First SolarKiosk Opened in Ethiopia

{ Posted on Aug 02 2012 by Bill Zimmerman }

SolarKiosk, a modular business unit for Africa and off-grid areas anywhere in the world, recently opened its first kiosk near Lake Langano, Ethiopia. Following a period of design and planning, a privately financed company was formed to prepare the product for serial production by building prototypes and running pilots in several countries. The first prototype of the SolarKiosk was built in November 2011 and displayed in various locations, including the 2012 TedXBerlin conference. In March of this year, a subsidiary, Solarkiosk Solutions PLC, was incorporated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to run a pilot program. Construction of the first prototypes in Ethiopia began in April. Today, the kiosk is up and running in a new community.

The SolarKiosk is modular, able to be transported in a lightweight package to remote areas and is available in numerous configurations:

Much like a “platform” in the automotive industry, the basic model can be arbitrarily extended and modified, adapting to all kinds of uses depending on the local market, local tax benefits and so on.

Certain parts of the kiosk—the electrical components, in particular—are manufactured centrally to ensure quality and durability, but all others can be made of local materials such as bamboo, wood, adobe, stone, metal or even recycled goods. This makes the kiosk attractive for purchase or license by entrepreneurs and both public and private and institutions. It’s also possible to connect multiple kiosks to create a local grid.

Thinking about many a dark night I’ve passed in Cameroon, with container shops and call boxes lit by candles or kerosene lamps, the need for a solution like this is obvious. If the capital expenditure makes sense for business owners over the long term, SolarKiosks could become a viable alternative in on- and off-grid areas.

South African MC Sifiso Sudan selling mixtapes via Blackberry

{ Posted on Jul 25 2012 by Bill Zimmerman }


Sudan recently released his new mixtape ‘Rage against the machine’ directly through his Blackberry, cutting out any labels or middle men. He made a deal with airtime merchants that enables him to sell his latest mixtape from his BBM at the cost of R5 MTN airtime per single. Within a few days he managed to sell hundreds of copies of his single ‘Cheaters’ in this way.

“The future is literally in our hands” says Sudan.  “Mobile phones have 80% penetration in South Africa and everybody knows that this is Blackberry country. My music also promotes a ‘do for self’ attitude so it’s important that it walks the talk. To prove that this is a great business model for all of us, I’m planning to go platinum this way.”

Join Sudan on BBM #27AC730C, follow him via Twitter and check out two tracks from the mixtape which are available for download below.

via Timbuktu Chronicles.

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

{ Posted on Jul 16 2012 by Bill Zimmerman }

I 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.


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 online DIY community, which just entered its beta phase:

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:

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

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

A system to connect innovators

Putting 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?

Deadline Extension for CSC2012 Entries

{ Posted on Jul 06 2012 by Bill Zimmerman }

As the deadline for the 2012 Cameroon Startup Challenge draws near, a number of entrepreneurs have stepped forward to request extensions. The quality of contestants is very high and we know that entrepreneurs are going to great lengths to perfect their prototypes, documentation and video pitches. The group of challengers that is forming already represent the top innovators in Cameroon. In an effort to give everyone an opportunity to put forward their best and to join this group of innovators, we’ve decided to extend the deadline until August 31st.

One frequent request I’ve heard is to review the Solution Description, Pilot Test Plan and Sustainability Plan for a project. As much as I enjoy offering advice and coaching, as a panel judge I unfortunately can’t advise teams this way. What I can do, however, is provide a link to a model document. This was an entry to the Chembe Ventures Urban Security Challenge, launched in 2010 by our colleague Sean Murphy together with the Betavine Social Exchange. The level of detail is quite high here and, in fact, we’d be pleased to see a document that follows this example but at a shorter length.

Best of luck to all the teams and we’ll see you at the awards ceremony in September.

Announcing the 2012 Cameroon Startup Challenge

{ Posted on May 07 2012 by Bill Zimmerman }

Fostering the growth of the VC4Africa community is central to the daily work that Ben and I do. In our travels and interactions with entrepreneurs in all corners of the continent, we’re also acutely aware of the need for early stage venture finance. Increasingly, new funds, niche firms and angels are testing the waters of investing in African tech. Despite this, many African markets remain underserved. The challenges are well understood: high costs of due diligence, lack of viable exits and so on.

We’ve kept Sanaga Ventures in standby mode over the last year while we refined our strategy. Ben and I are focused on markets and sectors we know well, and will offer not only seed finance but a package that includes the knowledge, network, mentorship and non-financial resources needed to give startups their best shot at success. Our end goal is to work closely with these founders to create an attractive opportunity for the investment community.

To start things off, we’re pleased to announce a Startup Challenge for Cameroon; a country and tech community that’s very close to us:

The competition offers a cash prize of USD $5,000 for the most innovative web, mobile or hardware-based business venture in Cameroon. As an additional benefit, the winning venture is eligible to be incubated at ActivSpaces, Cameroon’s leading technology hub, and receive ongoing support, oversight, services and mentoring. An awards ceremony will be held in Cameroon at the close of the challenge with the top three startups, participants, judges, invited guests, a video crew and local press. Entries will be accepted from May 7th – July 6th, 2012.

We’re very fortunate to have several of the top figures in Cameroon’s tech sector participating on the judging panel. Entry criteria, eligibility, success measures and all the details are available in the press release: