Microsoft today announced that it will soon open two data center regions for its cloud-based services in Johannesburg and Cape Town South Africa. This marks Microsoft’s first data center expansion into Africa, and the plan is to get these new regions online in 2018.
Like most of its other data centers around the world, these new regions will offer both Azure’s suite of cloud computing tools for developers as well as productivity tools like Office 365 and Dynamics 365. With no data centers in the region, developers and other Microsoft customers currently have to connect to data centers in Europe and accept the increased latency that entails.
“Few places in the world are as dynamic and diverse as Africa today,” Microsoft’s executive vice president for its Cloud and Enterprise group Scott Guthrie writes in today’s announcement. “In this landscape, we see enormous opportunity for the cloud to accelerate innovation, support people across the continent who are working to transform their businesses, explore new entrepreneurship opportunities and help solve some of the world’s hardest problems.”
The addition of these two new regions brings Microsoft’s total number of regions to 40, significantly more than its biggest competitors. As far as competing cloud platforms go, Google currently offers its developers access to eight regions (but has a plan to aggressively increase this number over the course of this year) and Amazon’s AWS currently operates 16 regions and 42 availability zones.
It’s worth noting that neither Google nor Amazon currently operate regions in Africa, though the number of data centers in the region that are being operated by other companies continues to increase rapidly.
Africa’s youth population is expected to double to a staggering 830 million by 2050, such rapid growth has led to questions about how the continent will keep up in terms of resources and jobs.
A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) into World Employment paints a dire picture of the state of youth unemployment and working poverty on the continent.
According to the 2016 report, North Africa has the second highest rate of youth unemployment in the world, while sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of working poverty.
So how do you tackle a rapidly growing population burdened with high rates of unemployment?
For Google Brand and Reputation manager Bunmi Banjo it’s teaching millions of Africans digital skills, for free.
How to train a million
After a career in banking, Banjo said she saw a need to create economic opportunities for Africans, which led her to Google.
She joined the team in 2012 and under her leadership, the company has trained a million youths in sub-Saharan African in just eleven months.
“We have trained hundreds over the years but we decided that in Africa we really needed skill,” Banjo told CNN.
“A lot of them [youth] coming online only know about social and are using the web primarily as a communication tool which is great, but [they are] not realizing that there is a lot more they can do with it especially in Africa where the jobs are not there.”
Soon after the Digital Skills for Africa program launched in April last year Banjo found it necessary to raise the bar higher, and the company decided to train one million people.
“You can connect with people, grow your skills and potentially get jobs from across the world,” she explained. “This is what we want to make sure large numbers of young people are aware of.”
‘ Not a quick fix’
The training, a free crash course in digital marketing, was delivered in classrooms, online and offline for areas with limited Internet access. Training happens in over 27 countries According to Banjo, the course will give participants a 70% chance of becoming more employable.
“We know people across the region are ingenious, with a little they do a lot and they are thirsty for knowledge,” she said.
“All our classes are oversubscribed because they are eager to learn. If they had the right tools and information they will be able to.”
While she acknowledges this training is no ‘quick fix’ for the continent’s high unemployment numbers, she stressed the importance of teaching African youth about less traditional paths to job creation.
“A lot of young people will have to figure out how to create income and opportunities for themselves and we feel very strongly that the web is a way to do that.”
Getting value out of the web
According to Banjo the program is already yielding positive results.
” 67% of the people we have trained have said they have either gotten a job or they feel better prepared for jobs because of the training,” Banjo shared. “If only a few million people are impacted by 67% that is significant.”
But Banjo is not stopping there.
“I know a million on its own sounds big but we are talking about a continent that has 500 million people that have the potential to contribute to the economy,” she said. “A million doesn’t look so big anymore.”
Google plan to train at least another million by the end of 2017 and to offer courses in local languages including Hausa and Swahili and Banjo has no plans of slowing down.
“Every aspect of my job is about helping people get value out of the web…” she said.
“Young people [in Africa] are ingenious and all they need is a little support to connect to the tools they need to improve their future.”
“It’s not every time you get to do something where you get to meet the beneficiaries of the work you do. It’s the most rewarding feeling to point at the work you do and the impact it’s having at the level of the individual.
Opera, the Norwegian browser-maker that was sold to a Chinese consortium last year, is doubling down on the African market after it announced plans to invest $100 million to grow its business in the emerging region.
The company is well known for its reach in emerging markets, and Africa in particular where it recently reached 100 million users. This $100 million budget is principally for the business in its three strongest African markets — South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya — where it plans to strengthen its product, grow its ecosystem of partners and bring more users aboard. Further down the line, it could apply the same approach to other countries in the region.
“We are definitely interested in more markets,” Jan Standal, head of global marketing and communications, told TechCrunch in an interview. “There’s nothing preventing us from initiating an extension at any time.”
Standal, who said the budget is expected to last for “the next couple of years,” explained that Opera’s marketshare in the three chosen countries is between 40 and 60 percent and, with that base, it is looking to make a major push into content.
“We’re stepping up [because] the purpose of the browser is evolving,” he said. “Particularly around news publishing, the browser is one of the main gateways to consumption. If you want to reach people [in African countries] you have to work with web browsers… and we’re changing our role from being a browser to content aggregator.”
Opera has long put a focus on media with its web browsers — both mobile and desktop — but earlier this year it revealed that Chinese parent company Kunlun Tech had developed a team to bring AI to the core of its services. News and content distribution is high on the order for its AI tech, which will be increase the personalization of news that the company’s browser surfaces for users. In Africa, the company said it wants deliver “personalized and localized content” to users.
Beyond working with content producers — Standal stressed a focus on “premium content” — Opera plans to ramp up its work with OEMs and operators to bring more users on to its platform, and double down on its data optimization technology to help offset the comparatively expensive cost of data in Africa. It also began running TV ads in Africa to raise awareness of the service, and what users can do besides just browsing the web.
Beyond those established gatekeepers, Opera has its eye on startups that fit with its mission of growing digital audiences in Africa. Standal hinted that technology around payments is one area of interest, but he declined to provide specific details around plans for investments or acquisitions.
“This is the direction we’re interested in but we don’t have any announcements at this point,” he added.
Opera is already working on widening its content reach in Africa — it initially began on general news and sports — and it has adopted a similar approach in other parts of the world. In India, for instance, it introduced Cricket alerts earlier this year.
While Opera has given any targets for its $100 million investment in Africa, Standal said the company “expects to see good growth.”
“We’re going after this investment plan because we have a very strong position in Africa,” he explained. “We want to continue to grow the internet base.”
Operationally, it has an office in South Africa already and is in the process of opening similar bases in both Kenya and Nigeria in line with this push. The company said it plans to hire 100 people across its workforce in all three countries.
“I remember most times there was little or no food [in the house],” he told CNN. “I had to go to school without food and got by with snacks friends shared with me.” .
“I always said in the future I would do something to ensure others wouldn’t go through what I went through.”
Fast forward to 2017 and Ekponimo, now a software engineer, is doing exactly that through his web app Chowberry.
The app connects supermarkets to NGOs and low-income earners, allowing them to buy food that’s about to expire at a discount.
Ekponimo says the response to the project has been encouraging and he’s been able to see first hand how it’s transforming lives.
“We met one lady who has six children and survives on 400 naira ($1.05)a day,” he said. “She sells firewood and kunu (a local drink). One day the task force seized her kunu for hawking in the street, and she had nothing. She had to feed her family on what she made. So it’s nice to see the impact of what we’re doing.”
A three-month pilot involving 20 retailers reached about 300 people in Lagos and Abuja, feeding 150 orphans and children at risk.
He is hopeful that more national retailers will join the scheme as demand for the service continues to grow in the face of Nigeria’s recession.
“We went from about 1,500 daily visits to double that. There have been requests and demand, people tell me we really want this, we’re relying on what you guys are doing because things are expensive.”
Hunger and food insecurity are problems still plaguing the continent. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 223 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were hungry or undernourished in 2014-2016, the second largest number of hungry people in the world.
According to the World Food Programme, Nigeria is a ‘food deficit’ country, meaning that it cannot provide enough food for its population.
Widespread poverty, inflation and insecurity have been cited as contributing factors to Nigeria’s hunger problem.
Last year, the UN revealed 14 million in the northeast of the country need urgent humanitarian assistance because of the ongoing Boko Haram conflict and warned that 75,000 children could starve to death in months.
Last year, Ekponimo won a Rolex Award for Enterprise for his work and has hopes to expand.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” he said. “We’re expanding our work and working on scaling to other parts of the country and to other regions and possibly replicating it in other parts of the world.”
Rita Kimani, 25, is one of the young leaders designated by the United Nations to help promote the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) among fellow youth. Through her initiative, FarmDrive, Rita is using data analytics and mobile phone technology to connect smallholder farmers with lending institutions in rural Kenya.
Why were you selected to attend this event at the UN?
Kimani: I am here as one of the young leaders advocating for the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s really the work I do. I co-founded a company called FarmDrive that helps local farmers in Kenya obtain credit. So, I am here to help bring the youth’s voice in designing programmes for engaging the youth, specifically in the agricultural sector.
You said you founded FarmDrive. What really is it?
FarmDrive is a data analytics company developing alternative credit scoring models to benefit smallholder farmers. We’ve developed a mobile phone app which rural farmers can use to track their revenues and expenses, as well as apply for loans. We combine the farm-level data we get from the farmers with big datasets – like weather, climate, economic, and satellite data – to generate a credit score which financial institutions then use to lend to the farmers.
What made you venture into this technology?
I grew up in a farming community in Turbo, about three hundred km northwest of the capital, Nairobi, where most families grow maize. When I started university, I met my co-founder Peris Bosire on our first day on campus. We both studied computer science, but connected more because of our similar backgrounds growing up in farming communities. We brainstormed about how we could use technology to solve some of the farmers’ problems we saw or experienced first-hand. That’s how we ended up founding FarmDrive during our last year of university in 2014.
Who gives the farmers the credit?
We work with various financial institutions that give credit to small-scale farmers in Kenya. For the farmers who sign up with us, the loan application process is quite simple. They complete a short survey on the app, we analyze the complexities along with external data, and come up with a credit score for each farmer. We then give the information to various financial institutions to enable them to make informed lending decisions. We also make recommendations on how much credit we think a farmer could afford, and propose terms of payment. So in short, we’re helping financial institutions assess risk and create good products so that they can better lend to smallholder farmers.
What numbers are you working with?
We have registered 3,000 farmers so far. Out of this, about 400 have accessed credit through us since December 2015. We have clients in 16 counties in Kenya out of the total 47. The majority of them are in horticulture, poultry, dairy or maize farming. Our goal is to reach 100,000 farmers.
What makes FarmDrive a unique product?
You know that farmers in Kenya, and Africa at large, do not have quite a footprint in the financial sector. They are either underbanked or unbanked. We call them “thin file.” If you try to get any information about them in the formal financial sector, you will not get much, considering the methods that financial institutions use to give credit—such as requiring a credit history or bank statement, and many times collateral. But that does not mean farmers who lack these are bad borrowers. We asked ourselves, how else can financial institutions be able to profile these farmers, understand the risks and offer products that work? That is why we built this technology, to collect data on smallholder farmers and connect them to these institutions.
Where do SDGs come in?
The one thing that resonates with me for anyone pushing for the SDGs is that they talk of leaving no one behind. That is what I connect with most. But what does “leave no one behind” mean? I understand it to mean that everyone in the village will no longer go hungry or be poor. It’s a huge undertaking.
Are you a farmer yourself?
Yes, although I don’t own any piece of land, I have leased a greenhouse where I grow tomatoes and sweet peppers.
How do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
I’m passionate about getting involved in building programmes that actually work for farmers in Africa, specifically the young ones. Our vision as FarmDrive is to help farmers across Africa to achieve self-sustainability by accessing resources, not only to fend for themselves and their families, but also to thrive.
How do you connect the youth and agriculture?
I want to see more young people engaged in agriculture, because that’s where the opportunities are. Agriculture presents an opportunity for Africa to get out of poverty and achieve many of the 17 SDGs. We urge governments and other organizations to involve the youth by building programmes that support them.
Why is agriculture not attractive to young people?
When I listen to the youth, they are very clear that they do not want to be the ones doing the manual work like tilling the land. They do not think it is sexy, and you cannot blame them. If you grew up in a farming community, you struggled to make ends meet, yet you spent all your time on the farm after school. Even parents themselves do not wish farming on their children upon graduation. But interestingly, with technology, things are changing. Youth farmers are now digitally managing their farms from afar, connecting with other farmers on social media to get advice, and getting market prices on their phone. The technologies available to farmers are changing and we want to help youth farmers be aware of and access these technologies.
How do you think young people can be supported to become more productive citizens?
One of the key things is to make sure that we are not just “supporting” the youth but rather we are “working with them,” making sure they are part of the conversation, being involved in designing programmes and policies that affect them, and listening to their voices.
Two weeks ago, in Stockholm, Mohammed Omer and four of his friends gathered to talk about the biting drought ravaging their home country, Somalia. Beyond donating funds, the tech developers and social activists came together to discuss ideas to assist those in need of immediate relief. Eventually, they decided to use Ushahidi the Kenyan open source software to develop a platform that would allow responders to connect with drought victims.
The result was Abaaraha (“drought” in Somali), a crowdsourcing platform that collects and verifies data through text, phone calls, email, and social media alerts. The web portal, which went live on Mar. 16, maps cases of malnutrition, disease outbreaks, and death. “There are no platforms that provide full information” with regards to the drought, says Omer. They’re “trying to fill that gap and to [help] coordinate the relief efforts that are taking place.” An unprecedented crisis is currently gripping Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen, threatening the lives of 20 million people, according to the United Nations (UN).
More than 5 million people face acute food shortages in northeast Nigeria, and famine in parts of South Sudan threatens more than 7.5 million people. In Somalia, where cholera outbreaks have killed hundreds of people, the looming famine threatens 6.2 million—more than half the population. It threatens to bring back the grim reality of 2011, when 260,000 Somalis starved to death.
The UN has given its Food and Agriculture Organization a $22 million loan to help tackle the crisis. Yet, that’s a far cry from the $4.4 billion they need by July to stall Yemenis, Somalis, Nigerians and South Sudanese from dying. But, not waiting on donors, young African professionals both at home and in the diaspora are taking the initiative to connect, collaborate, and raise funds and relief materials to assuage those in need. Equipped with smartphones and access to the internet, they are especially using social media outlets to spread the news about the drought and create positive change.
While raising awareness and funds is a vital part of managing the famine crisis, tech platforms like Abraaraha and others also help authorities identify, track and efficiently respond to specific areas in need, and in turn, helping avert deaths or a humanitarian catastrophe.
These collective efforts have started gaining global traction and drawing the attention of both governments and non-governmental agencies. Their efforts, in countries where governments are known to be slow-paced, inefficient and even corrupt, can prove to be the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands at risk of hunger and disease.
Bukky Shonibare is an activist and social impact worker, who alongside a group of well-meaning Nigerians, launched Adopt-A-Camp in 2015. The collaborative effort focused on sourcing donations through a dedicated online portal to provide amenities to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps. With the northeast devastated by the Boko Haram insurgency over much of the past decade, thousands of Nigerians have been left homeless and remain in congested camps.
Adopt-A-Camp raised $28,000 last year and built two learning hubs for out-of-school kids as well as a health center and toilet facilities in Biu IDP camp, in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state. Across the three IDP camps in which it operates, backed mainly by donations from individuals, Adopt-A-Camp says over 6,000 IDPs are now beneficiaries of its donations, which also include food and basic necessities, like clothes.
Twitter has especially been a critical tool to raise funds and build these virtual communities. After the hashtag CaawiWalaal (meaning “help a brother or a sister” in Somali) started circulating online, a group of volunteers got together to brand it and use it to sponsor 500 families living in drought-affected areas.
Their collective efforts raised more than $30,000 in total through mobile money transfers and a GoFundMe campaign. A one-day fundraising ceremony in Mogadishu also collected $15,000 in donations. Beyond Twitter, in Somaliland, friends and family members have also been forming groups on the instant messaging platform WhatsApp, urging each other to donate money and to sponsor hard-hit families.
Ahmed Ibrahim, one of the co-founders of the Walaal campaign, says the funds have allowed them to distribute food, medicine, and water in more than six regions across Somalia. “The biggest impact from all these collaborative efforts is that the information about the drought has helped spread all over,” Ibrahim said.
Celebrities all over the world, like Ben Stiller and NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick with help from Turkish Airlines, have joined the campaign to help Somalis facing starvation. The campaign, known as the Love Army for Somalia, has collected $2 million in less than a week .
In Nigeria, there have been similar social media-based fundraising efforts. Back in 2014, Modupe Odele, a lawyer now based in New York, went on a trip to northeast Nigeria. Gripped by the grim realities of residents whose lives had been devastated by the Boko Haram insurgency, Odele decided to start a campaign to donate blankets to IDPs. It started with one tweet, Odele says, but along with a group of interested people, the blanket drive has donated not only blankets but also other relief materials every month till date. “It was more than a blanket drive, the goal was to draw people’s attention to what was going on in the northeast,” Odele says.
Also in Nigeria, Oghenekaro Omu set up Sanitary Aid for Nigerian Girls (SANG), a campaign to donate sanitary pads to “girls from low-income homes and the girls in the IDP camps.” More than giving them pads, Omu says the project will also focus on teaching the girls about sanitary hygiene in general. Over-populated IDP camps have been struck by disease outbreaks, with young girls who are unable to access sanitary items, particularly at risk. Since launching the project, Omu says over 3,000 sanitary pads have been provided—all through social media donations. SANG has also snagged blue chip support: earlier this month, it announced a partnership with Microsoft.
Ibrahim from Caawi Walaal says that some contributors have been worried about whether or not the monies could be misappropriated. He says they partnered with Somalia’s umbrella organization for private schools, who manage the funds under a subsidiary account. “We have ensured that transparency and documentation are followed to the letter, but again, that they should help us disperse the funds faster.”
In Nigeria, transparency presents a bigger challenge. Reports of IDP camp officials stealing and selling donated items have resulted in government-sanctioned probes. It’s not just lowly officials either: back in December, the Nigerian senate uncovered an $8 million relief fund fraud implicating a high ranking official in the presidency.
To check fraud, Orodata, a Lagos-based civic startup has created IDP Tracker, an online tool with which provides crucial information on camps for the internally displaced in Nigeria’s northeast. Blaise Aboh, the lead data analyst at Orodata, says data from IDP Tracker will boost transparency around relief operations and also help NGOs and government policy-makers understand the scale of the problem as well as make more informed decisions.
If you’ve ever tried to watch Netflix or scroll through Facebook outside of a major town in Africa, you’re having the typically poor online experience most Africans are familiar with. Internet connectivity is notoriously bad on this continent with 1.1-billion people, but even worse when your try access content that sits on a server somewhere in the United States or Europe.
And forget about streaming video, which last year accounted for 60% of all mobile traffic globally, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index report, and is expected to rise to 78% by 2021.
Until now, a ground-breaking new internet device holds the potential to give Africans as first-class an internet and content experience as anywhere in the developed world. Kenyan start-up BRCK today unveiled its latest innovation that can revolutionize how people access the internet’s rich repository, even in the most distant, unconnected areas.
Called SupaBRCK, it is an industrial-strength upgrade of the original BRCK launched in June 2014 that aimed to solve the thorny problem of poor internet access in Kenya. Episodic power failures meant modems were often destroyed by power surges when electricity returned, and regular WiFi-emitting dongles (called MiFi) couldn’t support enough devices and ran out of battery life before power resumed.
But SupaBRCK is more than just a hardware router, it is also part of what the internet industry calls a content delivery network (CDN). These networks of servers host content (often called a cache) for Facebook, Netflix, YouTube and others. When you click on a Facebook or YouTube video, that triggers a request to the server and the video starts playing. If you’re on a fast connection in a major city such as Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg, that tends to be quite quick. But the further out of urban areas you travel, towards what the industry calls “the edge,” the slower – and more expensive – it gets. If that server is located in countries like Germany or the US, the connection is even slower.
SupaBRCK provides both the wireless signal and hard drive space to cache content on the actual device. That means a cellphone users connected to a SupaBRCK is watching videos stored on it, reducing the cost for cellular networks to stream it from a CDN somewhere else, and reducing the time it takes for the video to begin playing.
The impact of this is huge for Africa, most of whose inhabitants have mobile-only access to the internet. The cost saving is passed onto these consumers, who are using the WiFi signal emitted by the SupaBRCK and not much more expensive cellular data to browse the internet and social media.
‘SupaBRCK was born out of the need to solve the problems, not just of connectivity and power issues in Africa, but of edge computing and off-grid data storage,’ BRCK CEO Erik Hersman told me. ‘We started to realize how big of an issue this was shortly after we shipped our first products, so began thinking through a solution, both hardware and software, that would allow organizations to manage connectivity, power, computing and storage in an all-in-one device, designed for frontier markets, such as Africa.’
Encased in a weather and shockproof aluminium enclosure, SupaBRCK has 10-hours of battery life for power failures, has a 500GB hard disk that can be upgraded to 5TB and have several high-speed LTE/4G/3G GSM modems.
‘More than just a WiFi router, the SupaBRCK is effectively a rugged data centre in a single, solar-powered, all-weather box. The SupaBRCK board was designed in partnership with Intel and the same board has already been used as part of the Kio Kit product,’ says Hersman. The Kio Kit is part of the remarkable BRCK Education initiative that used a BRCK and 40 rugged tablets to provide school children with a multimedia-rich internet education.
Hersman – who is also the co-founder of real-time reporting software Ushahidi and Nairobi’s first and most successful co-working space and incubator iHub – understands just how hard it is to get good internet connectivity in Kenya and East Africa, where he has lived most of his life.
‘Internet access is really about two things; transmission of the internet connecting us with the rest of the world, and distribution of that connection to your phone or computer. We’re excited about what mobile operators, satellite companies, and even what the big internet giants like Facebook, Microsoft and Google are doing in Africa around this. However, they’re all transmission and it doesn’t solve our “last meter” problem of distribution to African internet users.
‘BRCK set out to solve this problem by first providing the hardware that works in low infrastructure environments, where we can’t rely on the power and where the internet connectivity might range between different inputs (SIM card, Ethernet, satellite, etc). We wanted to make a more reliable distribution point for the internet. We’ve also worked on the software side, creating cloud-based tools for device management as well as content syncing, all of this helps create a lower cost, more reliable and faster internet.’
Underlying the hardware is an operating system that was custom built for SupaBRCK that gives it the flexibility to control its own destiny, the amount of devices that can connect it, enabling larger drives, and add services. ‘Moja is key to it, and it’s where BRCK becomes a platform company, not just a hardware company any longer,’ says Hersman. ‘With Moja WiFi, we’ve created a way to provide real, free public WiFi and at the same time have created a system that businesses and content companies can use to access these same markets through Moja CDN.’
SupaBRCK, with its Moja CDN, will solve arguably the biggest headache for content distribution in Africa. ‘Most internet companies think of “the edge” as a data center, or content caching service, in a large city like Nairobi,’ Hersman told me. ‘They’re correct to an extent, but where they go wrong is thinking that the internet infrastructure for Africa is modelled like what you would find in the US or Europe. In Africa, as in most emerging markets, the issue is that your internet cables come into a country, do a fast local loop in the big city, where the CDN is also located, and the internet works fast there. 45 minutes away from the city you’re out of luck, the internet is slow, unreliable and more expensive.’
Key to solving this, BRCK has worked out, is thinking differently about hosting the content on the actual device. ‘If we want to solve the problem of internet in emerging markets, we need to think about the infrastructure of the internet itself differently – or, maybe we need to think of it as it was originally designed – truly distributed,’ Hersman told me. ‘To that end, BRCK started building a remotely-managed software platform that sits on top of the SupaBRCK, which turns each of these devices into a standalone microCDN – we call this platform Moja CDN. Where BRCK rolls these units out across towns and villages, public transportation and off-grid areas, then makes the Moja CDN service available to companies to purchase, just like you would do with Amazon’s AWS or Rackspace.
‘The idea of Moja CDN is to rethink Cloud infrastructure from the African context and locate small data centers off-grid, at the edge of the network. This Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), distributed network of servers and access points provides for an optimization of resource intensive media and mobile applications through a local Cloud.’
These could include ‘on-demand video services to public health applications like OpenMRS, the demand for responsive server infrastructure at the very edges of the network is significant and growing. Unfortunately existing data centre hardware could never survive in these environments and the business models for engaging with local communities are non-existent. BRCK solves both of these challenges through our ongoing efforts to rollout Moja and Moja CDN.’
SupaBRCK is the evolution of the very remarkable BRCK, including all the lessons learnt from providing quality education using BRCK Education. There is also the equally clever PicoBRCK, which is a smaller version aimed at providing Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity.
Kenya has long been known as the most innovative country for mobile – with its M-Pesa mobile money system that still accounts for the largest share of mobile transactions in the world – and SupaBRCK adds to that rich tradition.
Ecobank has obviously decided to increase and improve its presence and participation in tech arena. This can be observed in resent strategic moves that extends to corperate social duties.
The transnational incorporated bank has partnered with Microsoft to complement African government’s efforts to modernise and raise the standards of the continent’s major cities through state of the art digital solutions.
The partnership will see to the modernisation of sectors that will have the most immediate and significant impact for African countries.
These sectors will include bursary, disbursements, and school fees collections in he education sector, market shop and small vendor municipality collections, vehicles and driving licensing as well as Vis and passport fee collections.
The partnership will also supports the implementation of a comprehensive skills and a digital literacy programme.
Other key areas such as land registration and fee collection in the municipal and hospital services are all expected to see some tremendous modernisation.
Following the rise in the need for financial solutions in Africa, Ecobank also has challenged developers, programmers and FinTech innovators all over Africa to join forces in combating the continent’s most pressing banking issues, and proffer lasting solutions that would transform Africa’s finance through technology and innovation.
The bank is doing this through $500,000 FinTech challenge for African startupsn. Asides the chance to win up to $500,000 funding, the Ecobank FinTech Challenge affords applicants benefits such as partnership with the bank, full Pan-African visibility, multi-national exposure and the list goes on.
All African startups and technology innovators are eligible to apply for the challenge, are to choose from different areas of interest and build a demo to serve as prototype
A total of 20 teams will be selected to pitch at the bank’s Innovation Fair, which will be held at the global headquarters of Ecobank in Lomé in May, 2017.
It’s a hot Tuesday afternoon and Martin and his classmates are studying biology in the library of Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Yet the children are not staring at a blackboard or copying lessons from a textbook. There’s not even a teacher in the room. Instead, small groups of excited 10-year-olds gather around tablets, tapping and swiping between quizzes and educational videos.
They are using eLimu, a local software platform that aims to optimise learning by turning Kenya’s school curriculum into colourful, easy-to-digest exercises. And they are not alone. Kenya is brimming with companies trying to bring education into the digital era by scanning textbooks, developing bite-sized courses for mobile phones and providing tablets to rural schools.
Kenya’s digital gap is vast. Despite being east Africa’s largest economy and spending twice as much money per student as the average developing country, there is only one primary teacher for every 47 pupils and the majority of them have no access to computers or the internet.
This needs to change if the government wants to fulfil its promise of transforming Kenya into a middle-income nation by 2030 and achieving the sustainable development goals of providing universal access to the internet and ensuring that youth and adults have skills for employment and entrepreneurship.
To this end, Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) is rolling out the Digital Literacy Programme, which promises to deliver 1.2m devices to all of the country’s 21,718 public primary schools by the end of 2017.
However, only a third of Kenyans have access to the internet and many schools suffer from regular power outages, which makes it difficult to charge the devices. That is why BRCK, a Nairobi tech company, has developed the Kio Kit. This portable digital classroom includes a wifi hotspot, a small server packed with educational content and 40 tablets that can be charged wirelessly and work in the roughest conditions in rural schools.
“Digital education is the ultimate equaliser,” says Erik Hersman, the company’s chief executive. “It doesn’t remove all obstacles but it levels the playing field.”
Devices alone are unlikely to bridge the digital divide in Kenya’s education. One Laptop Per Child – a not-for-profit organisation providing low-cost computers to children around the world – once had similar aspirations and was active in over 30 countries, before downsizing.
A study into the scheme, led by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2012, found that the 860,000 computers supplied to schools in Peru made teachers feel left out and did not improve students’ test scores. A later study into the programme in Uruguay drew a similar conclusion.
That’s why Kenya’s new digital education companies are putting a lot of emphasis on teacher training. “We don’t want to replace teachers, we want to help them,” says David Henia, product manager at Eneza Education, a Kenyan startup providing courses by SMS that has already reached 1.6m users. Henia argues that working closely with educators is also better for business because teachers are the ones who recommend their service.
Still, these solutions are hard to scale without public support. Wambui Munge, communications officer at the Results for Development Institute, a not-for-profit development consultancy, warns that “to have any macro-level impact, private companies will have to collaborate with the government”.
But doing so is not always easy, admits Will Clurman, chief executive of eKitabu, an ebook provider that aims to drastically reduce the price of textbooks in Kenya by building a digital library with thousands of titles.
Clurman says that working with the Ministry of ICT often requires extra time and patience because of the added bureaucracy. However, he thinks it’s worth it. “Sometimes the private sector can be really biased,” he says, with companies often assuming they are better at solving problems than NGOs or governments. “We need to put our egos aside. We must remember that we all share the same purpose.”
Even with public support, questions remain about how effective digital classrooms are. In Kibera, Mary Kinyanjui, the library’s manager, thinks the tablets make the children more eager to study and improve their marks. “There is no limit to what they can learn online,” she says.
But empirical evidence on their academic merits is still scarce. Startups rarely have the funds to pay for external audits and a large-scale study by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation concluded that computer-assisted learning had “decidedly mixed effects,” depending on the context.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s new educational companies are already exporting their products. Eneza has pilot programmes in Tanzania and Ghana, while BRCK is selling its classroom kits in 11 countries, including Uganda, Cambodia and, most recently, Kiribati.
Unlike other development trends, digital education is here to stay, claim these entrepreneurs. “Digitisation is not a fad,” says Hersman, “it’s a forgone conclusion.”
Problem: A total of 1.3 billion people worldwide currently don’t have electricity, according to Yale Environment 360. Getting people in rural areas onto the national grid is proving too difficult and traditional solar panels generate meagre amounts of energy.
Solution: Steamaco makes solar and battery micro-grids which can work for a whole village. They are small electricity generation and distribution systems that operate independently of larger grids.
How it works: Micro-grids are nothing new. The new part is that Steamaco’s technology automates the regulation of electricity.
So, if the system detects there will be a surge in demand for electricity, for example on a Saturday night when people want to start playing music for a party, or they see a dip in supply, like when the sun has gone down and so the grid is not collecting solar energy, then the grid automatically stops electricity for people it won’t affect too badly.
The system sends an automatic text to all customers on the grid saying that the electricity in houses it about to be cut off so that the hospital can keep on going.
Who is talking about this? In June the Kenyan company won awards from the clean energy charity Ashden, reports the Guardian.
A jacket that detects pneumonia
Problem: Pneumonia kills 27,000 Ugandan children under the age of five every year. Most of these cases are due to pneumonia being misdiagnosed as malaria.
Solution: Ugandan engineer Brian Turyabagye has designed a biomedical “smart jacket” to quickly and accurately diagnose pneumonia. The Mamaope jacket measures a sick child’s temperature and breathing rate. It can diagnose pneumonia three to four times faster than a doctor and eliminates most possibility for human error.
How it works: A modified stethoscope is put in a vest. It is linked to a mobile phone app which records the audio of the patient’s chest. Analysis of that audio can detect lung crackles, and can lead to preliminary diagnoses.
Who is talking about this: It is shortlisted for the 2017 Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize.
A tablet that monitors your heart
Problem: It is difficult for people in rural areas to travel to the cities to see heart specialists. There are just 50 cardiologists in Cameroon, which has a population of 20 million people.
Solution: Arthur Zang invented the Cardio Pad – a handheld medical computer tablet which healthcare workers in rural areas use to send the results of cardiac tests to specialists via a mobile phone connection.
How it works: Cardiopads are distributed to hospitals and clinics in Cameroon free of charge, and patients pay $29 (£20) yearly subscriptions. It takes a digitised reading of the patient’s heart function. In a few seconds the results of a heart test are sent to a specialist clinic in the capital.
Who is talking about this: It won the Royal Society award for African engineering in 2016 and the Rolex award for Entreprise in 2014. But Mr Zang told BBC Africa that these things take time to develop and it only got approval from the Cameroon authorities in October 2016. So, it is more likely that people will actually see it in their clinics in 2017.
An app for hair inspiration
Problem: A lack of accurate information about how to achieve certain hairstyles and where to find a high quality stylist.
Solution: Three software engineers – Priscilla Hazel, Esther Olatunde and Cassandra Sarfo – invented Tress, an app to share ideas about hairstyles.
How it works: It is described by Okay Africa as a kind of pinterest or Instagram for hair. Once you have downloaded the app, you can follow other people who are sharing their hairstyle. You can search specifically by place, price range and the type of hairstyle your want, from relaxed hair to cornrow: You can then scroll until your heart’s content through people who have uploaded pictures of themselves with that style, tell them how much you like their style, ask how long it took, and even arrange to meet up with someone to style your hair.
Who is talking about this: The three software engineers behind this are graduates of the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra, Ghana.They were then selected for the Y Combinator eight-week fellowship programme for start-up companies.
Y Combinator is prestigious – Business news website Fast company called it “the world’s most powerful start-up incubator”. In other words, the school is thought of as really good at finding the next Mark Zuckerberg.
A currency for paying online workers
Problem: There are online workers, specifically web developers, in Africa that people outside the continent would like to employ but it is difficult or prohibitively expensive to get their wages to them. Some don’t have passports, and so don’t have bank accounts either.
Solution: Bitpesa uses Bitcoin to significantly lower the time and cost of remittances and and business payments to and from sub-Saharan Africa.
How it works: Bitpesa uses the crypto-currency bitcoin as a medium to transfer cash across borders. Bitcoin is a system of digitally created and traded tokens and people keep their tokens in online wallets.It then takes the Bitcoin tokens and exchanges them into money in mobile money wallets – a popular way of paying for things in places like Kenya and Tanzania.BitPesa is already used to pay online workers – a company called Tunga is using it as a way of getting wages from clients abroad to web developers in Uganda.
Who is talking about it: It won an award for the best apps across Africa in November.