Category Archives: Technology

How Africa is Becoming the World’s Testing Ground for Commercial Drones

The world’s first commercial drone delivery service operates from Rwanda. The drone service is operated by Zipline, a San Francisco-based robotics company. It delivers blood by drone to almost half of all Rwanda’s blood transfusion centers. Orders are made online, by text, phone, or WhatsApp. 
A technician sits in a refrigerated room where the blood are stored, communicating with his team over Slack. An order has come in for a hospital about two hours away by car. The drone delivers the package in 20 minutes.

“To have a proven model here first in Rwanda is amazing,” says Maggie Jim, who manages global operations and communications for Zipline. She says the company is talking with other governments in Africa, including Tanzania’s, as well as in Latin America about launching drones services there.

That African countries are emerging as a test bed for new ideas that Western countries—bogged down by strict regulations or antiquated systems—are too slow to try has become something of a popular narrative. 

Foreign investors and companies are still wary of setting up on the continent while local startups, especially those outside of Nigeria, South Africa, or Kenya, struggle to get funding.

Drones are one area where African countries are proving more accepting and innovative. The commercial drone industry has been slow to start in most other parts of the world. The United States prohibits drone flights that leave the line of sight of a human pilot. 

In contrast, African countries like Rwanda, Cameroon, Malawi, South Africa, and Kenya are increasingly open to the use of drones in tourism, health services, and e-commerce.

Kenya recently said it would allow the commercial use of drones. In Malawi, drones have been deployed to transfer HIV tests to and from rural parts of Malawi. Elsewhere they’re being used to combat poaching or to augment safaris. 

A Cameroonian start up named Will & Brothers recently raised $200,000 to begin assembling and producing within the country parts for drones. In Rwanda, another drone company has plans to build what would be the world’s first civilian “drone port” for commercial deliveries and ferrying health supplies.

A Morocco-based startup Atlan Space has developed software to use drones for monitoring illegal maritime activity (video) like illegal fishing or oil spills. 

Ugandan authorities have also been open-minded, according to Moses Gichanga, founder of Autonomous Systems Research, a Kenya-based tech consultancy. With consent from the country’s aviation regulator and local authorities, his company has been doing aerial drone tests in the Uganda’s eastern districts as well as in Malawi.

“There are countless use cases for Africa,” says Gichanga, listing agriculture, mineral exploration, security surveillance, and conservation as some of the top areas where drones could be deployed on the continent.

Drone deliveries make sense especially in countries with poor roads and disconnected communities. During the rainy season, many of Rwanda’s roads are wiped out and getting health services in an emergency can take hours because of the country’s hilly terrain. Mapping and deliveries would also be useful for quickly expanding African cities. 

By 2050, as much as a quarter of the world’s population will be living in Africa, more than half of them in cities.
“If we think about Africa in 2050, it won’t be the same story. More people, more security needs, more urbanization, more connectivity [mean] more need of accurate data for maps,” says William Elong, who founded Will & Brothers, which already uses drones for agricultural surveys. Elong says the company has been getting more requests for their drone services in e-commerce and healthcare.

Elong and Gichanga both cite Rwanda as an example of the continent’s increasing openness to drone technology. At Zipline’s operation in Muhanga, a few hours south of Kigali, the drones sit in rows on a wall. More like small airplanes than quadcopters, they fly at 100 km an hour, about 60 miles per hour, and can reach any clinic or hospital within 75 kilometers.

The drones follow predetermined routes that trace the ups and downs of Rwanda’s terrain. Instead of landing, the drones drop the package at the hospital, in a biodegradable paper box attached to a parachute, and then return to Zipline’s headquarters.

But even in a country like Rwanda where technology has been a core part of the government’s plans for growth, it’s not clear that drones have the most effective impact on its healthcare improvements. 

Rwanda has expanded access to healthcare across the country and dramatically improved maternal mortality rates, but is still dealing with a shortage of health workers. The country has 0.06 doctors per 1,000 people, well below the World Health Organization’s recommended rate of 2.5 health workers per 1,000 people. In 2011, there were nine anesthesiologists and 17 surgeons serving a population of more than 10 million.

Zipline and the government won’t disclose the costs of the service. Jim says that the healthcare system overall will save money by reducing waste and inventory costs.
In a country with a government known for keeping an eye on its citizens—and accused of disappearing rivals and critics—Zipline has also had to earn the trust of the communities their drones fly in. 

The team introduced themselves at town hall-like events, showing the residents photos of the drones and assuring them that they are solely for delivery. The only time cameras are installed on the drones is during test flights to map out routes. “We want to make sure that every citizen in Rwanda understands what it means when a drone flies over them,” say Jim.

Source: Quartz Africa

Microsoft to Open its First Data Centers in Africa

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.

Source: TechCrunch

​How Africa Led the World in Science and Technology

Credit: 123RF

“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”

Africa has the world’s oldest record of human technological achievement: the oldest stone tools in the world and evidence for tool production by our hominin ancestors have been found in eastern Africa and across Sub-Saharan Africa respectively.

Despite notable African developments in medicine, mathematics, metallurgy and technology in the past, today Africa lags far behind other regions of the world and gives too little or no attention to science and technology.

Let’s take a look at some historic technological achievements in Africa:

Mathematics

Ancient Egyptian mathematicians had a grasp of the principles underlying the Pythagorean theorem. They were able to estimate the area of a circle by subtracting one-ninth from its diameter and squaring the result.

Timbuktu in Mali was a major centre of the sciences. All of the mathematical learning of the Islamic world during the medieval period was available and advanced by Timbuktu scholars: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

The binary numeral system which lead to the development of the digital computer was widely known through Africa before it was known throughout much of the world.

Astronomy

Egyptians were the first to develop a 365-day, 12-month calendar. It was a stellar calendar, created by observing the stars.

Even today, South Africa has cultivated a burgeoning astronomy community. It hosts the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

South Africa is currently building the Karoo Array Telescope as a pathfinder for the $20 billion Square Kilometre Array project.

Metallurgy

Iron use, in smelting and forging for tools, appears in West Africa by 1200 BCE, making it one of the first places for the birth of the Iron Age.

Besides being masters in iron, Africans were masters in brass and bronze. Ife in Nigeria, produced life like statues in brass, an artistic tradition beginning in the 13th century.

Benin also in Nigeria mastered bronze during the 16th century, produced portraiture and reliefs in the metal using the lost wax process. They also were a manufacturer of glass and glass beads.

Medicine

The knowledge of inoculating oneself against smallpox seems to have been known to the Akan of Ghana and Ivory Coast. A slave named Onesimus explained the inoculation procedure to Cotton Mather during the 18th century; he reported to have gotten the knowledge from Africa.

In Djenné, Mali, the mosquito was identified to be the cause of malaria, and the removal of cataracts was a common surgical procedure. Based on Timbuktu manuscripts, the dangers of tobacco smoking were known already to African scholars.

Ancient Egyptian physicians were renowned for their healing skills, Herodotus remarked that there was a high degree of specialization among Egyptian physicians, with some treating only the head or the stomach, while others were eye-doctors and dentists.

Ancient Egyptian surgeons stitched wounds, set broken bones, and amputated diseased limbs. Around 800, the first psychiatric hospital in Egypt was built by physicians in Cairo.

Around 1100, the ventilator was invented in Egypt.In 1285, the largest hospital of the Middle Ages and pre-modern era was built in Cairo, Egypt, by Sultan Qalaun al-Mansur.

Tetracycline was being used by Nubians, based on bone remains between 350 AD and 550 AD. The antibiotic was in wide commercial use only in the mid-20th century.

The theory is earthen jars containing grain used for making Nubian beer contained the bacterium streptomycedes, which produced tetracycline. Although Nubians were not aware of tetracycline, they could have noticed people fared better by drinking beer.

Successful Caesarean section was performed by indigenous healers in Kahura, Uganda, as observed by R. W. Felkin in 1879. European travellers in the Great Lakes region of Africa (Uganda and Rwanda) during the 19th century observed Caesarean sections being performed on a regular basis.

The expectant mother was normally anesthetized with banana wine, and herbal mixtures were used to encourage healing. From the well-developed nature of the procedures employed, European observers concluded that they had been employed for some time.

A South African, Max Theiler, developed a vaccine against yellow fever in 1937. The first human-to-human heart transplant was performed by South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in December 1967.

During the 1960s, South African Aaron Klug developed crystallographic electron microscopy techniques, in which a sequence of two-dimensional images of crystals taken from different angles are combined to produce three-dimensional images of the target.

Today

The coming of the Europeans to Africa hindered further scientific and technological advancement in Africa.

The continent still has great scientific minds: Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in femtochemistry, methods that allow the description of change states in femtoseconds or very short seconds; but 40% of African-born scientists live outside Africa because African countries invest too little or nothing in science and technology Research and Development.

Sub-Saharan African countries spent on average a meagre 0.3% of their GDP on Science and Technology in 2007. North African countries spend a comparative 0.4% of GDP on research.

Notably outstripping other African countries, South Africa spends 0.87% of GDP on science and technology research. Although there are many technology parks in the world there is none in Africa.

There are over 500 Science and Technology centres in the world but only two in the whole of Africa. This is how far Africa has fallen in Science and Technology.

Today, Africa is shadow of herself. The continent can hardly even show the remains of her glorious era of scientific and technological advancement, net even science or technology museums to showcase whatever remained.

Biotechnology – Solving Nigeria’s Food Insecurity Challenges

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Photo credit: ecomercioagrario.com

Nigeria is still a developing country despite being blessed with abundant natural resources including a good climate which supports the growth of vegetation and rearing of animals. 

Nigerian agriculture is still characterized by low yield per hectare, low production technology, outdated production techniques, low level of innovation adoption etc. 

Nigeria has also witnessed progressive increase in importation of food in order to meet shortfalls in domestic food supply. As Nigeria continues to battle economic recession, which has hit the nation hard, the spirit of most citizens has dampened and they have lost hope in the government. Food security is the one thing Nigeria needs most now.

Food insecurity is still a major challenge in Nigeria. Both rural and urban poor people suffer from food insecurity and poor nutrition, caused in large measure by poverty and lack of nutritional balance in the diet they can afford. Food insecurity and malnutrition result in serious public health problems and loss of human potential. 

To combat these challenges, food production and purchasing power both need to increase in Nigeria. Since land and water are the most limiting resources for food production, there is a need to increase yields on the available land and biotechnology offers solution to this.

Biotechnology tools are presently used to tackle the problems of global food insecurity and agricultural biotechnology offers opportunities in developing countries like Nigeria. 

Many potential biotechnologies are available, these include: Traditional Plant Breeding, Tissue culture and micro propagation, Molecular breeding or Marker assisted selection, Genetically Modified crops, and recently Genome-editing for crops. 

These techniques can help address the problems of food insecurity by increasing per seed yield of some of our crops, multiplying the planting materials for farmers, increasing the area of land under cultivation, enhancing nutritional qualities of some of our crops and reducing dependence on agrochemicals.

Genetically Modified crops have been developed and rapidly disseminated since the early 1990s. GM crops for virus resistance, insect/pest resistance and delayed ripening are good examples of crop improvement strategies that are beneficial. 

Insect–resistant plant varieties using the ᵟendotoxin of Bacillus thuringensis have been produced for several plant species like tomato, tobacco, potato, cotton, maize sugarcane and rice, of these, maize, cotton is already commercialized. 

This technology can be adapted to our local crops to help increase productivity. This is important because adapting biotechnology to local or indigenous crops often have deep social or religious meaning to culture and simply replacing local crops with another crop to increase productivity may potentially destroy local cultural traditions. 

Local farmers in Nigeria are more likely to embrace a known crop with genetic modification than a foreign crop. Also, our local varieties of wheat can also be genetically modified or improved to reduce wheat importation and save foreign exchange. 

Nigeria is presently the highest importer of wheat and rice on the African continent. Tissue culture and micro-propagation can also be used to assist farmers obtain quality, disease free and readily available planting materials for crops like banana, plantain, pineapple, citrus, yam, cassava. Small scale farmers in rural communities can benefit from this. 

In addition, farmers and researchers/scientists in agricultural biotechnology can collaborate, so that research results from the laboratories can reach farmers. Research can also be targeted and tied to meet the specific needs of rural farmers; this will help increase food /agricultural productivity and economic empowerment.

In spite of the tremendous advances in biotechnology, public fear persists, especially the controversies on the acceptance of GM crops. These issues may prevent these innovations from having the impact they promise. 

Stakeholders of biotechnology in Nigeria must substantially increase its efforts to educate and engage the public to ensure that biotechnology truly lives up to its potential to solve our food insecurity challenges. Biotechnology for food security should be our priority.

Owner of OperaMini Browser Plans to Invest $100m in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya

Top image from Opera’s media roundtable in Lagos, Nigeria

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.

Source: TechCrunch

Meet Ugandans Who Invented a Better Way to Diagnose Pneumonia

L-R Brian Turyabagye and Besufekad Shifferaw, both telecom engineering graduates who invented the Smart Jacket-mama’s Hope to diagnose Pnuemonia, April 5, 2017. (H. Althumani/VOA)

Three university engineering graduates in Uganda are taking on one of the leading killers of young children in Africa – pneumonia. They say the prototype of their invention, a “smart jacket” they have named Mama’s Hope, can diagnose the illness faster and more accurately than the current medical protocol.

Four-month-old Nakato Christine writhes on a hospital bed, breathing fast. On the other end of the bed is her twin sister, in the same condition. Nakato coughs as Senior Nurse Kyebatala Loy adjusts the nasal gastric tube.

“They have been put on oxygen because they have difficulty in breathing and the feeding is also difficult because of their fast breathing,” Kyebatala said.

Since January, 352 babies have been admitted with pneumonia to pediatric ward 16 at Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala.

Pneumonia is the leading infectious cause of death for children under five years of age in Africa and south Asia, according to the World Health Organization. In 2015, pneumonia killed nearly a million children worldwide.

A key problem is the challenge involved in diagnosing the disease. The sooner the sick children start receiving antibiotics, the better their chance of survival. But health workers armed with stethoscopes and thermometers can miss the infection in its early stage. Dr. Flavia Mpanga of the U.N. Children’s Fund in Kampala says other methods, like the respiratory timer, can lead to misdiagnosis.

“If you see the respiratory timer, it’s got a ticking mechanism that confuses the community health workers. When they are taking the breathe rates, they confuse the ticking sound of the respiratory timer with the breathe rates and every child is almost diagnosed with pneumonia,” said Dr. Mpanga.

She says over-diagnosis means some children are taking antibiotics they don’t need, which is also a public health problem.

A trio of recent university engineering graduates in Uganda think they have an answer. They have been working with the Mulago School of Public Health to test a prototype of their invention, the smart jacket, called Mama’s Hope.

Two of the inventors, 26-year-old Beseufekad Shifferaw and 25-year-old Brian Turyabagye, gave VOA a demonstration.

“Ahh so…[zipper sound]… the jacket…is placed on the child…first, this goes around the child and then the falcon fastening is placed, and then the flaps are placed…[fade out]”

“This jacket will simply measure the vital signs of pneumonia. That is the breathing rate, the state of the lungs and the temperature,” said Turyabagye. “Now those signs are transmitted to our unit here, through which a health worker can read off the readings, which include cough, chest pains, nausea or difficulty in breathing. With those additional signs and symptoms, they are coupled with the result that has been measured by the jacket and it gives a more accurate diagnosis result.”

For now, it is just a prototype. But the inventors say their tests have shown that the smart jacket can diagnose pneumonia three times faster than traditional exams.

UNICEF has put the team in touch with its office in Copenhagen in charge of innovations to help them advance in the pre-trial stage. Dr. Mpanga sees potential.

“My only hope is that this jacket can reach a commercial value and be regulatory-body approved so that it can help the whole world,” said Dr. Mpanga.

Dr. Mpanga says taking the guess work out of pneumonia diagnosis could save countless lives in the developing world.

Source: VOA

This Start-up is Linking Smallholder Farmers to Banks

Rita Kimani

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. 

Source: Africa Renewal

How Africans are Using Homegrown Technology to Help Millions in Times of Crisis.

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.

Global Traction

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.

Hashtag Fundraising

Twitter has especially been a critical tool to raise funds and build these virtual communities. After the hashtag Caawi Walaal (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.

Checks and Balances

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.

Source: Quartz

How BuyPower is easing the pain of utility payments in Nigeria

Benjamin Ufaruna and Asehinde Oladipo met at one of Nigeria’s emerging technology development services companies in Abuja.
In the hard-charging startup world that the two men entered there was little time to remember the minutiae of everyday life — like paying bills on time.

“In the midst of our busy schedules we would try to find time to dash down to the electricity company to get electricity for the house,” Ufaruna said. Sometimes they wouldn’t make it in time.

“If they are closed you have to stay in darkness til Monday when they open,” said Ufaruna. “You have circumstances where people are traveling and they have to come to the utility and there are long queues.”

Some weekends, Ufaruna said he would see dozens of people milling around outside, waiting for the chance to get to the power company to pay their bills.

“It was that frustration that convinced us to do something about it,” Ufaruna said.

The men rallied utilities in Abuja to start working on the problem. Over the course of 2015, they pitched BuyPower, saying they would handle the cost of rolling out a payment service, all the utilities had to do was integrate with their software.

That proved to be a challenge in itself. “They had a very antiquated technology,” said Ufaruna. So with his partners, Ufaruna set about upgrading the back end of the utility’s payments system.

“We started doing the cleanup and that was the first layer of the challenge. It took us a half-year,” says Ufaruna.

By April of 2016, the co-founders had a product. They did a small email blast to their followers and rolled up their first 50 customers by the end of the day.

Now, the entrepreneurs have 40% of the paid electricity market in Abuja, all without spending a dime on marketing, according to Ufaruna.

Buypower is already generating $1 million in revenue a month, by charging utilities a percentage of every power purchase and a 50 cent fee for each transaction.

Only available to homes with net metering, who are pre-paying for electricity, BuyPower’s founders are already thinking about next steps and looking to expand into the water business.

“We’re going to expand the services that we have right now,” says Ufaruna. “Because we have this high engagement we don’t need to spend to acquire new business from the same customers.”

Roughly 35% of the company’s customers live in the suburbs surrounding Abuja, while another 50% are based in the capital itself.

“We have deep roots in two cities right now (Abuja and Jos) [and] we will expand beyond these cities after demo day and fundraising. Once we have integrated with all the utility companies in Nigeria, then we will go into our next vertical,” Ufaruna wrote in an email.

Source: Tech Crunch

How a Kenyan Start-up Aims to Solve Africa’s Internet Problems with SupaBRCK

SupaBRCK, the next generation of the BRCK

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.

Source: Forbes Magazine