Posts Tagged ‘hivos’

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…

Date: 08-12
Organization: Hivos

On December 8th, both Ellen and I went to the last session of the Hivos Digital Natives with a Cause Thinkathon in The Hague. On arrival we were welcomed in an artistic environment where post-its were connected by ribbons and in that way represented the connections. People were invited to write up little messages in a ‘tweet like’ way and stick them all over the room. This created a colorful and amusing activity while waiting for the debate to start.

Of course, we came for the talk and discussion of the day: Why 2.0 will win the streets: new forms of protest and mobilization. After a short introduction by Hivos itself, the first keynote speaker of that day was introduced: Juliana chebe Rotich for the Ushahidi Project. This she describes as a platform, a community and an organization and as a way to reach social inclusion. Kenya, according to Ushahidi, should group together the several Digital Natives and move beyond the standard applications such as Twitter and Facebook. Open Source was their basic principle from which they further built on the web based reporting system to formulate visual map information of a crisis

The second project discussed was by Jasmine Patheja on the Blank Noise project. This one in particular got my interest as it treated a problem, which to me, seems rather hard to address in a Machismo society such as India. The Blank Noise project would photograph men who had committed some sort of street sexual harassment, also called Eve Teasing. Not in the worst sense of the word, but Jasmine commented on some of her personal experiences which are, I think quite recognizable for every woman. It wasn’t only about men groping or touching you, but also about gazing, staring, calling names and capturing that on camera. Interesting was the power switch she described, once she started photographing these men, but unfortunately she did not elaborate on this much more. If it would already raise some sort of awareness in these men’s minds, Blank Noise has according to me already accomplished quite a fair deal. What I particularly liked about it was that the project captured a problem that is very common in (Indian) society, but has apparently evolved this far, in that it became normality. Blank noise succeeded in giving this problem a face.

Later that evening we would all join a very fine dinner in one of the Hague’s art spaces. An inspiring location where I met Colombian/Norwegian lecturer Álvaro Ramírez. After a long talk over dinner, I suddenly saw myself walking away with the second project to visit in Colombia called This is a project from Ramírez which he set up in and around smaller villages of Medellín. Because of the difficult situation in these areas with government, guerillas and paramilitaries around, Ramirez though of a way in which the local people could give voice to these problems. The result was which is written in both English and Dutch and seemed to me everything but slacktivism.

At 22.00 I left the Hivos event with a thrilling feeling that my thesis was getting some shape….