Archive for the ‘innovation’ Category

Agriculture in Uganda – Where Next?

On this eve of the 52nd Independence anniversary of the Republic of Uganda, I look at the future of my motherland and wonder where the one big boost will come from.

Over the last 2 years my eyes have been opened to the potential for agriculture to improve the livelihoods of Ugandans in particular, Africa in general and emerging economies or Global south in general. While its well accepted in all circles that this is the case, there are a few key areas where emphasis is not placed which I see as critical success factors, and others which are not.

Markets (important): James Wire poses an interesting question, COMESA vs EU: What market for Uganda’s products?  Due to the infrastructure challenges that we face in Uganda, the country cannot compete favorably without economies of scale (important) and agriculture as a business attitude (important) While it is important to look externally, without a strong local foundation for best practices and support, external markets still remain a pipe dream

Economies of Scale (important): These provide means of leveraging the abundant fertile land, predictable rain fall (yes 4 months a year is good enough), cheap labor (if you can use it) to improve the profitability of agribusiness. Why do I focus on profitability and not cost reduction, this is because the costs can only come down to a certain point which is not low enough to compete with other countries. Unfortunately a lot of donor based programs supporting agriculture focus on small holder farmers, who will never produce enough to feed the nation, or even export

Agriculture as a business attitude (important): The bulk of agriculture productions by the elderly and rural folk without options whose only take on agriculture to survive by meeting only their basic needs. This means that there is a shortage of innovation in business models. record keeping and core practices to ensure that agriculture is profitable in the small, leading to increased investments and focus. On the other hand, there is a growing segment of the middle class who are looking to agriculture to compliment income from formal employment, however this suffered from being relegated to a side activity without the focus needed to make it successful.

Government buy-in and support (not-important): I know I am going to get shot for this one, but there is no role for government to play over and above providing basic infrastructure, and like in Uganda policies are already available. If there is sufficient evidence that agriculture as a business is profitable, private sector has always found ways of staying ahead of government.

Focus Production Areas (important): Agriculture focused on feeding the nation is the most profitable, given that there is always a ready market for produce, within the population. Hence my thinking is to focus on staples and livestock as a core foundation for the industry in Uganda.

Infrastructure (important): Transport is especially important for getting produce to markets, however if a business approach is taken, aspects like post harvest handling and storage can provide a mitigating element to infrastructure challenges

Financing (important): I say bankers are shrewd business people, show them potential and they will flock to it like bees to honey. Its not up to bankers to prove that farmers are good clients, but rather for farmers to prove to bankers that they are worthwhile investments.

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Uganda National ID – Alternate Strategy?

I have been thinking – some would say that is a dangerous thing, well yes I have been thinking, just what an afternoon with no distractions can do for you. Well there is a general problem in my motherland Uganda, there is no National ID. Oh yes, there is no way of uniquely identifying each and every person in the country, even tracking the babies born or the deaths. Sad but true, how has this affected the populace, to some its a great thing not to be known but to others, its a great source of discomfort since everything is just too hard to do.

What is not helping are headlines like Government suspends national ID project again and with a budget now growing to the hundreds of millions of dollars, a question pops into my head. Are there no other options to get to the same place, are there no other ways? In the words of Benjamin Franklin “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

So again with the Snowden revelations, and potential for mis-use, there is one fact that is evident, with no National ID, the progress we are making going forward is going to be very very painful. In the software development world, there is the concept of “technical debt”, which has very high interest rates in terms of cost of addition of new feature, slowing down progress as you move along.

The high-level strategies revolve around the following themes:

  1. Frugal Innovation – how to use very little to make alot of progress
  2. Customer Value – focus on ensuring that the 75% who see the value are immediately served, to act as a tipping point for the rest
  3. Relevance – ensuring that the implementation is relevant in today’s “environment”
  4. Accuracy and Trust – the data within the system must be trusted from the word go, it should be easy to spot and very inconsistencies

So here it is:

  1. Target population – above 18 years of age
  2. Implementing body: a government parastatal & accompanying bill which is setup to manage the process of issuing the National ID numbers as the single source of truth whose mandate is to provide the lowest common denominator for citizen registration
  3. Who gets National ID numbers first? The element of trust is very important, but the need is to start with as little as possible to continuously refine over time, so the starting issuance of National ID numbers has to start from those people who are known, by different systems so that their identities can easily be verified which include:
    • Passport
    • National Social Security Fund
    • Tax Identification Number
    • Driving License
    • Voter Registration
  4. Registration of Births and Deaths: this is a critical component of the National ID system as it identifies which IDs are no-longer in use
  5. Regional Offices to ensure that people applying for IDs do not have to travel to Kampala to do it
  6. Technology/Organization:
    • Provide a means of checking the status of application by visiting authorized centers which include regional offices, SMS requests (responses to be sent to the number registered on the application)
    • Access to online verification services for authorized usage
  7. Critical Success Factor: uptake which can only be driven by the network effect of being used by multiple players within the private and public sector as the lowest common denominator for accessing services

What do you think? Where are the gaps that I have not thought through? What other alternatives are there?

Mara Foundation Business Hackathon Pre-Launch – Startup Reality Check

This was the theme of my presentation at the January 25 pre-launch event for the Business Hackathon event organized by the Mara Foundation (http://www.mara-foundation.org/) and Mara Launch Pad (http://www.mara-foundation.org/entrepreneurship/mara-launchpad.html).

This would be my second hackathon-style event after the Startup Weekend that I had participated in April 2012 (http://wp.me/pXn3W-5v) where I pitched an idea that had been cooking, baking and squirming in my head for a coupla years. When Nigel Ball (@nigel_ball) asked me which side I wanted to be on, I took the opportunity to sit at the end of the table to mentor.

So back to the prelaunch event, assembled were the following (in the order that they presented):

  1. Reinier Battenberg, @batje, Director Mountbatten and Open Source Evangelist, Drupal, mapping et al
  2. James Makumbi, @jmakumbi, Software Developer and Founder of Billable Hours Uganda, a cloud based law firm management solution, and one of the first Ugandan developers on Stack Exchange (my inspiration to join and become active)
  3. Simon Kaheru, @skaheru, Director Business Convergence SMS Media is one of Uganda’s first enterprenurs in the tech scene through SMS Media and a though leader in the mobile technology space
  4. Solomon King, @solomonking, Web Solutions Provider and Founder of Fundibots, a non profit to encourage passionate African children (and adults) grow and experiment with machines, gadgets and technology – do I hear soldering, garage workshops and Sky net development in basements.
  5. Christine Ampaire, @axtine831, Founding Team member MafutaGo, GirlGeek, Geekprenur
  6. Davis Musinguzi, @davisthedoc, Health IT Developer and Enterprenur, Mentor for the WinSenga team that won the Microsoft Imagine Cup in 2012

The first presentation (below) was a reality check on what the enterprenurs are to expect before the event, and after to provide context with regard to what opportunities are out there and what to take advantage of.

 

 

Additional lessons that were given by the other panelists are summarized below:

  1. You do not have to start a business with a product, you can provide services to customers by packaging and supporting existing software solutions 
  2. Tech startups do not have to be about software and hardware, they can provide laptop sleeves, covers, and other accessories using local materials
  3. Look at alternate revenue streams by leveraging the brand and buzz created by your core product or services
  4. Do not be afraid to pivot your business, from Eric Ries of the Lean Startup: Pivot or Reboot (http://to.pbs.org/WaCA9w) or Pivot Do not Jump to a new vision (http://bit.ly/TAFZ36)
  5. Not all the people you pitch to will have the same vision as you do, listen to them, do not give up, learn from them
  6. Leverage and use the simplest technology you can
  7. Use other people’s money, 100% of $1,000 is way less and more risky than 10% of $25,000 investment – watch the numbers, allow investors to let you  grow to sustainable levels
  8. Develop credibility – register a legal entity, track the total cost of ownership to client (licenses, hardware, warranty and support costs), have a person who watches the money (revenue and costs)
  9. You need teams of people to support your vision, you cannot do it alone
  10. Complete your education and take opportunities that arise when they do, those papers “may” help you get to the next level
  11. Get out of the office to the street and into the lives of the people who use your product – listen to them and learn from them

What are your opinions, what did we miss? Leave a comment

Mobile Money – The Next Frontier Ubiquity

Mobile money is on an exponential growth curve in Africa, due to the growth in mobile phone penetration of GSM SIM based phone networks, and is considered the next frontier in financial inclusion for the unbanked, and easing the costs of transactions on the continent. The primary success of M-Pesa by Safaricom in Kenya is driving adoption, but now that the teething challenges are being understood and models for dealing with them are becoming more prevelant, maturity challenges are now becoming more prominent and are causing many to wonder whether the promise is being achieved.

Starting primarily as a money transfer solution by telecoms it has proven to be a lucrative alternate revenue stream for the telcos who are being pressed due to increased competition in voice (now a commodity), lower charges in international calls from Voice over IP (VOIP) alternatives, higher capital costs for infrastructure to support a burst in mobile data growth, and lower phone usage due to social networks like Facebook/Twitter/Google+.

The next step is to grow into a mobile commerce payment solution, for merchants, organizations and businesses in order to compete against established players like banks and other financial institutions, debit and credit cards, online payment systems like Paypal/CheckOut/Google Wallet, NFC based mobile payments. Overcoming this frontier means delivering a more streamlined user experience to the consumer which is key to adoption.

Below are 10 features and approaches that I think mobile payment solution providers need to do in order to become relevant in the mobile payment space:

1. Merchant originated payment requests – current mobile money systems are setup so that the payee sends money to another number, which leads to errors if the entered number is incorrect (which is a major customer headache). Having merchant originated payment requests, almost like the withdrawal requests from agents, can reduce the errors in the transfer since the customer only has to approve the transaction.

2. Delayed payment outside the current session – the money transfer can only be completed in a single session, however if the payment request can be made and stored on the customer’s phone (like an invoice), and the payment made at a later date can provide an efficient invoicing/payment for coommunity delivered services like utilities, education, etc

3. Payment request forwarding – allow the payment request to be forwarded to and fulfilled by another number

4. Telco Number Independence – where number portability is not available, the ability to use mobile numbers from competing telcos, which means one service can grow out and reach all customers

5. Transaction Payment plans – other than per transaction, allows a larger volume of transactions to be done at a lower cost

6. Easy creation of merchant accounts to increase the ubiquity of usage

7. 3rd Party system integration points – since a lot of the mobile money systems are tightly integrated with telecom systems this raises the costs and slows the pace of integration with other businesses like banks

8. API for system integration – providing APIs through which 3rd party providers can integrate with the mobile money systems via the web and Internet to support online transactions

9. Standards – there is no standard for the mobile money services therefore any integrator needs to interface differently to each system. These standards can extend to using contacts in mobile phones

10. Support for alternate delivery channels such as mobile phone, web and desktop apps to increase ubiquity

What are your thoughts?

Mapping Adventures Day 1 – Introduction and Open Street Map

Mapping has grown by leaps and bounds, from the introduction of Google Maps, what was once the ode of cartographers and GIS experts is now available to the common folk like me 🙂

So wanting to learn how to map is one thing, getting the chance to do it is another, until well Fruits of Thought (http://www.fruitsofthought.org/) organized an exercise to update the information in Kabalagala, a local suburb of Kampala the capital city of Uganda.

The agenda was really simple, an introduction to mapping (and what we were going to do), the we were going to go out and collect the data, return for lunch after which we would upload the data we have collected to Open Street Map (OSM – http://www.openstreetmap.org).

The introduction to mapping was a simple affair, the concepts introduced where:

  •  Trace – GPS coordinates for a place, when entering these into OSM the type of feature found would also need to be described
  •  Track – the route taken to a point. The value of this was adding information on tracks, and side roads.

The GPS data collection devices were eTrex Venture HC Garminand GPS Receivers (https://buy.garmin.com/shop/shop.do?pID=8707&ra=true) and android smart phones with Open Streetmap Tracker  a simplified app that captures the GPS coordinates of a single location at a time.

Well then off we were down to the dirty collecting trace points and grabbing data for a few routes. The team I was in was on a mission and within 90 minutes we had a 4km route and 40 points of data. That was the easy part; next step was lunch then uploading to OSM.

First we had to create accounts which was pretty straight forward since it also supports OpenID so I used my Google Account, yes I am a fanboy. OSM requires a GPS Exchange format (gpx) file which was easily downloaded from the GPS receiver unit we were using.

An initial challenge we had was with Internet connectivity as for some reason it was very slow that evening so the upload of a 600K file took forever and failed later, but finally we got it in. Once the file was uploaded we could access the traces at http://bit.ly/KK15ql to start adding more information. This turned out as easy as drag a building and facility type and place it over the trace point, give it a name and details … A baby could do it in their sleep, isn’t that what we all say when we learn something?

Well after all is said and done we need to praise Google Maps for leading the charge, and so did this blogger “In Praise of Google Maps” (http://oleb.net/blog/2012/06/in-praise-of-google-maps/)

MeetMTN – MTN Uganda Executive Management Town Hall Meeting

Well 2012 is upon us, and the incubmbent US President Barack Obama, has started his battle for a second term in office, so that he can complete the change that he promised the American people. The battle for his first term was epic, first against Ms. Hillary Clinton, which intially changed from a David vs Goliath story to a battle of titans that he won. The one against the Republican was a massacre as Mr. John Mccain shot himself in the foot and head one campaign after another.

Why all this about President Obama, well one of his campaign tactics was town hall style meetings in different towns, and constitencies in order to connect with the people in the ground, and hear what they have to say directly.

Teleport straight to Uganda the Pearl of Africa, home to great beauty among other things, as well as to multi-national corporations which are running a large chunk of the core economy activities. Well these corporations have been facing a backlash with regard to service delivery over the last few years (which was terrible), the wrath of most was directed to UMEME the national power distributor due to the incessant power shortages which sort of brought the economy to its knees in 2011. At the height of the backlash, UMEME started to reach out to the populace to inform and educate the general public who did not understand their roles, challenges and strategies for attacking the rampant power problem. One of these events was a Tea Party for social media enthusiasts – bloggers and tweeps covered here https://ssmusoke.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/umeme-tea-party-quick-and-dirty-review-and-perspective/.

Well MTN Uganda, the largest telco by market share, numbers and revenues, has also reached out using a similar strategy this time called MeetMTN, where tweeps and bloggers were invited to meet the MTN executive management to discuss issues pertaining to service delivery and what is being done to work around the known issues.

Here is a summary of the major issues raised during the meeting, and responses from MTN executives who attended:

1. Provision of an API for Mobile Money and development of a partner ecosystem – information on when an API will be provided for mobile money as the largest provider and one with the largest reach. From the recently completed startup weekend, 12 of the 13 startup ideas depend on Mobile Money for payments. However no details of the availability of an API for 3rd parties were given citing a need not to commit to predefined dates. .The API is coming soon

2. Staff Attrition – there are rumours in the grapevine that there is a higher than normal attrition rate of talent over the last quarter, and whether this is one of the root causes of the recent outages and lowered quality of service delivery. The CEO mentioned that MTN leverages its regional strengths, but focuses on developing the local talent within the countries that MTN operates.

3. Service Health Dashboard – whether its possible to provide a public dashboard on the health of different services, inspired by Google approach. Also whether it was possible to spread information on service slowdowns and outages through different channels, Facebook/Twitter/Website/SMS, Radio/TV and customer service centers for extended service outages.

4. Lottery Games – there was a game which involved amassing points by answering questions for a chance to win UGX 10,000 (~US$4,000), and one of the attendees played the game using his family resources, and his wife almost divorced him. He was wondering how many points were needed to win the prizes so that he would be contented. The executives thanked him for playing and wished him better luck next time.

5. Unsolicited, Spam and Junk SMS messages plus hidden charges from content providers licensed by MTN and the company itself – There are many SMS messages for caller ring back tones, both from MTN and licensed content providers both as spam and also unknown activations which charge user numbers. We were informed of a blacklist code to enter I seem to have forgotten it, but this is not publizied … similar to US “Do Not Call Registry”

6. Does MTN Sell Customer numbers to content providers – MTN does not sell numbers to content providers, however these numbers are collected as part of normal usage for example promotions etc which may be done by friends, relatives. Ms. Maureen Agena of Text-to-Change also provided her organization’s experience with collecting targetted numbers which corroborates the information and policies from the executive.

7. Postpaid Service upgrade – customers on post paid services cannot upgrade data bundles in case they run out on a pay-as-you go service once the post paid bundle runs out. The executive informed us that the billing platform for all services is converged therefore this should be cleared in the very near future.

8. Hoax Promotions – there are cases when a promotion sale of phones or devices is announced, but they are not available because they were gobbled up by MTN staff. Management promised to look into this

9. IPV6 Migration – internal testing is in progress, but roll out to all customers is not confirmed until the services are confirmed as stable

10. SME Pricing – there seem to be no plans geared towards the SME sector as the current plans are either consumer (too expensive for SME at retail rates), or Enterprise (capex and opex costs too high for SME)

UPDATES – from Reader Feedback:

11. Simcard registration process and charges – there are claims of some agents charging for sim-card registrations, bu there is no charge for sim-card registrations. Also MTN intends to use this exercise as a “Know Your Customer” exercise and to deal with the spam/junk SMS message problem highlighted above.

12. Mobile Hotspots – the internet is not usable in a few parts of the country, and it would be better if there were hotspots at least in the urban areas, so that customers do not need dongles but just connect, and pay for usage. The technical team informed us that this was something that they were considering.

13. Internet Bundles using airtime once they expire without approval – currently once the Internet bundles expire the user’s airtime is charged which is the default option. There are ways around this and MTN intends to educate its customers on how to use these options

14. Slow Speed of the Website – the website is too slow, actually one of the slowest in Uganda, and the website self service features do not work. The website is currently being upgraded for speed and features, and a new one will be unveiled soon (BTW this is very embarrassing for multi-national telcom company).

Overall the interactions were excellent, and the available MTN staff were knowledgeable of subject matter they were discussing, which left a ray of hope that finally the behemoth is listening to its customers. Obviously the gift packs at the end made the trip worthwhile too. In closing I would like to say again as I did on Twitter:

“The only way @MTNUGANDACARE can support #startups and #enterprenurs is to provide a #mobilemoney #API #MeetMTN”

If I missed anything, just let me know …

Startup Weekend Day 3 – 60 sec pitch, Customer Validation, Business Value, Wrap Up and Lessons Learnt

Day 3 of the weekend was entirely focused on validating the target customers, revenue numbers, business models and completing the proof of concepts for the pitches to the judges at the end of the day.

How did the morning begin, well we found out that we did not have to develop a platform as there was one tried and tested platform, so it would make it easier for the team to develop a proof of concept. This also opened up an alternate revenue stream for implementation and hosting which was really great as that was one big business risk.

We also had a great discussion with one of the mentors, Sean Krepp of Grameen Foundation, who is currently involved in a lot of data collection and monitoring, on the business models, value propositions, risks and how to laser focus on a customer problem.

Dry Run for Final Pitch

Dry Run for Final Pitch

The strange thing about Day 3 – Sunday was that the energy levles were ebbing towards empty as the timelines etched towars the finish line. The first checkpoint was at 12 noon where we had to present the first draft of the final pitch presentation to the mentors who were around as a “dry run”. Thank God for the mentors because they were relentless in their pursit of information, updates, validation of customers, revenue models and business justification.

The afternoon was slow as we got all ready for the presentations with finalizing the documentation for the presentation. We emptied the rooms and organized the ares for the last pitch. Well finally the judges arrived, and it was with great fanfare that the final pitches began, and of course Databud was the first off the tracks, and we had a great time “first presenters” always do.

The Guest of Honor, Hon. Ham Mulira, arrived during the pitches, and from my vantage point seemed to enjoy the energy and vitality that was going on. He seemed to be going back in time to when he was younger I think, coding in C on those UNIX machines.

Databud Final Pitch to Judges

Databud Final Pitch to Judges

Well after the speeches, the judges went to to deliberate and we had a few words from the Guest of Honor. Just as Hon. Ham Mulira was getting up, one of our mentors, Reinier Battenberg, did a Kanye West, and asked the attendees in the room to give the lead organizer, Richard Zulu, a round of applause for organizing such an event and being such a community leader.

Hon. Ham Mulira was eloquent, in touch with the times and gave a great rendition of his days, but his take away quote as “You do not have to be great to be start, but you have to start to be great”. After he introduced two of his guests, great manners for a big man.

Once the speeches were done it was time to wait for the judges to come back and announce the top three apps of the evening which were Sonda, MyZiki and BetOM.

While we may not have won we had a great time, for me it was a great learning experience and a once-in-a-lifetime event. Of course now I will be attending hackathlons and similar events whenever I can get a chance to improve and further develop my skills.

Final Pitch to Judges - Front View

Final Pitch to Judges – Front View

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE:

Follow the experiences from the first two days at:

  1. Startup Weekend Kampala – Day 1 – Ideas, Pitches, Teams
  2. Startup Weekend Day 2 – Platform, Mentors, Coding, Product Positioning, Decisions during Execution

 

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