Facebook Zero, feature phones and the ‘next billion’ users

ImageGraphic from the BBC and data from SocialBakers
On October 4th, 2012, Facebook passed the billion user mark. These users generated some 1.13 trillion ‘likes,’ 219 billion photos and 17 billion location check-ins. Launched in 2004, and well established in markets like North America and Europe, Facebook increasingly looks to places like Africa for the next billion users.

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It is no surprise there will be more mobile phones on the planet than people before the end of this year. Statistics released to coincide with the Facebook announcement revealed there were now 600 million users accessing the site via a mobile device – up 48 million from 552 million in June this year. That said, penetration is still relatively low in places like Asia and Africa – below 7 per cent in Asia and just over 5 per cent in Africa. This leaves plenty of potential users still to gain in these markets and clearly a mobile strategy is the future for the company.

In Africa, Facebook has targeted the use of basic phones known widely as ‘feature phones.’ They are unable to display the full-featured site, but instead can use specially created variations of the network. In May 2010, Facebook announced the launch of Facebook Zero, a text-only version of Facebook that can be accessed at 0.facebook.com. In the 18 months after Facebook Zero launched in Africa, the number of Africans on Facebook grew by 165%. Certainly working directly with the telecom providers, and offering the service for free to users, has done a lot to spread the network.

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Looking to further expand its reach, Facebook took the next step when it acquired Snaptu last year for a reported 60-70 million USD. This strategic investment underpins the project called ‘Facebook for Every Phone.’ Snaptu specializes in enabling the development of apps for low-cost feature phones. Their cloud based application approach means their apps work on more than 2,500 devices, indeed many of the feature phones that can be found across the continent.

As the company looks to reach the next billion users we can assume there will be a continued focus on Africa.

Celebrating a growing technology community in Cameroon

So exciting to see Djoss.tv win the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012. It was an electric evening with so much positive energy.

My first trip to Cameroon was in the spring of 2011. Amazing to see what kind of progress is being made only a year and a half later. It is exciting to see the ranks of technology entrepreneurs grow in the country. Also the quality of startups has greatly improved and I noticed a serious focus on business models. Several teams have gone through multiple iterations of their product before refining concepts that have real potential to gain traction.

In fact, a recent visitor from Nairobi remarked that the Kenyan entrepreneurs have something to learn from their Cameroonian counterparts. Indeed, it might seem that the constraints placed on entrepreneurs in the country forces them to focus – working faster with less resources. It was also noted technology entrepreneurs in Nairobi are sometimes hesitant to close their computers and speak with actual customers, when most of the teams in Cameroon spend a great deal of time and effort on market research.

Almost not a week goes by that we don’t read about the launch of another fund in Nairobi, an accelerator in Ghana or a competition targeting startup entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Its herd mentality with everyone piling into the same plane. Maybe Cameroon doesn’t get the same attention because people are less familiar with the operating environment or the government has done less to bolster its image. Certainly there is less sector support. That said, the quality of innovators we know in Cameroon are on par with any we have met.

There should be a podium for technology entrepreneurs in every country, and the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012 is another step for the community in Cameroon. These individuals, in every community, are critical if we are to solve difficult social, economic and environmental problems. They are an important part of our future. Their path is not an easy one and it is important to take a step back and to recognize the progress being made.

It is hard work and these guys are blazing a new path for hopefully many generations to come. Already we see new teams of entrepreneurs staking their ground. These are still the early days of many exciting times ahead. Congrats to the team at Djoss.tvKingMaker and Agro-Hub!

Meet the Business Innovation Consortium Uganda (BICU)

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Times are changing! Great to see the Kampala space buzzing with activity. The flux of young talent has seen a proliferation of spaces. Meet the Business Innovation Consortium Uganda (BICU), a collaboration between hub’s, tech labs, incubators and business accelerators in Uganda. 

Capital flight in Sub-Saharan Africa visualized

The Gaurdian has been working to ramp up their ‘Data Journalism’ efforts and some of their insights are quite impressive.

For example, the elites of many sub-Saharan African countries have accumulated so much secret offshore wealth it could pay off their countries’ external debts many times over as visualized here.

A challenge moving forward is to see how this money can rather be diverted into investments locally.

AfriLabs welcomes 9 new members and seeks a director of programs

Today we are pleased to welcome 9 new members to the AfriLabs network and announce that we are hiring a director.  These are the next steps in our effort to build a strong association and to support the continued growth and development of innovation hubs across the continent.

Moving forward, we look to establish AfriLabs as a catalyst for African borne innovation in areas such as mobile/web, design, fabrication, architecture and renewable resources/energy to name but a few. The aim of this effort is to create success stories and decent work for young Africans by focusing on technology and innovation as platforms for entrepreneurship, both as a means of self-employment and as job creation for others.

Participating Labs:

Here is an overview of the participating hubs.

» Nailab Incubation in Nairobi, Kenya
» HiveColab in Kampala, Uganda
» iHub in Nairobi, Kenya
» ActivSpaces in Buea, Cameroon
» BantaLabs in Saint Louis, Senegal
» mLab EA, Kenya
» Wennovation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria
» RLabs in Cape Town, South Africa
» Malagasy i-Hub in Antananarivo, Madagascar
» ICE Addis in Addis, Ethiopia
» Meltwater in Accra, Ghana
» CCHub in Lagos, Nigeria
» BongoHive in Lusaka, Zambia
» iLab in Monrovia, Liberia

Hiring a director:

The director is asked to lead the continued development of AfriLabs as a network-based organization. Key to this position is to establish strategic partnerships needed to grow the organization and allow for the implementation of programs.

Additionally, the director has the following responsibilities:

» Preserve the founding principles of the AfriLabs charter;
» Establish a work plan for 2012 – 2014;
» Manage programs and engage AfriLab members in their deployment;
» Facilitate outreach and applications of new labs;
» Manage relations with strategic partners and establish new partnerships;
» Lead fundraising efforts for AfriLabs and its members;
» Responsible for any and all reporting to stakeholders;
» Coordinate the annual AfriLabs meeting, host quarterly meetings with the board of directors and facilitate monthly calls with member labs;
» Manage the AfriLabs website and related social media channels;
» Generate, share and promote success stories;
» Support the continued development of the AfriLabs network in any way possible.

About AfriLabs:

AfriLabs is a network organization that supports innovation hubs in Africa. A few details on the organization:

» Non-profit registered;
» Consortium of independent African innovation hubs, co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators;
» Individually, each hub serves as a nexus for innovators, entrepreneurs and investors;
» Goal is to support the growth of the hubs, their respective members and surrounding communities.


Ugandan techies grab the spotlight at the PivotEast competition


At the recent Pivot East competition, an event in which developers pitch their mobile apps to possible investors, Uganda was represented by 4 startups. The contestants included Easy Order, Story Spaces, mPoultry and MafutaGo. With a 50% success rate, two of the four pitching teams walked away with $10.000.

The four startups that competed:

1) Easy Order: EasyOrder is an SMS based mobile ordering and supply chain management application developed to simplify the way customers order for goods from manufacturers and distributors.

2) Story spaces: A digital story telling portal. Collective Mentoring Through the African Story Telling Experience. StorySpaces is a digital story telling application. create stories at your own time and on the move.

3) mPoultry: Mpoultry is a simple technological solution that enables chicken farmers to simply monitor the conditions of the brooder via SMS. It utilizes environmental  sensors and an android device to monitor the temperature, lights and chicken feed inside the brooder. The farmer receives an SMS when his intervention is required.

4) MafutaGo: Helps users find the nearest fuel stations with the prices and Services that best suit their needs. Recently AppsDivision the makers of MafutaGo made a merger with Code Sync, taking on three more members to make an amazing team of eight.  The team is more diversified and skillsets balanced out.

The two winners were Easy Order, in the Business and Resource Management category, and MafutaGo, in the Utilities category. 

Having spent time with the community in Kampala, and at places like Appfrica Labs, the Software Factory, Digital Solutions and the Makerere Faculty of ICT,  I think it’s just great to see Ugandan borne apps recognized like this.

Watch out, the Ugandans are coming!