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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.



Quick Hits for Oct 11



Hacking the OLPC v2

Hacking the OLPC v2There’s been a veritable bevy of blog posts and rebuttals lately debating what went wrong with the OLPC and what sort of device should follow in its wake. Like a lot of other technology devotees, I’ve watched from the start the meteoric rise and much-publicized decline of the project, which once promised so much but has yet to deliver on the scale its architects had hoped for. There’s been enough punditry, religious warring and snarky commentary following the OLPC’s capitulation to XP to fill volumes. I’m more interested in what form the future OLPC might take, and who will build it. These recent discussions have provided fuel for the imagination.

I think the question of which is better, mobile or a laptop/netbook will become moot as these devices continue toward their inevitable convergence, WiFi networks proliferate in lesser-served parts of the world, and manufacturing costs are further reduced toward the elusive $100 mark. The tantalizing next-generation OLPC (dubbed the XO-2) with its dual touchscreens already resembles an oversized iPhone in both form and function. Availability: sometime in 2010. Maybe.

What should fill the gap between now and then? Until African children can get their hands on the XO-2, or an Android- or Symbian-powered device, perhaps with a foldable keyboard, surely something can be leveraged from all the effort that went into the OLPC.

I’ve spent many hours teaching kids in Cameroonian classrooms, both with computers and the old-fashioned way with a blackboard and, occasionally, printed materials. I can say with certainty that what’s needed in terms of hardware is something rugged and capable of dealing with heat, humidity and dust. Long battery life and a method for off-grid recharging is a must. And no one can argue against the value of having a laptop-like device with a full-sized interface for learning versus a handheld mobile device. Different tools for different purposes.

Last week, while cruising the daily RSS feeds, I offhandedly tweeted this:

Later, I got to thinking about it. Was it such a crazy idea? A dead simple, $200 tablet with a focus on cloud computing seemed like just the ticket. Then, just for laughs, I dummied this up in Photoshop (apologies to TechCrunch):

Hacking the OLPC v2

Like the XO Laptop, Sugar has its share of detractors, often citing it as unintuitive, clunky, inappropriate or worse, but I think they’re missing the point. Nicholas Negroponte has some strong words on this subject:

“In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools.”

Mr. Negroponte is dead on here. I did my best to engage kids in Cameroon with something other than Word (my binary numbers and ASCII lessons were unexpected hits), since Microsoft Office is already taught by default in every school lucky enough to have a computer lab. As a platform for learning, the philosophy and design behind Sugar is incredibly compelling. I can only imagine what a classroom full of my kids in Cameroon would do with a couple dozen “CrunchPad OLPC v2” tablet PCs running Linux and Sugar.

Could a homegrown, bottom-up designed CrunchPad-esque tablet PC be coaxed into doing this? The answer is an emphatic: absolutely! The good news is, Sugar Labs, a non-profit foundation whose mission is to produce, distribute, and support the use of the Sugar learning platform under a number of Linux distributions is already on it. Sugar is now a community project available under the open-source GNU General Public License (GPL) and free to anyone who wants to use or extend it.

As Miquel of Maneno noted, Africans are incredibly resourceful. Might it be possible for a geographically dispersed group of devoted hackers, with the support of the open source community, hardware partners and VC pooled from the diaspora, to produce the next OLPC—here in Africa? Heck, others are already eager to jump on the CrunchPad bandwagon. Surely crazier things have happened.



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



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?




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