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.

One Maker Space Per Village?

I feel very fortunate to have met Dipesh Pabari. Years ago, before Ushahidi, we crossed paths when we were both interested in environmental issues and conservation. When I met him again this year, I found that we are still tree huggers just with more responsibilities, smartphones and more hectic lives.

Dipesh near the gray water treatment area

Dipesh is an inspiring man with a mission to help a village develop. When I visited his family in the South Coast of Kenya, I had no idea just how much he had continued to champion re-use and recycling. In Kenya we used to have a very efficient deposit system for soda, where you had to either have the bottle/case of empty bottles to purchase soda and beer. It worked very well. Current situation? A mess. So many plastic bottles litter the city, and you’d be hard pressed to find recycling bins anywhere. There are bins for trash, but as far as I know there are no formal recycling services. Informal systems of collecting plastics for reuse do exist, but not at a scale that takes care of the current problem. Kenya’s cities have a trash handling problem to say the least.

Seeing these problems in Kenya, Dipesh decided to do something. Through his work with Camps International, he has continued to champion reuse and recycling.
Taking discarded flip flops (what Kenyan’s call Pati Pati in Swahili) and turning them into beautiful, functional pieces like key rings, pencil holders, bangles, desk art and more.
He has found ways to use discarded plastic bottles as building materials for everything from water tanks, sky lights and many more.
What was most inspiring is that he is using plastic bottles to build out a polytechnic in Muhaka, a small village of about 3000 inhabitants. It is quite remote, beautiful but very very poor with few options for creation of wealth.

This is what he has been able to do so far.

Water Tank

Water tank made with plastic bottles, cement and other materials.

Vertical gardening with used tyres

Vertical gardening with used tyres

Muhaka Polytechnic

Plastic bottles as decorative building material at Muhaka Polytechnic

Untitled

This is a skylight. Made out of what?

Reuse. Reclaiming. Ingenious. Impactful

Find out…

Glass bottle Re-use

Decorative wall that lets in light, made out of glass bottles

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Fun items made from recycled flip flops

Muhaka is an outpost of creativity, dare I say innovation and a possible node in the global network of people interested in learning, making and solving problems. Many of you who read this blog likely work in one such place, be it 1871 in Chicago, The Media Lab in Boston or even iHub in Nairobi. I am curious about the idea of making, with highly contextualized problem sets. Like those to be found in this small village, in urban spaces like Detroit, struggling towns in the midwest and Appalachia. I could not help but think, what if we networked these initiatives and learned from each other? perhaps at first virtually, but then mix fun safaris with actual world changing work and learning? Makers meeting makers, sharing, learning, inspiring… Transnationally, is it possible?
Inspiration

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.