Africa: problem or opportunity?

In his article “Why does being in Africa make you untrustworthy?“, Erik Hersman points out to the fact that Africans are generally suspects by default to the eyes of global corporations, which often put the continent off their radar.

Africa could be a continent of contrasts, but with lots of potentiality too. If only the world stopped making easy generalizations and looked closer to realize that.

One of the key factors for any business is to assess and be real about the context and the market in which operates. Thus, more accurate solutions can be provided to address specific needs, what improves the chance of success. If the context is problematic, that means there are needs to be fulfilled, and therefore that could be seen as an opportunity.

Tech4Africa_Ushahidi_Conference_Technology_AfricaAn example of this could be Hersman’s own enterprise, Ushahidi, a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008, and which now it has become a platform with global reach.

Ushahidi is a world-class technology service, but owes its roots to providing a solution to the very African need of transparency, which turns out to be a global issue.
The organization’s technology is open source, and it is often used by Internet writer Clay Shirky as an example of a successful crowdsourcing movement.

Other entrepreneurs and businesses are also working to provide services tied up to specific regional socio-cultural and economic facts, as were seen at Tech4Africa 2010. Services like PesaPal (a mobile payments company in Nairobi, Kenya) or mPedigree (allows consumers to verify with a free text message if their medicines are safe), are proving to be on the right track when addressing local needs via the most used and available technology in their target markets.

Many other startup services in Africa are choosing to use SMS as their trading platform, among other things, due to the scarce Internet connectivity and the broader use of the cell phone in many areas of the continent. And companies are focusing on that too, such is the case of Zain Nigeria, which is offering its customers access to Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo via SMS.

Nevertheless, whether focused on local, regional or global needs, African technology startups and companies must build their products based on the highest standards, and for that it’s important to keep in touch with the world’s latest developments and practices, if the continent wants to get into the world’s radar and export its innovative products or play globally.

All in all, one of the ways to bootstrap Africa to the spotlight might be what the aforementioned African organizations are already doing; which is, as Erik Hersman put it in his article: “to come up with our own business solutions that work here first, and then interact with other global systems.”

Do you agree this could be a solution? Should Africans see the problems or the opportunities?

Photo courtesy of @whiteafrican via Flickr/Creative Commons

Tech4Africa: The PanAfrican Perspective

“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” ~ African Proverb

That proverb has been used to sum up the continent’s state (or fate) for a long time. And what’s become more apparent is that in some cases, you need to point out which Africa you are referring to, South Africa or the rest of Africa. Given that we’re now seeing the kind of innovative web & technology startups coming from Nigeria and Kenya, the Tech4Africa conference put a lot into perspective.

South Africa has always been one of the main doors into the continent. A leading economy no doubt with a vibrant entrepreneurial space with the likes of Naspers showing how powerful an emerging market this is. However, even as the crown jewel of the continent, with we’re beginning to see a balance play out with the South, East & West shifting as each develops not on a linear path, one after the other, but each on its own tangent, converging and diverging with time.

Take Kenya for instance, who recently trumped South Africa in broadband thanks to services like Wananchi Online & Cisco’s Zuku which brings fiber-to-the-home and an uncapped service of 1 MBps as well as 100 television channels. Crisis mapping and visualisation platform Ushahidi was the centre of attention at Tech4Africa, from cofounder Erik Hersman sharing their missteps, challenges and shortfalls in “failing spectacularly.” Even to mentions from Clay Shirky at Tech4Africa and his most recent TED Talk where he shares how it began, and how it fits in with his thoughts on collaboration and cognitive surplus. Or in West Africa, where Bright Simons and mPedigree are changing the pharmaceutical landscape by allowing consumers to verify via SMS the authenticity and safety of their medicines.

Leila Janah, keynote speaker at T4A, spoke about her non-profit Samasource, who’ve created a network of 800 women, youth and refugees across the world in developing countries and empowering them with digital work and resources to make better livelihoods. Her keynote showed the scale, reach and impact of Samasource’s efforts as well as their plans and challenges. It’s certainly clear that East and West Africa are learning from South Africa and now more than ever, the continent’s developing three pillars to build on.

Any pan African approach will present very unique challenges in comparison with what works in South Africa and Tech4Africa’s ability to share between tried and tested practice in the Southern part of Africa, with input from The East and West and an international perspective is what differentiated it for me.

Whether it was debating approaches for the mobile marketing arena shared or the insightful tips and tricks behind the proposed redesign of Payfine.co.za or Andy Budd’s entire session at that. The value in creating simple, relevant user experiences may inadvertently not be at the top of many priority lists across the continent but from what the principles behind it are, what they unlock can be the difference between success and failure. We can expect that with time, these user experience and interaction principles will adapt and be tailored to fit the African context in new ways.

The inspiration and vision to shift perceptions about Africa and those in Africans about the possibilities for great things when it comes to technology are what struck me about Gareth and his remarkable team. Gareth Knight, the man who returned to South Africa bearing the Tech4Africa vision has been the one brave enough to take the first step. And if one African proverb proves true then as Gareth leads this generation to plant the seeds, we’ll wait to how the next generation of Africans use the shade.

It was certainly an honour to witness this beginning.

Mark Kaigwa
http://ukwelii.wordpress.com
@mkaigwa

Take-Aways from Tech4Africa

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.

By the time we got to the closing remarks at the end of two fantastic days at Tech4Africa, the atmosphere was a mix of exhaustion, inspiration and eagerness to get to the after party and then beyond into the world, to start applying the learning’s and following up with new connections made.

I had already started asking people what their number one take-away from the unconference-conference had been, so was delighted when the panel opened up their closing remarks along the same lines.

Hearing what other attendee’s pick out as their number one take away, is a great way to summarise the key points and highlight any trends from all the information that was imparted.

So here are some of the take-aways that were shared with me and that I picked up from the panel:

Simon Dingle declared that “Tech4Africa has arrived!”

Duncan McCleod is “going to make it a priority to come to next years Tech4Africa”.

Ivo Vegter felt that “our (as in South Africa’s) engineers and developers are at the top of their game”.

Andy Higgins said his take away was “to build small and good, rather than big and mediocre”.

“Only Africans are going to solve African problems. The international context is a great wake up call, but it needs to be applied to the African context by Africans. It’s only a matter of time before Tech4Africa is dominated by the rest of Africa’s start up’s and speakers. The time is now to look forward!” exclaimed Mark Kaigwa from Kenya.

Dustin Diaz was a man of few words, all he could say to me was: “Blown away!”

Whereas Darren Smith was a bit more verbose with his points, being: “T4A take-away: Seedcamp and Tech4Africa was an eye-opener, in as much meeting the local and international innovators brought home just how fast the world is moving, yet how small its boundaries have become (something that Clay Shirky alluded to in his keynote). What it brought home to me though, was the difficulty in bootstrapping a genuine tech start-up in this country. There seems to be a massive gap between the bootstrapped start-up, and genuine VC investment in a BUSINESS. Most of the entrepreneurs I chatted to and listened to during Tech4Africa were long on tech, passion and ideas, but short on business acumen. And in the absence of a degree of working capital, these start-ups simply will never start-up. Its simple economics.

Sadly, I left Tech4Africa with little semblance of sufficient support structures for entrepreneurs other than ‘family and fools’. It seems to me that most so-called boot-strapped business successes in South Africa are actually extensions of established businesses, products/services … and are funded through the working capital of their benefactors. VCs are looking for much bigger investment opportunities than offered locally (they’re looking for global scale, and 60% plus returns). Yet many of the innovations NEED to serve South Africa needs, and if that’s all they do, it doesn’t make them any less valuable.

So, a few mixed feelings. On the one hand, a tremendous fillip for tech innovation in Africa, but again a sobering assessment of our ability to harness the capital needed to put this innovation to work.”

Ashley Shaw summed up his take away as “solutions to challenges and meeting people”.

“I had a take away pizza last night” was what came to Gordon Greeff’s mind when I asked him, while Mongezi Mtati felt ”the conference has raised the bar much higher than before, the perception that innovation originates from somewhere outside Africa no longer holds true. The challenge is to transcend the needs of a select few who know what the web is about, and create applications that change lives.”

Renier Meyer asserted that “Tech4Africa was an awesome experience and all the panel discussions and presentations were very inspiring and made me think differently about lots of things and also made me think about things I’ve never thought of before. One thing that I realised is that we as South Africans and Africans, are different. And we do things a lot differently here than in the rest of the world. How we do things here even differs from how they do it in other African countries, I’m especially thinking about the mobile market. But even though its a lot different it works well for us and there are entrepreneurs that see opportunities to make these things that make us different, better for us.”

Jonathan Smit’s primary reason for going to Tech4Africa was to hear and meet the international speakers who we would normally not have access to. His take away was: “It was fantastic to hear from some of the great Internet minds from around the world and to connect with like minded Africans. The skills necessary to create, run and grow great Internet businesses abound within Africa and the learnings from our international colleagues can be readily applied to our context to achieve great success both locally and internationally.”

Irene Walker had this to say as her sum up: The difference between good and great digital solutions lie in their consideration and implementation of satisfied user needs.”

My take away? I think that there is a lot of innovation in Africa, and the sharing of international best practice mixed with the out of box thinking from Africa which is driven by need, is going to see a lot of exciting new developments originating from Africa.

So what is your take-way?

Share your nugget with us here or tweet it with the hashtag #myT4Atakeaway.

Telana Simpson

http://onematchstick.blogspot.com/

@Telana

Embracing social media and the state of traditional media

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 2

There were 2 panel discussions that in my mind are related and the speakers are thought leaders, both online and offline. The first discussion was about social media and how beneficial it would be for large companies to embrace it for their growth. The second was: ‘Traditional Media Is Dead. Long Live Traditional Media’.
In essence the highly influential panelists answered some of the questions many of us have in mind about social and traditional media. For me, the relationship between traditional and social media in South Africa should be seen as one where the one supports the other.

Mike Stopforth (who was on the Social Media panel) rightly said “Perhaps social media is broader than a set of platforms we use on the web and how generally relate to each other.” In my mind there tends to be some unspoken, but very real, conflict between traditional media houses and content producers on the web. Whereas, there seems to be a place for both to exist, with quality content produced for either platform as a means to enable communication.

On the other hand Matthew Buckland quoted loosely said “A clear distinction has to be made between what traditional and new media, we have to look at what traditional media are and what they are not. There are different markets – developed and emerging – and space to thrive in different ways.”

Bringing it all together

The rise of social media – place great content – also means the business models behind traditional media have to be examined. In my opinion, the way we consume media and why I read a lot of blogs (interchangeable with great custom content) is because the content appeals to me.
There might be a great story on the Mail & Guardian, one that’s written to my appeal on Times LIVE but never a whole newspaper. Therefore, not enough for me to buy a newspaper when there is sufficient good content for me. Without tilting the scales unjustly in favor of the social web, I will say – as consumers – we are in search of custom products. People are looking for more of what interests them, not mass produced news or products.
Social media and blogs on the other hand, though they by no way replace good journalism, they need to be seen as a way that can sharpen journalists and advance traditional media. But instead of the same type of content that targets everyone being produced more, there has to be a way of approaching it in a way that appeals and targets a niche. After all, smaller players online are finding ways to do that they are constantly improving – though there is a lot of junk on the web as well.

Nutshells just got bigger

In a nutshell – with this post being that nutshell – I agree that there is space for traditional content and great quality journalism produced by traditional media houses. The “high and mighty” social media is only an enabler, not a replacement of traditional media.

Mongezi Mtati
http://www.mongezimtati.co.za/
@Mongezi

It’s the Storefront, Stupid

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 2

Andy Budd has done some great work on a bunch of major sites, from BBC on down. He’s a user interface and usability guru.

He started his talk putting the value pyramid into a usability context. If you take a business that provides a commodity (coffee bean), then a product (packaged coffee), then a service-backed offering (coffee shop), then a complete experience (coffee shop with baristas and sexy acid jazz piped music), you’ll normally increase profit at every point. (Ed: gross profit, what happens when you factor the cost of all the premium customer support staff and beautiful designer stuff is another story).

But in a Web paradigm, moving from a ‘commodity’ web service to an ‘experience’ for users is a critical and necessary step for long term success, because if you can do a basic site, so can a hundred other people.

Budd had an interesting pyramid on product/service maturity, particularly relevant to creators of Web service: first functional, then useful, then usable, then delightful, then meaningful. As in, people would hate to live without it.

And key to this is great user experience. Not the technology. Not the cleverness of the site. Not the number of features. The user experience. Think Apple. (Sorry, they’re the obvious standard.)

These are his main points when designing sites for usability:

Think of your Website as a shopfront – and think about it in the same way as Mary Queen of Shops (the TV show).

* First impressions count
* Shop window must communicate your purpose and intent
* ‘Desire lines’ drive people deeper into the store (cute, clever, creative things that pull people in further)
* What is your advisor and your guide to visitors? (think hotel concierge)
* Look at video tours to make your users experts quickly… show people around
* Have a gimmick that makes it fun
* Be helpful
* Keep things simple, and focus
* Reduce the number of options available
* Use sensible defaults
* Wow your users with exciters and delighters (think of the little chocolates left on the pillow at hotels)

In terms of feature planning:
* As a startup create a minimum viable product
* Do one thing and one thing well

In service:
* Provide exceptional service
* Be there when things go wrong – great things can happen at the intersection of customers and the business at the point where things go wrong

Of course, the problem in SA is our business culture is not usually one of excellence, of constant improvement. It will be a hard job for Web design teams to convince management once the site is finished to spend another million bucks on usability testing, user experience research, tweaking, trying different things. They’ll probably say, “The site is up. It works. Piss off.”

Budd’s suggestion is for the Web team to sit with the marketing team (the most likely allies in building usability) to help create a business case to take to management.

Good luck with that.

Roger Hislop
www.sentientbeing.co.za
@d0dja

Bootstrapping, only for the brave

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 2

Some of us are entrepreneurs and some of us will always be employees. There are merits in both but nobody can deny the unmistakable allure of being able to say ‘I own my own company’. Today at Tech4Africa, Brett Haggard of Hypertext media chaired a panel of four remarkable entrepreneurs who are ‘Bootstrapping’ their way to success.

Before he began, Brett defined Bootstrapping as ‘starting and running a business without external financial contribution’. This definition, although contested by some of the panelists, set the tone for the session beautifully.

Barbara Mallinson, founder of Obami.com which is, in Brett’s words “Facebook for schools” says she chose to bootstrap as it’s very hard to find funding initially then, as the equity grows, it’s easier and seems more ‘worth it’ to carry on independently.

Andy Higgins from bidorbuy.co.za told his remarkable story at how at 24, he had a large balloon of VC funding which popped along with the dot com bubble. He tells of sitting in his corner office overlooking Sydney harbour thinking “the guy selling bagels at the corner is making more money than us”. Astoundingly, his company survived by bootstrapping and focusing on 2 core sites. Now, bidorbuy is South Africa’s largest auction site and his company is growing stronger every day.

Eve Dmochowska is perhaps the most inspiring of the panel as she challenges the thinking that you are own your own as a startup owner. She recently formed Crowdfund which sources capital from the South African public for South African startups. She said that our situation is one that makes tech entrepreneurs a rare breed. “If you want to get money, you need to get it from friends, family or fools, the banks and the government will laugh at you” so to get a startup off the ground, you need help from your peers.

Another initiative from Eve is GeekSpace, a communal working area where freelancers in many fields can not only work together in the geographical sense, but also barter services with each other to compliment their respective businesses.

Gareth Knight could be called a serial bootstrapper. He organised this phenomenal conference and is currently on his 8th startup. When asked why he chose to bootstrap, he said “When you have passion for something you don’t want to see it die, you need stamina that pushes that passion through but you ask yourself, ‘how do I do this in a way that will allow me to have the privilege of being my own boss?”, if you want to enjoy the view, you have to climb the mountain”.

As someone who does not consider myself a born entrepreneur, the session today made me think: It could be worth one day following in these amazing individuals footsteps and starting my own business. It may fail, it will almost certainly be hard, but maybe‚ just maybe, it’s worth being brave, taking that leap off the cliff and hoping like hell I can fly.

Heidi Schneigansz
http://snowgoose.co.za
@snowgoosesa

Clay Shirky on civic value and cognitive surplus

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 2

A few weeks ago when I signed up to Tech4Africa and started to feel the hype of Clay Shirky, I asked my bookshop for a copy of his latest book, Cognitive Surplus. Fortuitously, the day before the conference, they phoned and said it had arrived. I’m a bit of an avid reader and always have a pile of books next to my bed, but I generally go for novels and non-fiction. My work reading is mostly done online. Nevertheless, I thought I’d give this one a try – video’s of Clay Shirky seemed interesting enough.

Flipping through the pages after a rather hasty purchase, I got sucked in with his opening pages about the gin craze of London in the 1700’s. I had to drag myself away to answer my phone and get back to work. I was itching to get back to it. Shirky’s story of how “the sitcom” is our modern day “gin” is fascinating and makes you feel pretty sick about how much TV time you’ve wasted over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not much of a couch potato myself, but there have been times where “the decision to watch TV often preceded what might be on at any given moment”.
Not sure about the African stats, but apparently Americans watch approximately 200 billion hours of TV a year. We’ve given up a lot of (previously social) free time to get sucked into passive, lonely, self absorbed behaviour.

Shirky’s ideas about “cognitive surplus” started when talking to a TV producer about Wikipedia and she asked him “where do people find the time?”. A pretty ludicrous question giving how much time people spend vegging on the couch in front of the TV. This got him thinking… “imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as… a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would that surplus be?”.

Well, that’s the big question really. Instead of plopping down in front of the television every spare moment of the day, imagine if we started being more social (instead of surrogately social – read his book if you want to know what I’m talking about). Imagine if we spent more time chatting to friends and talking to our neighbors… ultimately building social capital. Just imagine what we could creatively achieve. The possibilities are limitless.

Clay Shirky began his keynote talk at Tech4Africa with an example of solving collective action dilemmas with collective solutions. He used the example of the pink chaddi campaign – a fabulous association of “loose, forward and pub-going women” (otherwise known as the pink chaddi campaign) who were responding to threats of violence against women in India by using online co-ordination to organise real world co-ordination and catalyse community action.

Shirky has gained notoriety about his concept of “cognitive surplus” which is based on two things – 1) cumulative free time and talents of connected world; plus 2) the ability to co-ordinate those talents. Here he linked up with what I’ve read in his book – highlighting the frightening amount of time we spend consuming media, especially TV, as opposed to engaging in useful projects such as creating Wikipedia projects.

His interest in “cognitive surplus” is in the potential social change that’s brought about by problems that we can take on in a coordinated way, that we simply would not have been able to do as unconnected individuals.

New forms of technology have changed the way we engage with media and each other. We used to spend all our time consuming. But now we have access to places where we don’t just consume, but we have devices that allow us to produce and to share. As technology become more broadly available, and as we get better at using it, the opportunities to use technology to organise for social purposes starts to increase. The pink chaddi campaign used humour (a social emotion) to bring people together and support social change.

The future question is not about technology. It’s about the social application of technology. What are we going to make of the technology?
There will always be the fun stuff like “lolcatz”… but what if we think about using the technology to solve some real life problems, to create civic value from cognitive surplus.

Shirky advises that in order to create successful “next big ideas” you need to start by allowing yourself to fail, learning from the failure and building on that to create success. Try, learn, and try again… “Lather, rinse, repeat”.

Samantha Fleming
http://afrosocialmedia.wordpress.com/
@afrosocialmedia