Tuesday, March 30, 2010

No Limits: Nigerian Internet Business is Only Beginning (and I don’t mean 419)

 image Last week, on the 26th of March, I was privileged to be part of an open discussion on Nigerian Internet Business Opportunities hosted on Skype Public Chat by Wayan Vota of ICTWorks.org. Don’t be fooled by my being one of the headliners (noted internet expert ???), I was certainly the least of the cast of participants in the discussion. I’m just a blogger while most of the people in the “room” were entrepreneurs, developers, designers, and ICT4D (information and communication technology for development) professionals. There was quite a bit of valuable material from this session to fuel discussions for some time to come. I expect to have several posts that feed off that session. I have included the link to the transcript of the discussion here.

The conversation was really multiple streams and recapping it as such just won’t work. The only way I can think to do this is to list what I consider the high points and try and treat different ones in greater depth in my future writings. So, in no particularly coherent order, here goes…

  • Like in so many other areas, there is no limit to the opportunity for creative and successful internet-oriented, internet-hosted and social development-focused internet business in Nigeria.
  • There is quite a bit of narrowness in the way we look at the internet as a business environment in Nigeria. In addition to building our own solutions that face our own Nigerian society, we can outsource design and development skills internationally for a living wage. You could be here in Nigeria and earn Euros and dollars with your PHP skill sets. We need to look beyond what we have seen people do here in Nigeria and explore what other people all over the world are doing such as developing solutions for devices like the iPhone and Blackberry.
  • Like the Alaba traders collaborate to get you that shoe from their warehouse (also known as the guy down the road’s shop), internet entrepreneurs need to collaborate in sharing talent, ideas and lending support to each other in order to make a challenging task easier.
  • In order to take ourselves to the heights we can attain, we need to take the long view on this industry. Instant monetisation should not be a target as it will not build a business that can stand the test of time.
  • The Nigerian internet entrepreneur needs to focus on identifying real problems that can be solved with ICT, solve those and expect to see the cash come in down the road. We really have more important needs to address than creating pure web offerings (“frothware”) that do not enhance us developmentally, economically, culturally or politically.
  • We need to partner with thinkers and doers all over the world including Nigerians in the Diaspora, expatriates invested in seeing development in Africa and local people on the ground already addressing real world problems and determine how we can make them more effective with ICT.
  • ICT is only one component of an arsenal that needs to be brought to bear on our myriad problems in Africa. In my role in corporate IT, I am constantly reminded that IT’s only value is in what it can do in solving real world problems. We must never think that ICT is a silver bullet that slay all demons. At it’s core, ICT’s role is to help us communicate, help us capture and store data, and help us transform data into information usable for decision-making.
  • Those of us passionate about IT need to help as many people as we can become capable of creating things using the technologies we love.
  • The technically minded types among us can look beyond ICT to other technical challenges such as cheap and sustainable electricity provision, healthcare innovations, agriculture, and many more.
  • We need to match technologists with business experts in order to get the best of both skill-sets.
  • There are multiple tiers to the technology possibilities. As much as the Web is the richest, we should not ignore SMS, voice and low-bandwidth optimised internet solutions.
  • Rather than building things from scratch we should take advantage of existing platforms, code libraries and APIs in order to extend existing functionality.
  • Indeed we need schools and incubation programs to better prepare our young people (and the not-so young) to take bright ideas and turn them into viable real world solutions.
  • While governments are a significant factor (even if it is only so we can duck when we see them coming doing the road) in providing some amount of infrastructure and regulation, and providing a stable polity, we cannot wait on them to provide anything and must embark on our missions, whatever they are as if the obstacles will melt away at approach.
  • When we do come face to face with those obstacles, right there is a business opportunity for us or someone else to solve.

There are a lot of very smart technologists out there that are ethnologically, socially, economically and emotionally invested in Nigeria. In the one hour or so that I spent chatting with them I was impressed with the talent in the room and convinced that if more people like this are brought together more often and in ways that we can work on things together, we can make all the difference in the world.

@wayan: you still owe me a knockdown, drag out debate on the East Coast versus West Coast start-ups thing.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An African iPad Part 3: Envisioning the Afrislate

crunchpad This was going to be the article in which I tied together the concepts I had put forward in parts one and two of this series. I would have put to rest a line of thought that started when I realised that the iPad did not need to live up to the hype. I was going to go into some detail about the Android ecosystem that, at least for now, makes it the best platform to be the operating system for an African iPad. I was going to talk about the openness, that would let us modify its internals to suit our uniquely African requirements. I would have envisioned development shops opening up in every computer science students’ dorm room churning out simple yet amazing apps for the thing. I would have enthused about the ability to either download apps from everywhere, or develop a specific library (an app store) of apps targeted at some specialised group such as students, farmers or doctors. I was going to let my imagination fly to imagine a continent wide effective (finally) mobile/online micropayment system driven by the platform.

I was going to celebrate how the Android allowed for multi-tasking, access to the full hardware and allowed for a common file storage space accessible to any apps that needed that access. The fact that you could make it access any and every common tech standard out there from Adobe Flash to JAVA. The fact that you didn’t need to pay any licensing fees to anyone to use it. I was going to declare it a platform limited only by the imagination.

Then I was going to veer over into the hardware story. I would have traced the history of computing hardware in Africa and Nigeria in particular. I would have talked about the whole importation thing. The dumping of used and trashy, toxic hardware in Nigeria. Then I would have talked about Omatek, Zinox, Veda and even Anabel Mobile, as companies that are have transitioned from importation, backroom system assembly to local system factories (no different from the Dells of this world). Hardware businesses focused on a Nigerian device experience. I would have speculated on what it would take them to actually design and build their own tablet systems. I would have then held up the JooJoo which started it’s life as Michael Arrington’s CrunchPad as a demonstration of prototyping a forward thinking device without multimillion dollar R&D. This would have shown that it doesn’t take a lot to put it together – even if initially we would have gone to the Chinese to actually build it. Then I would have looked at the cost component and examined iSuppli’s analysis of how relatively cheaply Apple is building the iPad and argued that we could have brought ours in at costs close to the XO laptop’s.

Finally, I would have rounded up with a summary of recommended specs for the device and a challenge to someone, somewhere to go out and build the dream device. However, there’s no point in writing any of that anymore. You see, someone already went and built the thing.

OK, so it isn’t really the African iPad, but a few days ago, German company called Neophonie unveiled a new product called, wait for it, the WePad.

This device is spec-for-spec better than the iPad. TechCrunch put them side by side:

  WePad iPad
Display 11.6-inch (1,366 x 768 pixels) 9.7-inch (1,024 x 768 pixels)
Processor 1,66 GHz Intel Atom N450 Pineview-M 1,0 GHz Apple A4
Memory 16 GB NAND Flash (optional 32 GB internal + 32 GB SDcard) 16 / 32 / 64 GB
Webcam 1,3 Megapixel None
Ports 2 USB ports, card reader, audio out, SIM card slot, multi pin connector Apple connector for camera or card reader as peripherals
Flash / Adobe AIR Yes / Yes No / No
App Store WePad AppStore + Google Android Marketplace iTunes App Store
Multitasking Yes Restricted, allowed only for Apple apps
Battery life 6 hours 10 hours
eBook format All open standards Proprietary Apple format from iBooks store
Wireless connect Bluetooth 2.1, WiFi N, 3G optional Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, WiFi N, 3G optional
Body Magnesium-Aluminium Aluminium
Size 288 x 190 x 13 mm 242.8 x 189.7 x 13,4 mm
Weight 800 g (850 g with 3G) 680 g

Now there are lots of Android-based tablet devices rumoured and actually under development, and one should not rule out of the utility of the more conventional convertible tablet laptop form factor, but this device embodies what the African iPad really could be. Neophonie created their own custom app store like we should create our own app store while still maintaining links to the Android MarketPlace. They made provision for standard device accessories (USB) like a device for the common man should have. While no pricing has been publically set, it is expected to be significantly cheaper than the the iPad when it launches in April.


The point is, this device, this fabled African iPad, is eminently achievable. The possibilities for an educational and computing renaissance from such a device on the continent are immense. Remember, this is Africa, we leapfrog the bleeding edge of technology. We make commonplace what the more technologically sophisticated societies slowly build up to and have difficulty adapting to. We do not need to hold ourselves to the aged metaphor of keyboard, mouse and window. We can grab the new emerging metaphors that devices like the iPad, Android and Windows Phone 7 Series are, and  reshape them to become what we need right here, in this place, this Africa. Without a doubt, we can and should create… the Afrislate.



Regrettably neither of the pictures are mock-ups of an Afrislate. The top is the CrunchPad prototype from TechCrunch and the bottom is the WePad. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

ICT4D Skype Chat: Nigerian Internet Business Opportunities

skype-chat Nigeria is a huge nation by any measure. Largest population in Africa, stupendous mobile phone adoption rate and 11 million internet users. The nation is a ripe platform for internet and communication services for transformation in Education, Commerce, Security and other aspects of national development. However, it doesn’t seem to be happening like it should. If anything, other African nations seem to have a better handle on this than we do.
Wayan Vota over at ICTWorks.org lit a bit of a fire when he blogged “Is Kenya beating Nigeria in Internet Business Opportunities?”. We Nigerians never take such things lying down and the debate in the comments section of his blog about his assertion got so heated, we decided to take the discussion live during ICT Works’ monthly ICT4D Chat.
A group of tech experts, bloggers, internet entrepreneurs and industry watchers will be getting together online using Skype Public Chat to tear into the subject of the whys and wherefores of the Nigerian internet industry. The discussions will be about why we are the way we are, the opportunities there are out there and the challenges to overcome.
Hosting the discussion is Wayan Vota and featured Nigerian internet experts and pundits include
The discussions are wide open for everyone to get a word in so why not join us at the next ICT4D Public Skype Chat:
Nigeria Internet Business Opportunities
ICT4D Skype Public Chat
6pm, Lagos Time, March 26th
(find  in your timezone)
The official press release for the event is right here. So what are you waiting for? Put the ICT4D Skype Chat in your calender now!
nigeria_ict4d_chat1 Dej.
The picture of five was shamelessly liberated from www.loyokezie.com who shamelessly used our pictures.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

They Called It “Technical Maintenance”.

IMG_1066 Warning: This is a rant. And it’s directed at my internet service provider, Direct on PC. They have had a problem with their base station in my area since last week. So, other than for a short period last night and a couple of days earlier, I have not had internet access for nearly a week. While irritating, it is something tangential to this problem that has me mad at them. I mean, I am upset about it, but not that much. I mean, at least I am not running a business that is dependant on them for connectivity – and I have alternatives. What is absolutely irritating about it is that other than one person, none of their support people will admit to the fact that they are having trouble with their equipment. They all insist on saying that the base station is undergoing “technical maintenance”. Oh, come on.

When your customers cannot make use of the service they are paying you for, then you have a problem. A huge one. Don’t suggest to them that they need to move their modems from the spot it has been working in for 2 years. Don’t tell them to turn it off and on. Keep in touch with your back end people and be sure of what’s going on with your infrastructure. Don’t call an identified fault and the work ongoing to repair it “maintenance” as if it is a planned routine activity. Tell your customer that you have a problem. Let them know that folk are working hard to fix it. Give regular feedback on progress or even the lack thereof. Most importantly, offer them something to mitigate the problem. I’ve lost 5 days on my subscription. The minimum you should offer everyone affected is the same number of days restored on their subscription. That’s just the minimum you should offer. There should be something additional as compensation. Not denials. Not excuses. When I broached the issue to the technical support staff about getting my missing days back, they told me to talk to customer care. Customer care, told me to wait until the situation was resolved. You. Don’t. Do. That.

I can talk this way because as well as being a customer, I am also an IT infrastructure support professional and I cannot get away with treating my customers that way. When there is a disruption to their service I am required to give them accurate information. I am required to keep them abreast of progress or at least status reports as to the current situation of things. I am required to have alternatives that will tide the business over for the period of the problem and let them get the critical business processes done. Admittedly, this is all within one organisation so it may be easier to get the communications coordinated and plan around failure, plus I have bosses who would have a few choice words for me if I tried such nonsense. However, Direct On PC is a public facing business and they need to treat the public, their customer with the respect the customer is due.

I should point out that in the 3 years that I have been using their services, I have not had this amount of downtime. In particular, they have been available even when everyone else was groaning over SAT3 outages. While their internet service is no more than average, they have been pretty consistent. Yet they do have customer service issues. It looks like, as with many Nigerian businesses, they have not thought through that part of their business well enough. They don’t seem to have a well iterated plan to deal with their customers when they have these types of service disruptions. I have called them a lot in the past few days and I haven’t always got a consistent message from them. Some immediately ask the right questions and can quickly give me the “maintenance” spiel, some go through some troubleshooting steps before identifying who I am and where I am. Sometimes I am even told to keep trying to connect.

One day, the Nigerian entrepreneurial space will learn the lesson that Harry Selfridge started teaching over a hundred years ago: the customer is king and treating as one starts with the little courtesies and considerations. Like telling them the truth about your base station.

My “African Ipad” series continues next week (or sooner if I can get my head down and write).


Picture of the Direct on PC “Unwired” broadband modem.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An African iPad Part 2: Why We Must Build Our Own

 3031357749_3383ed9146 Children using their XO Laptops

We should build our own iPad. As I said in part 1, Apple’s business model is not in anyway Africa-friendly. It doesn’t have to be, but it does mean that we either do it Apple’s way or we develop our way. We have consistently seen too many “outsiders” come and try to make us do it their way.

Over the years, Africa has been on the receiving end of various schemes to make computing accessible (read “cheap”) to us. These schemes have taken a variety of forms. First there’s the second hand computer approach. Old and disused computers are cleaned up and brought over here and sold for low prices. One of the biggest downsides is that it ended up as a scheme for businesses in developed countries to get rid of their toxic junk and earn tax credits as well as good PR in the process. Then there’s the scheme that looks for low cost components that ends up building a cheap and subpar computer with minimal memory and a retarded operating system. Even Microsoft got in on the act with a version of Windows XP for sale in developing nations.

Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project took a different approach. He set out to produce a high-quality, low-cost computer for children in the developing world. What’s interesting about his approach was that rather than looking for a bunch of cheap components, slamming them into a thin plastic casing and dumping Windows 3.1 on the box, his team developed some significant technological advancements in their bid to meet a design goal without compromising on quality. Sure their laptop, named the “XO”, had to compromise on things like storage, memory (which is expandable with USB and SD anyway) and raw processing power, but these “compromises” were made up for with what actually made it into the box.

This device contained technology that made it very readable in bright sunlight. Try that with your MacBook. It could use mains power, could be charged using a hand crank, or even by solar power. It is a convertible tablet device (though not touch-screen) and had extensive battery life. The XO implemented an innovative wireless mesh network technology that boosted connectivity the more computers there were on the network. A whole new operating system interface was developed for this device that focused on the tasks of learning with valuable software delivered by creative minds. Being shock and spill resistant, it could be used by children, those destructive monsters, for up to 5 years and live to tell the tale.

This thing had features in it that high end computers today still don’t have. It spawned competitors like the Intel Classmate PC and had Microsoft trying to figure out how to get Windows on it. Though they didn’t make their target of a hundred dollars per unit, it still came in at under two hundred dollars.

Then the OLPC went and ruined it.

This device is only available by three means. First they made deals with governments and these governments bought and distributed it. I don’t need to say anything about governments and their ability to get things that we want or need into our hands. Second was a scheme where Americans (you know, people with credit cards) could buy two on Amazon.com, one for themselves and one as a gift to a child in a developing nation (and only  once a year at Christmas). The third method? Buy one off someone on eBay. So a high quality device that could change the computing landscape as we know it is made extremely constrained by its distribution model. The OLPC organisation have their reasons for doing this, but it does show that the dreamers of this product are outsiders looking in and trying to define for us how best to get our computing.

Not so the Indians. The “Hole In The Wall” computer project came about from an Indian computer scientist thinking about educating the street kids (think “Slumdog Millionaire”) of India.

Dr. Mitra heads research and development at NIIT, a leading computer software and training company in New Delhi. Just outside his office is a wall that separates his air-conditioned 21st-century office from a slum. Mitra decided to place a high-speed computer in the wall, connect it to the Internet, and watch who, if anyone, might use it. To his delight, curious children were immediately attracted to the strange new machine. "When they said, 'Can we touch it?'" Mitra recalls, "I said, 'It's on your side of the wall.' The rules say whatever is on their side, they can touch, so they touched it."

Within minutes, children figured out how to point and click. By the end of the day they were browsing. "Given access and opportunity," observes O'Connor, "the children quickly taught themselves the rudiments of computer literacy."

One boy in particular, Rajinder, has become a computer whiz and a celebrity in India. "Mainly I go to the Disney site," Rajinder tells FRONTLINE/World, but he also regularly visits news sites and likes to use computer paint tools. His teacher says that Rajinder is a much better student now: "He has become quite bold and expressive. I've got great hopes for this child."

While he didn’t create a new technology, Dr. Mitra did present technology to people who would never have been given the opportunity access to it. His experiment has been replicated in lots of Indian communities improving the quality of education of the affected children. He bridged the divide.

We don’t need to copy Dr. Mitra’s exact experiment, but we do need to copy his method of looking inward to addressing this problem and, in our different African societies, come up with ways to bring technology to our people that results in rapid adoption and a marked increase in applicable education.

One technology that is rapidly becoming ubiquitous across social strata and geographical location is the humble mobile phone. This device has amazing potential. It can and is delivering some of what we need, but its form factor and associated technologies can only go so far. I believe one of the ways get to where we need to be is to borrow a leaf from the OLPC, take the design lessons from the iPad feature set and build our own device. Having said all that, I do not believe we actually have to start from scratch to create an African product that has the design values of the iPad or the XO. The core of any computing product is the operating system and several viable options already exist. One possible operating system option is currently seeing increasing adoption on non-PC form factor devices. This OS is free. Its creators are ready and willing to support its use anywhere we want to put it. We can build any business model we choose around it. One that suits us. It even has Apple running scared.

This operating system is called Android.

To be continued…


Picture courtesy of flickr.com

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An African iPad: Part 1

ipad3 Earlier this week, my very first guest blog post was published in Loy Okezie’s blog. It is entitled “Why The iPad Doesn’t Impress And Why It Doesn’t Need To”. One of the reasons it ended up there rather than here was because I sold the idea to Loy before I decided to go full tech here on the Crossings. Having said that, thanks to Loy for letting someone else, me, write in his space. I mention all this because this week here I will still be sort of focused on the iPad.

As I wrote in the article, a lot has been said about Apple’s iconic tablet computer in a wide variety of media and from a huge variety of perspectives. There are extremes of adoration and approbation for the device and it isn’t even on the market yet. The only writer I know of who has written about it with an eye to its possible impact in Africa is TechMasai’s Munashe Gumbonzvanda and I am frankly not surprised. I really cannot imagine that at any point in time during the design and development process did Apple consider the needs of this continent. You and I that might want one (or at the very least are even willing to read its feature set) are the insignificant minority and Cupertino no doubt treated us as such. For the majority, it is another toy for those with more money than sense. It is a toy that is dependent on internet access, the ownership of a credit card, a debit card, or a paypal account, and a large disposable income.

And yet, at the core of the iPad could well be the key to Africa’s crossing the digital divide. Computing as we know it today is tied to the monitor, keyboard, mouse and whatever operating system you use. However you roll, Windows, Linux or MacOS X, the user experience and the learning curve are more or less the same. You have a start menu or launch pad for your applications which appear in boxes called “windows” and you did various things within said windows. Before you can use the computer you first of all have to figure out the pieces of the equipment, then you need to learn the OS, then you need to figure out how most applications work. We tout and celebrate what we call computer literacy and pad our CVs with a list of the versions of Microsoft Office we can use. Then when we finally figure out enough of the interface to be productive, we spent half our time configuring, installing, downloading, protecting and fixing the stupid equipment.

For those of us who work in IT, this is our bread and butter. However for the customers who interface with teams like mine everyday, they are resigned to, but unimpressed with and irritated by the fact that they need us to get their work done. The glory of the iPad and its predecessor the iPod Touch is that it can eliminate 90% of that interference and bring the user that much closer to their goal whether it is to consume content or, despite what many say, to create content. The iPad’s A4-size screen and it’s multi-touch interface are so intuitive that toddlers have figured it out (at least the iPhone). You don’t need expensive training to get people who are terrified of computers to use it. You do minimal configuring to get it working. Even if you are not familiar with the idiom of computing you can get productive very quickly. Perhaps Om Malik can best communicate the sheer sense of potential (even though I disagreed with him on Twitter).

The minute I touched the iPad at the Apple event a few weeks ago, I knew my world and my idea of computing had been transformed, irrevocably and irreversibly. I’m not sure why some of my friends, who have helped me shape my thinking about devices, Antonio Rodriguez for example, are disappointed with this device, whose potential is limited only by one’s imagination.

When I look at the iPad, I see a clean slate to reinvent pretty much how we think of media, information and in fact the whole user experience. Why do we have to think in terms of a keyboard — real or virtual? How can we not be excited about the very idea of a media experience based on touch?

Picture this: an African class room in some rural village somewhere. Each student has an iPad. The classroom material is distributed via Wi-Fi. Assignments are completed and submitted via the same means. The entire school library is available digitally, so no building needs to be dedicated to storing books (and this saves trees). Multimedia content is available on the device to illustrate farming machinery, remote geographies, performance art: audiovisual lessons that are easy to create, easy to disseminate and to review over and over again. They get all this without having a special class where they spend time learning computing instead of learning the things they really want to learn to do that computing has been the eye of the needle that they have to pass through.

Now you may laugh at this pipedream. Even the cheapest iPad at under $500 is expensive. It is a premium device – and the average urban African can’t afford one, never mind his rural cousin. In addition, despite my glowing praise, there are problems with the iPad that still make it less than what we need it to be in Africa. However, and here’s my point, we can have all the benefits and strengths of the iPad without its limitations.

We just have to design, and build, our own.

To be continued…


iPad image is copyright Apple inc.