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Africa re:load 2012 – Highlights & Growing the AfriLabs Network

AfriLabs NetworkI recently returned from Africa re:load 2012, an annual two-day conference hosted by the Bauhaus University Weimar and GIZ (German Agency for International Cooperation) and wanted to share some thoughts while they’re still fresh. This year’s event was centered around the topics of creative industries, maker culture, green construction, renewable energy, design communities and innovative financial solutions. The participants were drawn from organizations based in Ethiopia, Egypt, South Sudan and Germany, among others.

For Ben and myself, being at this event was an opportunity to reconnect with Jörn Schultz, Marton Kocsev and Oliver Petzoldt—the energetic founders of the icehubs network whom we’d met in Addis Ababa last year—and to network with ‘doers’ from a range of disciplines who are actively prototyping the continent’s future.

Highlights

With a solid roundup of sessions planned, choosing which ones to attend proved to be a challenge. I gravitated toward presentations focused on technology, maker culture, innovation hubs and the like. One of the most intriguing projects I saw was Simon Höher’s demo of the knowable.org online DIY community, which just entered its beta phase:

AfriLabs Network

Knowable is a network that provides free and open access to effective, creative, low-tech solutions that help people provide for their basic needs on their own. It combines elements of Afrigadget, the Appropedia wiki, Make magazine, GitHub and the Instructables online communities, remixed in a totally original way with a genuine desire to foster the growth of a grassroots DIY culture. Their platform is engaging, clean and designed from the outset to be accessible in conditions commonly found in Africa. As knowable’s co-founder Simon put it, “we want knowable to work in IE6 in a crowded cyber cafe.” The founders have won numerous pitch competitions, including the Enorm Social Business Angel Competition and are looking to attract investors for their seed round. I hope to connect with Simon again soon and will definitely watch this startup closely.

Growing AfriLabs

On Saturday morning I gave a presentation together with Marton Kocsev on innovation networks that are spreading across the continent. Marton is currently heading up the development of icecairo, the newest node in the growing icehubs network. Building on the success of iceaddis, which I had the pleasure of visiting, I’m sure that the Cairo hub will be poised to make a similar if not greater impact.

Just prior to the conference, the founders of AfriLabs processed the applications for new member hubs and sent out invitations to community managers and representatives across the continent. Here are two slides I pulled from my deck to illustrate the growth of the network. The first visual represents the AfriLabs network at its founding in 2010:

AfriLabs Network

As of today, we have added nine new open coworking spaces, incubators, startup accelerators, pre-incubation labs and social innovation hubs to the network:

AfriLabs Network

The light blue circles represent hubs which are either coming online shortly or have membership applications in process.

A system to connect innovators

AfriLabs NetworkPutting African tech hubs under an umbrella organization like AfriLabs is well and good but, practically speaking, how does this help facilitate collaboration and communication across borders? Following the example of hundreds of existing hackerspaces that span the globe, including a growing number in Africa, I made a modest proposal to link the AfriLabs member hubs with a communications network. The ChaosVPN (wiki and GitHub project) is an open, secure, mesh-based network designed to connect hackers wherever they are. It has no single point of failure, low latency for voice over IP (VoIP) and is designed such that noone sees other people’s traffic.

A solution based on the ChaosVPN model provides the low-level communications infrastructure—or basic plumbing—which permits a range of services to be rolled out across the network. These services could include things like website mirrors, local caches of resources such as MIT OpenCourseware, LDAP, FTP, Jabber, TOR entry/exit nodes, cloud services, distributed computing and so on. As usage increases and more nodes join the AfriLabsVPN, additional sevices pop up and its potential reach is further extended.

This offers loads of possibilities for virtual incubation as well; with greater numbers of virtual memberships being offered through AfriLabs member hubs, online resource offerings can be tailored to these various member levels. What are the implications for computing services? One exciting possibility that springs to mind is eschewing Amazon’s AWS in favor of iHub’s forthcoming supercomputer cluster for “parallel and resource-hungry applications such as weather prediction, draught prediction and real-time information dispatch.”

The software is there; the hardware costs are negligible—all that’s required are a few brave souls to step forward and start hacking the future. Who’s in?



Beyond PCs: Thin Client Computing with Ndiyo

Computing with NdiyoDuring a recent visit to OpenTech ’09 in London, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Quentin Stafford-Fraser who together with self-described übergeek Dr. Michael Dales form the engineering might behind the not-for-profit, Cambridge-based Ndiyo (the Swahili word for “yes”).

We had a lengthy chat with Quentin and Michael following their presentation, where I learned that Quentin—who, incidentally, was born in Kenya—has devoted much of his time to finding new ways of networking computers so they can be provided for the billions of people who are unable to afford a PC. He’s also famous for a piece of web history involving a coffee pot and a camera. More on that later.

A Radically Different Approach
The motivation behind Ndiyo, says Quentin, “came out of an awareness that the traditional way that we’ve done networked computing—of having one computer per person connected by a bit of network cable—is never going to be a viable way to provide IT to the world.” This model of providing networked computing, he points out, is over a quarter century old and has remained fundamentally unchanged.

Meanwhile, PCs, after Moore’s Law, have followed a pattern of geometric growth in processing capabilities. Today’s desktop PC is easily capable of hosting a multi-user system, yet sits idle most of the time. In theory, there should be enough surplus computing power available to provide access to the billions of people who could benefit from ICT—if it could be distributed equitably, that is.

Quentin saw that the “one user, one PC” paradigm just didn’t make economic or functional sense for the developing world. The conventional PC-based networking model is so intrinsically wasteful and expensive in terms of energy, resource and time inputs that it has effectively blocked access to ICT in poorer nations.

Moreover, networked computing should be easier to manage and support, especially for small organizations, cybercafés and schools. Another grounding principle of Ndiyo is to ensure that the world’s IT infrastructure remains open and is not captured by proprietary hardware and software, or dependent on a small number of Western companies.

It is with this philosophy, driven by a passion for social justice, technical challenges and a commitment to using Open Source software and open standards wherever possible, that Ndiyo was founded.

Computing with Ndiyo

Instead of making PCs cheaper, Ndiyo makes them easier to share. It’s a radical approach based on an old idea that makes good sense: thin client computing. Ndiyo provides a new model—another form of “plumbing” if you will—based on a novel piece of open hardware called a Nivo.

From Coffee Pots to Nivos
To grasp the elegance of the Ndiyo system, it’s worth revisiting a Cambridge coffee pot in the early 1990’s. Quentin is widely credited as the inventor of the world’s first webcam, which pushed pictures of the departmental coffee pot over a network so his fellow engineers could see when it was fresh. Later, as an AT&T researcher, he became one of the original developers of VNC, a free and extremely useful protocol that lets you operate another PC remotely. Descendents of this protocol are now built-in to the Windows and Mac operating systems.

VNC remains an invaluable tool today, but there’s a noticeable difference between sitting in front of a PC and operating one over a VNC connection. For Ndiyo, the thin-client had to function exactly like a normal PC. The problem required a unique piece of hardware, a specialized “frame buffer” as Michael Dales describes it, to push pixels fast down a network cable.

The solution is a small widgetized device called a Nivo (for “Network In, Video Out”) with ports for a mouse and keyboard, VGA video and an Ethernet connection centered around a custom chip developed by DisplayLink, a company created by Quentin in 2003.

Instead of starting with a PC and seeing what we could take out, we began with a monitor and asked what was the minimum we had to add to give a workstation fully capable of typical ‘office’ use. Some of the original VNC team were involved in the design of the new software and protocol, which combines lessons learned from VNC with the need for a very fast, simple device optimised for high-speed networks.

The Nivo is an “ultra-thin client,” allowing the power of a PC to be shared between several users at once simply by plugging in a network cable. The Ndiyo system takes advantage of a key feature of every Linux distribution—support for multiple user sessions out-of-the-box. An arbitrary number of Nivo boxes can be connected to a single PC, with between five and ten clients as a reasonable load.

The Ndiyo System in Action
Ndiyo’s founders like to point out that their system isn’t vaporware—it’s a real solution that works today. The “Internet Cafe in a Box” is a concept they designed to illustrate the affordability and simplicity of a typical cybercafé using an Ndiyo system. It could equally be used for a school computer lab or a small office. All that’s required is a PC to act as the server, the Ubuntu Linux Ndiyo Edition CD-ROM (which installs in half an hour), six Nivos, six flat-panel screens, a few network cables and an inexpensive network switch to connect them together.

The system is easy to set up, affordable, open, robust, is less harmful to the environment and less dependent upon technical support than a conventional PC-based network. With a power draw of just 3 watts for each Nivo (or about 5 if you connect a mouse and keyboard) the energy cost savings alone are substantial.

Ndiyo systems have been successfully piloted in partnership with the GSM Association and mobile network operators in parts of the world which have typically had poor Internet connectivity; Bangladesh and South Africa.

The trials involved both Edge and 3G mobile networks to provide broadband Internet connections to servers, each of which runs a number of local Ndiyo workstations. The Ndiyo architecture enables many users to share not just the cost of the computer, but also of the internet connectivity. Here’s a video of the trial in South Africa:

The Ndiyo Starter Kit is available to people interested in building their own projects with Ndiyo technology.

Final Thoughts
The Ndiyo model and the philosophy behind it are very compelling, for several reasons.

On a practical level, the environmental benefits and energy cost savings of an Ndiyo-type system are obvious. A client which consumes 5 watts verses 300 or more is clearly advantageous. I imagine it would be possible to provide backup power to an entire Ndiyo cluster with a single UPS device, or even to supply constant power using a renewable energy source. This is a big consideration for developing countries where power infrastructure is often less than reliable or nonexistent.

Ndiyo also provides an alternative to traditional Western notions of how technologies should be deployed, used and paid for in developing countries. Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and refurbished PCs are two different approaches that spring to mind. Refurbished PCs are potentially transformative, but have a lot of hidden costs including power consumption, spare parts, support and maintenance. Perhaps instead of unloading tons of obsolete PCs on developing countries, a market-oriented solution with new or refurbished flat panel monitors could be tried instead, used with Nivo clients to build robust clusters.

The Ndiyo cluster also leverages ideas from mobile phone sharing—a concept which needs no introduction to Africans, and takes greater account of conditions on the ground where these systems will be used.

Find out more about Ndiyo. Listen to an interview with Stafford-Fraser. Read their executive summary, check out their FAQ and follow Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Michael Dales on twitter.

If you’d like updates on more stories like this, you can follow me on twitter here.



Why Open Collaboration Spaces like the *iHub_ Matter

iHub-logo-drkLast week I attended the much anticipated iHub Nairobi launch, as well as participated in a pre-launch gathering of African tech hub pioneers (more on the latter in a follow-up post). A number of bloggers in Kenya and elsewhere have already covered the iHub event much better than I could have. The event was aptly described as “Geek Heaven” with a broad cross section of techies, entrepreneurs, university students, journalists, hackers, financiers, researchers and digirati all converging on the top floor space overlooking the Nairobi skyline.

I later told Erik, half-jokingly, that you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting half a dozen TED Fellows as well.

Long before the March 3rd iHub launch, it became clear that something truly unique was taking shape here. Too often, young African software engineers, designers, researchers and innovative thinkers (often referred to as the “Cheetah generation”) labor in isolation and with limited resources, working on the same or similar problems that someone else, somewhere has likely already solved. Just as important, others may be venturing down a path filled with insurmountable obstacles and dead ends.

The idea behind the iHub—and other new technology labs cropping up across Sub-Saharan Africa—is to put a group of exceptionally smart “doers” under one roof, provide them with a top notch work environment, generate ideas at a rapid pace, filter out the dead ends, present the best candidates to investors and produce viable businesses (and success stories) along the way. The end goal isn’t to generate wild profits for the iHub itself under an exclusive brand, but rather to grow a stronger technology community that hackers, researchers, policymakers and VCs are naturally drawn to.

ihub

It’s not a far-fetched idea that world class products and services can grow out of a place like the iHub. Africa is a continent renowned for innovations conceived and built from limited resources. Countless examples exist of indigenous technologies borne from constraints that have led to hugely successful solutions. Among them is M-Pesa, Kenya’s popular mobile banking and payment system, whose model has only recently been prototyped in the West. Likewise, witness how Ushahidi, an open source software effort conceived in the wake of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence has elevated Africa’s global tech status and attracted worldwide acclaim for its rapid deployments in conflict and crisis zones such as the DRC, Gaza, Haiti and Chile, as well as serving as an invaluable tool for election monitoring. Even Washington DC has Kenya to thank for the part it played in cleaning up after Snowmageddon.

When the “Why I blog about Africa” meme made the rounds of the blogosphere awhile back, I mentioned the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship I observed in Cameroon and elsewhere on the continent. I made reference to bearing witness to “an African Renaissance” fueled by ICT and led by a young generation of idealists.

It’s an open secret now that the African Renaissance is already in its early stages. The continent is undergoing a period of rapid transformation due in part to increasingly faster and cheaper bandwidth which is being utilized by young Africans armed with laptops, smart phones and bright ideas.

This video, produced by the iHub’s neighbors the 1Percent Club in the iLab, captures some of the buzz and creativity on the ground in Nairobi:

We’ve observed the same enthusiasm and immense potential for open collaboration in our coworking and incubation space at Limbe Labs. Ideas get cross-pollinated, professional networking occurs spontaneously and businesses are accelerated at a faster pace.

In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss some ideas brainstormed in Nairobi for how this emergent tech hub network can better support African entrepreneurs.



Mapping Africa’s Bush Fires

From NASA’s Earth Observatory website:

Season after season, year after year, people set fire to African landscapes to create and maintain farmland and grazing areas. People use fire to keep less desirable plants from invading crop or rangeland, to drive grazing animals away from areas more desirable for farming, to remove crop stubble and return nutrients to the soil, and to convert natural ecosystems to agricultural land. The burning area shifts from north to south over the course of the year, in step with the coming and going of Africa’s rainy and dry seasons.

NASA has previously published some impressive seasonal fire patterns of the African continent, using Terra and Aqua satellite telemetry data. More recently, the University of Maryland, in partnership with NASA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, has created the Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). FIRMS combines remote sensing and GIS technologies to deliver near real-time global hotspot/active fire locations to natural resource managers and other stakeholders around the world. Here’s a dynamic map of Africa’s bush fires plotted over the last 48 hours:

Mapping Africa’s Bush Fires

As you can see, the most intense fire activity is located around Angola, southern DRC, Zambia, Mozambique and Madagascar. This is consistent with seasonal fire patterns for this time of year.

While fire is a part of the natural cycle of the seasonally dry grasslands and savannas of Africa, ecologists and climatologists have reason to be concerned about Africa’s intense burning. The frequency with which fires return to previously burned areas helps determine which species of plants (and therefore animals) can survive. When the fire-return interval is too quick, the land may become degraded and unusable for farming or grazing. In the semi-arid and fragile Sahel, land degradation through overuse of fire or overgrazing can create pockets of desert. The massive amount of burning that occurs in Africa each year creates carbon dioxide and aerosol particles, both of which play a role in global climate and may create a public health hazard as well (as one who has lived through many of Central West Africa’s fire seasons, I can attest to the latter).

Seasonal burning of dry grassland and savanna is one issue, but slash and burn agriculture of Africa’s forestland is a different matter. Near real-time mapping resources such as FIRMS are invaluable tools for advocacy, outreach and community education.

For more information about this topic, check out blogger Andriankoto Ratozamanana’s TED Global talk on the environmental crisis posed by the “crazy slash and burn” of Madagascar’s forests and the positive steps being taken to remedy the problem.



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.

invoation

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.

 




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