The knowledge economy is the kitchen of ideas

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

Curry paste? … what on earth does curry paste have to do with the knowledge economy? Steve Song says the knowledge economy is like the “kitchen of ideas”. If you don’t have access to the recipe, you waste time making it all up from scratch. But if you do have access to the recipe, then you can tinker, add value, make something totally delicious and explore what it would taste like if you … added more coriander?
Essentially (and with apologies to Isaac Newton), you can stand on the shoulders of giants.
Steve maintains that when the costs of accessing telephony are driven down, it opens up space for a “torrent of innovation”. Give people the basics and set their genius free!

At the presentation of Tech4Africa entitled “Three pieces of kit for a neighbourhood network”, Steve (Telecommunications Fellow for Shuttleworth Foundation) spoke about an initiative called the mesh potato, named for a lovely, obscure sort of connection between the acronyms POTS (plain old telephone system) and ATA (analog telephone adapter) … and possibly some late night Spanish patata bravas?

The mesh potato is an Open Hardware project to create wireless telephony, designed to address the needs of developing countries. In Africa, where most people spend vast amounts of disposable income (in some cases more than 50%) on telecommunications, the cost of access is a substantial barrier to innovation. The mesh potato is designed to eradicate that barrier and give people the freedom to explore creatively without worrying about how much it’s going to cost them. With the mesh potato, people in a village can talk to one another, or connect into a broader network, at minimal cost. Where this will take us, only the future can tell.

In a world where the only certainty is unpredictability and no-one knows what the next big thing is, the question is how to cope in an environment that you can’t plan for? Trial and error is the new planning. Steve advises that you need to take an evolutionary, organic approach. Success survives – and the only way to plan for this is to develop tools that facilitate everyone being a creator.

Mobile networks in South Africa today are making the same mistake that commercial Internet providers in the USA (such as compuserve, MSN and others) made 15 years ago,
when customized internet services were just developing. Their revenue model is based on walled gardens, which automatically restricts innovation. Steve advocates for paradigm shift to an open approach, giving cheap access to telephony, which opens the door to local innovation and problem solving for community problems.

The range of the mesh potato is currently around 400m (although this can be extended through ‘scaffolding’). In South Africa it is legal to use these networks as long as you’re not charging customers. However, if you want to run a commercial service you would need to apply for a license.

Mobile phones haven’t yet fulfilled their potential in the knowledge economy. That change is coming, but it needs to happen faster. The mesh potato will go a long way towards making that happen because it provides, at low cost, the opportunity for people to build their own telephone networks and take it from there.

(The mesh potato is on sale from next month – buy one online from the village telco. It’s designed to survive the weather (and dummies who might not know what cables to stick where), so you can stick one outside your house (UV and weather resistant) and get connected.
Also, the Village Telco is looking for volunteers, partners, investors –contact Steve if you are interested –

Find out more about the mesh potato on this podcast with Steve Song.

Samantha Fleming

Global experts to share knowledge at Tech4Africa workshops

Some of the world’s leading minds in the fields of technology architecture, user-interface and product development will be sharing their experience and skills in four full-day workshops ahead of the Tech4Africa conference, on the 10th and 11th of August.

The professionals in charge of the workshops have extensive experience of working on products or systems that enable them to compete globally. These intensive workshops therefore aim to impart practical skills that the delegates can apply in their own products and projects.

* Andy Budd, will be presenting ‘A masterclass in Usability and Accessibility’ to help delegates understand the requirements in planning, organising and moderating usability tests. As MD and User Experience Director of UK-based ClearLeft web design agency, Andy is a regular speaker at international design events such as SXSW, has helped judge several international design awards, is on the advisory board for .Net magazine, and is the author of the best selling book, CSS Mastery.

* Jonathan Snook and John Resig, will be leading the workshop on architecting applications for the web. The former is a widely-recognised expert in his field, He is currently working at Yahoo! as a front-end engineer on the company’s web interface. The latter is a JavaScript Tool Developer for the Mozilla and the creator and lead developer of the jQuery JavaScript library.
They will be sharing their knowledge on best practices for developing applications and how to do so while letting developers work faster and with greater agility without sacrificing robustness or security.

* Erin Caton, a Senior Engineering Project Manager at Apple, will be presenting a strategic look at the digital project implementation lifecycle. The focus will be on acquiring project management skills and methodologies, effective use of different software and platforms and client and development team communications and management.

* Sarah Blake, head of optimisation at Quirk eMarketing, a local Internet marketing consultancy, will be dissecting the proper and effective use of Google Analytics and how to gain maximum benefit from this service.

Delegates can expect to gain essential knowledge that they can apply in their own environment, and that the workshops are designed not only for developers, but also for business users who wish to improve their knowledge.

Registration for each workshop is now open. Be quick! Don’t miss the discounted tickets for early birds, or get R500 off if you buy a conference and workshop ticket together.

From Africa to the world, with love

African technology to compete on a global stage

By Gareth Knight, managing director at Technovated and Tech4Africa conference organiser

Blurb: The landing of a series of undersea cables is going to solve an infrastructural problem that has long plagued Africa and will enable African technology developers to compete on a global stage. In order to properly realise the full potential of a global customer base, African technologists need to not only expose their work to the world, but to also expose themselves to the learnings and insights that the developed world has to offer.

New international submarine communication cables are starting to ring the continent, bringing with them the promise of cheaper broadband across the continent. That means Africa will soon have the infrastructure to be able to compete more effectively in the online space than it did in the past. But Africa has missed out on several years of important learning in this space. Now is the perfect time for African entrepreneurs to embrace business and technical expertise from the rest of the world and close that gap.

An all-too common and incorrect perception in South Africa and other parts of the continent is that African problems are different to those experienced anywhere else in the world, and that they should be addressed with uniquely African solutions. According to this view of the world, international best practices and experiences, especially those from developed countries, are not really applicable to African businesses. That is a misguided and parochial perspective in a world where technology and global trade have shrunk the world to a fraction of its former size.

In high-tech industries, such as Web-focused businesses, there is much that African entrepreneurs, public servants and technicians can learn from international experience. In fact, it’s imperative that African businesses embrace international experience and knowledge if they’re to catch up with what their peers are doing online in the rest of the world.

African challenges

Of course, Africa has infrastructure, political and social challenges that are not present in most parts of the world. Building an online business in an environment where the electricity supply is unreliable and where international bandwidth is slow and expensive is fraught with challenges that don’t exist for an entrepreneur building a business in the heart of Silicon Valley.

But in addition to their superb infrastructure, innovation hubs like the west and east coasts of the USA also offer an unrivaled depth of human capital. Whatever an entrepreneur’s business idea is, there are people around who have the experience and skills to help make it a reality. And of course, the more that experienced people share their skills and knowledge with each other, the more new ideas and concepts they come up with and the more successful they are turning their innovations into commercial products.

By contrast, an African entrepreneur trying to productise a nifty new mobile application or a new online service simply doesn’t have access to many local people who have the skills and experience. There is an abundance of great ideas and enthusiasm but a lack of experience in turning these ideas into commercial products.

There have been a few success stories – innovators such as Mark Shuttleworth, Elon Musk and Vinny Lingham come to mind – but they are exceptions to the rule and their skills are often lost to Africa when their businesses take off. An additional problem that becomes obvious from the above list, is that South Africans dominate the list of obvious success stories while technologists from the rest of Africa do not feature as highly.

Universal lessons

Most of the processes, technology and tools that African entrepreneurs will be using to create Web and mobile products and services will be similar to those used by people in other parts of the world. There are many universal lessons around project management, usability, product development, technology and many other areas that apply anywhere in the world, and they’re ones many American and European pioneers had to learn the hard way. Speccing and configuring a server, designing a good user interface, managing cashflow – these are all things that work the same way anywhere in the world.

So why not learn from international experience? The alternative is to stubbornly waste time and money reinventing the wheel and making the mistakes that others have already made. And that is something that no African entrepreneur can afford to do.


The Tech4Africa conference being held in August this year, aims to address the above issues by bringing a number of world famous technologists and African innovators to South Africa to share, teach and interact with Africans looking to make it in the technology space. It’s an exciting time for African technology and the opportunity that Tech4Africa presents is one that really shouldn’t be missed.

If you liked what you read, take a look at this interesting article published by featuring Gareth’s ideas behind the conference: Tech4Africa conference driven by “anger and pride”.