27 Months

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Alex Bradshaw

Twitter-MTN Partnership & Innovation in Cameroon

Twitter and MTN Cameroon have announced a partnership that enables MTN subscribers in Cameroon to send and receive tweets from their mobile phones using SMS. Users access the service by texting “START” to 8711 on MTN’s network. Standard messaging rates apply for sending SMS updates, but tweets may be received at no cost. The announcement was made by Jessica Verrilli, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Corporate Development at Twitter during the Africa Media Leaders Forum in Yaoundé.

Innovation in Cameroon

Jessica blogged about the partnership recently and includes a video interview on the launch and Twitter’s involvement with #AMLF.

By striking this deal with MTN, Cameroon joins a select few African countries with short code access to Twitter’s service. For the moment, this includes neighboring internet giant Nigeria and Madagascar. This is big news for Cameroon where smart phone adoption and internet penetration remains relatively low.

Why it matters
The Twitter-MTN Cameroon deal is significant on several levels. While perhaps not the paradigm shift of Facebook Zero, Twitter mobile is already showing signs of being a strong driver of ICT usage and innovation in its own right. How? While everyone is eager to get their hands on low-cost smart phones like the Android-powered IDEOS that debuted in Kenya, at USD $100 it still isn’t that cheap, nor are the data plans. Twitter’s service is made for the low-end handsets that dominate the mobile market in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa. By setting the cost of receiving updates to zero, you create an instant medium for a new form of communication. This leads to increased efficiencies, better access to market data, propagation of memes, new ideas and most importantly—opens the door for innovation. It has the potential to democratize information flow between the internet-haves and have-nots.

Rural farmers in Cameroon using Twitter?
Twitter’s deal with MTN Cameroon is already being seen a boon for cost-conscious startups. Among the biggest barriers for those building mobile information services is the prohibitive cost of SMS, currently priced at 50 francs (10 cents) for sending an out of network SMS. Even at bulk SMS gateway rates, these costs can quickly add up to the majority of a lean startup’s burn rate. Many enterprising techies have already begun exploring ways to use Twitter as a no-cost group SMS platform. Paul Graham would love this, since one of his three tenets of creating a startup is to spend as little money as possible. One early entrant in this space is Agro-Hub, an ActivSpaces social business that aims to quickly build a user base by delivering market data, news and sustainable farming tips at no cost. Until recently, the bulk of their costs have gone into paying for SMS:

Innovation in Cameroon

Agro-Hub realizes that their target audience—smallholder farmers in Cameroon—aren’t willing to pay for an unproven SMS service, so their model is based on providing free updates. After farmers follow Agro-Hub:Informer on Twitter with their mobiles, Agro-Hub:Trader aims to earn revenue from nominal fees collected when goods are sold directly to the end consumer. Farmers benefit from economies of scale by organizing into cooperatives and bypassing exploitative middlemen, while consumers get local produce at reduced costs.


This model stands in contrast to Google’s innovative SMS offering that launched with fanfare to serve Uganda’s poor only to see usage plummet when mobile operators started charging a premium for the SMSs.

Final thoughts
A Twitter-MTN Cameroon partnership raises the bar for everyone. Twitter gains an early foothold in a growing market, innovators get a no-cost group SMS platform and MTN subscribers connect with one another and consume mobile content like never before. Meanwhile, the operator continues to make its ridiculously high profits as usual. In the long run, Twitter’s entry into Cameroon increases the base on which innovation can occur. While Google has missed the boat on the cost of access issue, Twitter and Facebook are poised to make their mark with messaging platforms that transcend borders and connect Africans globally.


Bamboo Magic’ Mobile Phone & Laptop Case

I had an opportunity to stop by the 2009 South West Regional Agro-Pastoral Show, an annual exhibition for local farmers and craftsmen, here in Limbe this afternoon. The event was held on a community field ringed by exhibition booths overflowing with every imaginable vegetable, fruit and live animal cultivated and raised in the southwest region of Cameroon. In addition, there were a number of innovators with homemade products and gadgets crafted from local materials.

Amid all the displays, one guy stood apart with some creations that can only be described as a near perfect marriage of form, function, green design and a borderline obsession with bamboo. Lekuama Ketuafor is the proprietor of Bamboo Magic, a one-man cottage industry he’s started to supplement his work as a teacher.

Using a set of simple hand tools, glue, varnish, skill and loads of patience, Lekuama finds ways of using bamboo—a ubiquitous, low-cost, renewable material—in ways many people have never imagined. Judging from the size of the crowd gathered around his booth, I suspect few Cameroonians had seen anything quite like Lekuama’s creations before.


Among the intricately decorated bamboo shoes [2], vest, palm wine calabash, cowboy hat, clocks and so on, I was immediately attracted to two incredibly cool electronics-related pieces: a bamboo covered Nokia phone and an attractive and functional laptop case. Here’s a video of Lekuama, dressed appropriately in head-to-toe bamboo wear, demonstrating these items:

The attention to detail on the laptop case is impressive, right down to the external USB port access, shoulder strap attachments, carry handle, magnetic clasps, internal elastic keeper strap and red felt lining. And how about that chic mobile phone?

Due to the time intensive nature of his craft, Lekuama makes these items for sale in very small quantities. However, his dream is to establish a training center where he can transfer his skills to young Cameroonians and build a community of artisan microentrepreneurs. Heck, I think these items would make a splash in any eco-trendy shop in the West. Any takers?

The Virtues of Small Software

Essayist, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had this to say on the subject of beauty:

  • We ascribe beauty to that which is simple;
  • which has no superfluous parts;
  • which exactly answers its end;
  • which stands related to all things;
  • which is the mean of many extremes.

– The Conduct of Life, Chapter VIII, Beauty (via TinyApps blog)

Doug McIlroy, one of the founders of the Unix tradition, may well have drawn inspiration from Emerson when he summarized the Unix philosophy with the following three tenets: “Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.”

This philosophy placed a special emphasis on the use of a large number of software tools—small programs that could be strung together through a command line interpreter using pipes, as opposed to a single monolithic program that includes all of the same functionality.

An approach like this worked well because, in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, programmers had to work within the confines of relatively small and expensive resources. While difficult to conceive of today, 16KB of RAM was common and 64KB was considered expansive (I remember writing my first assembly program on the Commodore 64—I thought I was in heaven). Likewise, storage in the megabyte range was a luxury. Programmers created small software with tiny allocations of storage and RAM that ran on processors that were Lilliputian by today’s standards. Every byte and clock cycle counted, and thus a lot of work was done to make programs fit into available resources.

The rise of bloatware

Nowadays we have thousands of times the processing power, memory and storage yet, from the user’s perspective, software for the desktop, web and mobile seems to run slower than it should, or used to. We’ve been conditioned to accept long load times for applications, Ajax delays in Gmail, adware, automatic updates and the scourge of bundled third-party software.

Nathan Myhrvold, physicist and former CTO of Microsoft, once compared software to the physical properties of a gas for a keynote address in 1997. In a marriage of Moore’s Law and the Ideal Gas Law, he declared that “software always expands to fill whatever container it is stored in,” but its growth is “inevitably limited by the rate of increase in hardware speed.” So what happens when software hits the upper bounds of the hardware it’s contained in? Myhrvold’s response: “People buy new hardware because the software requires it.”

What Myhrvold succeeded in defining with his four Laws of Software, intentionally or not, is a Unified Theory of Bloatware. In one sense, his Third Law kept the PC business thriving by requiring bigger, faster hardware to run increasingly bloated software.

In a challenge to Moore’s Law comparing installed disk usage of Microsoft Office and Open Office (see above), we find that, “at this rate of growth, Microsoft Office Standard 2013 will be 5000MB, and the Microsoft Office Premium Platinum Plus 2013 edition (a larger edition than the Standard edition) will come on a set of Blu-ray discs.” The take-home message: “Microsoft Office Standard edition’s growth is more closely in step with maximum disk capacities.” Myhrvold was right, at least insofar as Microsoft Office is concerned.
One of the best attacks on bloatware ever, Thank you, Adobe Reader 9!, comes from Ben Hoyt, one of a trio of Kiwi brothers behind Brush Technology. His post is acerbic, hilarious and gives Adobe a well-deserved thrashing as a prime example of what’s wrong with contemporary software. Ben posits the question, Can Modern Software Be Snappy? and draws on some examples from coding for embedded devices and graphics programming. Both are great reads on this topic.

Incidentally, if you haven’t yet please do take Ben’s advice and replace Adobe Reader with Foxit’s PDF reader. You’ll not only save yourself disk space and headache, but avoid some rather nasty security vulnerabilities at the same time.

Small is the the next Big Thing
In an ironic twist, with the rising popularity of netbooks and rapid growth of mobile devices as the default computing platform, software is returning to a focus on “do one thing and do it well” within the resource constraints of these small devices. Moreover, as consumers and businesses alike tighten their budgets during the global economic downturn, extending the life of old hardware is becoming a necessity.

The good news for end-users is that alternatives to bloat do exist. If you want to go really small, the single best resource for apps that run will run on nearly any PC hardware has always been at TinyApps.org. Peruse the list, try a few out (none is bigger than 1.44 MB and many are contained in a single executable), link them up with some keyboard shortcuts and you’ll be working smarter and faster than ever. Trust me, it works.

For the engineer, designing small software that can run efficiently with limited resources was, until recently, a dying art. One of the best resources for programmers is the excellent (and free) book Small Memory by Charles Weir and James Noble. You can also listen to the authors interviewed on Software Engineering Radio.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but along with this book it’s worth considering some small software maxims for the engineer. Among the best are Eric Raymond’s design rules in The Art of Unix Programming, Mike Gancarz’s The UNIX Philosophy, and Rob Pike’s Notes on Programming in C. They’re summarized nicely here.

Included with the “small is beautiful” software design ethos is an emphasis on performance analysis, code profiling and refactoring. Too often, in my experience, this step is sacrificed under time pressure to deliver a product to market, yet it’s a crucial phase of any project. Bottlenecks often do occur in surprising places and speed hacks seldom work without solid metrics. It also never hurts to run an app through a processor emulator like QEMU to get a feel for how it will perform on older hardware.

Implications for African software
Citing the challenges brought by bad governance, poverty, low bandwidth, and some of the harshest environments and use-cases in the world, Erik Hersman noted that, “If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.” If “do one thing and do it well” may be said to capture the philosophies of Unix and small software, Hersman’s declaration is the battle cry for a legion of cottage industry African software entrepreneurs.

By adopting the philosophy of small software, the developers crafting solutions on the African continent are in a unique position to reap opportunity from their environment. Witness highly specialized, targeted applications such as FrontlineSMS, MobilePress, Kerawa, Afrigator, Maneno, Zoopy, Ushahidi and countless others—all created by Africans and distributed online, often for free. One of the most interesting recent applications built for the developing world, FrontlineForms, is targeted specifically at low- to mid-level mobile devices.

These applications (and a lot of others I’ve surely overlooked) are at the forefront of what Samuel Dean called a “knock down, drag ‘em out renaissance…involving guerrilla apps, widgets, and many other software offerings that don’t happen to come from Microsoft or other gorilla-sized providers.”

The future of software is small. The implications for Africa, and the developing world at large, are huge.

The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua

On the outskirts of Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North of Cameroon, is a place quite unlike any other in the country. Here a community of les forgerons—blacksmiths, or metalworkers—practice their craft in the relative cool of a tree grove. Several dozen men with specialized skills are gathered here for a single purpose: to transform piles of scrap iron into finely finished tools, stoves, replacement parts and other useful implements for sale to the local population. Young apprentices learn the craft while operating bellows or shaping wood for tool handles. The production here is performed entirely by hand and on a scale which must be seen to be fully appreciated.

The finished goods here include agricultural tools; hoes, rakes, pick axes, shovels, wheelbarrows, John Deere-green painted plows, pry bars and machetes; household items such as cook stoves, sieves, pans, watering cans, buckets and cutlery; down to the smallest personal items, like precision tweezers. Motorbike taxis are a ubiquitous mode of transport in the Far North, so many spares are copied (and often improved) from the originals. These include motorcycle seats, cargo carriers and fenders. Many of the pieces of forging equipment—hand-cranked bellows, anvils, hammers and sledges—are themselves fabricated from scrap iron and reused materials.

The imported versions of many of these items are available a kilometer or so away at Fokou, a national chain of hardware stores. The items produced by the forgerons are of very high quality and sold at a fraction of the cost of their imported counterparts. This generates an understandably strong market demand for their wares. Thus, scores of hammers may be heard pounding away on anvils at this place from morning until late afternoon. It’s nothing short of an appropriate-tech, human-powered manufacturing industry.

I spent the better part of an hour slack-jawed at the sight, sound and frenetic pace of activity around the forges. When I inquired how long this community of metalworkers had been working at this spot, a man told me, “depuis l’indépendance” (since independence in 1960). Digging a bit deeper into Maroua’s early history, I uncovered an interesting fact. According to the official story, the name Maroua is derived from the town’s founder, Chef Bi-Marva which means “the Chief of the Forge”. The chief was later deposed by Fulani horsemen in the early 19th century. Had the former chief been a practicing metalsmith? If so, the metalworking heritage of Maroua dates back not 50 years, but closer to 200 years.

Whichever figure is more accurate, the metalworkers of Maroua are extraordinary craftsmen and very Afrigadget!

It’s Always Sunny in Iceland (or) How I NSA-Proofed my Email

Revelations about the NSA’s mass internet surveillance has spurred interest in existing privacy tools and driven developers to build of a slew of new tools and services aimed at providing end-to-end encryption to users. With every major U.S.-based service provider implicated, these offerings are attractive to citizens who prefer not to have their private communications monitored from Gen. Keith Alexander’s Strangelovian “Information Dominance Center” or, more plausibly, by one of the half million-odd contractors with access to NSA data hordes who might not be able to resist the temptation to, say, spy on their love interest, or worse.

Most of the vast troves of data collected, indexed and stored indefinitely by the NSA is likely to be fairly mundane. However, it’s become a matter of principle; privacy is a basic human right. Here’s an old essay by Bruce Schneier if you need to read more about why privacy is so important.

Built to fail

So, you might be justly concerned about Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo’s complicity in granting the NSA access your email. Unfortunately, so-called ‘secure’ email services aren’t any better. Secure email provider Lavabit, which had previously provided whistleblower Edward Snowden with an email address, closed its doors rather than comply with a secret government court order to grant access to their users’ content. Its owner left a message stating he’d been forced to choose between betraying the American people and shutting down. The next day, encrypted messaging company Silent Circle proactively shuttered its email service, announcing that, among other things, “email cannot be secure.”

Your options appear to be pretty limited—except, of course, hosting it yourself. After all, this is how e-mail was originally designed to work.

Jason Scott had this figured out way back in January 2009, in his prescient and colorfully-titled wake up call “Fuck the Cloud”:

This is about your data. This is about your work. This is about you using your time so that you make things and work on things and you trust a location to do “the rest” and guess what, here is what we have learned: Since the dawn of time, companies have hired people whose entire job is to tell you everything is all right and you can completely trust them and the company is as stable as a rock, and to do so until they, themselves are fired because the company is out of business.

He argues that the cloud, insinuated by marketers with soft fluffiness, grandeur and fuzzy meaninglessness is, in fact, a sucker’s game. If you are playing it, you are a sucker. Except the risk today isn’t so trivial as losing your data entrusted to a company that didn’t think to back up your data, was sunsetted by an acquiring company or has simply gone out of business.

Today, the stakes are considerably higher.

Beating the Big G

While my privacy concerns are very real, I’ve also found that Gmail’s speed and utility has degraded over the years, to the point where I have every reason to jump ship now. I won’t be ditching the cloud entirely, but rather self-hosting on vastly more secure servers with every connection under SSL/TLS for end-to-end encryption. As an added benefit, my personal email server will also be 100% carbon neutral.

I’ve entrusted more of my data to Google’s stack over the years, mainly because it (mostly) worked for me. So the thought of migrating a decade’s worth of some 50,000+ emails away from Gmail seemed daunting. And what about Gmail’s lauded spam protection, search, speed and ubiquity? As it turns out, email server software has continued to advance in a post-Google-apps world, and the current the state of self-hosted is better than ever.

Not only would I be back in control of my email, but it will actually better than Gmail, purely from a features perspective.

The Switzerland of bits

My first order of business was choosing a VPS hosting company. I’ve been a long time customer of Linode, but they’re ineligible for this task because they’re based in the States. The trouble is, just because a host is not in the U.S. doesn’t mean the company won’t hand over customer data at the request of the U.S. government or local government on their behest. If it can happen in uber privacy-conscious Germany, it can happen anywhere. Regrettably, there are very few countries that as a whole will defend your data.

One notable exception is Iceland.

Iceland places an exceptionally strong emphasis on privacy rights, such that what is now commonplace in the U.S. and parts of Europe would be unthinkable there. Recently, a group of journalists and political activists cherry-picked the best laws for media freedom and free speech from around the world with the aim of making Iceland the world leader. Their resolution, proposing the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), unanimously passed the country’s parliament. Iceland is essentially immune from the least friendly laws anywhere else.


As an indication of how seriously Iceland takes media freedom and transparency, the former minister of the interior kicked out the FBI when they showed up unannounced to investigate the activist group Wikileaks and its leader, Julian Assange.

From a data privacy perspective, Iceland rocks. The country also benefits from loads of cheap, renewable energy. Practically 100% of it is generated by hydroelectric and geothermal plants around the country—more renewable energy per capita than any country in Europe by far. If you’re in the data center business, cooling is almost as simple as leaving the window open.

After surveying the landscape at bit, I settled on Icelandic startup Greenqloud‘s Amazon EC2-compatible service for my data hosting needs. Its servers are powered using only renewable energy, have been customized to reduce the amount of power they consume and are chilled in a data center cooled by Iceland’s nippy air.


My Greenqloud instance lives in the Thor facility, located just outside of Reykjavik. Thor sits on top of a bunker-grade plate more than two feet thick and the facility has high-grade air filters that are regularly cleaned and replaced to keep out volcanic dust.

With an instance running in Greenqloud, I was ready to tackle building a secure, green, self-hosted email server. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it.

Server setup

First, a quick overview of the features we’ll be getting from our modern email server:

  • Email storage is encrypted on the server.
  • Full encryption over the wire with TLS.
  • Server is locked-on-boot, SSH on reboots to unlock.
  • Better SPAM detection.
  • Lightning fast push support on all devices.
  • Full-text search that actually works.
  • Server software and all packages are open source.

We’ll get all this running on a truly carbon-neutral server in a jurisdiction with the strongest privacy laws on earth. Take that, Google.

I opted to spend just a little bit of money (domain names are cheap) and bought the personal domain Billz.to from the national registry of Tonga. Domain names are cheaper when you pay in advance, so if you’re considering this go for the full 5 year option, if you can afford it. This also saves the hassle of renewing each year. See this article for more thoughts on how you can get the most from a truly personal domain.

Our email server is built from a number of separate little projects that work together, including:

  • Postfix – the Mail Transfer Agent (MTA) that handles relaying mail between different servers. It decides what to do with email from the outside world, and whether a particular user is allowed to send email using your server. Postfix hands off local delivery (that is, the actual saving of the mail files on the server) to Dovecot. Postfix also lets Dovecot take care of authentication before users are allowed to send email from the server.
  • Dovecot – the Local Mail Transfer Protocol service (LMTP), in email lingo, it essentially runs IMAP to handle requests from users who want to authenticate and check their email. Dovecot’s LMTP service functions as the Mail Delivery Agent (MDA) by saving mail files on the server. Dovecot also handles all authorization. It checks users’ email addresses and passwords in the MySQL database before allowing them to view or send email.
  • EncFS – this is used to encrypt our email store.
  • OpenDKIM – DKIM digitally signs all messages on the server to verify the message actually was sent from the domain in question and is not spam or phishing.
  • MySQL – the database server stores lookup tables for domains, usernames and passwords, and aliases on the mail server.

If you’re new to configuring secure Linux servers on the internet, be sure to read my first 5 minutes on a server.

I’m comfortable doing many Linux administrative tasks via SSH, but had never built an email server from scratch. It’s a reasonably big project, but lucky for me I found this recipe by Drew Crawford using the above stack running on Debian. If Ubuntu is your preferred Linux distribution, you’ll find a similar guide here to get you started.

Drew concedes that it took him about two days to figure out the setup described in his blogpost, starting from knowing basically nothing about modern email servers. He estimates an implementation time of just two hours. In practice it took me a bit longer, mainly due to troubleshooting a common gotcha I’ll mention in closing. After the initial setup, this mail server truly is a “set it and forget it” affair.

Email migration and clients

With incoming mail working via IMAP, outgoing mail on SMTP and everything under TLS/STARTTLS, I turned my attention to migrating those emails. Here’s how I got my email out of Gmail and working with some outstanding clients:

  • Being a Mac user, I chose Airmail—a modern, slick-designed, fast and fully-featured email client that works perfectly with a standard IMAP account. Airmail supports all kinds of familiar Gmail features, from priority inbox to labels, conversations, contacts and proper archiving.
  • Downloaded ~50,000 emails from Gmail using Airmail and dragged-and-dropped the folders to my new server. This took awhile, but we’re talking machine time here—not human time. The process works the exact same way using an email client like Mozilla Thunderbird.
  • Deleted everything from Gmail. Google engineers assure me that after a few months, my data will really be gone.
  • Updated the web accounts I care about with my new self-hosted @Billz.to address.
  • On my Android phone (whoops…) I am using the excellent K-9 IMAP client. If you’re using an iPhone, you’ll be glad to know that push support will be restored, since Google discontinued push for iOS late last year.

After a decade of using Gmail, I’m back to interacting with my email using Airmail and IMAP TLS. The process of setting up my own server, migrating my emails and getting used to these alternative systems was marginally uncomfortable at times, but I’m quite pleased with the end result.

Protips and caveats

Use SSL/TLS for all connections. Again, while it’s true that the NSA targets encrypted connections—and it may have explicit exploits against these protocols—you’re much better protected than if you communicate in the clear.

One minor snag I had during the server setup was neglecting to open the correct port for SMTP. Greenqloud’s default security for new instances is pretty tight, so it took me awhile diagnosing things with mail server logs before I realized that I needed to add a new ingress rule. Once this was done, everything worked fine.

If you’re running webmail, OwnCloud or another web-based app, it really should be under HTTPS. The good news is, you can switch to HTTPS for free by using StartSSL, the same certificate authority the EFF uses. Their individual certificates are available at no cost. If you’re OK with the command line and administering a web server you own, the process takes less than an hour.

The NSA has turned the fabric of the internet into a vast surveillance platform, but they are not magical. They’re limited by the same economic realities as the rest of us, and our best defense is to make surveillance of us as expensive as possible. In the words of Bruce Schneier:

Trust the math. Encryption is your friend. Use it well, and do your best to ensure that nothing can compromise it. That’s how you can remain secure even in the face of the NSA.

Finally, one of the fringe benefits of hosting in Iceland is that you get to go there to check out your data center. Reykjavik is great place to visit and Iceland’s countryside is beautiful.