As entrepreneurs spark change, Africa’s electricity future is getting brighter.

Women working on solar lighting circuit boards.
Photo Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

With the blessing of global institutions increasingly worried by the prospect of climate change, entrepreneurs are hacking out a small-scale, low-carbon path to universal African electrification.

What’s encouraging them is the enthusiasm with which mobile phones have been taken up by many Africans and the new innovations and opportunities that this has opened up; the success of undersea fibre-optic broadband cables, the possibilities that this is opening up.

In Soy, in rural Western Kenya, some 280 km from Nairobi, as long as the sun keeps shining, Mark Kragh’s audience of young farmers is completely electrified. Turning sunlight into free electricity is a life changer.

“They’ve listened and learned like nobody I’ve taught before,” says Kragh who runs a solar panel business, KnowYourPlanet, in London. “They took notes, they figured out my diagrams. And within four hours, the first phone was charging away.”

Kragh’s solar master classes teach how to make solar phone chargers. These sell for 700 shillings (just over $8) each. There’s likely to be a ready market for them in Soy, says Kragh. It only takes 70 charges for the charger to pay for itself.

Access to electricity for Soy’s residents used to be a luxury. Now, with the advent of mobile phones, it’s turned into an expensive necessity. When everyone uses a phone, it’s difficult to opt out.

However, few people have electricity at home. With incomes in Soy hovering around the dollar a week mark, getting plugged into the national grid isn’t an option for most.

Charging a mobile phone at a shop or a phone kiosk costs around ten shillings (12 US cents) — prohibitively expensive. And there’s the cost of not working when trekking to the shop as well — a round trip of 10 kilometres for some of Kragh’s farmers.

Fresh from building miniature power stations with his students, the solar entrepreneur says: “The thing is that they’re really motivated to learn.”

Electric Innovations

In Silicon Valley and New York and London, tech investors with deep pockets are ready to consider innovative schemes designed to dent Africa’s electricity deficit. If this lays the foundation for new African businesses, a new culture of grass-roots entrepreneurialism, then that’s all for the good as well.

Leading social enterprises in this burgeoning sector include Solaraid which installs solar panels in schools and community centres across East and Southern Africa. Set up by Jeremy Leggett, the London-based company gives out small loans to African entrepreneurs so that they can get into the business of selling its products.

Founded by an American former investment banker, Katerine Lucey, SolarSister also uses micro-financing to fund small businesses. It creates “woman-centered” solar sales networks across rural Africa, in Uganda and Rwanda mainly, which sell its solar lamps.

Based in Kenya, backed by the World Bank, ToughStuff produces solar-powered products, lamps, solar panels, phone chargers, aimed at low-income Africans.

Founded by Ned Tozun and Sam Goldman, Stanford MBA graduates, based in San Franciso, d.light provides clean and affordable solar alternatives to kerosene lamps.


At the level of the UN or the World Bank, the hope is that low-income countries can miss out on the 20th Century, on electricity generation that’s dependent on fossil fuels, and instead develop low-carbon, decentralised schemes.

“The same leapfrogging happened with phones, when many places skipped landlines and went straight to mobile,” says Ken Banks, developer of FrontlineSMS, the free text-messaging software for Africa-based NGOs. “Perhaps the new model for Africa’s power is also very different, then — localised grids using renewable energies.”

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a US-based industry body, predicts that what may emerge from these innovations is a meshing of grids with real-time performance data, an African “IntelliGrid” — a wireless information network binding together a continent-wide power system.

Such a smart grid would funnel together different sources of energy: centrally produced electricity, from traditional, hydro and nuclear power stations, combined with power coming from local micro grids and generated by renewables such as solar energy.

Constantly monitoring itself, the IntelliGrid would take steps to counteract any power disturbances. Power outages would become a distant memory, as ancient as needing an operator to place a telephone call.

Current Realities

At the moment, of course, Africa’s electricity supply is far from this. Count the backup generators in any five-star hotel, in any large manufacturing company.

In hard, economic terms, what counts most when judging any electricity supply is its reliability, argue Thomas Barnebeck Andersen and Carl-Johan Dalgaard, professors of economics at the Universities of Southern Denmark and Copenhagen.

“A patchy service is an improvement over no service, of course,” says Andersen. “But policy makers shouldn’t think that once a power grid is up-and-running, that this is enough in itself.”

When power gets turned off regularly, businesses end up having to cough up. Unlike their better connected competitors, they find themselves forced to invest in expensive generators. Computers are sensitive to even small power disturbances: surge protectors add to business costs. Computers go wrong more often: there’s less investment in IT, less readiness to innovate. All this harms economic growth over the medium term.

Here’s a counterfactual. What would happen to Africa’s economic growth if all African countries were to experience South Africa’s power quality? Instead of, say, 10.5 power outages during a typical month, if the number went down to two: what would that do for Africa’s growth figures?

Anderson and Dalgaard’s research suggests that the average annual real GDP per capita growth rate would increase by two percentage points. In other words, countries like Ghana and the DRC would find themselves growing as fast as China. “This is how important a reliable power supply is,” says Andersen.

A version of this appears in the May issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

As Africa’s rush for broadband connection continues, Steve Song’s map of African undersea cables can’t help but get tangled up:

I am gobstopped again with the announcement of the BRICs cable. I struggle now to find ways to represent all the impending capacity on a single map without it looking like a dog’s breakfast. What I thought was a clever innovation, using the width of the cable as an indicator of design capacity, has turned out to be a nightmare as cables like the SAEx cable announced a design capacity of 12.8 terabits/s, 10 times that of the Seacom cable which launched in 2009.

> African Undersea Cable Map Goes Non-Linear

Africa’s got software talent… but for how much longer? What do African techies make of Silicon Valley? What might Silicon Valley make of them?

Steve Mutinda: Kenyan App developer.
Photo Credit: WhiteAfrican

No Prada suits, hoodies or flip flops. No algorithms stolen off dorm room windows. None of that Social Network, San Francisco stuff. Steve Mutinda’s award-winning mobile health app may be designed for the global market, may end up slaying them in Silicon Valley, but, built in Africa by Africans for Africans, MedKenya comes out of a clear African sensibility — that’s its unique selling point.

“We want to showcase the potential of Africa in creating solutions that make a difference,” explains the 29-year-old software developer from Nairobi. “We want the world to see that, yes, it is possible for Africa to be a net producer of solutions rather than a net consumer.”

A one-stop shop for healthcare advice, the app squeezes out revenue from the realities around Mutinda: the technology available to him; Kenya’s most urgent healthcare issues; and, crucially, what’s considered affordable by ordinary Kenyans.

Subscribers to MedKenya pay to receive health alerts. Doctors pay to be included in its directory; the more alerts they write, the better placed their entry.

Designed to meet UN and Kenyan government development criteria, the app is an affordable way of getting expert medical information over to patients rather than an easy knock-off of the latest dotcom fad to hit San Francisco or London.

Top of the Tech

Mutinda is part of a wave of young software developers emerging out of the fast-moving East African tech scene. Find them in the big urban centres, around universities, tech incubators and wherever there’s talk of technology as a way of making serious money.

MedKenya could do well. It came top in the Pivot25 apps competition held in Nairobi last June. Over 100 app developers from across East Africa applied to take part.

Sharp coding skills together with a robust business plan gave Mutinda and his team the edge over the competition. As well as a cheque for $5000, they get to go to Silicon Valley and pitch MedKenya to potential investors at the prestigious DEMO conference this September.

Products launched at DEMO have gone on to become household names — TiVo, Adobe Acrobat and Google’s first attempts at mobile search.

What’s most exciting about going to Silicon Valley isn’t so much the investment possibilities there, says Mutinda’s 28-year-old business partner, Mbugua Njihia. There’s venture capital enough in Nairobi. What sends Njihia “off the scale” is the prospect of the Silicon Valley learning experience.

“It’s like taking an MBA in seven days,” says Njihia. “It’s soaking up the wisdom of people who really understand how to build multimillion dollar businesses.”

Brain Gain?

The African brain gain is nothing new. The key shapers of Kenya’s current tech landscape received their basic training abroad. Coming back, they brought with them the expertise and investment needed to bring about huge improvements to Africa’s telecom sector.

Michael Joseph left South Africa for America and its new mobile phone sector before returning to Africa, to Kenya, to become Safricom’s CEO where, with Vodaphone, he set up the revolutionary mobile-phone based money transfer system M-Pesa.

Mo Ibrahim studied in the UK and then worked for British Telecom before setting up Celtel, the African telecoms giant, and becoming one of Africa’s few billionaires.

Lower down the tech chain, however, the benefits to Africa from the migration of its brightest and best to the West become less apparent. Making connections and knowing how to pitch to potential investors, the tricks of the successful tech entrepreneur’s trade: what’s the best way for African migrants to pass on this kind of insider knowledge?

Out of Africa

In Buea, southern Cameroon, Mambe Nanje Churchill, CEO of the Afrovision Group, says that going abroad has changed many of the developers he knows into New Yorkers or Londoners: they’ve lost touch with their base.

“The fact that Africans leave and invest their skills out there hurts me so much,” says Churchill. “Going out there to study and coming back is a great experience and good for Africa. It’s just that in recent times, the flow seems to me to have been one way: people mostly don’t return.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 20,000 Africans leave the continent each year. Out of the skilled professionals leaving, a high proportion work in IT.

Both Africa’s healthcare and educational systems have been hit hard by migration. At least 60 per cent of doctors trained in Ghana during the 1980s now work abroad, reports the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Even worse, perhaps, there’s a danger that the best resourced African techies, those who’ve internalised the Silicon Valley vibe, who’ve become members of the global kinetic elite, forget about what’s best for Africa even when they’re in Africa.

“As the saying goes, you might have the greatest idea in the world, but if it doesn’t work ‘on the ground’, it doesn’t work,” says Linda Raftree, Social Media and New Technology Advisor for Plan West Africa, an NGO working with young people.

This is true even if an idea or technology is developed locally. “If those developing it are from the city and they expect it to work in a rural area, but haven’t talked to anyone who would actually use the technology or the application, it can still fail,” warns Raftree.

Homing Instinct

Andrew Mugoya in London views migration more positively: “The majority of Africans born and raised in Africa will always view Africa as home, regardless of whether they return to settle.”

Mugoya left Nairobi after school to go to university in the UK. After working in IT in the blue chip banking sector, he set up Asilia, a creative agency specialising in web development. His team members are based in both the UK and in Kenya.

As well as sending back remittances and making investments, expat African entrepreneurs tend to find ways of sending business back home, he says.

“Africans in the diaspora will tend to look to Africa when trying to get back-office support because they know the region. It’s less of a risky black hole. It’s almost as though they become Africa’s agents, generating business for the people back home.”

A version of this appears in the September issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

So Facebook hired a PR firm to plant negative stories about Google. What you gonna do about it? Get over it, already… although it isn’t right, obviously… MG Siegler on the latest Facebook “slimeball stunt”:

Like it or not, Facebook is too integrated into the fabric of the web now for everyone to just walk away. As has been proven time and time again, people will get really angry with them for some misstep, and then totally forget about it a week later.

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By developing its developers, Africa’s tech sector hopes to go from ping to kerching.

Smartphone showing radar

Photo Credit: Sundhult

Time was when African software developers didn’t register on Silicon Valley’s radar. No undersea fibre optic cables meant that there wasn’t much of a digital infrastructure in most of sub-Saharan Africa and so accessing and developing its software market was tough work.

These days, with access getting easier, the African blip on the Silicon Valley screen is starting to ping somewhat louder: the world’s biggest technology companies can’t get enough of the right kind of African ideas.

Seeking solutions to African needs, the kind not generally grokked by Silicon Valley VCs, companies like Google and Nokia are working hard to encourage African developers.

They go into schools and universities. They set up apps markets. They help with marketing. They sponsor conferences. But the most obvious way, the one which gets the most attention, is via the kerching and bling of the apps challenge.

Going app?

US dollars

Photo Credit: AMagill

Typically, the challenge is to design a new app in exchange for a small cash prize. With the announcement of the competition, marketing departments go into overdrive. Blogs posts and tech events show off the competing apps. Finally, there’s an impressive award-giving evening with pitches and backslapping and toasts to Africa’s tech potential.

When it works, it’s great. Developers are forced to consider what the outside tech world wants. The companies get a sense of what the developers can deliver.

However, there’s a feeling among developers, voiced across blogs and net forums, that this apps ride stops somewhere short of Silicon Valley. You meet the app challenge, you take part in the competitions, get judged by tech experts and then what? Isn’t it the case that big tech companies are likely to spin off the best apps and develop them in-house?

It’s true that young developers can end up giving away their work for not much, says Ken Banks, developer of FrontlineSMS, the free text-messaging software for Africa-based NGOs, and a veteran observer of the African tech scene. “The suspicion is that competitions like these, coming at the developers left, right and centre, are just a cheap way of scooping up the most potentially lucrative new ideas.”

Broadly speaking

Cash register

Photo Credit: liewcf

The current excitement about Africa’s tech prospects is triggered by the ring of the cash register. The business analysts say that where there’s broadband in Africa, there’s new business. With the new undersea cables rapidly increasing broadband capacity, the economic growth that Africa has seen over the past five or so years is likely to continue.

As in Silicon Valley’s dotcom era, first mover-advantage mania rules among the big tech companies: the company which gets its platform, its killer apps, its tech ecosystem into place first, wins Africa – or so the theory goes.

In order to do this, an entrepreneurial culture needs to be created among Africa’s tech whiz kids.

Among Silicon Valley techies, there’s the perception that a potentially good cultural fit exists between Africa and global tech. Although it’s easy to over romanticise this, Africa’s culture is one of innovation, of make do and mend. Out of necessity. And this fits nicely into the tech world’s hacker ethos, the idea that you take what’s around you and hack it into something better.

And, of course, there’s the wider issue of African knowledge. African developers understand African needs in a way outsiders just can’t.

For example, with computers priced out of the reach of many Africans, the mobile phone became the key tech device. Unlike their counterparts in the West, African developers are mobile net natives, wise to its opportunities and limitations.

The key question, then? How best can business harness this African potential? The answer? Build an entrepreneurial tech community.

“Someone working at Google in San Francisco is going to struggle to understand how a service needs to run in rural Kenya,” says Banks. “By providing help and resources to a rural Kenyan developer, however, Google can tap local knowledge and build exactly what’s needed.”

Community spirit

iHub, Nairobi, Kenya

Photo Credit: WhiteAfrican

Taking place on 14 to 15 June in Nairobi, Kenya, Pivot 25 is a step towards the kind of ideas chain Banks describes. Open to east Africa’s mobile startups, it’s an apps challenge with a difference – it’s as much about creating community as kerching. Yes, there are the judges and the pitches and the cash prizes and the networking opportunities, the chances to click with potential investors.

What makes Pivot 25 interesting, however, is that it’s based within an innovation hub, a physical space for developers, which in turn is part of a wider African tech community.

Created by the team behind the award-winning Ushahidi software, the iHub acts as a space for events held by and for the local software developer community. It “incubates” young coders: it gives them somewhere to hang out and swap ideas and learn how to collaborate on projects.

The iHub is part of the new Afrilabs Association, a network of innovation hubs across sub-Saharan Africa. Run by expats and children of the African Diaspora, techies all, they aim to inject a Silicon Valley entrepreneurial vibe into local tech cultures.

What innovation hubs like Afrilabs will do is encourage the survival of the fittest apps while ensuring that developers get to develop too, says Banks.

“The best ideas will naturally rise to the surface, but people will have the chance to keep hold of their ideas and not sell out cheaply. Any success will be because of the merit of the idea rather than because a panel of experts hyped it.”

Jon Gosier, co-founder of Hive Colab, an Afrilabs hub in Kampala, Uganda, says that what he and the other Afrilab hubs are building on is “local creative surplus”, the knowledge peculiar to Africa which Africans have and which could be used to drive innovation.

The business models and focus of the hubs vary: incubating talent, coworking or even just creating a community space for local hackers.

What the hubs have in common is access to funds and “pools of talent on the ground”, says Gosier. Operating across boarders, they bring the two together.

“So instead of an investor worrying about the nuances of doing business in so many different countries, we can take on some of that responsibility and let the investor and entrepreneur focus on building their businesses.”

Find out more:

Afrilabs Association

The iHub, Kenya

ActivSpaces, Cameroon

Hive Colab, Uganda

Nailab, Kenya

Banta Labs, Senegal

A version of this appears in the May issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

African countries are trying to “cheat history,” as one senior UN official I met put it. Barely literate people in the poorest villages, places where there are no schools and the life expectancy is under 50 due to lack of health infrastructure, use mobile phones to listen to the radio, send money, buy and sell stuff, and even to study. When we flash polled a roomful of eighty nursing students in rural Sierra Leone, everyone’s hand went up when we asked who owned a phone and had heard of social networking. Their lives are a mashup: Facebook Zero meets the Middle Ages.
– Leila Chirayath Janah

The Women’s Technology Delegation, set up by the US State Department, travels through Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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Visiting pop stars and politicians made it famous. It featured in the Oscar-winning movie The Constant Gardner.

But look at a map and you’ll strain your eyes trying to locate the tin shacks and mud huts of Kibera.

Although one of Africa’s more densely populated areas – some 250,000 people crammed into 2.3 sq km – the informal settlement shows up as nothing but “forest” in the Kenyan land registry.

The shanty town is just five kilometres south west from Nairobi’s city centre. Official maps pinpoint the Royal Nairobi golf course. But below this, there’s zilch, a big blank space where the Kibera slum should be.

Kibera initial map
Kibera new map

Mapping Kibera: Before and after mapping.
Photo Credit: Mikel Maron –
Before, After

Determined to be seen, to put themselves on the map, Kibera’s residents have turned to a DIY tech solution.

Using hand-held GPS devices, trained volunteers are marking what they regard as important in and around the 13 villages which make up Kibera.

Their waymarks get zapped over instantly to Map Kibera, a digital map, part of a community news website built using open source software.

The map was set up by new media experts Mikel Maron and Erica Hagen working with academics from the University of Nairobi.

Mapping Kibera

Map Kibera’s Mikel Maron with volunteer mappers.
Photo Credit: White African

They argue that locals can’t figure out how to improve Kibera without getting a sense of the world immediately around them.

There’s a business case for the digital map as well.

The volunteers are gaining transferable skills, explains Maron. “For the mappers and citizen journalists we work with, their skills are definitely marketable, both in Kibera and outside.”

And the map also gives businesses a way to reach new customers.

Future business plans include using the map to market new mobile phone services and partnering with local health providers so that Kibera residents have access to health insurance.

Map Kibera

A version of this appears in the March issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.