Key learning

  • Senior technical and business talent is extremely scarce in all regions (Ghana, Kenya, Uganda)
  • East Africa buzzing with mobile activity and some investors
  • No ecosystem to promote the development of talent or growth of entrepreneurs
  • Few companies thinking about the backend – where all the mobile data/transactions go
  • Where the puck is going: sub $50 android phones, data connectivity growing fast
  • Makerere University Kampala: lots of students, some bureaucracy to contend with
  • Opportunity for microfinance technology still strong, especially on lower end
  • Building talent idea: pair technical/business experience with local product design and slowly build the deep technical/business leadership
  • Greatest relative impact likely in West Africa (due to the white space and lack of vibrant ecosystem and software companies)
  • Greatest absolute impact likely in East Africa (due to the emerging ecosystem of companies, more mature mobile space, greater access to talent, etc.)

More after the jump… Continue reading »

I spent the first week of this trip in Accra starting the exploration into what we can do with Mifos in Africa. Initial takeaways and ideas on opportunities follow.

Ghana first glimpse
Key takeaways & learning

  • Ghana has a very nascent software industry; there are a handful of local software companies but all struggle with
    • lack of talent
    • lack of opportunities to work with the large commercial buyers (who all spend their money outside Ghana)
  • Implication is that there is significant need to develop software leadership – both business and technical – in Ghana
  • There are several players working on this problem already – may be able to leverage/convene/augment some or all of them if we work in Ghana. These include Meltwater, Google, the WWW Foundation, some private sector companies, and the Kofi Annan Centre for ICT Innovation.
  • Market for Mifos in West Africa is mixed
    • Lots of small MFIs who need systems
    • Few good providers (the big vendors don’t seem very present here)
    • very limited ability to pay, and limited tech skills
  • Talent is going to be a huge constraining factor (this appears to be the case in Nairobi to an extent as well)
    • Senior software talent is virtually unheard of
    • development methodologies, how to ship, etc., are also very hard to find skills in
    • Competition for more junior talent is strong
    • May need to import some expat talent (people I talked with think need to import talent for 2-5 years)
  • It appears relatively easy to do business in Ghana, including setting up organizations and bringing in capital and talent

Opportunities

  • There’s a clear need for a massive uptick in software entrepreneurial and development talent in Ghana
  • There’s also a clear need for a strong technology platform for microfinance in West Africa
  • Additional business opportunities today are limited (as opposed to East Africa); however, as the market develops it’s likely that other opportunities will begin to appear; everyone wants to play in mobile now but the telcos are v hard to work with
  • With a university, brainstormed about creating an “Applications” course where
    • Mifos exists as a full-fledged social business/project (basically: it’s working with customers)
    • Bring a mix of students into the org for a semester (include business, MIS, and CS) to learn specific things as part of a course
    • This would be less intensive than an internship
    • But more of a studio course – not just using Mifos as a textbook but pairing up with professionals to learn directly and apply to coursework

What’s really clear to me already is that there is absolutely an opportunity to create a running, real-world software business that works at the enterprise level (eg Mifos) and use that as a means of incubating talent. The opportunities elsewhere in Africa are likely to be very different – more commercially oriented – and the challenge/constraints in Ghana are going to be a) talent and b) potential impact (due to the nascent market).

Assumptions & Hypotheses

  • Hypothesis: Faculty at universities can fulfill the architect needs of Mifos; this is proving to be false, and instead will need to bring in external talent. The faculty will be able to engage and help but not drive full-time, and they don’t appear to have serious enterprise architecture talent in place.
  • Assumption: I have a few working assumptions about Mifos itself
    • Need to have a real, working organization that is actively engaged with MFI customers; this is the only way to keep the code alive and evolving and to keep the project from becoming purely academic
    • Need to have a separate organization from whoever we partner with (such as Ashesi); can have multiple tight affiliations, and could even structure as “The West African Center for Open Source and Software Entrepreneurship” or something and have Mifos be a core business within that
    • However, Mifos is too big and complex to try to embed into another organization. The best ways to develop skills will be
      • Build directly by hiring and mentoring/growing junior talent
      • Build via partnerships by bringing students/trainees/etc into the organization for periods of time and exposing to (for example) QA, scalability, marketing, customer support, integration with mobile, etc.

Pivot25 & the need for mentoring and startup development tools in African tech startups

Great summary of the Pivot25 conference from Nairobi last week by an investor from Tanzania / Silicon Valley. This chunk (near the end) resonated particularly strongly for me: “Technology is not often enough: There needs to be increasing focus on companies adopting lean customer development methodologies and spending more time talking to their target customers. [...]

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Safaricom Broadband OS X software eats CPU

Picked up a Safaricom 3G USB modem today and it works great so far, with one minor glitch. I was using it without external power and my battery was dying at an unbelievable rate. Turns out that the Safaricom Broadband software on OS X was consuming an enormous amount of CPU time – showing around [...]

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Software community in Accra

So this week I’ve been hanging out with some people in the software community in Accra, Ghana. At this stage of the exploration around Mifos in Africa, I’m mainly interested in getting a sense of what’s possible, where the challenges are, etc., while exploring a few more specific initial scenarios. I had a great discussion [...]

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The next chapter of Mifos

During the next few months, I will be exploring options for creating a new, independent Mifos organization based in sub-Saharan Africa. The goal of this organization will be to create long-term positive impact in Africa using the Mifos platform to do the following: Continue to empower microfinance institutions to reach more of the poor with [...]

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Grameen Foundation exiting Mifos

Grameen Foundation has formally announced that they are exiting the Mifos business: We are announcing that Grameen Foundation USA will be exiting its activities related to Mifos®. Over the coming months we will make a concerted effort to transition the initiative to leaders in the Mifos community. During the next few months, I’ll be looking [...]

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Back to Africa

Last Tuesday was my last day at Grameen Foundation. I’ll have more to say about what comes next for me when I’m a little better rested (hint: it involves Mifos), but I’ve just arrived in Accra, Ghana and am exhausted. It’s my first time in Ghana, and so far Accra seems quite nice – a [...]

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What I Want with my iPad

Just a few handy tools, some of which won’t be exist for a while yet… Things (updated for iPad) EverNote (updated for iPad) video skype (needs a camera) My IT department to support Exchange 2007 so I don’t have to run Parallels to get to my work email A 25 hour battery (enough to get [...]

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Technology for Microfinance – why it matters

Earlier this week I wrote a guest blog post for the CGAP Technology blog… reposting here. Today, a lot of attention is being paid to front-end technologies for microfinance, but it’s important to remember that back-end systems – the technologies that process the billions of small financial transactions – are still at the heart of [...]

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