Archive for January, 2011

Ellen: Did you know that there is animal rennet involved while making cheese?

Fei An: No had no idea. So actually, vegetarians shouldn’t be allowed to eat cheese then either?

Ellen: Not necessarily, I’m done with the whole idea of people having to hang on one ideology. The fact that they are not eating meat proves that they are already thinking of how live their lives more consciously.

This is the conversation Ellen and I had before hopping on the wrong bus in Bologna and which kept me thinking since then. Can we really be idealistic without being hypocrite?

While talking about vegetarians, I claimed that when they would know animal products are used in the production process, the would have to stop eating cheese and all the products containing any form of gelatin. On the other (Ellen’s) hand, there is without doubt something noble in their actions of not eating meat and the fact that they have thought about more sustainable ways of living is at the least admirable. Why are we hypocrites if we are doing the best we can and sometimes turn a blind eye? I agreed and our discussion ended once we realized that we were on the wrong bus.

I couldn’t get rid of the idea though and something inside me kept bugging me about the idea that something about our reasoning was not right. This evening it struck me! It is not the fact that we are hypocrites by not completely living up to our ideals, it is the fact that we as humans, cannot suppress the need to label everything. YOU ARE A VEGETARIAN, does not mean that you’re considered eating less meat, we made up that the term “vegetarian” implies that you cannot eat any meat at all.  And in our heads, that means that you are a hypocrite If you do.

By doing that we often miss the most important point about the whole thing, that we try to live a better life; that we try to help improve life standards for the people around us. I was as well tricked into the idea of the concept of vegetarianism and realized that what we, society made up this term. Apparently, we automatically think within the boxes we ourselves create and find it hard to define things that fall in a grey area. Sectarianism is the rotten apple in the basket, and at the same time, we cannot live without it.

Now isn’t that hypocrite?

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Last Friday I joined another Hivos event, not only for the free drinks and snacks (amazing bitterballen! – I’m Dutch, can’t help it), but because of the urgent and interesting topic “Fill the Gap”; Africa as a new business opportunity. Now that development aid has been cut dramatically by the new government, new forms of “aid” must be sought and the market was discussed as a fruitful alternative. Will this be embraced by the Dutch government? Will the market eventually lead to the development of a more open and equal society?

Speakers were Estelle Akofio-Sowah, the social face of Google Ghana, and Kamal Badhabhatti, the CEO of software company Craft Silicon in Kenya, moderated by Andrew Makkinga. The debate focused on the emerging presence of national and foreign ICT companies at the continent and revolved around the question “Why Africa?”

Estelle Akofio-Sowah is “just one of many in a growing number of Africans committed to social economical development in Ghana.” Her powerful answer to the question Why Africa? is “why NOT Africa? I can’t imagine why any company would not be thinking of investing in africa. It’s completely the last frontier, the last online market place to participate in. With one billion people there definitely is a market. You can make a lot of money, and money is what you all need”. She explains how the infrastructure is improving rapidly over the last years. Through increased competition Internet access is becoming really cheap, of better quality and more widely spread. The next fibre optics cable will come in the next year(s), which will make prices decrease even more and get more Africans online.

Furthermore, as a colonial remnant, language is not a problem. Most countries speak English, French or Portuguese, and content in local languages are increasingly growing online. At the moment there’s a huge opportunity for creating local content, and Google is putting a lot of effort in it. The “first mover” can be the local news provider, and so does Google. Google Ghana collaborates with communities and local information providers. Through these local informants local languages are “digitalised” (some languages are not written). Google translate then translates the content of existing websites in their local languages. Moreover, they provide local content on entertainment, tourist information, local businesses build their websites, etc. In this way Google search can be localised.

Internet is accessed mostly on mobile phones. Africa is leapfrogging into mobile telephony skipping the landline era. That’s why the mobile network in Africa is even better than several other developed countries. Even in the lower three income quartile in ppp terms mobile phone usage is 53%. Prices will decrease in the coming years and internet/mobile phone penetration will rise. “It’s happening now. We’re young economies, young democracies. We are patient but it’s gonna happen now!”

 

In short Google’s mission:

Google is not making money (yet) in Ghana, but just “exploring” the country, and the continent. What do people do and what do people want? What is there and how is it used? Simultaneously, Google is setting up several services such as Internet exchange points, research and education networks through which universities share knowledge and information, and Google Caches; reducing international bandwidth requirements for ISPs in order to improve the user experience and reduce latency. One example is the Gmail Inbox preview, which allows users to check their inbox without loading the page. It can be used in cases of high latency. Another feature is the free sms service, which allows users to send text messages to cel phones for free. Mobile phone users can reply to these messages, sending them to the Gmail account, for the price of a regular sms.

It turned out that Google is not only “exploring”. On the Internet people can put their businesses (literally) on the “map”. Localising search engines will allow local people to find them, and through Google’s advertising service this will increase their findability. Advertisements can also be sent by sms, for free. Such text messages contain the URL of the business’ website and directs people to their websites. This learns people how to use the Internet, as people often don’t know what to do online.

Estelle stresses Google’s attempts to teach people how to use the Internet (and their services). They create awareness. What can you do online? How to promote your business? How can you make money? What’s in it for a business man?

A little anecdote: Google Ghana’s top query is “Ghana”, which reflects the early Internet eco-system; people using the search engine for the first time and think of a term to search for.

Kamal Badhabhatti speaks shortly about Craft Silicon. “There are a lot of challenges, in terms of electricity. Until a couple of years ago there used to be a lot of rain. We had electricity only at night. So we couldn’t work during the day, only from 6 p.m. until midnight. But there are also political issues. Our offices get robbed, sometimes. As long as politics don’t get stable we can’t do our business.”

Estelle adds that she’s spoiled. “In Ghana the political situation is much more stable. Handing over power occurs smoothly. There are still hotspots in Africa but I don’t think that in kenya there’ll be much more trouble. Let’s not joke, it’s amazing that they could have a referendum. That takes giving from leadership. When you run a business politics is an issue, it enables or disables the environment to run a business. In our case, in Ghana, they understand that Africa should move from a trading economy to a knowledge based economy. So what is needed? Google!”

However, Kamal responds: “I think the next Facebooks and Googles should come from Africa…!”

 

Some other questions:

Andrew: “How should dutch private sector cooperate with Africa?”

Estelle: “They should engage with African private sector. Creating jobs, but also private-public relation ships. Africa must throw away the begging bowl.”

But wouldn’t big companies buy all the talent?

Kamal: “We can not stop the big boys from coming into Africa. We need to learn from the big boys and grow our companies.”

 

Geert Lovink, Internet and Google critic, was introduced and asked the following three questions:

To Estelle: “What kind of company is google in your perspective? There is much talk that Google will not only go into the mobile phone market, but eventually it will become a telecom provider itself. Google at the moment is very much depending on the telecom infrastructure that other companies are putting in. Do you have an opinion about this? And what about the tough infrastructural questions (data centres, electricity, etc.)?

Estelle: “I hope to open as many data centres as possible. Where is Google going: Going forward. I don’t know all the top secrets. But about the type of organisation Google is: It investigates how can you get people online, what’s gonna drive them online. Yes, that also means investigating how Google can make money of this. But most important is how we can get relevant information to local people. That means spurring the eco-system. Competition is good, nobody denies that, and local businesses can compete with Google. In fact, they are more in touch with the needs of the people. But most important is improving the user experience, and showing people what is possible. We need people to be able to access our products.”

Geert Lovink: “What stops you right now from the important (advertising) product of google in Ghana?

Estelle: “We don’t have a target. We do teach people how to advertise online. We encourage them to build a website and to buy advertisement. Small businesses need to advertise because the world is a global village. We teach people how to do this”.

Geert Lovink: “The localisation issue you mentioned is crucial. Could that also be done through start-ups in a commercial setting (now its done by volunteers)?

Estelle: “We look for people that want to promote their language and their culture. That model works for us. The main challenge is languages that are not documented. We don’t have enough vernacular in English. Through Google Translate you can translate a whole website. Therefore we engage with communities that are passionate about their language, and for now this works best.”

 

The wrap-up question by Andrew: “Do you have any data that gives us insight in African search and Internet behaviour?

Estelle: People are similar all across the world. People look for sex.

Google does know everything…