Saturday, December 17, 2011

Civilized HOA in Rwanda

Home owner associations (HOA) in the US are formal legal entities created to maintain common areas, developments; they have the authority to enforce deed restrictions. Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&R's) are issued to each homeowner, and HOAs are established to ensure that they are adhered to in order to maintain the quality and value of the properties involved ( guide).

I have only one HOA experience in the US. That HOA had regular meetings where the home owners of the development discussed matters related to the neighborhood. For example, they may discuss security questions or landscaping criteria, traffic control in the neighborhood. These meetings were often the occasion for some people to vent their frustration in a not so polite manner ending sometimes in verbal fights. Usually a few people in the neighborhood would really take actions to improve life in the development. Most would never do anything and often those were the ones screaming at the meetings.

Here in Rwanda, we don't have official HOAs. Instead every last Saturday of the month, everyone in the neighborhood is invited to participate in community services in the neighborhood. This is called Umuganda and happens in the entire country. The services can be different things: cleaning a section of the common areas of the neighborhood, planting trees, etc. At the end of the service, there is a meeting where the head of the neighborhood is sharing information and where everyone can present topics for discussions. What strikes me is how these discussions are "civilised" and how everyone listen and respect each other and how practical decisions result from these meetings.

Clearly this blog posting is based on a non statistically valid experience based on one HOA in the US and one in Rwanda, but I just wanted to share it with you...

See ya later alligator...

Another interesting use of ICT in Rwanda

When I applied for the green card in the US about 15 years ago, the only way to know about the status of my application was to call a 1-800 number provided by the immigration services. As far as I remember I was never able to speak to someone - I mean a real person not a computer - by calling this number. I only knew that my green card was granted when I received a postmail saying so. I'm now an American citizen and did not try this service since then.

As I now live in Rwanda I had to go through a similar process to obtain a working visa in the country. Clearly the number of working visa applications in Rwanda cannot be compared with the number of green card applications  in the US, however I'd like to share with you how it happened.

When I provided all the required documents at the immigration services of Rwanda, they provided me with an ID number that I could use to track the progress of my application online. But even better, when my visa was ready I received an SMS on my mobile phone saying so as you can see on the next screen shots.

The same way, my bank is sending me an SMS everytime a transaction is happening on my account. When I go to the bank to cash a check, my mobile phone rings announcing that an SMS message is waiting for me even before I leave the bank. The SMS tells me the amount of the withdrawal that just happened and the balance of my account. My wife who is sharing the account with me receives the same message at the same time. Some may not like this last function!

Many businesses here have integrated SMS functions in their customer services. As a customer you can choose to get that service or not.

See ya later alligator...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Want to become an internet billionaire? Move to Africa"

A recent published post was titled "Want to become an Internet billionaire? Move to Africa". This article was also referenced in another article published by Forbes: "Africa Could Make You An Internet Billionaire".

The authors are speaking about the ICT opportunity in Africa which I described in a paper published last year: "The New Nomads and Cloud Computing in Africa". One of the author was invited by UK Prime Minister David Cameron who took a high-level delegation of corporate CEOs to Nigeria and South Africa to highlight "one of the greatest economic opportunities on the planet".

So can Africa make you a billionaire?

First Africa's environment is not even close to where California was when Silicon Valley started in the early eighties at the beginning of the IT opportunity that made many billionaires in the US. So it may take much longer for the opportunity to develop and millionaires are more likely than billionaires in the near future. But I understand the need to attract readers with flashy titles.

Second and more importantly the question is who is "you"? Clearly in the mind of David Cameron, it should be British people and most VCs investing in the market are investing in startups managed by people from the developed world. Most of the startups operating in Africa indicated in the article are actually managed by British people. Other nations like India are also lining up to size the opportunity.

I personally have nothing against that, I think that the opportunity is for grab by anyone. But my wish is that African young entrepreneurs will grab it first and that we will see ICT solutions developed by Africans for Africans. Africans have a major advantage over people from the developed world: their knowledge of their region and their innovative spirit that has nothing to envy to that of their colleagues in developed nations.

Recently I attended a major IT innovation conference in Johannesburg. Ninety five percent of the people attending where white South Africans or expatriates! One sponsoring vendor organized a contest for the best innovative application. The winner was a solution developed to use twitter to share comments about wine that you are drinking! I'm not sure that this is the type of "innovation" that Africa needs right now!

More than ever before, now is the time and the opportunity for Africans to control their future in this IT industry before someone else does it. There are many "someone else" vying for the same market but Africans should not fear that competition because this time they have the home field advantage!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interesting use of ICT in Rwanda

As you may know, I now live in Rwanda since September 1st, 2011. I'd like to share with you some simple applications of information and communication technology I experienced or saw since I'm here.

In this first posting on that subject, I'd like to describe the experience of acquiring and using a mobile phone in Rwanda and probably in most of Africa.

But before speaking about Rwanda, let's go through the experience of buying a mobile phone back home in the US. By the way in the US they call it cellular phone not mobile. Cellular is a name based on technology. "A cellular network is a radio network distributed over land areas called cells, each served by at least one fixed-location transceiver known as a cell site" - wikipedia, while mobile rather describes a major advantage of the phone for the user. From a marketing point of view therefore mobile is a better name.

So if you want to buy a mobile phone in the US, you need to provide a picture ID. They will then record all your information in their system (and you hope it is safe). Next they will ask you for a credit card and perform a credit check on you. If you pass all these tests, they will then ask you to sign a contract committing for 2 years with a penalty if you cancel before that date. So now that they hold you prisoner, they inform you about the cost which you have to pay every month. They will offer you many options depending on how many minutes you think you will need. At the end of the month, you'll pay the price even if you did not use all your minutes, but if you exceeded the limit of minutes allocated, you'll pay an expensive price per exceeded minute. By the way this is only to use your phone in the US. If you want to use it abroad, you need another more expensive contract. And I forgot, if you want to send SMS you also need an addition to your contract with obviously an additional cost. Then you need to buy your phone, and they need to activate it. By the time all this is done you probably spent one hour in that shop.

In Rwanda, if you want to buy a mobile, you go to the shop. You select the phone you want. In my case I bought a simple Nokia phone. They offer you the choice between different phone numbers, you select one and they install the corresponding SIM card in the phone. They then activate the card and you are up and running. Total time: 5 minutes, total cost $23. The card is preloaded with enough units for a couple of days. I did not need to provide any ID or credit check. As soon as I was out of the shop, I was able to call my daughter back in the US with that mobile. And I was also able to send and receive SMS!!!

You only pay for what you use by loading units in your phone. You can buy units from young sellers at any street corner. You buy a card, let say for RWF5,000 (USD8.30), you scratch the code on the card, enter it in your mobile, and the units are added automatically to your phone. With RWF 5,000 I usually last two-three weeks. That money on my phone is actually mobile money. I can use it to pay for other services. For example, I bought an internet USB modem. I can charge my units to that modem from my mobile when I need to use it.

You may wonder why such a difference. While I did not really investigate this, I'll share what I think. In the US, mobile phone companies came out of traditional Telco companies renting land lines, i.e. fixed phone lines to your house to connect a fixed phone. So obviously, they needed to know your address and name to ensure that you ownd the house where they were going to dig a hole to connect the phone cable. They need upfront payment to pay for this labor and for the material. When they offered mobile phones, they did not see the need to fundamentaly change their billing system. In Africa, they were no landline phones or very little. Mobile company came to the market and wanted fast penetration. They offered an easy process to acquire a mobile phone.

That's it for now, next I'll talk about SMS based services.

Seeya later alligator

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Critical Role of Academia for Information and Communication Technologies Development in Africa

I. ICT in Africa

There is no doubt that ICT penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa is accelerating, driven by recent infrastructure investments and new technologies.

In communication technology, Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world, crossing the 500 million mobile subscription mark [1] in third quarter 2010 and reaching 50% penetration, and as someone joked "there are now more mobile phones than light bulbs in Africa". While in rural areas the rate of mobile penetration is lower, typically below 10%, this number does not take into account that in those underprivileged areas, mobile phones are typically shared between several people.

Broadband Internet access capacity has also significantly increased in the past years with the connection of several high capacity ocean cables like the 4.72Tbps EASSy cable on the East coast of Africa. In addition, new cables are following the changing trade landscape of Africa. Africa’s trade with other developing countries (sometimes called South-South trade) accounts now for more than half of Africa’s trade [2], up from less than 30% only 20 years ago. As an example, the 12.8Tbps SAex cable and the 3.84Tbps IME WE cable are linking Africa with Brazil and India.

Unfortunately, those high capacity cables only reach the coast of Africa and do not penetrate inland. There are only two exceptions: the SEACOM cable reaching Johannesburg in South Africa and Kigali in Rwanda. Africa’s inland is still mostly depending on satellite communication for Internet access which is not adequate for VoIP and cannot offer the same bandwidth as the cable technology.

Some tend to see the glass half empty: "The African Internet has the highest data packet loss and the worst throughput figures of any region in the world" [3]. I tend to look at the glass half full considering that 10 years ago the large majority of African population did not even have access to basic communication like mail, media or phone. The lack of effective communications infrastructure has traditionally been one of the biggest obstacles to economic growth. The changes in communication described above had more impact in the last 10 years on people’s lives than any other technology in the last century.

In information technology (IT) however, penetration has been much slower because the traditional IT model developed in Western countries was not appropriate for most of Africa. In that model, when enterprises want to use IT to manage their operations, they need to invest in buying the business software and the hardware (server or PC) to be installed on premises. That capital expense, but also the infrastructure (electricity and Internet) and more importantly the expertise required to manage such systems were not affordable or available to most SMEs in Africa. This situation can actually turn out to be an advantage as the absence of legacy IT systems will make it easier for Africa to leapfrog into the next technology generation.

II. New Technologies

In Africa hope comes from those new technologies [4]. Cloud computing technology integrated with mobile devices and broadband internet offers a new model for easy access to IT resources located in remote cloud data centers. Cloud computing is the use of the Internet for the tasks you used to perform on your computer. Instead the tasks are actually running on servers located in the "cloud"(in a cloud service provider’s data center). You don't have to worry about buying anything, you pay only for what you use with no need for upfront capital investment and you aren't on the hook to operate it.

The challenge is that most of the large cloud service providers do not operate data centers in Africa. This is where governments need to either lead by investing in the building of data centers or partner with telecom companies to provide cloud services from their existing data centers.

Another challenge for this cloud service model to succeed is for telecommunication providers to deliver guaranteed quality and stable Internet communication.

III. The need for new software

Beyond the need for these ICT infrastructure investments, there is a larger challenge. Most business software applications used by SMEs have been designed in the Western world for the traditional IT model based on PCs not mobile devices. In addition, their functionality is often not appropriate for Africa. E.g. e-commerce software is mainly based on the usage of credit cards for payment which are mostly not in use in Africa. Africa uses mobile money. These days anyone with a mobile phone in Africa can now pay for goods or transfer money to friends and family. Kenya for example has four mobile money transfer platforms: M-Pesa, Airtel Money, Orange Money and YuCash.

Therefore in Africa a new generation of business software will need to be developed based on the software-as-a-service model delivered from the cloud to Internet mobile devices.

Most existing business software has been developed in the Western world in locations where software engineering skills were easily accessible like Silicon Valley near Stanford University’s leading computer science school starting multi-trillion dollar software and IT services industry.

IV. The role of academia

It would be difficult to develop software for Africa from California as the environment and the needs of Africa’s market are quite different. It will require software engineers with a deep understanding of that market. Those engineers should be educated in Africa and this is where African universities need to play a critical role. Many universities in Africa develop curricula based on those from western universities’ computer science schools with the hope that it will provide them with better recognition and world ranking. But now that ICT penetration in Africa is finally accelerating, it is time for universities to be more aligned with relevant regional needs. This will require for academia to work very closely with industries and private sector to identify those priority areas where ICT can deliver significant value. Then they need to integrate those areas in their curricula to teach skills that address the regional industry needs. In addition, students’ internships in industry during their studies should become the norm. Only by having students working for several months in enterprise for solving real problems will they perfect their ICT skills. In addition, good internships should naturally lead to employment by the same company after graduation. More than any other measurement, the feedback from those internships should be a good indicator of the university education quality. Universities should integrate that feedback to continuously improve their education programs.

But the role of higher education must go beyond just education. It must nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs that will develop the innovative software required for the mobile digital society in Africa. Too many times, students’ innovative ideas developed during their studies are left as nice academic exercises on libraries’ shelves without impact on the society. Universities should extend their role by encouraging their best and most innovative students to start their own business in innovation incubation centers located on campus. The presence of those businesses on campus will further favor students’ interaction with industry and inspire them about future careers. It is that close interaction between students and businesses that was a critical success factor in Silicon Valley leading to companies like Google or Facebook.


V. is Africa up to the challenge?

While African students don’t always have access to the best schools, they have a major advantage over students from the developed world: their knowledge of their region and their innovative spirit that has nothing to envy to that of their colleagues in developed nations.

The question then becomes: are African nations up to this challenge? If they are not then other nations will seize this opportunity and take away the benefits from African hands. The ownership of M-Pesa by a British company is a good example [5].

One nation is already aggressively positioning itself to take over the mobile digital market and it is not from the Western world. That country is India [6]. India’s environment is much more similar to Africa than the Western world giving it an advantage for developing appropriate solutions. McKinsey reports that India’s Internet users will increase fivefold by 2015, and more than three-quarters of them will choose mobile access. Similar trends have been found in Africa [7].

To win this race Africa needs to implement the necessary conditions and reach the critical mass of expertise for the development of a silicon valley in the region.

VI. Can Rwanda lead?

Several countries have declared their intention of becoming that ICT hub, but the recent announcement [8] by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) that it will open a campus in Rwanda delivering master degrees in IT and Electrical Computer Engineering may give that country a leading advantage.

The Government of Rwanda (GoR) has just completed the second phase of their 2020 Vision building an ICT infrastructure in the country. That major investment has resulted in making Rwanda the only landlocked country in Africa with broadband internet access through the SEACOM cable. The ICT infrastructure also includes an optical fiber network covering the entire country and a national cloud data center making it probably one of the best ICT infrastructures in the region.

The 2020 Vision is now entering in its third phase with the GoR’s partnership with CMU. The opening of CMU campus is expected to positively impact the quality of education at other local higher education institutions through close collaboration, delivering expert ICT skills that will develop internet based services leading the country to a knowledge based economy.

The GoR’s strategic ICT plan also includes an innovation incubator, a mobility research center, an executive education and an advanced practical training program, all integrated with CMU-Rwanda in a Regional ICT Centre of Excellence to be built with funding from the African Development Bank (AfDB) that was approved last April.


VII. A new model for higher education in Africa

Carnegie Mellon is the first highly ranked research institution to open a campus in Africa with an in-country presence and committed to deliver the same quality of education than on its main campus in Pittsburgh. Instead of adding to the ever increasing number young Africans leaving the continent in search of quality high education, this project’s goal is to develop a new model to deliver quality education in Africa that is adapted to regional needs, and that is integrally linked with economic development so that graduating students will have a direct impact in a region booming with opportunities in technology innovation. The model is based on a partnership between public (GoR), financial (AfDB), education (CMU), and private sectors. Several major IT companies have already expressed interest in partnering with this initiative. This partnership can develop the critical mass of expert ICT skills required to start a regional ICT hub that could represent Africa’s best chance to control its own ICT future and lead the new mobile Internet revolution in emerging markets.

[1] Thecla Mbongue, "Press release: Africa crosses 500 million mobile subscriptions mark", Informa Telecoms & Media, November 2010
[2] C. Roxsburgh & co, "Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies", June 2010, pp 14-15.
[3] R. Cottrell, "African Internet continues to fall behind", TechCentral, October 22, 2011.
[4] M. B├ęzy, "The New Nomads and Cloud Computing in Africa", Next Billion, October 27, 2010.
[5] P. Gakure-Mwangi, "M-Pesa earns Vodaphone sh1.8billion in 2010/2011in licensing fees",, August 15, 2011.
[6] L.Narasimhan, "Can India lead the mobile-Internet revolution?", McKinsey Quarterly, February 2011
[7] "Mobile Internet to close the Data Divide in Namibia", Research ICT Africa
[8] Carnegie Mellon News, "Carnegie Mellon To Partner With Rwandan Government for Development of Graduate Engineering Degree Programs", Press Release, September 15, 20111

Monday, September 19, 2011

CMU's New Campus in Rwanda, Aims to Expand ICT Knowledge, Worker Skills Across Africa

On September 16th 2011, Jared Cohon, President of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda announced a major partnership between CMU and the government of Rwanda to offer graduate engineering degree programs in Rwanda. This is the first time that such a highly ranked university is opening a campus in Africa with on-site presence.
You can read more about it in my paper in Next Billion.
If you Google "Carnegie Mellon Rwanda", you will find 300+ media articles commenting about it. Here is an interesting one by the Wall Street Journal.

See you later alligator...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Carnegie Mellon University, First US Research Institution to Open a Campus In Africa

As Information and Communication Technology (ICT) become increasingly available in Africa (see my paper in Next Billion), the region will see the emergence of a new ICT industry. Many conditions are required for this to happen: a stable ICT infrastructure, a mature business environment attracting investments, good public governance, etc. More and more countries in Africa are moving in that direction (see this paper), but a major remaining challenge for Africa is good quality higher education to provide access to an ICT skilled workforce.

When looking at the worldwide university rankings, we see that 75% of the top 1000 universities are located in the Western world (North America and Europe). Emerging markets are lagging behind and Africa in particular represents less than 1 percent.

To try to close the gap, many emerging countries have invited Western universities to create branch campuses. Most of them have been created in the Middle-East region funded by rich petroleum exporter countries and in Asia.

American universities have 78 campuses overseas, British universities have set up 13 international campuses, Australian universities have a strong presence abroad, too, with campuses in Malaysia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, France has a couple of campuses in the Middle East. (see this article in The Economist)

But so far no Western university has open a campus in Africa where the problem of the quality of higher education is much more acute than in other developing regions.
A simple analysis can help understand the status of higher education in Africa. If we divide the number of inhabitants in each continent by the number of universities we can get an idea of the ease of access to higher education. The number of inhabitants per university in North America is 108K, in Europe it is 167K, in Latin America 156K, in Asia 643K. For Africa it is one university per 1.6 million people!

As we can see Africa's number is one order of magnitude less favorable than in other continents. As a consequence, classes are overcrowded, and it is not uncommon to have several hundreds students in the same classroom leaving no chances for most of them to interact with the course teacher. In addition, many times teachers are under qualified, having only master degrees, no Ph.D. Many universities are self funded, pushing them to prioritize quantity and revenue over quality. This is reflected in the low ranking of African universities.

If we look for the first university appearing in those rankings for each continent, we will usually find a US university in first position, the first university from Europe usually appears around the 5 to 20th position depending on the rankings. For Asia the first university is ranked around the 20th to 50th position, but those are usually universities from Japan, Hong-Kong or Australia. If we are looking for the first ranked university from China or India they appear in the 200th-400th position.

For Africa the highest ranking is for a university of South Africa in the 300th position. Sub-Saharan universities appear much lower in the rankings requiring to look at larger rankings. One such ranking is the Ranking Web which is published twice a year (January and July), covering more than 20,000 Higher Education Institutions worldwide. This ranking is based on several "webometrics" indicators: size, visibility, popularity and number of electronic publications.

In that ranking the first university from sub-Saharan Africa is ranked 1402th indicating a significant gap in quality of higher education in that region.

The combination of difficult access and low quality of higher education has been a major disadvantage for the development of Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has 83 scientists and engineers per million people compared to about 1,000 in the developed world.

This is why the announcement by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) that its Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT) is opening a graduate school in Rwanda can be considered as a major event. It is the first time that such a highly ranked research institution is opening a campus in Africa, offering graduate degrees with an in-country presence.

CIT is consistently ranked in the top 10 engineering graduate schools in the world. In addition CIT will be able to leverage its Information Networking Institute, the Carnegie CyLab and the Institute for Complex Engineering Systems, and resources from other schools like the School of Computer Science ( ranked #1 in the last 2010 ranking from US News), and many multidisciplinary research centers at CMU.

In the past years CMU has opened campuses in California, Greece, Portugal, India, Australia and Qatar and this project is yet another example of CMU strategy to be present in emerging markets where new global powers will be, and expand the opportunity to impact the globe by being uniquely positioned.

The government of Rwanda has strategically targeted CMU, a world leader in higher education to contribute to its regional ICT Center of Excellence (COE) and to focus on new models of education, research and development, and the commercialization of information, communication and other advanced technologies. The education model will be build upon CMU's experience in creating ICT programs that integrate technology, policy, and business issues. It will be based upon a foundation of problem solving based learning and interdisciplinary education, adapted appropriately, of course, to fit the regional culture and needs and addressing regional problems.

Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda (CMU-R) will support the institutional and program content design, together with provision of high level teaching staff. This support will be in line with the African Development Bank’s strategy to promote skills development in science and technology in support of socio-economic development in Africa.

CMU-R will adhere to the same quality standards used for education at CMU’S Main Campus in the US and that have made the reputation of CMU as a global thought leader with excellence in education and research.  Course credits earned at CMU-R will be fully transferable to CMU’s Main Campus and vice-versa. 

At the heart of CMU-R will be two professional graduate degree programs: a Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) with tracks in Mobility, Information Security, and Software Management and a Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering (MSECE). The project expects to have 15 academics on board in the next five years and deliver 150 master degrees per year.

CMU-R is only one component of Rwanda's ICT COE and will be complemented by four key components:

1) An Innovation Incubator to nurture the ingenuity of future entrepreneursgraduating from the school;

2) An Executive Education program focused on cultivating senior leadership in industry;

3) An Advanced Practical Training Program that serves as a hub for skills-training services in basic Information & Communication Technology (ICT) production activities and professional certifications;

4) A Mobility Research Center that collaborates with industry to develop mobile technologies that will make an impact on society and contribute to economic development.

The choice of Rwanda is an interesting choice as there are many other countries in the region who have declared their intention to start an ICT industry, but too often the execution is not following the nice political rhetoric. In Rwanda the government is aggressively executing the carefully planned ICT vision defined in their Vision 2020 strategy which aims to bringing Rwanda to the level of a middle income, service and knowledge based economy by the year 2020, so that Rwanda can "leapfrog" into the digital-era global economy; a smart way for a landlocked country to integrate itself in the global economy.

After enabling the environment, defining policies, and developing the ICT infrastructure, CMU-R is part of the third phase of the Vision 2020 plan: the development of ICT skills to facilitate the creation of a highly competitive ICT based services sector, fueling economic growth. This in turn will promote social and cultural interaction and integration in the society through the use of ICT. As President Kagame said: "ICT is no longer a privilege but a right for Rwandan citizens".

Therefore the impact of the CMU-R goes beyond the delivery of a Master degree program. The expectation of the Government of Rwanda is that the integration of CMU-R with the local Private Sector will generate the development of a vibrant ICT industry with the partnership of major IT vendors and position Rwanda as the regional ICT Hub.

While one Center of Excellence is not enough to serve the entire continent, it can serve as model for others just like in the US other ICT hubs inspired by the Silicon Valley success appeared later.

This is the most exciting education project I have seen in Africa in a long time not only because of the quality of CMU but also because of Rwanda's government commitment to move to a knowledge based economy and its business environment offering the required conditions for success. That is why as a CMU alumnus I decided to join this project as Associate Director and Professor, leaving IBM after 25 years. If you are interested in supporting this project, feel free to contact me or apply here.

See you later alligator...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Back to my blog

Dear readers,

I have been absent from my blog for almost 6 months. Some major changes in my professional life (see last posting) have taken over my time. But I'm back now with some great news...
Stay tuned for my next posting shortly.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Leaving IBM after 25 years to pursue my passions

After a career of more than 25 years working at IBM, I decided to start a new project in my life.

For most of the younger people, a career of 25 years with the same company seems impossible as the world has changed and corporations are treating people more and more like commodity rather than asset. Only in public organizations or in academia can you still have such long career with the same employer.

However, in my 25 years at IBM I feel like I have been working for many different companies.
- I worked in 3 different IBM divisions and one partner company: Software Group, Research, Enterprise Initiatives, and ELiAS NV.
- I had 8 different jobs: system engineer, sales representative, worldwide marketing operations manager, CEO of ELiAS (detached by IBM), marketing manager, strategy program director, business development manager, offering manager.
- I developed market plans for more than 10 new software innovations.
- I worked in 6 different locations: Brussels Belgium, Milford CT, Leuven Belgium, Somers NY, Raleigh NC …and from home.
- I visited 30 countries in 5 continents on business travel.
But more importantly, I had the chance to work with some of the brightest and most passionate people and for a company that had the biggest impact on the IT industry and ultimately on people’s life over the last 100 years
So thank you IBM, I had a great time and will stay an IBMer at heart.

So what’s next for me in life? 

In my life after IBM I want to give back what I received from IBM to the community. I plan to pursue my passion for Africa where I grew up and for teaching. I want to go back to the academic world that I left 25 years ago when I joined IBM and I am interested in working on projects about the use of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D).

That is why I have accepted a position of Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. I will teach innovation management at the College of Engineering and participate as Assistant Director in the future CMU project to create a Center of Excellence in Rwanda Africa to deliver Masters Degrees in Computer Science. This project is still under discussion and I will publish a special posting about it when it becomes official.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How could there be less "digital divide" in developing countries ?

The phrase "digital divide" initially referred to unequal PC ownership in the US. While the number of PCs was increasing, the ownership of it was limited to certain class of people with enough economic means in limited areas. That first definition was very limited and based on affordability, i.e. the cost of PC that was prohibitive for less favored populations.

Then the concept evolved to the use of information technology to access information. For example, rural regions in the US that didn't have Internet access and therefore were cut off from information even if they owned a PC. The digital divide then refers to accessibility, to the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all.

But access to information does not garantee that people can effectively use that information and therefore digital divide would mean the inequalities between groups of people in the ability to use information technology fully.

But in developing world, the digital divide is even more profound. Lets imagine for a minute that we can solve affordability and accessibility. Imagine that through some kind of miracle or a generous donor people in developing countries would get a PC. But they don't have electricity, so lets continue dreaming that they would get electricity, but they don't have internet connection. So again lets suppose that they have internet connection and that someone would teach them how to use it. Then based on the above definitions, that would solve the digital divide. Many NGOs and other organizations believe so and are working hard to make that happen.

But does that really solve the digital divide? The answer is no for several reasons: first of all is relevancy. The majority of Internet content is in English, a foreign language for most people in Africa. Secondly, the content itself is of no relevance to those populations. Latest news on Justin Bieber or the list of Oscar nominations are not of interest. What they want to know if when is the doctor coming to the village? How much will they sell their fish for in the market? Why is my crop not growing? When will the rain come? My child has diarrhea for two days, what should I do? etc

But there is another problem: literacy. In most of African rural areas people are illiterate or semi-literate, meaning that even when they can read and write, reading is not their main way for accessing information or writing is not their main way of communicating. Their main communication is oral. Most of Africa history has been transmitted by oral traditions. While in our culture, we absorb lots of information in writing through newspapers, magazines, mail and now email and internet, it is not the case in most of Africa. Information is exchanged orally between people and this explains the success of mobile phones with the less literate. Mobile phone penetration is reaching 50% in Africa compared to 90+% in developed countries. But the 50% may actually be more because cellular phones are often shared in rural areas. Several people may share the same phone. In fact, to support that type of usage, telecommunication companies are providing more than one contact list per mobile, allowing each user sharing the device to have his/her own contact list.

The tradition of oral communication is the reason why African people in general have a much better sense of evaluating someone through his words, voice tone and facial expression than we have. Sometimes you may have the feeling they can read in your mind! In our culture we lost that skill by using more distant communication or written communication. Young people prefer to use texting than calling on their mobile phone. Not only because it is cheaper, but also because it is easier to hide their feelings in a written text than in their voice.

Back to our subject: how can this digital divide be reduced? While I don't have the answer, I'll describe two solutions that may provide the beginning of an answer.

The first one is "SMS for Life". The basic idea is to use simple SMS to provide access to information. All the mobile phones used in Africa provide text messaging.

Malaria is a major cause of childhood deaths in Africa. The reason is often that medicine is not available when needed,i.e. in the first 48 hours of the sickness. The local health center may have run out of stock. Drugs are available, but they need to reach the patients.

SMS for Life will automatically send text messages to all health facilities workers on a weekly basis asking for their current stock of malaria medicine. When they provide that information, their phone receives airtime credit as an incentive for providing that information. The responses are collected and stored centrally on a website. Then using mapping technology, the system displays the stock situation by health facility at country and district level. The data is also used to produce reports and calculate average weekly usage by health facility for better prediction of future needs. Finally statistical tools can identify sharp rise in weekly usage in a number of closely located health facilities, thereby identifying malaria outbreak requiring immediate attention.

The use of SMS for collection and exchange of information can easily be used for other projects. EpiSurveyor is one example of an open source mobile health software for the collection, analysis and reporting  of public health data. You can find more information about mobile technology for developing countries here.

The second example is SpokenWeb in India. The project was first presented at the ACM SIGGCOM in 2007. As we have seen, the Internet is accessible largely through text-based technologies (text messaging, email, web browsing) in English and is thus not useful to the billions of people without sufficient literacy, without regular access to a computer, or speaking many thousands of other native languages. The concept of the SpokenWeb is to replace the "Text Web", the existing web of interconnected web pages containing mainly text with a network of interconnected voice sites that are voice driven applications created by users and hosted in the network. Those voice sites deliver information and services to a local community of underprivileged people over low cost mobile phones that are widely available and using the existing mobile networks. 

At the contrary of the WorldWide Web (WWW), the SpokenWeb is not targeted at the entire world but at smaller communities (village, district, region) of underprivileged, illiterate or semi-literate people in developing regions that need easy access to relevant information and services that can have a dramatic impact on their livelihood and help them out of poverty. The voice content of the SpokenWeb is created by people living in the community and therefore is most relevant to that community. The SpokenWeb allows users to easily contribute information and services to the network. A voice site can be created in less than 20 minutes through an interactive voice program. And because it is created by voice recording of local people, the content is available in the local language.

In addition to providing easier access to information for underprivileged populations, SpokenWeb can also be used to organize the unorganized. Motocycle taxi drivers can register their business in a voice site. Customers can then call SpokenWeb and search for a taxi. Using the customer's mobile location, the system can automatically identify the closest taxi and forward the call to that taxi driver's voice site where the customer will be offered with the option to call him directly. Payment can be done with mobile money over the SpokenWeb.This will spare the taxi operator to drive around searching for customers, using gas and polluting the city.

Other mobile voice based projects exist like LifeLines IndiaNokia Siemens Networks Village Connection, e-Choupal, Fisher Friend, Ubona.

In summary, if we export our Western IT solutions "as is" to the developing countries, we will only increase the digital divide. But with innovation addressing specifically the local conditions and needs, we can actually reduce the gap as showed in the above examples. Local entrepreneurs are best positioned to do this now that ICT is emerging in those countries.

See you later alligator...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Africa is now open for business" ... really??

In preceding postings I mentioned the changes happening in Africa in the last decade and the progress accomplished in supporting businesses and the resulting maturation of the business climate.

Many papers have been published on the subject of "investing in Africa" in the last years.
- You will find over 9 millions hits in Google for "investing in Africa".
- Paul Collier, author of the influential "The Bottom Billion" book, published "Now's the Time to Invest in Africa" in Harvard Business Review in 2009.
- The McKinsey report Lions on the Move says: "Today the rate of return on foreign investment in Africa is higher than in any other developing region".
- The annual flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa in 2008 increased to $62 billion, from $9 billion in 2000.
- Wal-Mart Stores announced a cash offer of over 2 billion USD for a majority stake in the South African retail company Massmart Holdings, one of South Africa’s biggest retailers.
- The CEO of the Rwanda Development Board makes the case for Rwanda in the Independent, a local media: Rwanda is now open for business.
- My friend Ryan Allis, CEO of iContact, speaks about Why invest In Africa? in his Dare Mighty Things blog and provides good links for investments in Africa.
- An interesting interactive graphic “The New Gold Rush” recently published by The Wall Street Journal shows how the rise of a new consumer class is shifting the balance in Africa.

So how much more information do you need to be convinced to invest in Africa? Africa is a complex continent grouping 53 independent countries and clearly the business environment required for investments is not homogeneous across the continent and the growth of individual countries across the continent will differ greatly.
The risks of investing in Africa remain high, just as they are for most emerging markets, but the perceived risk is much greater than the real risk.  And once the risk goes down, the returns won’t be as good.

It is therefore important to carefully select the countries where to invest.

The McKenzie report cited above provides good economical information on the African market. The report  provides a ranking of countries in 4 categories:
1) Diversified economies: Africa's growth engines: South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.
2) Oil exporters: They have the continent highest GDP per capita but the least diversified economies: the three largest producers are Algeria, Angola and Nigeria.
3) Transition economies: Rapid growing economies but agriculture and resources sectors account for as much as 35% of GDP and two-thirds of exports: Ghana, Kenya, Senegal
4) Pre-transition economies: Their economies are very poor, with annual GDP per capita of just 353 USD: RDC, Ethiopia, Mali

A recent book "Emerging Africa" by Steven Radelet published by the Center for Global Development provides a more in depth view of the success of some countries called Emerging Countries: "These countries are putting behind them the conflict, stagnation, and dictatorships of the past and replacing them with steady economic growth, deepening democracy, improved governance, and decreased poverty. Five fundamental changes are at work: (1) more democratic and accountable governments; (2) more sensible economic policies; (3) the end of the debt crisis and changing relationships with donors; (4) the spread of new technologies; and (5) the emergence of a new generation of policymakers, activists, and business leaders."
The 17 Emerging Countries are: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Ghana, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Sao Tome & Principe, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. 

You may be surprised not to find oil exporting countries like Nigeria, Angola in the list of performing countries. That is because the book is evaluating more than just the GDP growth. It analyzes important indicators of development like average income per capita, agricultural production, investments, productivity, trade (imports plus exports), infant mortality, political rights and civil liberties, strength of democratic institutions, governance (rule of law, regulatory quality, government effectiveness, control of corruption, accountability, political stability), cost of starting business. In all these indicators without any exception, the Emerging Countries are outperforming the rest on the continent, including the oil exporters.
Micheal Lalor, a director at Ernst & Young SA, tells what the key considerations for investors should be in the face of the upcoming polls and also where to start if you are planning an African foray.

So about one third of the countries are moving in the right direction but they are facing many remaining challenges to keep that direction. Here are some of them:


Africa has 14% of the world population, over one billion people. It is estimated that by 2050 it will increase to almost 20% up from 7% in 1950. By 2040, Africa’s labor force is projected to reach 1.1 billion, overtaking China’s or India’s. About 44% of the African population is under 15 years old, making it the youngest population in the world.

Education and infrastructure

Demography will have significant implication on the need for productivity and growth to create new and diversified economic opportunities for this growing workforce and provide employment to all these people. Africa has the potential to become an important resource for labor-intensive industries but this requires major investments in appropriate education to develop a skilled workforce that can compete in a global economy. It also requires major investments in infrastructures  to support the economical development. The ICT infrastructure in particular is critical as it will be a key engine for the development of the private sector (see my paper in Next Billion).


Only 9 of the 53 African countries for which the WHO shows data have life expectancies of 50 years and over while the world average is 67.2 years. The figures reflect the quality of healthcare in these countries as well as other factors including ongoing wars and HIV/AIDS infections in particular in sub-Saharan Africa with adult prevalence rates ranging from 10 to 38.8 percent.         


While much progress has been accomplished, African countries are still below average in world rankings of governance. Strengthening of the progress is still needed to further improve the business climate.

Adapting to climate change 

I address that challenge in my  posting of August 26, 2010 in this blog.       

In summary, Africa is open for business, but as any smart business man, you need to do your homework first to figure out where to invest for better return at lower risk.

See you later alligator!