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All posts by Erik Hersman: In Kenya

Erik Hersman: In Kenya
I grew up in Kenya and Sudan. I’m one of those guys who’s much more “at home” in Africa, and I currently live in Kenya. I’m happily married and have 3 beautiful little girls that keep me on my toes. I write two main blogs: White African is my personal blog where I write about high-tech mobile and web technology change in Africa. AfriGadget is a team blog I started a couple years ago, where we talk about low-tech ingenuity and microentrepreneurs in Africa.
  • Bill Gates, computers for kids and why telling a single story is risky

    Creating solutions for one population base in a society does not mean that the others don’t exist. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a great TED Talk, where she said, “There’s a danger in telling a single story.” She warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. I have three example narratives to explore this through: When the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program first came out there were a lot of critics. Rather than try and get a bunch of primary school kids on computers, it seemed you could do...

  • The need for both makerspaces and incubators in Africa

    Maker Faire Africa 2012 in Pictures from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo. I’ve long been a proponent of getting more spaces set up for hardware prototyping and making of things in Africa. I wrote about it first in 2010 (Hardware hacking garages), then again in 2012 (Fab Factories: Hardware Manufacturing in Africa). I’m one of the founding organizers for Maker Faire Africa and the founder of AfriGadget. I’m not just writing about it either, as we have plans to open up a makerspace in Nairobi this year, which will compliment the FabLab that we already have at the University of...

  • Connected tech communities and competitive advantage: the Kenyan way

    In the last couple weeks I’ve had the opportunity to be in Nigeria (Maker Faire Africa), followed by South Africa (AfricaCom). Along with Kenya, these countries represent the biggest technology countries on the continent. They are the regional tech hub cities at this point in Africa. In both places I was struck by how different each country is, and the challenges and opportunities that arise due to the tech community’s connectedness, regulatory stance and local entrepreneurship culture. Some Theories South Africa has so much infrastructure, you’re immediately struck by how money isn’t an issue there. The lesson I took away from the...

  • What tech businesses need to survive in a time of flux

    The theme of the 2012 Skoll World Forum is "Flux: seizing momentum, driving change", which I think is a fantastic one. We’ve never had such upheaval in the way businesses work, in how citizens interact with government, or in how information flows in the world. It’s about change, and survival in a time of flux is best done through agility and creativity. "As an operating paradigm, it expresses the fluid nature of relationships, policies, institutions and human beings which are ever-changing in non-linear ways." Thriving on acceleration The world we live in today is accelerating, in just about everything we’re seeing disruptive...

  • 4 Factors shaping social impact investment in Africa’s tech scene

    I recently took part in a panel discussion focused on “investing in tech in Africa”. It was a good session, as it was very much a discussion between the audience and ourselves. There were a number of points that came up illustrating both the current difficulties and future opportunities when it comes to investing in the African tech space. Using what's there There are a number of tech hubs and labs coming up across the continent, and each have a different focus as we all try to experiment in our space to see what works. The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of...

  • Want to kill the status quo? Innovate

    I was recently asked, “how do you find innovators?” It’s an odd question really, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that is valuable to think through. You have to dig deeper and think why innovations happen at all, and what the power structures are that make them be identified as innovative. After all, innovation is just a new way of doing things than what is currently the norm. In any industry, society or business there are status quo powers at play. These are generally legacy structures, setup for a time and place that needed that design. Think...

  • Fabrication and manufacturing: The future of African hardware innovation

    Across Africa there is a vibrant culture of people creating things. Hardware products. It’s rarely glamorous as our inventors and micro-entrepreneurs innovate on products due to necessity -- there simply aren’t enough jobs and they need to feed their families. Regardless of the reasons why they do it, what this has created is a culture of innovation. When you have a problem in Africa, there isn’t another option, you either improvise, adapt and overcome, or you die. You don’t give up, you figure out a way to make things work. This environment has bred a generation of problem solvers: people confront immense...

  • Why Mpesa is still a financial disruptor

    Farhad Manjoo makes a compelling argument for why the real winners of the payments revolution are the same players we already know, the credit card companies and the banks, in in an article entitled "Don’t mess with credit: Why the future of payments is already in your pocket." “Nearly every start-up working in payments is simply creating a new front end for your credit card. That’s not a small thing; we need new ways to use our credit cards. But we shouldn’t forget the true winners in this new marketplace—whatever innovations we see in payments over the next few years,...

  • Why 2012 could be the year of the African startup

    The past few years have been about building an infrastructure that improves the chances of the technology startups in Africa to succeed. Seeing this buildout in action in 2011 was exciting, but it should be recognised for what it really was: a setup for 2012 and beyond. You see, all those labs and hubs around the continent, the startups and the media coverage? They’re all about getting attention and increasing the awareness of...

  • Africa’s mobile operators need to be more disruptive

    Generally speaking, in the 90s, Africa's mobile network operators (MNOs) were highly disruptive. In this last decade however, they have continued to decrease in this. Operators are no longer the offensive, attacking force of yesteryear, instead they’re putting up barriers and defensive walls trying to protect what they have and hide. Instead, the disruption comes from the open web. Whenever the operators put up a blocker to what users want, usually in the form of price or access to their infrastructure, the web finds a way of displacing them. Examples abound in location-based services, text messaging, video and photos. There’s a...

  • The subtle condescension of ‘ICT for development’

    I have cognitive dissonance over the term "Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D)". This term, “ICT4D,” is confusing, hypocritical, and has a whiff of condescension that makes me cringe. As I understand it, it’s what NGOs do in places like Africa and Asia, but if the same things are done in poor communities in the US or Europe, it's not called ICT4D, it’s called "civil society innovation" or a "disruptive product". I'll be the first to say that I think more communications and technology tools in the hands of ordinary people is good, it's what we need. For this reason...

  • The mobile phones landscape in Uganda [infographic]

    The iHub Research team has been at work pulling together mobile phone stats for Uganda and collating them into an infographic. It’s good to see the 41% density of mobile phones and impressive numbers starting to show up from the 1-million users of Uganda's MTN (60% market share) Mobile Money solution. As iHub writes explaining who they are, "iHub Research shares stories about the vibrant East African technology community by conducting ICT research...

  • Africa: Turning the tech world upside down (Part 2)

    In the first part of this article I discussed -- picking up from talks I gave at PopTech and Nokia World 2011 -- "The Idea of Africa" and how Western abstractions of the continent are often mired in the past, and, with examples, how Africa was turning the world upside down because disruptive ideas happen at the edge. Now, I want to look at the Two Big Trends. Trend #1: Adoption by Africans as consumers is increasing Trend #2: Technology costs are decreasing At the panel discussion I participated in at Nokia World 2011, I mentioned how: 87% of sub-US$100 phones sold by Nokia...

  • Africa: Turning the tech world upside down (Part 1)

    In business white space is defined as a place, "...where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are non existent, and strategy is unclear..." It's the space between the organisational chart, where the real innovation happens. It's also a great definition for what we see in Africa, and it's one reason why it's one of the most exciting places to be a technology entrepreneur today. Recently, I gave with a talk at PopTech where I talked about "The Idea of Africa" and how Western abstractions of the continent are often mired in the past. It's not just safaris and athletes,...

  • How Firefly could inspire Africa’s tech future

    When I was a kid of around 10 years old, I used to collect small motors and electrical components with my school friends in Nairobi. We’d find some batteries and create small rotating and whirling contraptions, dreaming of how we’d one day make a walking robot that we could sit in and control -- no doubt inspired by the Star Wars AT-STs. I’ve always enjoyed tinkering. It’s what drove my interest in telling the stories of Africa’s innovative hardware hackers in the jua kali sector, writing on AfriGadget. It’s why helping to organise and be a part of Maker Faire...