Beyond the Blue Band Generation

I wonder if this has ever been shared on the Kenyan blogosphere so far? I actually don’t like posting videos / not my own stuff, but the following is an interesting video that caught my attention while browsing Vimeo for quality content ex EAK.

Beyond the Nakumatt Generation

“Addressing the concerns of the poorest households and facilitating the inclusion of smallholders in modern distribution chains should be a priority in all East African countries.”
(“Beyond the Nakumatt Generation: Distribution Services in East Africa“, World Bank Policy Note No. 26, Oct 2011)

Talking about videos from Kenya, here is another – totally unrelated – one about a revolting teenager:

Do It Yourself, The Art Of Being Punk

Oh, and the art of browsing Vimeo & Co. for original Kenyan content is to exclude those vids produced by religious Wazungu Churches with their “Coming to Africa and doing good”-approaches that either show some slum dwellers or other poor groups in rural areas. It’s also the reason why I like this last video: even though it shows a household and protected childhood that probably only a small percentage of Kenyans have enjoyed, it’s the other side of Kenya that I have in mind when I talk about Kenya.

(“Blue Band Generation” is a play on the 1990s Kenya)

German M-Pesa – would it be successful?

(…in English, und nicht auf Deutsch, because I’d love to see comments from non-German speakers as well. Dankeschön!)

Mobile payment solutions, or m-payment, aren’t anything new to the interested mobile user. There are different (technical) models for mobile payments:

  • Premium SMS based transactional payments
  • Direct Mobile Billing
  • Mobile web payments
  • Contactless Near Field Communication

During this year’s local BarCamp in Darmstadt (for the Rhein-Main area), I also presented a few slides on M-Pesa & M-Kesho which are quite succesful in Kenya since their launch. Safaricom‘s former CEO, Michael Joseph, also talked about the success & struggle that came along with it during his Q&A session at (the) iHub Kenya earlier last month. Afaik, M-Pesa on Safaricom (Kenya, 51% owned by Vodafone) is a Premium SMS based transactional payment system.

You can google for M-Pesa and also check YouTube for the various videos on M-Pesa and why it has become so successful in EAK over the last three years (obviously, due to the lack of and need for alternatives).

Now, Germany. A country with seemingly more ATMs than public toilets :-), a working payment system, affordable (sometimes free) bank accounts with minimal charges, a cash culture where card-based payment systems are diverse and convenient to handle, but most importantly:the existing mix of cash & cards is an approved system that most often works and doesn’t require much behaviour change.

During another session on future mobile apps (during the BarCamp), fellow blogger Kai-Christian asked the attendees about their perception of mobile apps, and what we would like to see being developed.

As a hardware guy, I naturally love the idea of gadget add-ons that will turn your iPhone/smartphone into an e.g. medical test device, but when I look at the African market – and that was my main intention when I presented the slides on AfriGadget, Ushahidi, the iHub & Co (= what can we learn & adopt from them? South>North exchange) – I think it’s a very valid question to ask about the lowest denominator: telephony & sms, and why we are foccussing on High-Tech only (as opposed to the long-tail in mobile phone users, ~ 80% on simple phones), and why the market for SMS-based services still isn’t as satisfied as it should be.

To me it seems that since 1997, since the introduction of WAP, not much really changed in this sector (in .DE) because everyone was looking for the “killer app”, and this perception only really changed with true internet phones like the iPhone and such.

So I asked if a mobile payment system like M-Pesa would be possible in Germany.

One of the attendees, Silke (who is an expert on commerce systems and also blogs their usage on her private site), instantly replied that these mobile payment systems wouldn’t be successful in Germany because ppl wouldn’t need them (due to the aforementioned availability of ATMs & alternatives).

Software developer & technical consultant with a mobile service provider, Ali Pasha, added another comment to that and explained that there are security issues that come along with using SMS (which is true, because there is no 100% encryption). Given that a lot of Germans are having privacy concerns with Google Street View and objected the publication of street photos (which aren’t that private anyways), security issues are to be taken very serious when it comes to doing business in Germany (and, of course, elsewhere, but Germans seem to be very attached to security issues). No risk, no problem?

There are existing mobile payment systems available in Germany (also some upcoming ones based on Contactless NFC right here in Frankfurt), and I also remember the late Paybox service from early 2000 which is now only active in Austria. I don’t know the actual reasons for their failure in Germany, maybe due to investors pulling back or because of a tight competition with banks & providers, or both, but it’s interesting to note that their failure obviously wasn’t due to users who rejected the system, but because of external pressure. I, for one, remember using Paybox as a happy customer. If there is one thing I’ve learned in business, (then) it’s that the best and most accepted solution isn’t always the one that will prevail and succeed.

screenshot mpass

What you see here is a screenshot taken from mpass, a German system run by Vodafone (M-Pesa!) – a list of online shops where you can already pay using mpass. Not too many, if I may say so, and I am sure that mpass isn’t as popular in Germany as it probably should (be).

And obviously, mpass isn’t like M-Pesa because it a) isn’t implemented into the SIM (SIM-toolkit) and b) mpass is also only (?) used as an add-on to online shopping, to confirm a payment, while m-pesa provides much more than that (e.g. the direct exchange of credit).

Sooo…. if a similar technology is already available, and if they have been “alive” since 2008 – what do you think? Would a mobile payment system (of any kind) be successful in Germany? Would it take a SIM-toolkit modification like M-Pesa to reduce security concerns among German users? I remember having an M-Banking menu item on my old D2/Vodafone SIM card which never worked, and I am not the only one who never understood this.

I think one of the main arguments for M-Pesa (from  provider perspective) is that users are forced to stick to a SIM (and the network), while mpass works from all networks. Is this due to a European law which regulates, but also limits the competition? I don’t know. But what I do know is that there’s often a different reality to what has been evaluated in field studies, or what we (as interested users) may assume of the market. Just as M-Pesa had been adopted to the Kenyan market by its users – “misused”, if you will. I like that. I’d like to see a similar development in Germany, if only to further explore what’s really possible with basic mobile phone functionality like telephony or sms.

What do you think?

my take on AfricaGathering in London

I’ve just returned home from London where I’d been attending AfricaGathering on Saturday 25 April 2009 which was held at Birkbeck College, University of London. A perfectly organised event (by Ed Scotcher & many helpful volunteers – thx!), the Gathering turned out to be quite a success, especially as it eventually provided me with the opportunity to meet some of my AfriMates in real life.

P1010882

Kudos also go out to Karola Riegler who took lots of photos throughout the day and to @RedZola & @MatthewNcube who both helped me trying to get online as the University’s WiFi didn’t work out for me.

So instead of providing you with a summary of all talks (I also presented some slides on AfriGadget and couldn’t do any liveblogging), let me just forward you to the following blogs that already did an excellent job of blogging on the event:

There may be even more interesting posts on AfricaGathering. It also helps to do a Twitter and/or Flickr search on #africagathering to catch some additional links (Twitter Search is a gold mine for anyone interested in ppl and their opinions).

Ed also filmed the event and promised to upload some talks to Vimeo this coming week – so let’s stay tuned for an update. Filming such an event is really sustainable and helps those who couldn’t make it to London in time. Teddy of ProjectDiaspora.org was also supposed to attend the panel discussion, but stupid visa regulations killed this endeavour.

P1010879

Some attendees already met on Friday evening for great Ethiopian food at Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant – including David McQueen and Sokari Ekine. It was very nice to eventually say hello to Sokari, who I’d been spamming with links via delicious.com for the past few months. Eh, Sokari – we will be back to London in June!

There have been so many inspiring conversations and shared ideas during this AfricaGathering that it would seem to be unfair to pick out a few selected ones -so I will only add a few words to my own presentation. I also need to work on my presentation style as I am bit too nervous on stage, often speaking too fast or having too many details on my mind that I want to include and then miss out. It was a great opportunity though to present our work and I am also quite passionate about it. Oh, and pls ignore that extra slide on a Liverpool flag as seen in a pub in Garissa the other day – unless of course you are like Ken of Kiwanja.net, whose pic on mobile pay phones we’ve used on one of the slides. :-)

My presentation on AfriGadget on behalf of the whole AfriGadget team (remember, it’s a group blog and everyone is invited to contribute and share interesting AfriGadgets – even you!) wasn’t primarily focused at displaying interesting or funny AfriGadgets even though I introduced it by saying that “we are not here to help anyone, we only do this for fun”.

My message between the lines rather was that there’s still so much undiscovered potential on the continent that needs to be commercialised (I hope I got this message across?). AfriGadget is just the vehicle to showcase that there are innovative solutions that work on a local level.

There’s a new generation of young & skilled workers who grew up with mobile phones & an understanding of how technology works. Skilled IT workers who can already take over programming jobs and develope their own tools.

Of course, IT isn’t the only sector and there are other sectors that will benefit from a new perspective on development in Africa. I, for one, believe that the upcoming sea cable(s) – which will help providing better broadband internet access to many African countries – will also help in providing some incentives for the younger generation to stay in rural areas. The internet has changed the way we live and work – I am also working as a consultant from my home office. Consequently, this progress in the IT sector could hopefully also influence other sectors.

Ecological sanitation concepts, for example, currently work best in rural areas. And with an increasing urbanisation, things are only getting worse. As long as we (humans) do not come up with sustainable cities and (much) more urban agriculture (as a way to provide real livelihood for everyone), there will be a need to “upgrade” rural areas and create markets in such areas. Better internet connectivity and the provision of sustainable power supplies is a way forward as it helps ppl to go about their business.

Business, or the consumer orientation, is my 2nd point on the AG presentation. I think that commercialism has for a long time been undererstimated in the African context. We need to return to free markets and an understanding that people knew how to trade goods (and make a living out of it!) a long time before outsiders occupied SubSaharan Africa and introduced new cultural values.

SANY7326

And by mentioning commerce, I am not talking about dealers in a small village who are ALL selling the same product (like the one pictured above where everyone sells rice), but instead a healthy trade of locally produced goods and services and much more diversity.

Someone from the audience asked if ppl would also be this inventive if they weren’t that poor and could afford to buy “better” products. It’s a tricky question because in reality it’s often not a question of being rich or poor, but rather the availability of affordable solutions. If you just can not buy enough welding machines that are required in the metal business and also won’t get a credit because you are not credit-worthy or because there’s no serious bank around, then you have to look for alternative solutions and make do with what is available. If the problem could be solved by being rich and just importing a welding machine from let’s say a Chinese manufacturer, the African economy wouldn’t benefit as much as when these machines are produced locally. As a consequence of that, ppl are instinctively doing the right thing by developing their own solutions and providing business opportunities for a local market. It’s a natural process that may not be that visible, or maybe even condemned by those who still believe that superior products have to come from the outside.

This btw also happened in Zimbabwe some time ago when local supply of sanitary towels was limited and women (not men) had to come up with their own solutions, e.g. using natural materials. Now, from a technical (process engineering) point of view, it’s much easier to treat natural (biodegradable) products than plastics – at least when it comes to the stuff ppl are flushing down their toilets. So these alternative sanitary towels may not be as convenient as those from the supermarket, but they are available and affordable. By the end of the day, products that work for customers will prevail. Everything else is just luxury and filed under “nice-to-have”.

Alasdair Munn also put it nicely on his blog:

“Technology solutions coming out of Africa are built with purpose, against objectives and within the boundaries of their resources. It is a solutions based approach. It is also a stripped down approach where only the relevant resources and tools are used. Simple works because less can go wrong and if it does go wrong, simple is easier to fix. There is a shift in the way tools and technologies are looked at.”

I believe that there’s no master plan for development in Africa, and even less a need for a well-meant guideline from the outside. There’s no one-way solution and this AfricaGathering certainly wasn’t meant to look for solutions “on how to help” etc. etc.. People in need know how to help themselves as most governments on this planet only exist to set a legal framework. We, the people, have to bring the change we want and so it was a valuable opportunity to team up with other like-minded folks during AfricaGathering who have understood that less help and more business may be an interesting alternative for a better way forward.

AOB: I spent less than 48h in London and met enough people to whom I was introduced as “Kikuyumoja”. It still amazes me that ppl know about this blog.

the difference & BarCampAfrica

Back in 1998 when a group of two friends and I applied for venture capital for a smart mobile phone-related web project*, we were told that VCs in the US would normally finance 100 projects and call it a success if 10 out of 100 would take off. Contrary to that, this “success rate” was considered bad in Germany where the aim was to only finance 10 projects at the same time and then try to see that at least 7-8 of them take off.

I had a professor at university who was given many important international awards, even some under the Bush-administration – but at home his fellow colleagues made fun of him whenever he wasn’t around. Working as a member of the faculty council and being his student, I often had to defend his unordinary actions because his fellow colleagues never understood his scope of work and genius mind.

Talking about taking financial risks, my impression is that there’s a different culture in the US that almost pushes people forward and provides them with some financial backup to put their ideas in place. Not so in Europe, where you will either have to convince as a person & your reputation or have a very very tight business plan & idea of what you’re going to do. Meaning, the willingness to carry a risk is so much higher in the US than in Europe. I may be wrong on this, but that’s my impression so far.

Take the US election campaigns, for instance. With the involvement of the new media channels and blogosphere, the individual is approached at his point of interest and guided into a wonderland full of emotions, nationalism/honour and some private tidbits of the candidates.

Whenever I watch these campaign videos online, I think: well – would this work in Germany? Would such emotional campaigns also work in Europe?

Yes. Voters wouldn’t be used to that, but the majority is the same all over the world and that’s why I think what makes a strong leader isn’t lipstick, but a positive charisma that may be sold to the masses.

I am a sceptic 1/2German who does not believe the hype, but at the same time I so often wish my fellow countrymen would at least sometimes be more open to new ideas, take more risks and ease up some bureaucratic processes.

——

I tried to follow the BarCampAfrica event last night that took place at Google’s Mountain View Headquarters in the US, with streaming & recorded video sessions from Kenya, SA, Nigeria and Ghana. A quite interesting networking event. From what I heard during the panel discussions, I can only assume that the Ayittey/Shikwati approach of “less help, more trade” still needs to reach even more open minds in the US and elsewhere, and that there are indeed some countries on the African continent that are already capable of providing IT work.

2933133750 906915105c
attendees at the BarCampAfrica (picture by Maneno.org)

This is exactly why I endorsed the BarCampAfrica actually taking place in the US – to reach those who still need to understand that we’re not (only) talking about water pumps, proper sanitation, food security or health issues, but instead about Africa as a market. I strongly believe that the creation of such business opportunities is the only way forward as all other approaches aren’t sustainable enough.

I am currently in the process of writing my diploma thesis (Dipl-Ing.) on “sanitation as a business in Africa”, and the basic concept is to promote (public) sanitation facilities as a business and combine that with a reuse concept. A reuse of nutrients contained within the different waste streams.

So, even though I am coming from this green/environmental engineering background, I do not follow the “…Africans need proper watsan/food/health supply before anything else”-approach. Instead, I believe that even such fundamental issues will be resolved by proper markets – not because they represent such a fair system, but because they do work and are sustainable. You may not agree on this, but then pls show me a sustainable project that has been build up with outside help and has grown into a full business.

Next we’ll need to have such a BarCampAfrica event in Europe. The only similar events I’ve seen so far were invitations on behalf of a local Chamber of Commerce that invited some permanent secretaries from African nations and key investors from Europe – where the aim clearly was to attract investment in Africa and to create a network of potential investors who would pressure local governments on opening up their trade policies. A BarCamp is different as everyone is free to join. And that’s exactly the spirit I’d like to see in Europe much more often. Take the risk, meet new people, share your ideas (for a better world, *cough cough*) and feel the “Yes we can” spirit. After all, most of the now much celebrated Web 2.0 projects started off as small 3day hacks – so even small ideas have the potential to work out and prosper.

The video transmissions via ustream.tv at one point later in the night broke off, but conversations continued on Twitter & Co. even until Sunday, so I take it that the BarCampAfrica was a real success – and much needed.

*mobile phone project: a WAP-based dictionary that would also have an sms-based frontend.