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I believe that the biggest advantage a startup has over a big competitor is intellectual honesty.
- Mike Speiser, Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures

Articles tagged 'Esoko'

Much more interesting than Canary Wharf.

Satellite Photo of Africa
Image via Wikipedia

I suspect that there may be more than a few talented (financial markets) developers who have now found themselves with more free time on their hands than they would like.  Some of that time might even be spent reading this blog, and so with that in mind, I thought it was worthwhile to pass on this exciting opportunity at Mark Davies’ BusyLab in Ghana (who are behind the fantastic Esoko/TradeNet initiative, on which I have commented several times in the past:)

BusyLab is a software company engaged in building innovative mobile web solutions for the African market and beyond. Our main project, Esoko , is a web and mobile based market information system that includes an SMS gateway component, a J2ME mobile application, and an ajax-driven, open API web application. We were recently featured on CNN and in the Economist, and are currently in 12 countries throughout Africa and Asia. Our mission is to improve livelihoods by building healthier and more efficient markets. We believe agriculture in developing countries is one of the final frontiers to benefit from the technology revolution of the last two decades.

We’re looking for an experienced software developer interested in trying something different and sharing knowledge in Africa.

You should be able to teach the processes and best practices of software development with our bright young team, and contribute to a world-class innovative web and mobile application product.

You should know:

- html, javascript, ajax
- php or java (J2SE/J2ME)
- sql databases (postgres or other)
- software development process
- software testing and quality assurance practices
The position would be for a minimum of six months.

I’m sure for whoever takes up this challenge it will be rewarding in many ways. Good luck!

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Africa: the new new (new?) thing.

I have to admit it’s always exciting to see validation points for strongly held convictions. As you know I firmly believe that the confluence of technology and emerging – or in the new jargon more precisely ‘frontier’ – markets will generate significant and exciting new innovations and opportunities, and I remain convinced that fundamentally new and robust business models will emerge as a result. The fact that this might improve the human condition in some of the world’s heretofore least fortunate corners is of course icing on the proverbial cake. And so I was happy to read that Google, for example seems to share (at least some of my) sentiments on this:

We believe that the Internet is a transformational force for societies. And it’s making us all much more powerful as individuals, regardless of whether one is in New York, Stockholm, Bujumbura, Ouagadougou, or Cape Town. Regardless of background, education, social status, gender, age or economic situation, online access to information enables people to create opportunities for themselves. Seeing a student in a cybercafe doing his research using a search engine, a businessman chatting with a colleague abroad with instant messaging, or a young woman posting her photos to a social networking site – it’s clear the extent to which academic, business and social life is fundamentally changing all over Africa.”

At the same time, a couple of days ago, a very interesting article in the NYTimes also leant support to my thesis that the infrastructural constraints and challenging business environment of sub-Saharan Africa would engender innovative and resourceful approaches and a unique approach to harvesting the potential of information and communications technologies:

Still, Nairobi is home to a digital brew that invites optimism about its chances for creating unusual innovations. The city has relatively few wired phone lines or networked personal computers, so mobile phones are the essential digital tool. Four times as many people have them as have bank accounts. Text messages are far more popular than e-mail. Safaricom, the dominant mobile provider, offers a service called M-pesa that lets customers send money with text messages. Nokia sells brand-new phones here for as little as $33.

While engineers in the United States lavish attention on expensive phones that boast laptoplike features, in Kenya there are 10 million low-end phones. Millions more are used elsewhere in Africa. Enhancements to such basic phones can be experimented with cheaply in Nairobi, and because designers are weaned on narrow bandwidth, they are comfortable writing compact programs suited to puny devices.

“Applications are heavy in America,” says Michael Wakahe, a Nairobi code writer. “Here we have to make them light,” because simpler hardware requires smaller programs. These can have advantages in wireless systems…

…The prospect of marrying low-end mobile phones with the Internet is earning Nairobi notice from outsiders, who wonder whether the city might emerge as a test-bed for tomorrow’s technologies. One intriguing possibility is broadcasting local television programs on mobile phones.

In Nairobi’s highest-profile validation, Google opened a development office here last September. “Africa is a huge long-term market for us,” Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said by e-mail. “We have to start by helping people get online, and the creativity of the people will take care of the rest.”

One of the most obvious – yet no less powerful or potentially transformational for it – themes is the combination of mobile communications, internet and geo-location technologies to disseminate information and increase connectedness from the bottom up. This emergent collective intelligence is all the more remarkable, given the typical history of entrenched ‘top-down’ politico-economic structures in place in these countries. Much of the early innovation is centered around information gathering and crisis management with tools like Ushahidi (quickly developed in response to the post-election political unrest in Kenya earlier this year) and FrontlineSMS being quickly adopted by citizens and NGOs and having an immediate positive impact on the ground. It doesn’t take much imagination to start dreaming up additional – more commercial – potential applications for these kinds of platforms. Ken Banks, the man behind FrontlineSMS describes his view as developing the ‘long-tail’ of mobile applications as the right approach for not-for-profit “social mobile”:

low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate. From my own experiences the number of NGOs present in this space is by far the greatest, making it the area to focus on if we want to create the highest amount of mobile-enabled social change. Add up all the value here, and it easily outweighs the rest along the higher (more lucrative) parts of the tail.

I would suggest that this approach might work equally well to enable commercial, for-profit, applications as well. Indeed on the other side of the continent you find Mark Davies esoko/TradeNet: Africa’s first mobile2mobile peer2peer trading platform and market information network:

…designed to provide the very latest agricultural market information to stakeholders. Accessed via SMS, fax, web, PDAs, farmers and traders can get daily price information, download video/audio files, access research documents, post buy/sell offers to the community, and contact other market participants. The concept is to make african markets more transparent and efficient, improve intra-regional trading, and provide stakeholders with enough recent and accurate information to make better decisions on bringing products to market and at what price.

I’m sure it won’t be easy or without enormous challenges but the opportunity is vast. Africa: it just might be the new new new thing.

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(open) Money money money.

Roman denarius
Image via Wikipedia

Stumbled accross an interesting site recently – open money: a wealth acknowledgement information system.

How does open money work?

You treasure what you measure, and you measure what you treasure. Open money provides the tools to implement this maxim. What should we be treasuring in our culture and on our planet that we so far have no way to measure?

Throughout history, wealth acknowledgment evolved by becoming more abstract and less substantial. Open money follows this same pattern by being a meta-currency system, not just a new single kind of money. It enables the creation of many new types of money. It puts currency creation directly in the hands of communities so that they can create wealth-acknowledgment systems for tracking all types of wealth–tradable, measurable, and acknowledgeable–and so that they can tailor the tracking to fit their precise needs.

Open money works by providing a unified platform for the interchange of all these different kinds of wealth acknowledgment, just the same way that the Internet provides a unified platform for the interchange of all kinds of information. Just as the great shift of the Internet was in not specifying what kind of data can flow across it (unlike the phone network), the great shift of open money lies in not dictating which new form of wealth-acknowledgment people should use. Instead it provides the basic building blocks for communities to create new types of wealth-acknowledgment systems themselves.

Right off the bat, communities can use open money for simple things like Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), Time Banks, barter networks, carbon-emissions trading programs, baby-sitting co-ops, reputation tracking systems, business loyalty programs, etc. But the interesting stuff will happen when communities apply their creativity to invent new currencies that solve wealth-acknowledgment problems we don’t even have names for yet.

It would seem to me that the potential reach and usefulness of such meta-currencies is even greater in a world where the wiring of the social graph is no longer location specific and consists of an infinite number of overlapping communities. I think anyone that has worked – and certainly anyone who has been a manager – in a medium to large size corporation would instantly recognize the importance of (and inherent difficultly therein) of measuring and rewarding what the open money folks call “acknowledgeable wealth.” And indeed in many instances attemps have been made to create internal ‘meta’-currencies to deal with this. I’m not sure if my experience is typical (I suspect it is) but such attempts in places I have worked have never really succeeded. Thinking about it now – and this is a provisional hypothesis – I suspect this was mainly due to two failings. First, the efforts generally tended to be half-hearted especially with respect to creating a robust and transparent ‘accounting’ system. Often the excuse would be ‘to avoid adding yet more bureaucracy to the system’, however I suspect the real resistance came from fear of what accurate accounting would reveal. Second, these currencies never had negative balances. They were like Lake Wobegon dollars: everybody got paid, but nobody paid. You can see how this would struggle to gain legitimacy.

There is an open money pilot project for a community currency network which I think I’m going to play around with; it would be ideal if they created a Facebook widget that allowed me to create a currency network for each Facebook group – this would save the hassle of having to solicit (potentially multiple times, for different currencies for different groups) my connections to sign up ‘out of context.’ Indeed by writing a widget that could overlay on any type of social group (email address book), departmental or company directory, yahoo group, ning network, etc. you could easily create millions of very context specific meta-currencies. While there is no reason to think that large transactions are proscribed from such a system, the likelyhood is that it would probably have a much greater impact in driving a large number of micro-transactions, greasing the wheels of social reciprocity so to speak. (Although as an aside, such a boom might create all sorts of issues for the existing tax paradigm…) Indeed, one of the seedcamp ’07 finalists (disclosure: I am an investor in seedcamp)facecontact.com (going live beta next week they say) – is something along these lines:

…is a simple and effective tool for referral tracking and reward administration for referring job candidates, clients, investors and other prospects. Currently in stealth (development)

They are giving us a demo on Thursday and I’ll be interested to see how it is similar/different to the concept I describe above.

Finally, part of the philosophy behind open money seems to exhibit a somewhat socialist or even utopian bent, and while I like their idea of “acknowledgeable wealth”, I firmly disagree with their “Why do we need open money?” reasoning. Basically, we might well ‘need’ open money – or more helpfully, open money might be a great tool, but not for the reasons they articulate. That said, in some specific cases I think there is merit in there first idea:

Modern money is inefficient and unfair. Because communities cannot create their own currencies they are beholden to, and fundamentally controlled by, whoever does, just as users of coins were limited by the amount of precious metal available. When communities can create their own currencies, they don’t have to export their own wealth to get money to use for trade. They can start trading right away and export later if they so choose.

In particular, I am thinking of Africa (which could be generalized to all countries with low per capita monetary wealth, especially where the state/financial system has a history of ineptitude), especially the Unchained Africa as described by George Ayittey:

And I wonder if JP isn’t on to something:

I start wondering whether the developing world’s enterprises will derive value from Enterprise 2.0 and social software much earlier than their developed world counterparts, a legacy effect I hadn’t considered before. I start wondering whether the developing world will leapfrog the developed world in the use of social software in general, as they are appearing to do in the mobile and wireless contexts. I start wondering.

Putting these threads together, I wonder if you could give a community (village or town or region) access (via mobile of course) to a mashup of Facebook, (local language) Wikipedia, Tradenet.biz combined with open money widgets this wouldn’t lead to an enormous leap in wealth (in the broadest sense) and well-being? If anyone out there wants to get together and have a look at having a crack at something like this, let me know. You never know, it just might work. Just have to think of a catchy name…

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Learning from less.

Several mobile phones
Image via Wikipedia

I am fascinated by the application of modern information and communications technologies to help improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest and ‘infrastructurally challenged’ (don’t know if this term has been used before but seems to encompass the fundamental problem that holds back the people in developing countries from improving their economic prospects.) To be able to succeed (in providing meaningful, affordable, services) in such challenging environments to my mind offers great insights into how improvements can be made to how services are designed and sold in any environment – including the developed and wealthy western markets. A variation on the New York, NY theme of – ‘if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’…

While I have written previously on the impact of mobile telephony on the developing world, and I will try not to repeat myself too blatantly, I thought it was worth highlighting a few more initiatives that have caught my attention over the last few weeks.

Bruno (a prolific source of new and interesting people and ideas) in reporting on the recent TED 2007 conference pointed me in the direction of Jan Chipchase’s post on the Village Phone initiative in Uganda:

the Village Phone extends regular base station cellular coverage from around 15 kilometers to around 30 kilometers through the use of a village phone kit – an antenna and ten meter cable (shown above) and a coupler (shown below) connected to a regular Nokia 1100 mobile phone plus of course, a micro-finance loan. The net result? In a number of cases it provides the first convenient, reliable and affordable connectivity to the outside world for many rural communities as well as providing a stable income for the local entrepreneur that takes out the loan.

He also goes on to mention the development of essential services facilitated by access to mobile communications:

One example of the benefits of connectivity? Sente – the transfer of money via mobile phone that essentially also extends regular banking services such as the remittance of cash to these communities.

Another exciting initiative I stumbled accross (at the excellent Timbuktu Chronicles) is Sevak Solutions “commitment of developing the product specifications, business plans, and financial requirements to create an open architecture transaction system [for microfinance institutions.]” Rather than paraphrase, Sevak Solutions describe themselves as follows:

Sevak Solutions is a start-up initiative that has emerged from a consortium of microfinance institutions seeking to understand the role technology could play in scaling microfinance. Early work demonstrated a need for alternative, low-cost transaction solutions and business models that addressed the needs of microfinance institutions that do not have the client volumes required to afford, or piggy-back on, existing payment systems. Sevak Solutions is focused on interoperability, open architecture systems that can connect to cell phones, point-of-sale terminals, ATMs, or any other access devices available in the market. The company performs its own in-country research and development, supports technology innovators that are attempting to enter the market, and provides strategic and implementation consulting on a global basis. Sevak Solutions is interested in promoting a set of technologies and migratory path for microfinance institutions and microfinance banks to expand their reach to the unbanked.

Sevak

So here is a non-profit organization focused on developing open-source solutions in order to open access to the formal global financial system to anyone, anywhere, irrespective of their wealth. Bringing banking to the unbanked. Historically one of the great impediments to economic progress has been the lack of a cost-effective and robust financial infrastructure, Sevak seems to be taking direct aim at contributing significantly to solving this problem. I hope they succeed. Will they build the equivalent of Linux or WordPress for banking/transaction processing? I hope so, I will certainly try to follow their progress and they are definitely on my ‘find out more’ list.

As if it weren’t long enough already, another initiative that bounced on to my ‘find out more’ list earlier this year when I read about it in the Economist is TradeNet, a new mobile2mobile trading platform for farmers and traders in Africa founded by Mark Davies:

TradeNet, a software company based in Accra, Ghana, will unveil a simple sort of eBay for agricultural products across a dozen countries in west Africa. It lets buyers and sellers indicate what they are after and their contact information, which is sent to all relevant subscribers as an SMS text message in one of four languages. Interested parties can then reach others directly to do a deal.

TradeNet FlowerTradeNet.biz

Listing offers is free, as is receiving the texts. TradeNet plans to earn revenue by putting advertisements in the messages, though it hopes the service will become so useful that recipients will eventually want to pay. For the moment, though, the company is busy signing up users and swallowing the cost of sending the messages.

I have to admit this is one of those ‘I-wish-I-had-done-that’ companies. The potential for this kind of platform seem to me to be enormous. I’ll leave it at that for now. Very exciting stuff.

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