Why would you call Konza Technocity a white elephant?

Its been two years since former President Kibaki broke ground and laid the foundation stone for Konza Techno City – back in January 2013. The ceremony was then considered long overdue by industry pundits. The project, estimated to be implemented in about two decades is significant to Kenya’s growth aspirations so much so that it is labelled as a Vision 2030 flagship project. That President Kibaki prioritized Konza City’s ground breaking in the late days of his presidency is telling of how important the project was for his legacy.

Here’s a media clip of the proceedings at the early 2013 ground breaking ceremony. 

Fast forward to December 2014 and there was some traction. The Konza Technocity Authority board has since been set up, and career investment banker Mr. John Ngumi was appointed as its chair. ICT4D specialist Dr. Catherine Adeya – Weya – also got to act as the authority’s CEO for over 2 years. One of the milestones of Dr. Adeya’s legacy has been preparation of a detailed economic strategic plan and implementation master plan for phase one of the project. One more milestone albeit a political one would be a second ground breaking ceremony in December 2014 officiated by the Kenyan Deputy President – see the official speech then. Here’s a media clip capturing some proceedings at the second (infrastructure) launch.
Status Update – :
A detailed update of the project’s status as at November 2013 is found in the slides below.

It is also noteworthy that the ICT ministry and more recently, the authority’s leadership has at different times publicly shared reasons for the slow progress in executing the project. Here’s a clip taken in 2012 with the then Minister citing infrastructural challenges
Here’s another clip taken, where bureaucracy and delays from the National Environment Monitoring agency and Ministry of Lands were to blame.
Is Konza Technocity a White Elephant?
That there has been significant progress at Konza in the last decade is arguable. This month a substantive CEO (Eng. John Tanui) has been appointed. This is a major milestone as it is common knowledge that leaders in acting capacity are oftentimes constrained regarding what bold useful steps they can take. With a substantive CEO the only other hurdle might be the enactment of the proposed bill legalizing the authority’s existence by a statute which would empower the authority to confidently go into binding contractual agreements with investors and vendors.
That the government should further invest in the project is surprisingly more arguable than whether there’s been progress. Its amazing how many Kenyans in social media and blogosphere outrightly condemn the project. For instance, at some point Tech blogger Kachwanya put it bluntly that Konza Techn City would be a moot project in its form as at January 2013. Alliance Technology’s Ngigi Waithaka repeatedly argues that any government resources for Konza should be redirected to other “more promising” innovation promotion projects. As I am a big supporter of the entire Konza Techno City project, I would argue differently. I would suggest though that we first consider the argument of de-congesting Nairobi city, as espoused by Prof. Bitange Ndemo, the former permanent secretary in the information ministry who is easily the most prominent proponent of the Konza project. See the 2012 video clip below.
Urgent Vs important interventions in an economic sector
Many arguments against the project take the form of: “its not the highest priority intervention for the IT sector, so kill it!”. In my opinion, demanding abandonment of the project or starving it of government resources as a matter of priority is akin to arguing that “Since we have built homes in Ongata Rongai (West of Nairobi) and our problem is access to sewer, a major road infrastructure project towards Thika (East of Nairobi) does not benefit, us, so terminate it”. It is also the classical failure to recognise and attend to what is not urgent in the immediate sense but nonetheless important for posterity. The ICT industry in Kenya has many undeveloped interventions, and many of them are of high priority or are very critical for long term success.
Currently a burning intervention gap often cited as top priority is one of skills development. Of course there’s a dire need for the industry to convert raw talent to refined talent for the ICT workforce. With genuine concerted efforts between government, academia other industry players, this appears to be a simpler matter of polishing what exists. That said, Konza Techno City as an intervention is about a framework for attracting investors and hiving off an environment for rapid growth of the sector in years to come. I argue that we cannot interchange execution of long term plans with execution of short term plans in either / or kind of decisions. Pursuit of long term and short term goals has to be concurrent. If short term goals always preempt long term goals, the long term goals must remain a mirage, especially if ineffectiveness of the system’s custodians also results in unaddressed short term goals.
On the matter of skills development being a higher priority, I argue that culture is also important in skills development. Skills development for the context of a thriving ecosystem is richer than skills development without a industry culture for harnessing them. I would argue that creation of an industry cluster such as the Konza Technocity is a key ingredient for creating the right culture: startup, corporate or otherwise for effectively harnessing local and international talent.
Of serendipity and arranged coincidence
As to whether the Konza Technocity should be a real estate development project or not, my answer would be that the city is about talent, innovation and entrepreneurship which thrive in humans. Those humans work, dine and sleep in buildings. People thrive in physical infrastructure. Of course one would say that in the advent of technology and the internet, innovators and entrepreneurs can work and interact virtually. That appears too simplistic an argument about a technology driven economy. Meaningful business interactions are very hard to fully virtualise. As Sam Gichuru of the Nailab once put it, “you cannot find a co-founder on skype”. Even if you first met the would be co-founder on skype or Facebook, there are physical interactions that will precede gathering a level of comfort for goin into the co-founder marriage.
The scenario is more real for investors who would rarely invest in people they have not met, and not just once. Of course if an investor from the Netherlands is coming to meet a prospective investee in Kenya, they would be happier combining the trip to meet many other potential investees – better still if they are found in the same vicinity. And if startups and venture capital are not your cup of coffee, perhaps corporate deals and partnerships interest you. In this case I would suggest that if you can meet all possible partners within the same location, that helps much. This kind of arranged coincidence that a shared physical infrastructure creates is what contributes to the requisite density of certain classes of industry players necessary for a thriving ecosystem.
All that said, with a substantive CEO for the authority, we can now expect good publicity and strong arguments supporting actualization of the Konza Tecnocity dream. We shall also expect to hear more pessimist arguments for further consideration and counter argument.

End of an epoch: Reflections on four years at the m:lab

The last days of February are my final moments at the helm of m:lab East Africa – the m:lab. Its now 4 years since I took up a challenge from the m:lab consortium comprising iHub, eMobilis, University of Nairobi and the World Wide Web foundation to setup and run programs at the m:lab. Back in February 2011, the consortium had just won a much coveted opportunity to host the East Africa instance of infoDev’s mLab concept. Other World Bank supported mLabs would be in Southern Africa (South Africa), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Armenia), East Asia (Vietnam). The South Asia mLab in Pakistan would not quite take off.

the m:lab as a construction project early 2011
Looking back four years, its been a great experience, sometimes a roller coaster ride – a great thrill, but very importantly; a learning experience for me. With time I was surrounded by a great team; incredibly dedicated with fabulous execution abilities. Representatives of the consortium organizations served as an awesome oversight board that became our biggest fans. With such a team and board level fan base, and a clear opportunity to impact the East African start-up ecosystem, I have my considered successes and failures. My picks for top 7 apparent successes would be:
  1. Hype and Substance: Helping to sustain interest and to create hype about applications, entrepreneurship and start-ups in mobile technology was fulfilling. Apparently this may have been at the expense of other IT sub sectors – an outcome that we did not quite anticipate. The ICT Authority and iHub were co-protagonists in this. The substance would always come behind the hype, and that may continue to be the case – see the authoritative video opinions of hype and substance in the East African Context as discussed during PIVOT East 2014.
  2. Brand Building: Building and curating the m:lab East Africa and PIVOT East names into strong formidable brands as regards mobile innovations and start-ups was quite an achievement. Apparently these two brands are strong offline among software developers, corporates in the mobile space and international development agencies. The brands are quite strong in the social media space but their following on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn would be a more objective metric to look at for those with interest. For PIVOT East, a home grown brand to compare favourably against the entry of fairly established brands such as DEMO, Seed Stars, Sankalp, Startup Sauna and others, our team must have done very well.
  3. Interventions for startups: Discovering, and supporting some top next generation high growth start-ups has been fulfilling. To name a few, without any order of remembrance or preference, we have supported Kopokopo (9 months), Totohealth (10 months – ongoing), Eneza Education (24 months), Mfarm (24 months), Uhasibu (24 months), Ma3route (18 months ongoing), MPayer (24 months), MTL / Mshop (24 months – spun off Sendy) and MedAfrica (9 months).
  4. iSarura – Rwandan Startup at PIVOT East
    Image Credits: mlab East Africa

    PIVOT East program: I have seen many alumnus of our four year old PIVOT East program go on to succeed or learn lessons to build great new startups. Somehow I had a soft spot for Tanzanian start-ups such as Go Finance, TiME Tickets and Ubongo Kids and they have not let us down. Overall the PIVOT East program has grown beyond being a potentially \”hit and run\” conference to a substantive start-up acceleration program and support network. Seeing finalist start-ups from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and most recently Online Hisab from Ethiopia has been quite satisfying. Seeing some start-ups prudently utilise the little PIVOT East linked funding coming from our modest surpluses was always gratifying.

  5. Worthwhile Experiments: With the immense latitude allowed by the board, we experimented with virtual incubation, a secondary incubation site at the GreenHouse (supported by Nokia) and the mobile impact ventures program focusing on Agriculture, Education and Health startups supported by both Tony Elumelu and Rockefeller Foundations.

    Wireless Wednesday Session in Progres
    Image Credits: m:lab East Africa

    Through these experiments, we are proud to have supported startups such as Ma3Racer, Fomobi, Lipisha, Elimu, Totohealth, Tuma Karo, Smart Farmer, Sokonect, and tens of others I forget. The experiments in startup incubation got us lots of lessons to reflect on and apply in future programs as the significance of the in-residence type of start-up interventions diminishes. Another experiment that would become quite a success and a regular fixture for us would be the \”Wireless Wednesday\” program. The regional ICT4ag competition we organised for CTA was quite fulfilling seeing that startups involved such as Ensibuuko and FarmDrive are going strong.

  6. Ecosystem Partnerships: Unknown to many observers, running the m:lab and any other start-up friendly initiative is a very entrepreneurial role. Keeping the m:lab doors open during and after the modest but critical grant from infoDev (the World Bank) was always a challenge. This meant dreaming up and pursuing intricate value conversations with industry players. Over the four years we have had a wide range of fruitful partnerships and collaborations with infoDev (World Bank), Chase Bank, Samsung, Nokia, Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, Facebook, Motorola Solutions (Now Zebra Technologies), Motorola Solutions Foundation, Safaricom, Seacom, USAID, Mercy Corps, CTA, The Global Impact Investing Network, Omidydar Network, CGAP, Crowd Valley, Savannah Fund, Viktoria Solutions and ACCION. There\’s other partners I will beg forgiveness for forgetting to mention. Having numerous high value individual volunteers may easily be the single biggest reason we achieved our apparent successes. These included business coaches and mentors from across East Africa and across the globe. Experiencing such generosity with people\’s valuable time always reminded me that the world has good people.
  7. Training 400+ Mobile App. Developers: From the infoDev sponsored 4-6 month programs to 6-12 week programs in partnership with Microsoft, Intel and others, we have had fairly successful rounds of honing skills of mobile

    Trainees at 4th wave of infoDev sponsored training
    Image Credits: m:lab East Africa

    applications developers. As opposed to our other programs, these trainings admitted individuals and not start-up teams. The trainings have mostly covered technical skills coupled with entrepreneurship, a bit of user experience design skills. The success of this program may be symbolized by the number of start-ups that were formed as an inspiration if the program such as mTracker and mVerified. Many got scholarships to Strathmore University\’s Msc program and many improved their employment chances. Surprisingly many created almost passive revenues ranging from $200 – $2,000 per month from apps used internationally from app stores – especially the Nokia store. More evidently however, the program\’s success is symbolized by MobiDev Solutions, a consulting outfit that sprung out of the fourth wave of the infoDev sponsored training late 2012. About ten of them dared me to support them as they created a mobile software consulting outfit. That would be a difficult gamble on my part as they would not meet my purist definition of a start-up. I can now bet on them being one of the biggest software consulting outfits in the region – in the next couple of years.

The Fail Fair!! One of my greatest lessons at the m:lab was to celebrate failure and to learn from it. My top 5 most memorable failures have been:
  1. Third party investments: Although PIVOT is an investor pitching program, among the 100 start-ups we have supported, conversion from investor linkages to actual investments has remained low (with a couple of surprises). Although startups supported by the m:lab had many potential linkages to source of venture capital, not many of them with founders from within the region closed funding deals. I spare my hypothesis about the apparently low deal closure rate for another long blog article. For now it may be worthwhile for interested readers to watch to related views of Mbwana (Savannah Fund), Johnni(Growth Hub), and Andreata (TLCom Capital) in the PIVOT East video

  2. The seed fund that would become: Soon after concluding the first edition of PIVOT East in 2011 – then named PIVOT 25, I was convinced that a long term and more sustainable revenue model for m:lab would include success sharing with supported startups. This to me would ultimately be strengthened by coupling our intervention with seed capital for startups through our own investment vehicle. That continues to be our much envisaged but not exactly executed sustainability strategy. To be fair, we have ended up making some micro-investments thus far. However, many might argue that an embedded fund has never been necessary for m:lab. Perhaps in future I shall get a chance to blog more about the many lessons learned while trying unsuccessfully to set up this fund.
  3. Financial Sustainability: I like to laugh away at how in our first set of strategic objectives, we envisaged for m:lab to be financially sustainable within the first one year. In hindsight, I would consider the thought that I treated financial sustainability for the m:lab as a sprint rather than a marathon. There are some value propositions, materializing or otherwise that I would have been better off monetizing gradually and incrementally. Inasmuch as we have made progress and de-risked much of our business model, the m:lab remains a startup in that we may not have arrived at a repeatable and scalable business model.
  4. Applications testing and the famous sandbox: Whenever developers complain to Safaricom and others about the absence of a sandbox for testing USSD and SMS apps, I always looked down thinking how much we at the m:lab were best placed to make the sandbox a reality. I could try and explain this failure away but the fact is mobile developers in the region (at least Kenya) do not have an affordable, reliable way of testing low tech mobile applications for which the market is very ready.

    The m:lab\’s Applications Testing Facility
    Image Credits: m:lab East Africa

    Our famous testing room is a great and useful resource although I would have loved to see more developers scheduling time to test phones. The m:lab team continues to learn about these things.

  5. Rusty Blogging – Considering I am the long-post type of blogger, the hustle and bustle of running m:lab took its toll on my ability to churn out as many blog posts and reflections on the startup ecosystem as I wished to. Working with numerous startups and industry players has a way of highlighting key patterns and trends about teams, product development, and the market structure. The article I wrote early 2014 on startup team composition is perhaps the best I did to share my synthesis of these patterns and trends. I regret that I didn\’t write more to capture the wealth of such insights through blog articles. Apparently, the article on estimating startup market size through Facebook audience insights didn\’t generate as much interest as I thought so it may be yet another challenge to bring the right startup topics to the fore.
  6. Weak government linkages – Perhaps having been part of the Kenya government system has a way of keeping one away from government relationships. I did some time as part of a government system before getting the the m:lab. For the most part while at the m:lab, I failed to adequately pursue collaboration opportunities with Kenya government institutions such as the ICT Authority, NACOSTI, CAK and the ministry of industrialization and enterprise development. In general I was not a government connections guy and that may have cost the m:lab much.
  7. There\’s many successes and failures on my part that I don’t remember. I shall let readers here guess and comment on these that I forget or conveniently fail to share.

So what\’s next?
The m:lab has great prospects! The board and team I leave behind are great! Building on our successes and failures will open a new chapter for the m:lab and its affiliates for its prosperity in the next couple of years.

As for me, I enrolled for doctoral studies at the University of Nairobi back in 2013. Currently my research area traverses information systems, entrepreneurship and agriculture in somewhat unrealistic ways. Its been quite an evolution and a while now since enrollment and its told anecdotally that over 60% of people who start such studies the world over don\’t complete to graduate. 2015 is the year I have set aside to improve my chances of falling on the 40% side. I shall remain a strong exponent for tech startups in the region. Perhaps I shall also drink more water than wine in an economic space where entrepreneurial ventures are our best chance for emancipating our masses from poverty and injustice.

My reflections would be incomplete if I did not mention that working with Erik Hersman, Ken Mwenda and more recently, Josiah Mugambi who represented co-leads of the m:lab consortium was the most supportive and reassuring aspect of running the m:lab. Toni Eliasz and Dr. Tim Kelly from infoDev (World Bank) were another great source of encouragement.

Why Team Composition in Tech Startups Matters Much

Since 2011, the m:lab has organised PIVOT East – an annual competition for mobile startups in East Africa. Much has evolved about the competition since the inaugural edition was held as PIVOT 25. Some of the evolutions were aptly captured by Nicholas Friederici, a World Bank consultant then documenting the Tech ecosystem in East Africa in this article.

MedAfrica (MedKenya) winning team of PIVOT 25 in 2011

Incremental Improvements

One incremental improvement that PIVOT East continues to emphasize on is for participants to regard the competition as a platform for organizational development and business model refinement. Inasmuch as few participants may still see it as one of the many competitions where they could “earn” prize money, there’s many that are getting the geist of the matter and are taking their businesses more seriously with competitions.

In the 2013 edition of PIVOT East, market traction was emphasized in the criteria for all selection stages. This helped to minimize the so called “compe-preneur” effect. Market traction included earning or growing revenue, increased active user base, and other growth metrics. Selection criteria in the competition will continue to emphasize market traction. Team composition has been another criteria item emphasized in the 2012 and 2013 competitions. In 2014, strength of individual skills among team members, the complementarity of team skills sets, and members\’ long term commitment to the teams will matter even more.

The Team vs the Idea

Many investors will tell you that a bad idea can be improved or killed altogether to take up another better idea. Ideas are cheap and generally worth nothing, unless they are executed into revenue-earning and growing businesses. Often times, especially among “Compe-preneurs”, the execution teams\’ skills are shallow as focus is more on the idea and the all well elaborated planned business plan. For a startup, the “coolness” of the idea and sticking to the initial elaborate plan A will not necessarily bring revenue and growth.The team has to speedily iterate from the plan A to a plan that works. As Ash Maurya would advise, 66% of successful companies reported drastic changes in their original plans along the way.

To execute a great idea into a viable high growth business, calibre of the team is important. If an investor invests in a bad team, they are trapped in a suboptimal investment, difficult to get out of without upsetting the founding team set up. A badly set up team is a hindrance to the kind of efficient, focused execution that a startup requires in the search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Skills Depth and Experience – for execution

Skills sets and experience of designated team members for key roles in a startup matter much. Many a times startups designate key roles to team members that are not fit for the tasks. Founders should strive to co-found with the best talent in the market that brings on board certain key skills to the startup. These could be technical developer skills, design or UI/UX skills or business development. This is because good talent can be rare and expensive to hire later on in the startup. Founders should avoid co-opting each other into a startup without vetting each others’ skills and the experience each brings on board. More importantly though, founders should be honest enough with themselves to recognize a skills gap arising as a going concern to fill it with the right talent while offering strong incentives such as stocks, an interesting culture and or a noble mission. The later it is in the life of startup this gap is recognized the less likely it would be for stocks, culture and mission to beat instant cash remuneration as the motivation for new talent.

Complementarity of Skills

The product of a Tech startup is not merely the technical solution. Its the overall business model which in the lean canvas representation includes 8 other components. To build a product that customers pay for, a startup requires collective team ability to understand and deal with customer segments and their pains, acquisition channels, revenue and cost structures among other key business model components besides “coding” the solution.

Dream Team of The Hacker, Hustler and the  Hipster?

Many Tech startup teams over-emphasise the role of the Tech co-founder, so much so that they simply constitute as, say three developers (hackers) assigning each other roles such as CMO, COO, CFO and CTO. The same happens where business founder (hustler) underestimates the need for a Tech co-founder. In such cases the “hustler” ends up with arrangements where the hacker is a consultant or a temporary employee – often engaged only to build the first prototype. In PIVOT East we have seen comic cases such as the loosely engaged developer disappearing with the code for a prototype that calls urgently for iteration.

Besides having a hacker and a hustler in the mix of skills sets, importance of the user experience (UX) designer (the hipster) is often underestimated by startups. This currently occurs among startups in East Africa and is partially attributed to the general scarcity of such skills in the Tech community. For many consumer driven internet solutions, user experience is a big differentiator. Attracting the best talent among user experience designers (often converts from graphics design) to be a co-founder may be the clever-most decision in a startup.

illustration of popular Hacker, Hustler, Hipster dream formation

Domain expertise in specialised fields

For startups seeking to disrupt or impact specialised domains such as health, education, agriculture and engineering, the importance of a domain expert in the founding team is very important. Recently I asked Jamila Abass – CEO of Mfarm what was one thing she would do differently if we rewound the clock by two-three years. Quite profoundly, her answer was something like “I would co-opt people with agriculture domain expertise in the team the earliest possible”.

The importance of domain expertise in the founding team is demonstrated by some domain specific startups in East Africa such as Eneza Education. The startup has a founder, Toni Maraviglia who is a career teacher by profession. Having deep understanding of market setups, domain technical skills and other domain specific intricacies helps startups to speedily navigate around challenges and opportunities in the domain. The emerging success story of Eneza education is partly if not significantly attributed to the domain knowledge infused by Toni in the startup.

As an experiment, we have set Inclusion of a domain expert in startups in specialised domains of the new mobile impact ventures program at m:lab East Africa a requirement. We anticipate good results especially with respect to appreciation of customer insights.

Passion, commitment and motivation

Apart from having super skills deployed for required areas of expertise and having complementary teams, inherent interests among team members matters. Commitment level for a super talented team member engaged as a temporary consultant is not as inspiring as a super talented team member who is a co-founder with significant stock allocation in the startup. To investors, business partners and even customers, there’s more confidence in the future of the product when key team members have demonstrable long term commitment.

It may be that consultants and employees on contract may be the most practical way to deploy certain high caliber skills required. In fact its the default scenario for most mature corporate organizations. For a startup which mostly has constrained resources, it appears wise to sell the vision to key talented members that remain in the team with stock incentives rather than paying fat consultancy-like paychecks on a on occasional basis.

A challenge may arise for founders in convincing the right talented people with the right attitude to join the startup – besides having to convince them to take small paychecks in the “short term”. In this case its worth considering founder / employee recruitment as an investor pitching exercise. Besides investing time and skills to the startup among other opportunity costs, the new team member has to invest psychological commitment to the startup’s vision. That way the team collectively builds the right culture, attitude and agility towards achieving the startup’s mission.

Entrenching vested interest

Vesting agreements help founders and investors to secure commitment from key personnel (especially founders) to the mission and course of the startup for the long term – usually four years. A typical founder vesting schedule is incorporated in a founders agreement or the shareholders agreement. If you search hard for lawyers around tech hubs in East Africa you will find lawyers that could help structure one. This is not to say that startup lawyers are easy to find in the region.

The vesting agreement is very much like founders giving back their shares so that they can earn them over the time the company stabilises towards its vision actualisation. For instance, a typical challenge appears when 9 months down the line after the startup is founded, one co-founder wants to leave. It could be for “good” reasons such as “business co-founder gets a green card to canada or another country”. The prospect of moving to a land of “milk and honey” with a stable n-figure salaried job can be too compelling to ignore. The question then would be; Do they relinquish stock worth 9 months of extraordinarily hard work or do they move over to Canada with their entire stock allocated to them even though they haven’t quite worked for its entirety?

A typical founder vesting agreement reads as follows :-

  • Until and through [FIRST VESTING DATE], neither Founder’s shares will vest
  • On and not before [FIRST VESTING DATE]– [25% ] of each Founder’s shares will vest
  • On and not before the 1st of every month thereafter, [1/36TH] of the remaining [75%]will vest 
  • Thus, on [END DATE] (the \”Full Vesting Date\”), each Founder will be 100% vested.
Very often when investors suggest to introduce or re-set vesting schedules for key talent (especially founders) in a startup, its demonised as one of  “vulture capitalists” way of short changing founders. It may be different if understood from the perspective of a vision sold by the founders that only they can pursue to fruition. However, whether revising vesting schedules based on an investment deal is fair to startups or not is irrelevant in this post.

Vesting agreements seem to be an important instrument to demonstrate long term commitment among founders and even among employees that have stocks or options. Startups in East Africa should be encouraged to embrace vesting agreements among founders and employees. This is because securing talent in a region where entrepreneurship and startups are a second option is JUST HARD considering the prospect of better paying jobs coming up is always hanging over the heads of key personnel.

With good vesting agreements among startup teams, it should be easy for startups to demonstrate their mission commitment to investors. This is an aspect that PIVOT East organizers in 2014 will be watching out for.

Evolving thoughts on innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth

Entrepreneurs create new businesses, and new businesses in turn create jobs. New businesses intensify competition for existing larger businesses. Increased competition forces small and large entreprises alike to innovate and be more efficient in creating value for customers. Efficient value creation results in a more productive economy hence economic growth. 

Arguably, many large entreprises in East Africa do not face much competition, enough to give research and development the priority place required for innovation to grow. Furthermore, many of the larger entreprises within East Africa are multinationals whose research and development initiatives are controlled by their parent entities abroad. Therefore innovation for such multinationals is more likely to target global markets and not local markets in developing countries where revenue streams are comparatively insignificant. The other significant proportion of large entreprises in East Africa is comprised of parastatals and government entities which are by their very design incapable of being innovative. Generally, government related corporations are so stuck in public sector dynamics that innovation and value optimization for customers is rarely a real intention among their top executives.

The role of value optimization and innovation in East Africa\’s economies is therefore by default delegated to smaller enterprises, start-up firms and entrepreneurs driven by the opportunities or necessities created in the market place. In a 2006 paper titled \”Is entrepreneurship good for economic growth?\” Zoltan Acs used Global Entrepreneurship Monitoring (GEM) data from over 20 countries to argue that not all such entrepreneurial activity contributes to economic growth. The case is more apparent in developing countries where individuals are forced into entrepreneurship by necessity (lack of jobs) rather than primarily to pursue perceived market opportunities.

Very often, independent startup ventures in developing economies are likely to fail at some point for the following reasons :-
  • Derailment by alternative opportunities – Founders can get derailed easily by employment opportunities emerging with larger companies, NGOs and government institutions promising to afford them financial comfort – albeit for the medium term. Besides formal employment opportunities for founders, start-up firms often find themselves derailed by opportunities to service contracts that are not related to their core mission. This way their \’flagship products\’ suffer stunted growth  as the firm evolves into a \”general consulting\” outfit.
  • Start-up firms easily get locked into a sub-optimal operating state where they lack finances to increase awareness of their new otherwise viable products. They lack marketing funds to acquire critical numbers of customers to break-even in their operatons. Such startups end up not growing or closing down as they find it very difficult to penetrate the market. 
  • Individuals forced into entrepreneurship by necessity are likely to lack technical or managerial skills to grow their business beyond certain levels unless they raise funds to employ the people with the right skill sets. Startups are often unable to acquire the right human resources for growing their businesses beyond the vulnerable start up phase. As a startup begins to move beyond their minimum viable product, they rapidly require to shift focus on marketing, working capital management and project management among other aspects of business management without which sustainability is not assured.
The common thread the above reasons for startup failure is \”access to capital\”. A strong case exists therefore for entrepreneurs in East Africa to prioritize their fund raising efforts for sustainable growth. Given that debt financing for young startups is rarely an option in East Africa, entrepreneurs need to focus on other forms of financing such as grants and equity investment. That is not to forget the option of participating in entrepreneurship competition with significant prize monies such as Pivot East.

That grant financing would be preferable to entrepreneurs is a no brainer. However, although grants are accessible if one is lucky, equity based investments present better opportunities for serious startups raising funds for growth. Equity based fund raising ensures that founders think through their business seriously as investors will only touch them if they can validate their business models for significant returns on investment. Equity based investment also ensures that the founders have a better sense of business accountability by virtue of other people having a stake in the business. Equity based financing often comes with opportunities for business mentorship and networking linkages from the financing parties. The temptation among entrepreneurs often is to resist dilution of their equity ownership by introduction of investors. That mentality begs the question \”would you rather own 100% of a $10k company destined for stagnation or  would you rather own 70% of a $10k company on a solid growth path to $10m?\”

In conclusion, there is need for the entrepreneurs to take equity investment options more seriously for growth and sustainability of their businesses. That way the economies in East Africa can benefit from innovations and value optimizations expected from entrepreneurs and smaller businesses while the bigger corporates evolve to create value to customers more efficiently at a much slower pace.

Growing list of entrepreneurship competitions as Startup Weekend comes to Nairobi

In the last year or so Nairobi has been treated to a multiplicity of competitions and contest organised to promote local technology entrepreneurship. Depending on whether the chicken or the egg came first, one would argue that this has contributed to significant buzz and interest around East Africa’s growing tech start-up culture.

That the region is experiencing growth in the tech start-up scene is difficult to dispute. Doubting people only need to consider the tech scene’s coverage from global media houses such as The Next Web ( Mnachi Mdema’s article and Francis Pisani’s artice), the ReadWriteWeb (Curt Hopkins article), BBC (Egon Cossou’s article), Forbes.com and CNN (Dayo Olopade’s article) – to name a few.

Some of the entrepreneur competitions in the last one year that I can barely recall are IPO48, Garage48, App Circus, Huawei developer challenge. Some of the contests take a more global scope such as Nokia’s Create for millions Contest, infoDev’s Top 50 competition,Google Android Sub Sahara contest,  and Apps4Africa. Other global challenges that are still ongoing include Samsung’s Bada Developer Challenge,the Ericsson Applications Award and infoDev’s m2work Micro-work Challenge.

The list of competitions for 2011 above is almost endless. It is however incomplete without mentioning Pivot 25, the predecessor of Pivot East. Being East Africa’s premier mobile apps competition culminating in a pitching conference in June, Pivot East is to many perceived the grand showcase of mobile entrepreneurship in East Africa.

I have come across arguments in the local tech scene that developers and aspiring entrepreneurs have began to suffer from “competition fatigue” so we should “slow down” on them. I argue that we are not yet having too many competitions and that in fact we cannot possibly have enough contests of this kind in East Africa. This in my view will continue to be for as long as we have not as a society fully embraced the start-up culture. More so we should hold as many such competitions as possible for as long as our upcoming tech entrepreneurs have gaps in access to capital, markets, coaching, mentorship and other related entrepreneurship facilitation.

This weekend of 24th-26th February 2012 comes along with at least one more competition in Nairobi – Startup Weekend. The event will be hosted by Nailab at Bishop Magua Center which is gradually becoming Nairobi’s tech startup building. The competition organization in different locations globally borrows from a common format overseen and supported by Startup Weekend, a 501c(3) Non-Profit organization in the San Francisco – United States. It  is designed to be a “54-hour event where developers, designers , marketers, product managers and startup enthusiasts come together to share ideas, form teams, build products and launch startups”. The format is very much like Garage48 and IPO48 and goes as follows :-

  • On Friday Evening attendees present their best ideas in open mic pitching sessions.  
  • Over Saturday and Sunday teams focus on customer development, validating their ideas, practicing LEAN Startup Methodologies and building a minimal viable product.
  • On Sunday evening teams demo their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts.

In this weekend’s edition of the event in Nairobi, attendants buy tickets at a fee of Kshs 2,050 payable through M-PESA business number 111666 (received by Growth Africa Limited). Delegates attending the event finale on 26th February only, will pay an entrance fee of KES 500. More information on tickets can be found on the event website http://nairobi.startupweekend.org/tickets/

The organizers have stated in their website engagement of re-known personalites in the industry for speakers, judges and mentors.  These according to the organizers include Virtual City’s John Waibochi, ICT board’s Paul Kukubo, Paul Mwachi of Isys Software, Capital FM’s Chris Kirubi, inMobi’s Moses Kemibaro, and Craft Silicon’s Kamal Buthabati. Judging from the results of other weekend long contests held in Nairobi where teams of entrepreneurs accessed prize money, entrepreneurship capacity building, early stage investment and access to valuable networks, I would encourage many upcoming entrepreneurs to take part in this event.

Many more start-ups participating in contests such as Startup Weekend can only make East Africa grow its knowledge economy through entrepreneurship.  When more of the upcoming entrepreneurs are empowered with skills, exposure and funding, one can only bet on East Africa being able to showcase great progress in the region’s mobile entrepreneurship. The region’s Pivot East Pitching Conference and other entrepreneur showcase avenues may therefore brace themselves for bigger challenges in selecting the best of the best. 

Gearing up for Mobile Web East Africa 2012

East Africa region continues to strengthen its profile as a mobile innovation hub. As mobile developers, entrepreneurs and stakeholders prepare for Pivot East, the regions mobile apps pitching conference in June, a couple of industry related events are happening as well. These events are helping to showcase East Africa as a mobile innovation destination.
This week on 22nd and 23rd February, Nairobi gets to host one of East Africa’s conferences on the mobile web ecosystem. The conference was first held in Nairobi on 3rd and 4th February 2010 and comes back to the City two years later. Much has changed in the last two years and the conference is an opportunity for many to catch up with the state of affairs since mobile phone penetration and  mobile data connectivity began to increase exponentially in the region.  The conference will be at the Southern Sun Mayfair and Kenya ICT board are its official hosts.

*iHub_ and m:lab East Africa are officially supporting the event. A 30% discount is granted for iHub members attending the conference for which registration can be made online here. The event organizers also are offering 50% subsidies on delegate fees to developers and start up companies under 2 years old and less than 10 employees. The event promises to be interactive and full of insights for developers, entrepreneurs and professionals playing in the mobile web sector. With a compelling agenda, the list of speakers and the discussion panelists, delegates are likely to appreciate better the state of affairs in the region’s mobile web ecosystem.

The conference starts with Kenya’s ICT Board CEO Paul Kukubo Reviewing the evolution of the Kenyan sector from 2010 to 2012. The CEO is expected to highlight successess and challenges around, Local content, app monetisation, startup/SME financing,  and innovation hubs. Kenya’s Permanent Sectretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication is expected on the same day to speak about the government dedication and support to the ICT sector. The conference is also expected to here from Research In Motion’s Technical Partnership Manager for Sub Saharan Africa – Michael Weitzel.

Mark Kaigwa, a partner at Afr-innovator, an African technology news portal will also be there to examine the “Silicon Savanah” tag and whether it carries much substance beyond the increased marketing efforts by the Government. Other presentation and discussion themes for the first day include mobile marketing and the opportunity for app monetization and growth of brands. Frank Maina of Sponge East Africa and inMobi’s Moses Kemibaro will be speakers in this session. Entertainment and media consumption on mobile devices will be another area of discussion with Johan Nel, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Umuntu Media speaking. Emma Kaye, Chief Executive Officer of Bozza will talk about the prospects of growth in mobile film making.

The second day commences with Strathmore University’s Joseph Sevilla exploring the trend of tech focused youth that might drive the next generation of mobile content, services and companies. Judith Owigar of AkiraChix will also speak on efforts to enhance uptake of tech-entrepreneurship by women. John Carroll, Director of Technology at ForgetMeNot Software will speak on what it takes to to cultivate a startup culture. Other presentation and discussion themes lined up for the second day include using mobile as a tool for empowerment and social good.

The second and final day will culminate in an app developer competition where 5 entrants will battle it out for $1500 worth of InMobi ad network spend and blackberry handsets among other prizes and benefits. The competitors will have five minutes to pitch.

The conference will end with an open mic session where any member of the delegation can take the podium present and discuss whatever they like in 5 minutes. Each open-mic presentation will be followed by 5 minutes of questions and answers with the audience.

A full programme for the two day conference can be viewed in the conference’s website (www.mobileeastafrica.com).

Nairobi\’s Tech Scene – Personal Highlights for Quarter 1 of 2011

My last article in this blog was posted in December 2010. That makes almost 5 months since I made a serious post.  It was by no means intentionally staying away from writing for this long. It was rather more of  \’the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak\’. To kick start blogging again I shall lazily try to recap the noteworthy developments I have observed in my small technology world during the first three months of 2011.

Mobile Monday with Pesapal – January 17
That was an inspiring moment especially listening to Agosta Liko of PesaPal. It was impressive to see a local technology startup begin to penetrate the corporate market place – with schools and banks. I still have not heard much from them regarding one of my wish list items though. They should think more through the possibilities for Kenyans paying monthly rent using PesaPal – their great payment information service. Liko\’s powerpoint presentation can be downloaded here.

OpenMRS meetup  – January 24
Despite the rainy morning, we had a great meetup with OpenMRS friends at the iHub that was ably organized by my friend @JWesonga. On the same day there was an opportunity to engage students at the university of Nairobi\’s School of Computing and Informatics which I had helped organise. It was lovely then to listen in to @ and @ as they sensitized the local computer science students who were mostly in second year on software development for good. 

Fireside Chat with Ken Oyolla – January 27th
I had this great opportunity to listen to Ken Oyola – Nokia\’s General Manager for East and Southern Africa during the iHub\’s monthly Fire Side chat. I had first met Oyolla when I was a form one in Mangu high school – he had \’cleared\’ from the great institution and was coming back as a mentor a year after. During the FireSide chat, it struck me how people do not change even after a decade or more of exposure to the world out there. Ken was still the same candidly inspiring strong personality. Am sure he will achieve another \’first one\’, beyond being the first African to hold such a high ranking position in Nokia.

Mid-Feb Transitional Period
Mid February was a transitional period for me as I left my fairly comfortable, no-real-pressure state corporation Job. It was time to take up a more challenging role with m:lab EAST AFRICA. The new role is really exciting and much worth the career shift as it fits magically into my ICT4D leadership aspirations. More so, it seems like the best opportunity to amplify my modest contribution to East Africa\’s knowledge economy.

Mobile Monday with Microsoft Guys – 21st February
In all honesty I do not have a history of being a fan of Microsoft\’s products. Having to say something about m:lab at the event, attending this Mobile Monday was mostly a duty call. I was impressed to see how Microsoft has been working hard to contribute towards positive social transformation across the world. They had a video of previous Imagine Cup winners from somewhere in Asia which was impressive. It was also my first event to hear about Craft Silicon\’s ELMA platform for rapid mobile application development of mobile banking solutions. The thought of having a mobile applications generator, for development without much coding sounded interesting – only I thought it will remove control and gratification from the local application developer.

It is a shame I missed February\’s Fire Side Chat with Larry Wall  (on 24th February). Larry Wall is the creator of the Pearl Programming Language for readers who would care to know.

iHub one year anniversary – 11th March
In the dying hours of the year 2010, I was reflecting and thinking to myself that inception of the iHub had been the greatest thing that had happened to Kenya\’s tech scene that year. I really wanted to blog my thoughts then but I realized I needed to avoid looking to oversell my hurriedly done late application for green membership. The thought passed by and in March I was happy to participate in iHub\’s first anniversary. Meeting the bigger iHub community was awesome although I had a rude culture shock of members murmuring away as ICT board\’s Paul Kukubo gave his speech. With me coming from a government background – it felt awkward. A parastatal CEO like Paul was meant to be revered and accorded maximum attention in public service circles – the murmurs felt radically different. Culture shock and assimilation aside, I look forward to a ground breaking year 2011 for the iHub community in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Mobile Monday with Moses Kemibaro of Dealfish – 21st March
This event was a must attend for me – not because of any duty call but because @MosesKemibaro is one of the most respectable bloggers in Nairobi\’s tech scene for me. I needed to find out what he had been up to after rumor had it that he was no longer actively involved with his DotSavvy company.  Moses is Regional Manager for Dealfish. His presentation helped to demistify Dealfish – currently a constant fixture in Nairobis outdoor bill boards and online google ad-words for the Kenya context. With tweets like this :- \”RT @ Dealfish are not sure how to monetize their service yet – they are not worried about this either \”, the message was loud and clear that Moses\’ new venture had deep pockets behind it. Moses fell short of being forthright on the issue of when Dealfish would start making money. His update later that Dealfish would turn on its money making machine at its own chosen time was quite telling on how serious the South African firm was about the Kenyan online market place.

During this Mobile monday it was also enlightening to know of m-order, an upcoming service from Hilda Moraa and her troop who were students at the Strathmore university. Nairobi\’s chapter of Mobile Monday has some good pictures of the event in their website here

Fireside Chat with John Waibochi of Virtual City 24th March
The iHub did it again with its March fireside chat. Then it was John Waibochi, the CEO of Virtual City on the raised floor. Virtual City is the Kenyan company that won 2010\’s Nokia innovation challenge with $1 million prize money. Mr. Waibochi\’s story was intriguing and inspiring as well. With the entrepreneurial tips of \’riding the wave\’  and exiting just before the wave\’s peak, Waibochi did well to motivate budding tech-entrepreneurs. His talk was much of a consolation also for me – to know that my corporate, MBAish background had a place in tech-entrepreneurship. It got me dusting down my  ERP, ISO 9000 and balanced scored card salesmanship cap with some rather unrealistic ambitions for my new career situation. Waibochi also offered tips on important global trends such as android and impact investment which he thought were more important than looking up to real life mentors.

Anticipation for Second Quarter of 2011
There were many developments and events I missed on in the first quarter of 2011. Indeed Nairobi has a thriving tech scene that no one person can keep track of all happenings. Watching the iHub\’s event calendar helps a bit though. In the months of April, May and June 2011, there are some important events I look forward to. One of them is iHub\’s Fireside chat for April which will have Mr. Joe Mucheru of Google Africa on the raised floor on 21st April. I also have much anticipation for this year\’s Pivot25 event that will see 25 mobile applications being showcased at Nairobi\’s Ole Sereni Hotel in June 2011. 

Local content grants: Government information portal awards to firms first

This week there was much buzz about the Kenya 2009 census results, the on-going contest among our mobile networks, and other developments in the Kenyan online content space. What may have passed some of us in the midst of the noise is the announcement of one category of winners for the first round of Local Content and Software Applications Grant. As earlier mentioned on this blog, the initial processes of the grant had a number of useful insights if the ICT Board\’s post-application survey was to go by.

Applicants for the grant in the government information portal / firms category were announced on 31st August 2010. In this category, seven proposals were chosen from a list of 166 proposals by firms according to the ICT Board\’s press statement. The seven proposals were

  1. Octopus Solutions Limited – HIV and AIDS in the workplace e-Learing Course – To assist implementation of the HIV and AIDS work place policy among civil servants
  2. Infotrack Strategic Solutions Ltd – Teacher\’s Portal – Linking Kenyan teachers with their employer (The Teachers Service Commission)
  3.  iBid Labs – Kenya Online Museum  – Multimedia documentation of Kenya\’s rich history
  4. Foundation Support Services (FSS) Ltd – IVR Tax Filing Solution – A multilingual platform for Kenyans to file tax returns based on Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology
  5. BTI Millman Company Ltd – eMazingira Software Application – Crowd sourcing application for documenting and collecting information on environmental degradation and abuse using the Ushahidi platform
  6. RiverCross Technologies Ltd – EDUWEB– To create a comprehensive list and interactive map of all education institutions in Kenya
  7. JBA Advertising Co Ltd  – Lost and Found Project  To assist Kenyans to find their lost official documents such as national ID cards 

Needless to say, successful implementation of the above proposals alone is bound to make a huge impact  to Kenyans, solving some of their most basic problems.  The proposed projects also have potential for fostering a productive online culture and the growth of our knowledge economy.

It is noteworthy that the ICT board did not announce winners for the other grant categories a per the schedule earlier promised. The missed target is definitely a disappointment for many stakeholders watching – in Kenya any unexpected / unexplained delays in such a process can result in all sorts of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless the board was kind enough to make public more finer details about the remaining categories and the number of applicants as follows :-

  • Category A: Individuals – Private Sector Digital Content and Software Applications Grants – 133 applicants
  • Category B: Firms – Private Sector Digital Content and Software Applications Grants – 256 applicants
  • Category C: Individuals – Government Information Portal – 112 applicants

The board went further to promise announcement of the successful grantees for remaining categories on 28th September 2010. With the earlier missed targets for announcement of  evaluation results, it remains doubtful that the new target can be achieved. The doubt remains considering that the first category results announced so far cover barely a quarter of the entire round\’s applications.

Videos related to the ICT board\’s announcement at the Serena Hotel can be found here

Insights from the Local Content (Tandaa) Grant Application Process

Today morning the Kenya ICT Board through its Tandaa Kenya newsletter shared the results of a survey it administered on its grants application process. The survey was administered to applicants of the Local digital Content Grant a day after the proposal application deadline expired. Some highlights of the results were shared through the newsletter and also mentioned in Moses Kemibaro\’s blog including the following :-

  • Barely 15% of lead contacts for applicants were female < Affirmative action needed? 
  • 77.9% of those who participated were satisfied with the grant application process (more than half of these were very satisfied) < Confirmation of sentiments in my earlier post
  • 20% of those who participated had attended a Tandaa Symposium  < More effort might be required to interest more professionals and entrepreneurs in the Kenya ICT Board activities
  • 369 (55%) of the 667 completed applications were made on the last day. < Explanation attempted in my earlier post

Since data analysis is a daily routine for me, I shall attempt a closer look at other statistics from the survey for some more insights. Hopefully this helps for those of us with some curious minds

1) The main channels through which applicants learnt about the grant were the newspaper advertisement (40.3%) and the ICT board website (24.7%).  

The mainstream print media seems to remain the most effective way to mobilize participation of the local Tech. fraternity. The apparent popularity of the ICT board\’s website is welcome as the board grows its reliability and relevance to the Kenyan knowledge economy. The rather dismal performance of the morning shows in this aspect (Nation TV – 4.3% and Citizen TV – 2.1%)  appears to indicate the low effectiveness of TV shows aired during \’odd\’ morning hours.

2) Only 677 (31%) of the attempted 2,154 applications were completed. Further 139 (a meager 9%) of the those  who did not complete the application process participated in the evaluation survey.  Most of the 139 survey participants stated that they were unable to complete their applications because they did not have supporting documents (43.2%) or they simply run out of time (42.0%) 

    It appears that time constraints were a significant factor contributing to the the low rate of completed applications. It might have been interesting to see if those who were unable to complete their applications for lack of supporting documents would have gone ahead to complete their applications – given more time to \’secure\’ the documents. This is also not to say that our last minute culture mentioned in my earlier post would not defeat the purpose us such a deadline extension.

      3) Of the 456 participating respondents, 413(90.5%) welcomed the offer by the ICT board to share their proposal information with venture capitalists and other funding agencies. However when further asked to state which specific aspects of their proposals they were free to share, a much lesser portion of  34.4% was willing to have their bugdets shared.  Further, slightly less than a third 33.2% of the respondents were free to have their proposed work plans shared. Participants were otherwise generally free to have their proposal title – 70.2%, contact information – 85.7% and overall goals and objectives  – 70.7% shared.

        This is indicative of changing attitudes among Kenyan \’TechPreneurs\’. There appears to be changing perceptions to on the idea of innovation and intellectual property rights. indeed it appears the Kenyan ICT fraternity is  moving away from a tendency to sit on their unshared, unimplemented ideas for lack of resources to implement them while fearing that \’someone will steal their idea\’. The results also appear to indicate that would be Kenyan innovators are generally trusting of the ICT board. 

        The fact that few respondents were willing to have their work plans shared is indicative of how confident the applicants were with the finer detail\’s on their proposals. The applicants might have thought they had more room for improvement to their budgets and work plans hence the hesitation to allow sharing with potential financiers before further tweaking and customization. It is also likely that the applicants simply wished to more easily retain their options for increasing their scope of activities and budgets beyond the Tandaa grant limitations.

        Local Content Grants – Signs of a good start by the ICT Board

        Many Kenyan techies did not have a very normal weekend of 17th to 18th July 2010. For the simple reason that the deadline for submitting applications for the \’tandaa\’ grants was the Monday following (19th July). They had to do last minute write ups and touch ups on their local content grant proposals. Of course there had been a whole month or so to prepare and submit the proposals comfortably. Needless to say our last minute action culture did not excuse even some of the most organized amongt us. According to the ICT board,  of 1,800 applicants, 667 successfully completed the application process.  Indeed it is likely that many of the 1100 or so proposals that were not completed were merely time barred.

        Aside from our \’nice\’ culture, it may not be too early to give the Kenya ICT board a pat on the back for some noticeable milestones they have achieved with the first round of the local digital content grant financed by one of Kenya\’s many World Bank loans. Several characteristics of the ICT board process pleasantly distinguishes it from the other local grant management programs.

        1. Online Proposal Application
        Many government grant programs (eg. in HIV&AIDS grants) involve a tedious process of preparing and submitting physical documents. More often than not 3 or 5 copies of the same document are required. The ICT board\’s application process has done well in demonstrating that this does not have to be the case. The \’tandaa\’ application was through a fairly straight forward online form. The form questions were designed to encourage applicants to be straight and to the point in responding to questions using word count limits. The board went further to present a sample grant application and guidelines which were rather useful. A dump of the complete application information that was provided by the system including an application code and was rather useful. 

        Many people would easily say, and stereotypically so, that such an online application process is only possible where the targeted applicants are IT and internet savvy. My suggestion is that such stereotypes will end in the near future as more and more Kenyans get assimilated into the web culture. It is worth noting that the very reasoning behind the local content grant is to recruit more Kenyans into an online knowledge society by generating more online content and applications they can relate to.

        2. FAQs and Answers
        I was impressed by the thought of not only holding pre-application regional workshops in Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nairobi to educate Kenyans on the grant but going ahead to post the questions frequently asked about the grant on the ICT board website. It would look like a very basic thing to do to many people but it did make a difference especially for those who could not attend the regional workshops – more so for those who needed some last minute clarifications.

        3. Application closure feedback and survey
        One more impressive thing was that the board provided feedback to proposal applicants a day following the deadline. The feedback included a mention of how many proposals had been attempted (1800) and how many were successfully concluded (667). The feedback email provided a further reminder that the proposals would be reviewed and results communicated in three weeks. Even more impressive was the  fact that  along with the email feedback, the board administered a 9 question survey on the application process experience to the applicants. One of the survey questions was whether the applicants wished to have their proposals availed to venture capital firms and other funding agencies. In view of the observation that only about 40 of the 667 proposals would be funded in the first grant cycle, the ICT board came out as proactive with the intention of facilitating financing beyond the grant. 

        Future expectations
        Some friends from outside our small economy might wonder why I am so impressed by the above little successes. It might help them to note that such little efficiencies do not happen every day in our government systems and they are indeed noteworthy. On a continued note of pessimism, we should look forward to the ICT board achieving more successes in this first cycle such as
        1. Stick to the deadline for completion of proposal evaluation and formal communication on results (15th August) while providing a sense of objectivity and fairness  in the overall grant award.
        2. Publish analysis of the 9 question application closure survey for more insights on the general perceptions, feelings and experiences of the applications – (might provide useful insights to future applicants)
        3. Publish the list of successful and unsuccessful grants promptly after proposal evaluation – at least on the board\’s website
        4. Good luck in monitoring project execution by  successful applicants for enhanced accountability and impact to the local digital content industry.
        On a more trivial but perhaps important note, it might help for more specific timelines to be communicated for application deadlines in future. Stating that the application deadline was 19th July 2010 does not give enough guidance as to whether applications should have been submitted before 00.00hrs 19th, 00.00hrs 20th, or close of business 19th July – typically 17.00hrs. 

        Lets look forward to more \’little\’ successes from the ICT board – hoping other grant making institutions will follow the good examples.