The New Information Age – Dr. Barry Devlin Tech4Africa 2011

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities worldwide in business intelligence who is also a widely respected consultant, lecturer and author. Barry puts forward all of his 30 year experience in explaining how to take messy bits and bytes and convert those data in to something useful. He covers the evolution of the use and storage of information within businesses in the last 40 years. A topic he also covers is the role of relational database where they move from a supportive platform to a core platform. Essentially, to have relevant information, Barry talks about the importance of having complete, connected and comprehended data through his new architecture for information in businesses.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3_KMQFMgNg&w=560&h=315]

How do we build better environments for developing better software? Rian Van der Merwe – Tech4Africa 2011

Rian covered an important and often overlooked topic of building a better environment for software development by trying to elaborate on the consequences of different development silos which are caused by developing in isolation. Lonely Silos, usually applicable to small start-ups with a couple of developers who are so stuck in their devices and desperate to release a minimum viable product but fail to focus on design, or being stuck in endless cycles not knowing where to end. This in return results in releasing a product that has no value to the consumer or in the worst case, failing all together largely because they’re unable to define the processes or have a structured methodology.

Functional Silos on the other hand, applicable to large business with many teams which are responsible for different parts of a product, can often have the issue of having too many people getting involved, tired developers and making changes that have no real effect.

Refining collaboration and better communication according to Rian, is one of way overcoming these challenges which will help your company build better software. Check out the video and find out how.

Watch the “Bill Gates of Africa” talk about his vision for innovation and technology in Africa

Often described as the “Bill Gates of Africa”, Herman Chinery-Hesse embodies his mantra “Only Africans can save Africa“, and believes that if Africa misses the current global IT boat, there may never again be an opportunity for rapid wealth creation on the continent. He will talk candidly about the challenges, potential and opportunity present in African technology today.

In his own words, “if Africa misses the current global IT boat there may never again be an opportunity for rapid wealth creation on the continent“.

Africa’s First Mobile Career Opportunities Community Launches at Tech4Africa

By: Gustav Praekelt

Africa’s first mobile career opportunities social network was launched today at Tech4Africa by Gustav Praekelt, founder of Praekelt Foundation.

Called Ummeli – the Nguni word for “mediator” – the mobile platform went live on October 27th on YoungAfricaLive, a community to share and discuss critical issues such as love, sex and relationships of over 500 000 active participants and that celebrates its second birthday on December 1st.

Already over 3000 users have joined Ummeli in its first day, a mobile social network that focuses on creating opportunities for young, primarily poor, Africans – the segment of society most affected by unemployment as several recent YAL polls have potently shown.

One, asking YAL’s community what the single biggest challenge facing today’s youth is, drew close to 4500 responses – 2233 of which said a lack of jobs was an even more significant challenge than HIV/AIDS. Additionally, in a recent poll to ask YAL’s users how the mobile community should expand, an overwhelming 65% of respondents asked for “jobs and education” to be added to the platform’s mix. As one YAL user, Judge Jury, movingly put it in a community post, “I passed my matric very well, applied for NFAS loan, but didn’t get. Applied for low standard job but didn’t get it. Now the community thinks I am lazy but that’s not the case. I cry everyday, I’m so stressed”.

Ummeli is founded on the principle of Ubuntu (“I am what I am because of who we all are”) – resulting in the creation of a supportive community of young jobseekers who use the platform for advice, suggestions, connections, and an ideas exchange. In addition, registered Ummeli users will be able to share job posts and relevant information around bursaries and grants. Easy-to-use practical tools ensure users can edit their CV on their phones, and submit their CVs for jobs they may be interested in – or even use the CV Coach tool in creating this vital part of job-seeking.

“Ummeli is a much more than simply a portal to find a job through,” explains Shikoh Gitau, who developed a mobile job board and CV builder as part of her PhD in Computer Science at the University of Cape Town. “The emphasis is very much on a community where young Africans can support each other in the development of their careers, share ideas, act as connectors or even just be a sounding board when things seem hopeless.”

Hailing from Kenya and currently working for Google, Shikoh was motivated to come up with Ummeli whilst observing the sometimes overwhelming unemployment faced by Africa’s young citizens.

“In Kenya, like in so many African countries, it’s the youth that is most affected by unemployment. But as YoungAfricaLive has shown in the territories where it operates, Africa’s youth are fully switched on to mobile technology and Ummeli is a way of using that to help young Africans in developing countries on their journey to find employment.”

Currently, the official stats for unemployment in South Africa sit at 25.70%, although this is widely considered conservative. Earlier this year, the South African Institute of Race Relations published its South Africa Survey in which it showed that unemployment amongst 15- to 24-year-olds is 51 percent, more than twice the national unemployment rate. Unemployment is highest among African women aged 15 to 24 years, coming in at 63 percent.

“This is a horrific figure,” says Gustav Praekelt. “Building on the success of YoungAfricaLive in getting its users engaged around the issues that affect them, including HIV/AIDS, we believe that Ummeli has every chance of making a real impact – of really changing people’s lives and positively impacting the cycle of poverty.”

In this, Ummeli fits into Praekelt Foundation’s mission of building open source, scalable mobile technologies and solutions to improve the health and well-being of people living in poverty. Already, with the support of funders like Omidyar Network, programmes that have emerged out of Praekelt Foundation and its partners have reached over 50 million people across 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. On October 26th, the Praekelt Foundation-driven Project Masiluleke, which uses mobile phones and other technologies as high impact, low cost tools in combating HIV/AIDS, was named the first winner of the Tech4Africa Innovation Award, created to encourage innovation in solving uniquely African problems whilst also encouraging global thinking.

Working with Gitau, the team at Praekelt Foundation – led by computer science graduate Milton Madanda – has built the Ummeli platform specifically for mobile devices, aiming to harness the power of this technology in the hands of young Africans . Among its users will be people looking for employment in developing countries, companies seeking employees, NGOs looking for volunteers and community-initiated projects.

Ummeli can be accessed for free, with no bandwidth charges, while users are on the YoungAfricaLive platform on Vodacom. Once users click on a job link or the URL of a company advertising a job, they will be charged normal bandwidth rates to access that URL. Ummeli will be initially tested within YAL while a standalone Ummeli mobi platform is created.

Samsung pitches ignite Tech4Africa

By: Roger Hislop

Last session for the day, a bunch of start-ups pitched their businesses, some looking for funding, some looking for audience, and some just happy to get some gongs.

Each start-up gave a few minutes pitch, took a couple of questions, and then people voted on Twitter with a hashtag #ignite #t4a, and a panel evaluated and then picked a winner.

In order of appearance, the pitches were:

Snapbill

Online billing system to allow companies to sell online without needing e-commerce – or to handle their billing and invoicing online. The company is already selling to a global base, has customers all over the world in all tax jurisdictions and in all currencies. They’re looking to kick their growth up a notch, so are investing R1m of their capital and looking for a couple of mill funding.

Lessfuss

This is an online assistant to answer your questions, or find you a service at R30-R50 a pop. There’s a number of these kind of concierge services. Lessfuss recons their differentiator in that they understand South African stuff (who is Telkom, what is “just now”), unlike, say, India-based services. They’re also building a useful database of questions and replies. It’s a kind of PA service, limited to a task that takes ½ hour or so that you can do on telephone or Google. Agents work through a software platform they’ve built, from home.

10layer

Publishing and the Internet have not reached each other. Traditional content management systems don’t do a great job – don’t really suit the publishing game. They’re currently providing a platform for M&G, Daily Maverick and another unnamed company. Systems like Drupal are too stretched, don’t work brilliantly for niches like online publishing. The pitch worked great for me as a publishing guy – people from outside the industry were a bit baffled by what it is they do. Trust me – publishing is a bloody tricky game, offline or on, and newsrooms and production teams need all the help they can get. Very niche.

Plotmyride

This very neat system to allow you to plot a cycle race (or whatever kind of ‘travelling’, such as sailing, etc) in real time. This allows support people at the end of a bicycle race, for example, to see how you doing. It’s also historical: how you performed, fellow riders, clubs, etc. It also makes it easy to share your riding experience via social media. It is a very slick-looking product (waterproof, rugged unit with GPS and GPRS radio). Updates happen in real-time, you don’t need to upload later. It also has features such as crash detection to alert someone to an accident. In addition, it pushes to and from other devices – so you can stay in touch with teammates throughout an event. Sure, smartphones can kinda do this, but are not ruggedised. A big opportunity is to be able to have an entire event – tracked in real time for anyone to see the field as it progresses.

FeedbackRocket

Usefulness vs. Confidentiality – a 360 review in Human Resources process gets a bit useless because anonymity stops a manager knowing useful stuff about someone with a problem, but without anonymity no one opens their mouth. FeedbackRocket acts as a proxy to allow conversations through a ‘virtual confessional screen’. It can also interrogate data, for example to allow you to look at people who “disagree” in a sample to find out what their problem is. The company is also looking at using the system for anti-bullying measures, and tying up with something like GetAGreatBoss.com. Built by an actuary, it also kicks in lots of analytics and other clever stuff.

iSign.pro

Do deals faster by reducing contract processing time. iSign manages contracts signing, archiving and auto-review. Primary market is SMBs – these have lots of employment contracts, mobile phone contracts, etc. The joke the pitcher gave is that 21,000 registered attorneys must be doing something… iSign is faster, cheaper, greener by reducing the time delays and admin. The product will be sold through Incredible Connection, and also have a strong viral thread (every customer will essentially bring in a new customer), and there is a built-in affiliate deal for customers (anyone they bring in gives them back a small cut).

Mobiflock

Someone think of the children. Mobiflock is for making smartphones safer for the children. It stops kids accessing inappropriate/unacceptable content, or even limiting hours of use. They are adding features like geo-fencing (alert if outside area). From the control panel parents can see what kids are browsing and the messages they are exchanging (with AI to look for grooming), with logs of where the phone’s been. A timetable function lets parents limit use to a particular time of day. The business is privately funded, but it’s looking for exposure and users.

Realtimewine

75% of wine are purchased through supermarkets in South Africa, with 4,200 independent wine producers. The funny things is that all these guys are trying to reach the wine snobs. Wine review apps (like Platters) are full of bloody meaningless wine snob drivel that says little of value to the normal wine drinker. And that’s where realtimewine comes in. They have writers, and one in four reviews are user generated. Since most supermarkets are ludicrously unsuited to choosing wines, this app should be a winner (especially if you’re trying to choose something nice for a dinner party) So: scan your wine, or enter the name. You’ll get the community’s vote, as well as that of “favourite” top reviewers. And then it can add incentives: Golden Tickets that can give you free stuff, like discounts. They are also looking at sales online, plus a wine of the month type thing (chosen by your friends). And they can sell consumption details to retailers. A whole lot of revenue streams.

Stay tuned, winners to be announced tomorrow.

Don’t fake it ‘til you make it, hack it ‘til you crack it

By: Roger Hislop

Herman Chinery-Hesse is a funny guy that spins a great yarn. They call him the Bill Gates of Africa, but he’s more like Frank Opperman’s Chris Karedes character in the old TV show “The Big Time” – always scheming, pulling off one mad adventure after the other. Unlike Chris Karedes, who, to be frank, was a bit of a dodgy loser, Chinery-Hesse is going from strength to strength in West Africa, with his mixture of tech savvy, street smarts, fearless entrepreneurialism and the ability to smell out a good business opportunity.

Like Karedes, he looks for the unconventional approach, the WTF, the thing that no-one else thought of. And if he has to cut corners and pull a couple of fast ones, then so be it. As Chinery-Hesse says: “sometimes you have to gangster it”.

He is a massive believer in Cloud (or as we used to call them, “Internet-based systems”). In Africa we have power failures, we have unreliable communications systems – a recipe, you’d think, for needing on-site systems with generators – except that the complexity and cost of this is even a bigger problem. In the last few years, telecoms systems across the continent have improved thanks to massive investment. At the same time the developed world is up to its neck in massive, reliable, scaleable hosting services that can now be easily accessed from almost anywhere in Africa. Together, and you have a recipe for tech growth.

Use the West’s tech infrastructure to build Africa

There is a clear subtext in all this – the West has spent generations abusing and taking advantage of Africa, but smart African technologists are using this Western technology to build solutions that work brilliantly for African market needs.

Chinery-Hesse started his tech career in Ghana after spending time studying and working in the US and UK – a serendipitous encounter at a travel agency saw the launch of a software business, first picking up a whole lot more travel agency business, and then extending into point of sale systems. He is blunt about the reasons for his initial success – the bigger international companies in Ghana needed software systems, but were unable to use the high-tech Internet connected systems of their international parent organisations. This allowed SOFTtribe to grow to 90-odd people over three or four years, spreading into Nigeria.

Then, the Internet came, and the cash cow dried up for his on-site software systems – and there was no other local market for it.

So before the Cloud was called the Cloud, Chinery-Hesse was already moving to a hosted model where he could profitably provide software services to mom’n’pop operations.

He was also looking at the next big thing to get him into The Big Time. And this was a payments system/online shopping system with a new company called Blackstar to act as an Amazon for Africa.

Opportunity knocks

This was taking years – setting up payments systems, working out the mechanics of cross border transactions and other complexities. So while this was going on, an opportunity arose for a payments card – rather like the “Oyster Card” system used in London – but rather than complex chip-card designs, they went for a basic barcoded system (he used to do point of sale, remember, so PoS barcode scanners were old hat).

This was the start of a radical new direction – the payments card was set up as a quick hit to use at a trade show – but could be utilised for a host of other events and uses, from music gigs to on-the-fly household and vehicle insurance.

These projects are where the “hack it ‘til you crack it” and “gangster it” come in.

The solution was hacked together using bits and pieces of technologies, and implemented by the seat of the pants and a couple of favours from old contacts.

“We didn’t have money to make big marketing splash, we had to gangster it,” he says (a term that has now taken on a life of it’s own at Tech4Africa). In one deal, he cut a TV company into a card system to get the much-needed publicity. In another, he had an old friend that ran a logistics business give him zero-rating to get volume discounts from the air cargo operator.

He’s all about these kind of relationships of convenience – if you need to get into the market in a nearby country, you need to make some deals with local businesspeople. “As a pan-Africanist, this is what I believe – that if we can unite across businesses in Africa, borders become irrelevant.”

This combination of local deals and the Cloud is critical to success in African markets for him – the ability to count on multi-billion dollar highly reliable telecoms and server systems, but through a business model that allows him to talk to the bottom of the pyramid with products they can afford.

Go where only Africans want to go

He is also vastly sceptical of the large international companies, especially in IT services, being able to make any real difference in Africa, or even really crack this market.

“Sometimes it takes an African to do it, to go in the bush, speak in local language, make the deal,” he says – it’s time consuming, needs local knowledge, and requires patience. Something Western companies are not great with.

That is the last great take-home from his talk – that you don’t need to do things perfectly in Africa, and you don’t need to worry about ‘best practice’ and ‘international standards’, as often no-one else on this continent is doing this kind of stuff yet. In a hyper-competitive market you have both the luxury and the burden of chasing perfection. Africa is largely still a tech green field, you just need to act, act quickly, and get it to work. And where possible, use the West’s tech infrastructure to give you a leg up.