27 Months

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Why I Blog About Africa

A new meme is making the rounds in the African francophone blogopshere and is now gradually spreading through the anglophone zone. It was begun by Théo Kouamouo, a blogger based in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire). Théo asked bloggers to reflect on why they blog about Africa and tagged a few friends to get the ball rolling. Their responses were collected by Global Voices in this post. He offered this answer to his own question (translated from French):

I blog about Africa with joy because I believe that it is from our individual and mixed voices that the African renaissance will sprout, which will come as surely as Martin Luther King’s dream became a reality forty years later. I read African-oriented blogs with joy because they give me a less monolithic and less doomed image of the continent and its inhabitants.

I began blogging about Africa (or, more precisely, my corner of it) as a way to keep my friends and family in touch with my daily life here as a technologist. Over time, the focus shifted away from my personal experience to the stories of the people I met in Cameroon and elsewhere on the continent. In the process, the blog became much more conversational and, if the traffic numbers are any indication, interesting to a broader audience. Just one recent example is Roland Boula’s podcasting story and the ripples it sent through my online social network.

About Africa

Another reason I blog about Africa is because I’m intrigued by the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship I see here in Cameroon and the continent as a whole. I’m passionate about technology, and I truly believe we’re on the verge of witnessing a Renaissance that will largely be fueled by ICT and led by pioneering young Africans. It’s an exciting place to be, and blog about, for this reason alone.

I can’t resist propagating a good meme, so with that I’ll tag an interesting mix of Cameroonian bloggers:

Mambe Nanje Churchill
Our Man In Cameroon
Camerooned
My African Father



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.

 



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.

beaten

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.

microsoftofficesize
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!




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