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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?



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.




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