5 reasons you should apply for the $150,000 Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), 2015

Africa has no shortage of ideas and ingenuity – from the teenage girls in Nigeria who built a urine-powered generator to an optical drug testing system. However, there’s an acute lack of support and supporting infrastructure, be it mentors, favourable Government policies or especially financial support. Everyone who has run a business knows just how important it is to have enough capital to give you a long enough runway to scaling up, and how freakishly difficult it is to raise this funding. And even if you did raise this financing, the cost in terms of equity and control is sometimes too high.

Enter the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA).

Innovation Prize for Africa

Innovation Prize for Africa. Credits: IPA – Innovation Prize for Africa

As a young African innovator and a past-IPA finalist, I would like to share my insights on why I think every African innovator should not miss a chance to participate in IPA! Run by the African Innovation Foundation (AIF), the IPA offers you a chance to win a share of US$150 000 in prize money and contribute to Africa’s growth and development in one of these five key areas:

  • Agriculture and agribusiness
  • Environment, energy and water
  • Health and well-being
  • ICT applications
  • Manufacturing and service industry.

The winners are selected based on  5 criteria: Originality, Marketability, Scalability, Social impact, Scientific/Technical aspects. So you must ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want to take your innovation to the next level?

  • Is it marketable and scalable in your region and across the continent?

  • Is it addressing a real challenge that fellow Africans face?

  • Can fellow Africans replicate it, as well as benefit from it?

  • Can your idea shine brightly and sustain itself?

Given, your answer to the questions above may be mostly “yes”, but why else should you apply?

1. Funding with no strings attached

This one is rather obvious. In my not-so-long life, I’ve started 3 companies. One died a rather natural death (no market, weren’t closing clients fast enough etc) and the second has been on a long hiatus. But they both lacked the one big thing that my third company Cipher256 had, considerable financing. Cipher256 got it’s break with a $50,000 grant from Microsoft for one of our products WinSenga, and that has made all the difference.

IPA gives up to $150,000 in funding with no equity stake whatsoever. There are usually 3 winners, the first prize being $100,000 and the other two winners taking home $25,000 each.

Note that although the cash prizes have no strings attached, they do have a responsibility attached. Put simply, the cash prize can’t be used for “personal” needs.

2. Network = Net-worth

I first heard this from one of my mentors, Michael Niyitegeka (@niyimic). I was in my first year at university and it became one of my mantras. Everything I’ve now can be traced back to someone in my networks. So, the stronger and more influential your network is, the higher your chances of success and of building your net-worth.

IPA gives you the opportunity to network with the greatest minds on the continent. Minds usually far more elegant and brilliant than yours, as I found out this year in May. I had the distinct honour of being the youngest ever finalist in the prize and meeting awesome and intelligent people like Emeka Okafor (TED Fellow, Curator of Maker Faire Africa), Ashley Uys (named in the 2013 Forbes list of 30 under 30 – Africa’s best young entrepreneurs), and many others.

3. Exposure and traction

Apart from your team, potential and product, the other thing that will get investors smiling is your exposure and traction. Think of it as advertising. And  it works wonders. I’ve walked into presentations where half or all of the panelists know who I am and what I am about to tell them about. Makes things a little easier.

Part of the IPA process involves a lot of media coverage. And I mean A LOT. But IPA goes beyond this by having each finalist get some invaluable media training. We all know how important it is to market your idea and have it represented exactly how you wish it to be portrayed. I’ve been on the wrong side of that with some media houses, and it is infuriating.

4. Support outside the prize

There can only be 3 winners in the prize, so what happens to the others? IPA keeps in touch to follow the progress of each of the finalists and supports you in a multitude of ways, not least among them continued exposure.

“If your entry catches the eye of our judges as one of the top 10 finalists, IPA will invest up to US$5 000 to help push your innovation to the next level. This could be through funding business development and/or marketing plans, coaching, or sponsorship for relevant training.” – IPA.

Even if you don’t win, you will enjoy support after the award. If you’re a young innovator (to me this means anywhere below 60 :-)), there’s even more support for you!

“As a part of post-prize action, AIF will tap into innovation hubs, universities and youth-friendly rendezvous, connecting young motivators and inventors under the age of 25. The 10 most promising projects undertaken by young people will receive support and the opportunity to join the AIF innovation networks, with links to fellowships and other incentives.” – IPA

5. Test your idea/business

If none of the reasons above appeal to you, then apply just to test the quality of your idea. I have been lucky to participate in competitions both locally and on the international level, and I can assure you that you’ll get out of them smarter, more confident and more focused. You get to put your idea/business under the scrutiny of experienced industry experts and get valuable feedback/critique.

The IPA process is rigorous and very comprehensive. To get to the top, you’ve to convince multiple panels of experts and defend your business/idea. To paint a picture for you, last year, over 600 applications from 42 countries across Africa were received and only 10 finalists were chosen. The top 10 list in itself therefore serves as a stamp of approval of sorts, and is by all means a victory.

NOTE: The application deadline for IPA 2015 is 31st October 2014 at 23h59 GMT.

The Africa Innovation Foundation (AIF) is a new model of ‘next generation’ African foundations, mobilizing innovation across the continent for the personal, cultural and economic benefit of all Africans. The IPA award is the landmark initiative of AIF. It was launched in 2011 to support and catalyse African stakeholders to invest in emerging ideas to ensure a sustainable, prosperous Africa.

AIF has invested more than half a million USD through IPA in sustainable African-led innovation. The IPA competition is open to all Africans globally. This year, IPA is inviting applications from all target groups, particularly women and young people.

For further details, please visit the IPA website first  and if you still have questions, get in touch with IPA on social media (@IPAPrize & @AfrinnovFdn on Twitter and Facebook – African Innovation Foundation ; Innovation Prize for Africa ). Or send an email to [email protected].

I am also happy to help in case there’s any delay in response or you just want my personal opinion. I am @joshuaokello on Twitter.

Good luck!

Playlist: Byekwaaso – Bobi Wine, Calling me – Dr. Jose Chameleone, Tetubatya – A-Pass, Special Someone – Sarkodie ft. Burna Boy & AKA, Elele – EmmaNyra ft. Davido AND Kiss your hand – R2Bees ft. Wande Coal.

Reading list: Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Sword of Truth Series Book #1 (re-read) – Terry Goodkind

On writing and the elusive Muse

It’s been over 2 months since my last post. It turns out that the corporate world and dream-chasing, and inspiration (the Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind) do not play well. The relationship between my Muse and I is complicated at best. And even that could be an understatement. Think, you and onions, nice for your food but cutting them is another story. Think, Besigye and Mzee. :-)

There was a time, so long ago that memory fails to grasp any inkling of it, when she (yes, she) and I were one Hercules on a creative battlefield. We swept aside bored, tired and unimaginative phrases or lines of thought with as much indifference as you’d muster when flicking an ant off the side of your glass of milk. We were gods, creating our own big bangs, except that instead of subatomic particles, we smashed together syllables and adjectives to form a quaint delirium, like it must have been at the beginning of time (the initial singularity to the physics buffs).

So, what exactly happened?

To understand this, it is important that we go back to the beginning. You see, I was never a writer or even reader. I read my first novel when I was 13 (thanks to J.K Rowling). Up until that time, let’s just say that I held books in very little regard. To me they were regurgitated, restrictive and limiting prisons whose fun and excitement would always pale into nothingness next to the real world. How can a retold experience be more exciting than one you live with all your senses? I thought that no matter how well someone described the taste of honey to you, you’d never truly experience it. So, you can imagine why it took 3 more years before I could really start writing. By this time too, I had other reasons to take up writing.

When you are an overly curious/inquisitive 16 year old, there are too many ways to express yourself. When you are 16 and an introvert though, the choices dwindle down to at most 2 or 3. Mine came down to writing. And a chance discovery of poetry, courtesy of an equally eccentric (read inquisitive), lanky and introverted Sydney Mugerwa. It is this love affair with poetry that started an almost ferocious period of writing.

Over the years, this flame would be kept alive by various Muses, each in her unique form. First was a scorching, soul-twisting raw desire to just create things, make things out of nothing. Just like that! It was like I had discovered this new canvas with beautiful paint to boot, and felt that with the two, I could paint very life into existence. It was a god-complex that, like any new infatuated flame, never lasted – as it should be expected.

Then, there was Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paulo Coelho, Grace Nichols, and Elizabeth Browning interspersed with Sydney Sheldons, John Grishams and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. The greatest of these Muses though ended up being quite alive. As in human, but with the sort of qualities (celestial, I thought at the time) that would drive any real man to the madness of creating a new language if that were what it took to truly express how he felt. There was even an entire blog in 2008 that was created and dedicated solely to impressing said lady (a story I will never tell). The blog lasted (it’s activity at least) for as long as the magical madness.

As is the nature of things to not last forever, each of these flames/Muses were extinguished. But their death, especially the last ones excluding the very last one, did not command the heart-wrenching kind of sorrow and loss you feel when, say your one-time-favourite author pens a book like The Painted House. No, it was a content and welcome pain to be replaced by a dull and creative laziness – a festering of very un-sexy phrases and wanting descriptions.

I do not know how to get back on that proverbial horse. Well, I actually do. I have learnt that any creative process that will birth anything of note must be pursued with the solitude of monks. In there, in the seeming emptiness you find the creative genius. But solitude requires, well, solitude – mentally and physically; the kind of thing you end up sacrificing when chasing impossible dreams and trying to make a life. Not to mention the bombardment of information everywhere we look.

That said, I am willing to try; to throw a stone in the bush and see what comes out. And this is one of seven stones that shall be thrown this week. Thanks Joel (@nevender) for posing the 7-day/7-posts blogging challenge.

Now, how to wake that vindictive sleeping giant that is my Muse…?

Playlist: An assortment of Indian, Afghan, Iranian, German and Arabic music that a friend shared with me recently. I don’t understand a word of it but it doesn’t sound so bad.

Reading list: Still struggling to finish Mitnick’s Ghost In The Wires. Good story so it must be the writing.

Can Mobile Money Replace The Banking System? The Case Of East Africa

Wrote this at the end of last year. Not sure how true it still stands but the title sums it all up. Also appeared on GMT+3.

The concept of mobile money, as a money transfer service, is rather simple. It builds on the analogy of sending a text message with your phone, obscuring the complexity of the processes that must happen in the background. Like all great technologies, this obscurity usually improves user experience and edges you closer to success.

The greatest success story for mobile money has been in East Africa, particularly Kenya with its mobile money service, M-Pesa. M-Pesa was launched by Safaricom (Kenya’s largest telecom operator) in 2007 (Safaricom). In less than 7 years, as of August 2013, M-Pesa transactions averaged $1.6 billion per month. In addition, M-Pesa transactions represented about twenty five percent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (The Economist, 2013).

Nothing succeeds like success. Other countries and operators in East Africa followed suit and the second most successful implementation in the region is in Uganda. MTN Uganda (Uganda’s largest telecom operator) launching MTN Mobile Money in 2009. Since then, it too has grown to about 5 million subscribers who contributed to the $6 billion worth of transactions in June 2013 (The East African, 2013).

The argument for this service replacing the banking system hinges on two facts: the success of mobile money implementations, especially M-Pesa and the ever growing number of mobile subscribers, both of course in regard to banking system and its adoption. The former promises potential while the latter ensures feasibility and continuity. Its success further depends on exploiting the competitive advantage that mobile money and mobility in general offer. For the purposes of this article, we will use Uganda and Kenya as our yard stick. The reason is that their two major operators have the second largest and largest number of mobile money subscribers in the region, respectively.

In 2013, Kenya had over twenty million mobile money subscribers (Global System for Mobile Communications AssociationGSMA, 2013). This is 79% of all mobile subscribers in the country. Furthermore, of these, only 50% have bank accounts. The number of mobile money subscribers in Uganda is also much higher than that of 4.9 million bank accounts (Telegeography, 2013). Over 12 million of the approximately 18 million mobile subscribers in Uganda use mobile money (The East African). This trend can be imitated across borders, therein lies the sense that role banks becomes less important as a means of saving or safeguarding money.

Naturally, there is no mobile money without mobile. Every new customer is a mobile subscriber. Therefore for it to be a feasible banking method, it has to be sustainable which means, first and foremost, numbers. The number of mobile subscribers has to be large enough to create a large potential customer base. In East Africa, does not seem to be a problem at all. With the exception of Burundi, at least 50% of the population of the other East African countries has a phone, no matter how low end it is; approximately, 60% in Tanzania, 52% in Rwanda, 50% in Uganda and 67% in Kenya (IHub, 2013).

It is unlikely that that growth will relent. Africa is the second largest mobile market after Asia (Koetsier, 2013). Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing market, having grown by 18% in the past five years (Maylie, 2013).

Given the numbers and present success, it is possible that such a system could replace traditional banking. It would offer the same advantages and possibilities that the service currently offers. There are a number of these including low cost of joining, speed, ease of use and convenience, easy accessibility, comparatively low usage costs, and trust.

It is much easier to get a mobile money account than a bank account. Every bank has charges for opening an account. This is usually in form of a direct fee or in form of a minimum balance. They will also usually charge for every transaction and a monthly account maintenance fee. These translate into rather high costs for opening an account and maintaining it which is not the case with mobile money.

Mobile money offers a quick and easy way for accessing ones finances. The queues are rarely long for withdrawals or deposits, thanks to the large number of agents spread out across. Uganda for example has over 17,000 agents (The East African, 2013). This greatly outnumbers the number of bank branches across the country, to say nothing of the queues. With the large number of mobile money agents, you can easily access your money.

Another advantage of mobile money is that even the illiterate can use it. All they need to learn to do is how to use the phone which has proven rather easy. Even my grandmother who had no formal education whatsoever knows how to use her phone to withdraw or send money. Where the bank is very formal in its dealings, it is less formal. To withdraw money for example, one must fill in forms. Unfortunately, the levels of literacy are very low especially rural areas.

Lastly, and possibility the miracle of mobile money, there is a growing trust for the service. The sheer number of users is evidence enough for this. Technologies that users are weary of do not register such numbers no matter how well they are marketed.

In spite of the potential that such a change has, there are some issues of concern with mobile money. These would be inherited by the fully-fledged banking system. Not least among them is fraud. In 2012, it came to light that MTN had lost 10 billion Uganda Shillings (about $4 million) through fraud. Although no customers were affected and measures have been tightened to ensure that nothing of the sort ever happens (at least not on such a large scale), it is worrisome.

In addition, such a system heavily relies on network reliability especially in rural areas and also reliability in the face of the growing number of users and transactions. MTN Uganda struggles every now and then to cope with the large number of transactions on its platform leading to outages. Needless to say, when this happens on a large scale, the results can be catastrophic.

The issues with the mobile money platform aside, there are core banking services and roles that would be difficult to replicate unless the telecoms diverted from their core business and went into banking. For example, large scale loans. Although mobile money has been used for loan and credit schemes, it has been for small to medium scale enterprises. Even then, these have been done in collaboration with established financial institutions with mobile money serving only as an enabler or go between.

In fact, it would be impossible for the telecoms to do most of the banking considering that they themselves keep their mobile money accounts with the banks. The middle ground has been achieved in integrating some banking functionality in mobile money as opposed to attempting to replace the banking system. The mobile banking offered by most telecoms is only a bridge to accessing some services offered by the bank, for example bank deposits, withdrawals and balance inquiry. Others include Auto Teller Machine (ATM) integration that allows subscribers to withdraw money from ATMs, and bank integrations that allow you to withdraw your mobile money from a bank as opposed to a mobile money agent.

Whereas mobile money has potential to replace banking system, it can only do so more convincingly for personal banking and perhaps SMEs (Small to Medium scale Enterprises). More complex banking needs required especially by large business would remain unhandled.

The even greater success story for mobile money is to be found in its integration with various banking systems and business process. In areas like online transactions (ecommerce), mobile money is the only realistic option. The Credit Card is still a long way away from most of Africa, and Visa Debit Cards are only a handful, leaving a huge gap that is being filled with online mobile money payment solutions like PesaPal in Kenya and JPesa in Uganda.


Reading: After reading all these reports and articles, it’s difficult to read anything else!

Sources and References

1. GSM Association – GSMA (August, 2013), MMU releases infographic on the Kenyan experience with mobile money. Retrieved from http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/mmu-releases-infographic-on-the-kenyan-experience-with-mobile-money, http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/MMU-Infographic-The-Kenyan-journey-to-digital-,financial-inclusion.pdf

2. IHub (October, 2013), Mobile Phone Penetration vs Mobile Money vs Electricity Penetration in Kenya. Retrieved from http://www.ihub.co.ke/blog/2013/10/mobile-phone-penetration-vs-banking-vs-electricity-penetration/

3. IHub (July, 2013), Mobile Statistics in East Africa. Retrieved from http://www.ihub.co.ke/blog/2013/07/mobile-statistics-in-east-africa/,

4. IHub (August, 2013), Mobile Stats in East Africa Infographic. Retrieved from http://www.ihub.co.ke/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Mobile-subscribers-and-mobile-money-copy.png

5. Jidenma, N. (November 2013), The real mobile revolution: Africa’s smartphone future. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/07/opinion/real-mobile-revolution-africa-smartphone/

6. Koetsier, J. (December, 2013), African mobile penetration hits 80% (and is growing faster than anywhere else). Retrieved from http://www.venturebeat.com/2013/12/03/african-mobile-penetration-hits-80-and-is-growing-faster-than-anywhere-else/

7. KopoKopo website (2013), The Kenyan Mobile Money Ecosystem. Retrieved from http://www.kopokopo.com/the-kenyan-mobile-money-ecosystem/

8. Maylie, D. (November, 2013), Sub-Saharan Africa’s Mobile-Phone Growth Faces Challenges. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303914304579191500020741652

9. Payments Africa (November, 2013), MTN Uganda Launches Mobile Money ATM Cash Out Service. Retrieved from http://paymentsafrika.com/payment-news/mobile/mtn-uganda-launches-mobile-money-atm-cash-out-service/

10. Safaricom, Safaricom, MPESa timeline. Retrieved from http://www.safaricom.co.ke/mpesa_timeline/timeline.html

11. TeleGeography (March, 2014), Mobile money users overtake traditional bank accounts. Retrieved from http://www.telegeography.com/products/commsupdate/articles/2013/03/14/mobile-money-users-overtake-traditional-bank-accounts/

12. The East African (November, 2013), New BoU rules to cut fraud in mobile money. Retrieved from http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/business/New-BoU-rules-to-cut-fraud-in-mobile-money/-/2560/2075548/-/mv563oz/-/index.html

13. The East African (May, 2013), Uganda mobile money users hit 9m. Retrieved from http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/business/Uganda-mobile-money-users-hit-9m/-/2560/1841814/-/w48caa/-/index.html

14. The Economist (May, 2013), Why does Kenya lead the world in mobile money? Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-18

15. World Bank, Population. Retrieved from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL

Thoughts on Internet and The Knowledge Economy in Africa

I came across the idea of a knowledge economy while reading the 2013 Africa Economic Outlook report. I think. Or was it, some other report that spoke of something called the Global Competitive Index (GCI)?

I wrote the following for a then truly awesome online publication the (GMT+3) ran by the ever enterprising, talented and ambitious Melissa Kiguwa and posted it on this very blog, before I messed up and changed hosting platforms without backing up my databases.

Every system must evolve in order to flourish. The world economy is no different. It evolved from an agricultural system to a mineral-intensive industrial one in an era aptly described as the industrial age. From this, it morphed into the so-called post-industrial economy characterized by mass production. The world economy is now becoming a knowledge economy.

A knowledge economy is one in which the basis of production is knowledge (Krsti and Staniši, 2013). Whereas previously it sufficed to have the skills to turn natural resource A into product or service B, we now must do a more complex conversion. We must find innovative and efficient ways of working with resource A.

The paradigm shift to a knowledge economy has been particularly driven by globalization, the internet, and information’s new prime position as the driver of every decision, be it political, business or otherwise (Wikipedia, 2013). As with all economies, the quality of labour spells out success or doom. The post-industrial economy employed manual workers with the skills to produce value but the knowledge economy needs a knowledge worker – one with more than just skill but innovative potential; a worker who is computer literate, inventive, and thinks outside of the box.

General speculation is that Africa will produce the next billion customers. Based on the roughly 1.2 billion population of the continent, most of which is under thirty years of age, and increasing globalization, it is easy to understand why such speculations hold water. Africa is strategically placed, in resources and human numbers, to not only be a consumer but also a producer. However, presently the bulk of the continent’s economy is agricultural; few economies have truly changed into post-industrial economies. We still add little value to what we produce be it diamonds, gold, coffee, or tobacco.

The question is: how can we as a continent realize the knowledge economy?

This kind of economy has four main pillars: education and training to create, share and use knowledge; economic incentive and institutional regime which in lay terms is conducive political and business environments; innovation systems like universities which adapt the knowledge gained to solutions for local needs; and lastly, information infrastructure which would facilitate the distribution of information, and by extension, knowledge – this in the broadest terms means internet. The internet is hence pivotal. It will help us more easily build the pillars needed to build such an economy.

However, only one in three people in the world has access to the internet. In Africa, only sixteen percent of us have access to internet compared to thirty percent in Asia and the Pacific, sixty- one percent in the Americas and seventy- five percent in Europe (International Telecom Union (ITU), 2013).

Across Africa, contributors to the lack of access to the internet range from high costs of internet-enabled devices and equally high costs of connecting to the internet to ignorance of the internet and its benefits.

Although fixed broadband prices have dropped by over eighty percent in the last five years, there has been no significant improvement in mobile broadband penetration nor the speeds offered by service provides. Mobile broadband penetration on the continent is eleven percent, half that in the Asia-Pacific region and much less than the sixty- eight percent penetration in Europe (ITU, 2013).

Moreover, less than ten percent of fixed broadband on the continent offers speeds of at least two megabits per second (2 Mbps), far less than the average ten megabits per second (10 Mbps) offered in Asia. To put this in perspective, let us consider a fifty megabyte (50 MB) video from, say YouTube. It will take you on average five seconds to download this video in Asia while it would take you on average, with the fastest available internet, twenty five seconds to download it in Africa. That is five times slower than in Asia. The difference seems to be small but imagine a two gigabyte movie (2 GB) video or document. It would take 17 minutes to download at 2 Mbps and less than four minutes (3.41 minutes) at 10 Mbps.

Smart phones still cost somewhere just below or in the excess of 100 United States dollars. For a continent that has high poverty levels, on average at least half of the population living on less than two United States Dollars a day (World Bank), the smart phones are a dream. That said, one can still access low end internet devices between twenty and seventy United States Dollars. These, however, are limited in the quality of access to the internet and by extension, internet services they can access. The majority will only allow you email and connect to social media with limited functionality.

In addition, due to low levels of literacy on the continent, to say nothing of computer illiteracy, the benefits of the internet are largely unknown. In fact, even among users of the internet, its usage is predominantly limited to email, YouTube videos, and social networks. Other facets like collaboration, e-business, and cloud computing remain a mystery.

Other factors include low network coverage especially in rural Africa, unavailability of locally relevant material (internet.org), unavailability of content in local languages which would make content more accessible to different communities, poor electricity distribution, and low capacity of networks to handle large volumes of data. In fact, according to the 2012 Global Internet User Survey Summary Report carried out by the Internet Society in twenty countries, users expressed that increasing connection speeds and reliability, affordability and availability of content in local languages would increase usage of the internet.

Mindful of these limitations, a number of initiatives are underway to change the tide. Among these are the Mawingu White Spaces project run by Microsoft together with Indigo Telecom and the Kenyan Government, Google’s Project Loon and internet.org project championed by Facebook together with Nokia, Samsung, Opera, MediaTek, QUALCOMM, Ericsson and other companies.

The Mawingu White Spaces project is delivering “low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband across Kenya” (Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative), especially in rural areas. Mawingu so is so far deployed in three rural areas in Kenya. It utilizes TV White Spaces (TVWS) which are redundant or unused spectrum bands what we previously reserved for television broadcasting. Television broadcasting uses radio waves within a certain frequency range on the spectrum. However, not all that “spectrum” space is used. This is what is called the TV white space.

It is this unused space that the project uses to connect the villages to the internet. To use these for data transmission (internet connection), data signals are sent from one end to another via UHF (Ultra High Frequency) and received on the other end through old fashioned TV antennas. The signals are then converted into a usable form. To communicate back, the data and signals travel in the opposite direction.

Since these are areas not on the national electricity grid, for example a Samburu village, Mawingu is run by a solar electricity; a solar panel is part of the Mawingu setup. Reported connection speed is about sixteen megabits per second (16 Mbps).

Google’s Loon Project aims to provide internet to the rest of the world powered by interconnected balloons floating in the earth’s stratosphere (twenty kilometres above the earth). The balloons move by riding a wind stream in the stratosphere. The stratosphere has layers of wind flowing in every direction although usually West to East. By detecting the direction of the wind, the balloons can switch wind layers and therefore navigate in the direction of that wind. The balloons are manipulated from stations on earth from where they can be, for example, landed for repairs or decommissioning. Internet access through the balloon network is through a special antenna on the ground or building which transmits signals to the balloon network in the stratosphere.

The balloons then beam the signal back to earth to connect to the global internet. Information travels in the reverse order from the global internet to the rural or remote area. The balloons float in such a way that a new balloons takes the position a moving balloon has left. This way, the internet connection is never lost, hence reliability. Google is currently piloting the Loon Project in New Zealand. Results from the pilot will help improve the project and push the deployment of this auspicious network over Africa closer.

The internet.org campaign’s goal is to provide basic access to internet services affordably to the two thirds of the world who are not yet online. In essence, it will provide low cost mobile broadband access. According to the International Telecom Union, ITU, (The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures), Africa still has the highest cost for internet access. In order to achieve affordability and maintain economic feasibility, the initiative plans to reduce the cost of acquiring internet-enabled devices as well as the cost of connecting to the internet. There are a number of proposed ways of implementing this.

The first is through improving transmission infrastructure to allow signals to travel faster and further to remote and rural areas. Mobile broadband is only possible through masts that connect to service provider (read telecommunications company) and then to the internet. Improving transmission technology to allow one mast to serve large areas, for example entire counties, reduces the number needed to have everyone connected. In turn this reduces operational costs for the telecommunications company or service provider which will trickle down to the internet users in form of reduced cost for connection.

Secondly, championing low cost open source projects to develop low high-quality cost mobile devices. Through this, the cost barrier for acquiring internet-enabled devices, typically phones, is removed.

In addition to utilizing white space spectrum to increase and supplement connection capacity, improving network capabilities to allows more data to be transmitted more efficiently. Basically, using a water system analogy for the internet connection, what we shall have would be a cheaper and bigger pipe through which to more water can be pumped faster.

To reduce cost of connection to the internet, reducing the amount of data required to access internet services through compression of data and encouraging development of mobile applications that cache data (store data on the phone) so that the user does not have to make multiple connections to the internet for that information in order to use the application. Data compression refers to compacting information to reduce its size. This is not unlike packing so many clothes in a small suitcase and making them fit by compression or clever folding and placing. The resultant suitcase is the same size and would warrant the same luggage fee but it carries a lot more. For the internet user, they are paying literally less for more.

Other plans include localizing services (making services available in local languages, for example, Google search engine and results) and partnerships to particularly mobile operators (telecommunications companies) to mobile services to rural and the remotest of areas. Although the foundation of this plan and such partnerships are fortunately already in play, for instance with mobile operators providing free access to Facebook, Twitter, GMail and Wikipedia, the internet.org plan is untested and therefore its success unpredictable at best.

Mawingu and Loon on the other hand could within five years be helping to change the tide in favour of more internet connectivity in Africa. The use of white spaces with Mawingu ensures low cost for the service provider. The next step in the project is to provide the internet wirelessly through Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) hotspots. When the technology is deployed across the continent, it could quickly replace connections through masts in some areas and with this allow cheaper connectivity. Also, the growth of technologies like this could create competition driving the price of internet further down and the user or customer emerging the greater beneficiary. However, the project risks failure due to bad business environments across Africa, more often than not connecting to political willingness, or lack thereof, and low adoption rate. To deploy such a project, the respective Governments of the countries are inevitably involved and therefore where there is not enough political support, the project risks failure. Africa (its rural market) is not particularly famous for its unquestioning embracing of change or quick adoption of technologies. It could be a while before the market adopts the technology.

Loon could offer very stable internet connectivity through the large balloon network. With the network, balloons orbiting the earth travel in a pattern that ensures coverage all the time as a moving balloon is replaced by another immediately, and with larger numbers still, there could be a possibility of having multiple balloons to connect to at any given time. This creates options so that when balloon X is has for example connected the maximum people it can connect, balloon Y can take on any additional connections. The balloons have been designed to survive and work in the sort of conditions in the stratosphere and run on solar energy and hence unless the sun disappeared suddenly (by which we would also disappear), they are always on. That said, the project faces same political and market adoption risks that could be experienced by the Mawingu project. In addition, the cost associated with this blanket, reliable internet could still be unaffordable to the intended users. I know launching a satellite into space costs a fortune. I assume that although it does not cost as much to launch these balloons, it costs a lot of money. The cost would be naturally pushed downward to the final consumer.

The projects mentioned herein hold exciting possibilities for Africa. Whereas they are bold and hopeful steps toward connecting more people in Africa, we cannot celebrate until the statistics start showing improvements in connectivity. But, as with all epic journeys that rewrite history, they have begun with that first step, in the right direction.


Playlist: Random Naija music playlist

Reading: I don’t remember what

 Sources and References:

1. Africa Development Bank (AfDB), OECD Development Centre, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Africa Economic Outlook (AEO) 2013, May 2013. Retrieved from http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/en/ and http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/fileadmin/uploads/aeo/PDF/Pocket Edition AEO2013-EN.web.pdf

2. Africa Development Bank (AfDB), World Bank and World Economic Forum, Africa Competitiveness Report (ACR) 2013, May 2013. Retrieved from http://www.weforum.org/reports/africa-competitiveness-report-2013 and http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Africa_Competitiveness_Report_2013.pdf

3. Google, Google Loon Project. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/loon/

4. International Telecom Union, ITU (March 2013), The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures. Retrieved from http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/facts/default.aspx

5. Internet.org. Retrieved from http://www.internet.org

6. Internet Society (2012), Global Internet User Survey Summary Report 2012. Retrieved from http://www.internetsociety.org

7. Krsti, B., Staniši, T. (July 2013), The Influence of Knowledge Economy Development on Competitiveness of South-eastern Europe Countries, University of Nis

8. Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, The White Spaces Project. Retrieved from http://www.microsoft.com/africa/4afrika/white_spaces_project.aspx

9. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Economic Report on Africa (ERA) 2013. Retrieved from http://www.uneca.org/publications/economic-report-africa-2013 and http://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/publications/unera_report_eng_final_web.pdf

10. Wikipedia, Knowledge Economy. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_economy  

11. World Bank, Poverty and Equity Databank. Retrieved from http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty

12. World Bank, The Four Pillars Of The Knowledge Economy. Retrieved from http://go.worldbank.org/5WOSIRFA70