdf]. (Thank you Manuel).

It is becoming increasingly clear that solar tech is flexible enough to allow for innovation in any field. Another example of solar being especially useful in the medical field is the ‘Hospital in a box’ invention by Dr. Seyi Oyesola, a TED Global Speaker and innovator.
Hospital in a box by Dr. Oyesola.
Jason Pontin of TR summarized his invention as

It was a simple, portable (well, 150-pound), resilient set of medical devices that makes surgery possible even in the worst parts of the world. The hospital in a box has anesthetic equipment, a defibrillator, a burn unit, plaster-making tools, surgical tools, and an operating table.

In my post on tales of invention, i noted that the ‘Hospital in a box’ can be charged using a truck battery or a solar panel.

Note: TED fellows Dr. Chikwe Iheakweazu and Dr. Ike Anya from Nigeria started the blog ‘Nigeria Health Watch’ to discuss and bring to the fore health care issues in Nigeria and Africa in general. Do visit them and subscribe to their feed if you are in the medical field and want to be in the loop.

Back to architecture: This ted talk from Cameron Sinclair is very inspiring.

TED Global Day 2 – The Risk Takers

Florence Seriki: An African woman in computing. Omatek is the first African computing company.

She switched from Chemical engineering to computing where she started by selling hardware and training professionals in Nigeria. Keep doing what you are doing she says. In 1988 Omatek was incorporated and soon her company became a premier partner with Compaq and IBM [>$7mil in sales]. In 1991, she visited Asia she saw the supply chain and noticed the Chinese tech was developed in house. She came back to Nigeria, started Omatek Computers. Despite the ‘clone’ tag attached to her company, she ploughed on. People used to call the Chinese copy cats, see where those companies are now.

The idea of ‘designing down’ does not sit well with Florence, she believes that African computers can be made locally and at high quality. Buying computers for resale can get challenging because of minimum orders to the tune of $700,000. This is a major stumbling block and thus the imperative is for Africans to create their own supply chains.

Challenge 2: Financing from banks who do not see the opportunity.
Challenge 3: Electricity problem in Nigeria. This ties back to the talk by Idris Mohammed that the next big opportunity is in providing power in Africa.

– Lots of SME’s can help with bridging the digital divide.

– Continued Govt support for locally made products.

She took the risk of starting the business and well…what a trailblazer for all women!

ALIEUH CONTEH – Founder of Vodafone Congo

–govt was not helpful at all when it comes to licensing, it was a challenge. besides the lack of infrastructure, it cost so much in capital expenditure. The metaphor would be ‘getting stuck in the mud’ figuratively and literally since the trucks would get stuck in the mud and things were just harder to get going.
He put forth all his savings and built the network over the years, even as the war continued. He had to negotiate with the govt and the rebels. CWN Started out with 30,000 subscribers and grew to 3 million subscribers growing by 1.5 to 2 million a year. Current valuation of the company is $1.5 Billion.

Ainea Kinaro – 3 minute talk on Organic Waste – The ignored Resource. He showed pictures of the Human waste is being collected into huge systems to produce methane gas. The other by product is fertilizer which is used in rwandan coffee farms. He reviewed the benefits of using renewable energy, especially something as abundant as human waste.

You can find more over at Ethans’ my battery is done for.

Opinion: Spoke shortly with Tom Rielly the Director of TED partnerships. “TEDGlobal is the kind of conference Africa deserves” Indeed!