Category Archives: Op-eds

LSE Africa Summit 2014: Africa tech hubs – A tale of hope or hype?

MISI alumnus Rauf Aregbesola looks at whether Africa’s technology revolution is all what it is hyped up to be.

“A hopeful continent”, “The next frontier for investors”, “A dark horse in the digital revolution”. Sound familiar? These are just a few of the catch phrases often found in articles from The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, focusing on the one continent – Africa. Before this piece is quickly labelled as yet more mundane rhetoric on a “Rising Africa”, it is important to note that there is a buzz running through urban areas and cities in Africa, much of which revolves around technology.

From Lagos to Kampala, Dar es Salaam to Dakar, Nairobi to Cape Town and all across the African continent, new innovation hubs and collaborative workspaces have been springing up as beacons for the hi-tech hopes of aspiring tech-oriented entrepreneurs. According to Bongohive’s Africa Hubs map, there are currently well over 100 hubs across the continent. Recent statistics also indicate that new hubs emerge in Africa every two weeks.  These hubs are described as a nexus for technologists, investors, young entrepreneurs and creatives among others to exchange ideas and resources as well as help catalyse the process of open innovation within the technology ecosystem.

The Kenya success story? 

As Eric Schmidt (the executive chairman of Google) surmised: “Nairobi has emerged as a serious tech hub and may become the African leader”. From the mobile money transfer service (M-Pesa) to the open source information collection and visualization platform (Ushahidi) to the more recent crowdfunded internet connectivity device (BRCK), it goes without saying that Nairobi has been the birthplace of some of the most “indigenous” tech innovations to come out of Africa. One person with first hand experience in implementing these innovations is iHub co-founder Julianna Rotich. Rotich along with her team developed the Ushahidi platform to facilitate crowd-sourced reporting of violence during the 2007-2008 Kenya presidential elections. This platform now serves a global audience, covering numerous crisis-hit regions including: Chile, Haiti, Russia and USA.  Following the development of Ushahidi, Rotich, as an advocate of socially embedded innovations went on to co-found the iHub workspace, where BRCK was implemented – a device specifically designed to offer resilient Internet connectivity for the developing world. According to a BBC Future article, it is these innovations and hubs that has  led  to Nairobi becoming the darling of the tech sector. 

Making sense of the two faces of African tech hubs 

In harmony with this narrative, tech pundits have quickly jumped on the bandwagon and assigned the “Silicon” title to several African cities with tech hubs, almost as if to squeeze out a non-existent shared repertoire between African and US-based startups communities. From “Silicon Savannah” (Nairobi), to “Silicon Lagoon” (Lagos), to “Silicon Cape” (Cape Town), a supposed digital revolution is said to be spreading across the continent, which is attributed to the increasing tech incubation hubs, ICT events and competitions. However, beyond this hype lays a sterner reality of much fewer key players and shapers, an overt focus on grants and donor funding as opposed to actual investment in local startups and a culture that stifles entrepreneurship.

In her article, LSE’s Mairi Tejani explored some of the finance challenges African entrepreneurs face. In addition, cultural concerns are often cited by startup analysts in the region. Particularly, there is the view that overt reliance on donor and grant funding offered by big firms through ICT competitions have misdirected technologists and aspiring entrepreneurs into believing that this is a genuine business model for funding their ideas. Beyond the initial momentum these competitions help generate, they often lack a sustainable marketing plan or revenue model. In this vein, there is a need for an overhaul of the African entrepreneur’s mindset to sell their respective tech spaces as an investment destination not merely a free-for-all grant destination.

Another major concern with these tech spaces is need for more organisation and major collaboration between key local players and other hubs. While governments are often quick to dance to the tune of tech hub hype at their launch events, the reality is that their promises often fall short beyond the provision of one-off grants. As Gossy Ukanwoke, founder of online university Beni American University Online put it: “In Nigeria, we don’t have an ecosystem, we have clusters of people doing their own thing”. There is no doubt that a thriving startup scene exists in this region, the challenge is that there is very little organisation or an established process. African governments and its private sector must therefore become proactive in supporting local startups, as grants and foreign investor money will not last forever, while tech hubs must shape its own destiny by forming communities of practice and learning from experiences of other hubs in the Africa region. Enough of these “Why iHub is cooler than CC-Hub” type debates and articles and more of sharing learning points from various hubs. Thought leaders of Africa tech and startup space share a common voice when they say the excitement around the sector has suffered from too much hype in recent times. It is high time we learnt to walk and begin our steady ascent to greatness and make good things happen, instead of bandying “Silicon” titles.

The logical questions to ask at this point remain: Why are there so many hubs in Africa? Are they solving indigenous problems on the continent or responding to media hype? Are they the best way to build entrepreneurship and youth development in Africa? These are precisely the sorts of questions iHub co-founder Julianna Rotich will be addressing at the 2014 LSE Africa Summit on the 5 April.

How the United Kingdom United Us

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By Jiun Hong Lim

I took an extended “vacation” or some will call it “refusal to return home or look for a job” because of my love for London. The last year(ish) spent in London was probably the best year of my life. This marks the end of an era…

To start off, the professors and lecturers for MISI are ones that I owe my biggest thanks to as the lessons taught go beyond what could be covered in textbooks and you guys have definitely changed the way I view the business world as well as society. If we were to only always look from a single perspective, we lose the ability to truly understand the bigger picture. You guys are the best and I now know you can tell how wise a lecturer is by his or her willingness to put on a ridiculous looking shirt to make his point. You know how professional a lecturer is when he looks tired most of the time but still make it to class before everyone. Lecturers who are willing to attend to us as we bump into the lifts,  and hosting office hours which are almost impossible to book at peak times is not forgotten too,. Your suaveness charmed MISI girls who went all “gaa gaa”. The brave lecturers who took the toughest modules and kept trying are champions. Sadly, I only understood the message just before the exams and failed to contribute much to the table in seminars. All the Ahhhha and Ooohhh moments I had, buried in course guides are as good as finding pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The people I met and the friendships I forged in this foreign land has been amazing for me. Without you guys, my year wouldn’t have been the same. Some of you whom I worked with, I’ll never forget the discussions, presentations and the inside jokes we shared… We had a stellar year and we are all winners in our own rights! I hope we will continue to be part of each other’s lives when we face problems, and that we help one another, after all, we have developed to become more than classmates but interdependent friends with many hidden talents. I’m glad that through this course I also made friends from all over the world, and also came across names whereby till now I’m not sure whether I’m pronouncing them correctly. If you noticed I didn’t address you by name sometimes, you now know why.

To all my friends who became involved in my personal life, you guys are my true heroes and stars. Each and everyone of you are like my family, always there for me and giving me encouragement as I go along and never once questioned my actions. Willingness to read my long WhatsApp’s and listening to my whiny phone calls are things I will never forget. I miss crazy hair twirling sessions too! (You know who you are) We travelled the distance together, short train trips, haphazardly planned road trips and trips involving the use of rather confusing and tedious budget airlines (which I grew to love). The sights, sounds and discomforts were amazing. I’ve seen things that I would never have  if I stayed at home, too afraid to venture into the darkness and take this leap of faith.

I am glad I did all this and I am glad it paid off. Nature has been kind to me, displaying some rare moments and fate provided to me crazy friends willing to brave cold and long nights to pull crazy stunts, or attempts (such as fireworks which were “meh”). Becoming housemates with some of you, however short, made me learn a lot although sometimes it felt like I was intruding too much (especially setting up a temp bedroom in the lounge, you get extra <3 for that). The sleepless nights of haggerston because we had a play station and wanted to complete little big planet and lbp2 – those were amazing times. Playing Tennis in the UK oftent wasn’t part of my plan either, and finding the free courts in rosemary gardens was my icing to the cake in UK… Playing till the temperature hit a single digit was a new experience that I really liked, our little tennis game invention frustrates me a lot but I’m sure it helped my game a little. You guys are my homies and my family.

To you, London, you charming city, I’ve kinda loved you since I was a boy but have only grown to love you even more when I’m actually here. The drowsiness and rowdiness can’t taint your impression on me, dog poo smelling streets became not that bad after learning the art of walking with your head tilted downwards and still enjoying sights above. There is probably too much here to list and I shan’t do so and leave this for another time (I promise it’s coming).

To my family, my parents for providing me with their form of scholarship, there are probably no words or phrases in the world that I can use to express my gratitude. I will definitely repay you guys in whatever form that I can, although I get impatient at times, you guys should know that I love all of you. I’ll try my best to be a good son,as much as I can.

Once again, however emotional this may be, today marks the day I leave the UK, it’s an end of an era… My era.. My lovely time in the UK, a time which I would treasure my entire life. To everyone I met this year, don’t be a stranger and let me know when you’re in Singapore so we can catch up. I hope we start our next journey in our lives well and keep in contact…

[Jiun Hong graduated in 2013 and contributed this article to LISA]

Answers From A Postcard: Thoughts on my time at LSE

By Saidat Giwa-Osagie

The most intriguing question asked at the LSE is not an elusive economic conundrum, nor is it the crux of a mid-week Philosophy lecture. It is a question asked and answered by both students and staff: the ultimate post-admissions inquiry. A quasi-rite-of-passage, embedded within the psyche of the School.

‘Where are you from?’

Four simple words. Seemingly mundane in the context of the London cosmopolis. After all, it should be unsurprising that there are a diverse range of individuals living and studying in a global capital. This is expected, but the question is not just about excitedly pinpointing far-flung geographic locations or marvelling at the multiple citizenships of various individuals. It is about exploring the most complex of issues with the most simple of questions. It is, as the School motto suggests, rerum cognoscere causas. In seeking ‘to know the causes of things,’ we must first acknowledge the place of our prior footsteps that have led us into the present. We must be cognizant of where we are from.

At the LSE, our origin stories are connecting nodes, linking the cultural and social to the academic. In a university dedicated to the research and study of the social sciences, this meta-experience makes learning here even more enriching. This is where the world meets. Cast from different moulds, yet we have all arrived at the same destination. Ten thousand assorted narratives, intersecting momentarily on one page.

In many ways, the LSE is a microcosm of the world as it exists and as it will in future. Our academic pursuits hint at multidisciplinary approaches, encouraging intellectual exchange. Debates and discussions both in and outside of the classroom transcend cultural boundaries, inviting multiple perspectives. For some, technological advances have diluted the excitement of this type of participation. We are the generation of this ‘typical’ exchange, and it can be taken for granted, but at the School it is actively embraced. As we continue to refine our viewpoints one thing remains clear – there is rarely a straightforward answer to the questions we are asking.

It is in those moments of realisation that we are reminded of where we are from. Whether our responses range from one country or include a seven-minute backstory spanning three continents and twelve countries, we are reminded that there is much more beneath the surface. As London has taught, it is one thing to plan a smooth route using the tube map above ground. It is quite another to find your way underground amidst Piccadilly line repairs and through a throng of bustling commuters. Exploring these complexities causes us to reflect on our perceptions, and why we think the way we do. This cannot be done alone. It involves reaching out to those around us, discovering where our commonalities and divergences lie.

These experiences as LSE students are inextricably tied to the heartbeat of London. We are students, yes, but we are also Londoners. Outside of the School, we assimilate into the daily lives of eight million inhabitants. Whether we visit a gallery with hundreds of people, or indulge in some small-talk with the kiosk owner as we purchase a lunch-time sandwich, these experiences share one thing in common: they build on the foundation of our origin, causing us to learn not just academically but as part of a wider human experience.

So although we are many and while we are different, for these moments spent at the LSE and in London, we are also one. The lecture room may erupt with a Greek chorus of laughter on one side, and Mandarin conversation on the other, but we are in this together. It is why we share the collective groan when the announcer explains there will be delays affecting Holborn’s Central line. It is why we are excited to share our newest discovery of a delightful new coffee shop with our fellow course-mates. Greatest of all, it is why we are compelled to thrive and embrace in this experience.

For most students, the LSE marks a brief period of life, in which we arrive from where we are from, but leave with an intangibly changed perspective. It forms part of an identity that reaches forward into the possibility of tomorrow, shaping the world. Even more, it acknowledges the diversity of the human experience and fosters bonds where none existed prior. As I wrote above, in seeking ‘to know the causes of things’ we must acknowledge the place of our prior footsteps that have led us into the present. We can stand in that special place of interconnections, with the knowledge that answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ reveals far more than might originally be imagined.

 

Away From My Desk

It’s 3pm in the afternoon and I am sitting on a bench on the Bosphorus pier. I am watching a fisherman calmly throw his rod into busy waters. On shore, life around me is as busy as the waters: corn and bread merchants chants are deafened by boat trip salesmen shouting louder. The backdrop of Topkapi palace
casts a shadow on the pier and provides an island of shade under the blistering sun: I am in Istanbul.
I’ve been here for about a week now on somewhat of a self discovery journey. I took part in the Hellespont Swim, following in the footsteps of Lord Byron and Leander, to swim from Europe to Asia across the Dardanelles strait. More of a mental challenge than a physical one, I succeeded in my quest, crossing
successfully.

The odd 90 minutes I spent in the water, we resorted back to basics: human instinct, physical abilities and primitive forms of communication: waving, shouting and signaling. Every wave that came crashing down, brought with it a big dollop of fear. Looking back at the moment we lined up on that jetty, it was nature laid bare: our navigation point would be the Radio Mast on the opposite side and we were to swim towards it. No Google maps, no GPS, no navigation boat. The only thing I had remotely technological was a primitive digital chip tied to my ankle that started timing when I jumped off, and stopped when I got out. As soon as I reached Asia, I was back in the matrix: digital cameras, smartphones, iPads, laptops and stereos.

Like most IS grads, I make a living working with data, be it transforming it into information, building or managing it. Yet the more I seem to organize the more data we create. Data on data, a
never ending loop. Game theorist could call that metagame analysis, where one game is the creation of other games. The struggle continues.

For about 90 minutes of my life, I generated no data. Google could not track my location, Amazon could not recommend any accessories, and I couldn’t update my status. Tweeting wasn’t an option either, and there were no CCTV cameras. A couple of jelly fish and the Trojans sleeping 100 meters below were my only audience, and they were not on email. This is one hour that Google can never organize and big brother can never have.

Technology has indeed changed our lives, often for the better, but one forgets how it feels to be completely on your own. I had to swim 2 miles out for that. I better get out there again.