Tag Archives: uganda

Field, fuel & forest: Fellows Friday with Sanga Moses

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When former accountant Sanga Moses ran into his sister on a far-from-home road carrying firewood on what was supposed to be a school day, his life changed. He knew that Uganda’s rapidly disappearing forests had big implications for the environment, but he hadn’t recognized the day-to-day effect it was having on the lives of his family and village. Now, with his company Eco-fuel Africa, Moses helps farmers transform agricultural waste into cooking fuel, and also sponsors tree-planting projects. Here, he tells the TED Blog about fast-changing ecological conditions in Uganda, and how he hopes to help restore the country’s forests as quickly as possible.

You started out as an accountant, and now you are an environmental entrepreneur. What was the moment that changed the course of your life?

I used to work for one of the biggest banks here in Uganda, and that meant that I was away from my home village. One day, I decided to go check on my mother and little sister. This was a Wednesday — and I ran into my sister on her way carrying wood. She saw me and started crying. She said, “I’m supposed to be in school today. But mother told me to go out and get the wood, and I do this at least twice a week.”

Seeing her didn’t surprise me at first, because I also carried wood as a kid. At first I didn’t get what was wrong. [When she started crying], I thought that maybe my mother was sick or something terribly wrong had happened at home. I helped her put the wood down, and we sat for a few minutes and I asked her, “What is the problem? Why are you crying?” She told me, “It’s about the wood. I’m supposed to be in school today. [But] my mom told me to skip school to go out and get the wood. ” I told her I would talk to our mother, and bring her back to a school in the city where I worked so she wouldn’t have to fetch wood.

But when I spoke to my mother, she said, “No, you can’t do that. She’s the only girl I have, I’m an old woman, I can’t survive without her. If you take her, I’ll be dead.” I went back to the city, but this conversation haunted me. I couldn’t really live my life anymore. I was constantly thinking about my sister, at the verge of losing the only opportunity she had to a better life — that is, education. And as a child who grew up in a rural area, my own life was transformed by education.

I wasn’t sure what to do. All I knew was how to be an accountant and work in a financial institution. But one night, I asked myself, “If I don’t don’t do something, who will? I am just complaining about what I can’t do, and my sister can’t go to school because she has to fetch wood.”

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

But wait, why had this become a problem when you’d fetched wood as a child yourself?

When I was growing up, we had a forest close by. It no longer exists now. I used to graze cows as a kid and we would graze in forests — have a lot of fun, play hide and seek. But kids these days don’t have that luxury. It’s all empty land — you can see virtually 50 kilometers away because it’s all empty.

The problem is that once people deplete the few forests remaining, they must venture further to find wood. At first, I thought I was just blowing my sister’s dilemma out of proportion, but it became clear that she is not alone. There are so many people — so many kids like her who can’t go to school because there are no trees left in the villages. At my office, where I had access to the internet, I did some research. I found that Uganda has already lost 70% of its forests. According to UN statistics, Uganda will have no forests left by the year 2052 if nothing is done to curb the current rate of deforestation. In a few years’ time, Uganda will have to import wood. But we’re talking about people who live on less than two dollars a day. If we imported wood, would they be able to afford it? And if they can’t afford cooking fuel, how will they survive?

So what you noticed was a connection between changes in the environment and a threat to your community’s way of life.

Yes. It’s actually about the entire ecosystem. When I was younger and we had forest, we were semi-nomads — a cattle-keeping community that traveled with cows. It was easy to take care of them, because seasons were stable, rains were predictable, we had water. In the last ten years, things have changed for the worse. Now droughts are becoming persistent. Actually, as I speak to you now, my family is relocating our cows to a distant area because there’s no water left in the village — also a problem of deforestation. Even in national parks, animals are dying, and the population of buffalo is getting lower, and people encroach looking for water. People are competing for the little that is remaining. And in mountainous areas where all the trees have been cut down, the hills are so dry they develop cracks. When it rains, landslides cover people’s houses and it floods — people are dying because of this. It’s not the world that I grew up in.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

U.S. State Department’s Conversation with African Innovators

Last week representatives from the U.S. State Department Elana Berkowitz and Bruce Wharton reached out directly to innovators in East Africa to discuss the Apps 4 Africa contest, and the role software developers play in solving civil society issues in their countries. They are funding this contest which is being organized and facilitated by Appfrica Labs (my company in Uganda), iHub (Kenya), and Sodnet (Kenya’s Social Development Network). The Apps4Africa website itself was developed by Ugandan web design company, NodeSix.

I found this interesting because it’s not everyday you have someone as high ranking as a Deputy Coordinator fielding ad-hoc questions from youth and entrepreneurs in East Africa. The hour long conversation took place at here and you can view the full transcript and video by clicking the link or the image below…

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The other thing that I found admirable about this whole thing the way in which the State Department used social media to not only speak to Africans, but to listen and actually have a conversation with anyone who was in the room at the time. Some quick highlights and personal observations from the conversation:

One person in the room going by the name Tolo asked, “If you hold the competition and someone wins with a great new application who will hold a right to future profit?”

Elana and Bruce pointed out that most of the apps entered will be open source, but not all. This means developers of proprietary solutions can enter, keep their code private and would thus retain all the rights to their application. Winning the prize does not require the app to be open source although we encourage it.

Teddy Ruge (TMS Ruge) of ProjectDiaspora.org asked “With all the great innovation going on now in East Africa, what do you see as the bottlenecks to greater innovation and growth, especially in East Africa?”

The response from Bruce, “Secretary Clinton has often mentioned the barriers (tariff and non-tariff trade barriers) that exist between the countries of East Africa. Lowering those barriers is one thing that will help support innovation.”

I was also in the room and asked the following question, “Is this a shift in the US thoughts towards policy with Africa?”

Bruce answered, “There is a general recognition that the aid and development programs we’ve pursued in the last few decades have had mixed results. So we are all looking for ways to improve the model. President Obama has laid out a model of ‘let’s be partners and not patrons’.”

Visit Apps4Africa.com for more or to find out your next opportunity to participate.

Recently I’ve been working alongside the U.S. Department of State to help them engage grassroots innovators and entrepreneurs. While I’m not involved with government at all, I think it’s important that the local private sector support such experiments as they may help to shape foreign policy decisions in the future.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee at TEDx Kampala

I’m pleased to annouce the first TEDx event I’m organizing as a Fellow, and what an a way to start!  The man credited with inventing the web itself is speaking at TEDxKampala!  Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation will visit the East Africa region in late November, stopping by TEDxKampala as our esteemed guest. Mr. Berners-Lee will join prominent members of the Ugandan IT space as we discuss the future of the web and the future of mobile in general (as well as in Africa) and other ‘ideas worth spreading’.

TEDxKampala will be held on November 23, 2009 in Kampala, Uganda.  Other scheduling details and venue TBA.  For those interested, this site will have the details as soon as they are available.

Confirmed sponsors and facilitators include EACOSS (The East African Center for Open Source Software), LUG (Linux Users Group Uganda), and UNICEF.  Other interested sponsors can reach me via email at j.gosier@appfrica.org

People Want to Know

One of the the things the TED Fellows program is great at is that it allows us to be in the same place as people who have the will and interest to support our projects.  After my talk a few days ago at TEDGlobal, I was approached by someone from the Garudian.co.uk who wrote this article

One of the features of TEDGlobal was two sessions called TED University where attendees could give short presentations on ideas or projects they were working on. The Grameen Foundation recently contacted African designer, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jon Gosier of Appfrica.org because they wanted to know: What do people in Africa want to know?

They knew if they opened up a hotline and offered to answer anyone’s question about what they wanted to know that they would quickly be overwhelmed. Working with ‘community knowledge workers’ who were usually retirees looking for a way to give back to their community, people in a village in Uganda could ask these workers questions. The workers then would relay those questions back to operators using an offline internet application to find the answer in real-time.

Passionate about data visualisations, Gosier also wanted to release the information in a way that easily showed where the questions were coming from and also the range of the topics. You can see the questions that are being asked in real time at the site, World Wants to Know. While the West and Gosier enjoys social networking tools like Facebook and many choices in terms of real-time communications, he was interested to offer something from “such a rural part of the world”.

Social Capital Gains

Exactly one month ago I posted a story about some of the many projects I’m funding at my company Appfrica Labs. One of those stories was about a 19-year old entrepreneur who had created a product that I thought was particularly impressive. Together, he and I crafted a multi-faceted business plan around his idea that, is not only completely sustainable, but it’s also completely scalable with the resources that we had available. Less than a month later and his project has gone from zero to 60, complete with multiple potential investors and a big media partner to bring the product to market. And his story is not unique, I can equally point similar success in the rest of my staff. But more on this later.  First, I want to explain more about the role my company plays in Uganda as an investor and incubator for young entrepreneurs.

Collateral Damages

An East African teen goes to college, gets good grades, excels in University only to come out to a job market that can’t use his skills, or an international job market that he’s not skilled enough for. So he applies for grants, scholarships and a visa to get accepted to a school abroad. He’s accepted and moves to an unnamed first-world country. There he gets a high paying job and settles down, perhaps choosing to send a portion of his income to the people he left behind each month.

What’s wrong with that picture?

Expatriating for opportunity should be an explicit choice, not a necessity. Don’t get me wrong, this type of story is indeed a great success and many people who’ve followed this path are making fantastic contributions to both the societies they come from and the ones they now live in. The problem for their home countries, however, is the collateral costs when it isn’t a choice.

1) The cost to the country, to educate someone with the best of state resources available only to have them leave to create value and pay taxes elsewhere.

2) The cost to the alumni, businesses and donors who fund the universities facilities.

3) The experience, skills, and awareness gained by an individual livign and working abroad, can’t be easily shared with the people left behind who might otherwise benefit from it.

4) The state then sees all of it’s top students leaving, and regrets going to such great lengths to educate them in the first place (seeing it as somewhat of a waste). So they then vilify the educators and cut funding, which (not always but often) leads to corruption within the education system due to the constraints created as a result.

5) Students feeling pressure now, from both within the University and wanting to succeed for the sake of their families, make their decision to go elsewhere to study, work or venture.

6) The students left behind aren’t the most skilled. If the top 10% of the class is expatriating, that leaves the rest to compete for jobs locally, usually at NGOs, or foreign companies operating on the ground. Many of these organizations also have ‘western standards’ for their workforces skills, thus, they often underpay locally while over paying for foreign ‘experience’. They may even begin to resent having to work with any locals at all, which may lead to their exiting the market. Again, the pressures, economic and otherwise, placed on anyone left behind can lead to corruption.

This is not a hypothetical argument, I’m talking about the current state of Makerere University in Uganda and some of the various NGOs that operate here.

Affect Theory

In Makerere’s Computer Science program they graduate about 900 kids per year. Of those 900 between 5% and 10% find full time jobs by the same time the next year. Those that don’t find jobs by that time, now have the added pressure of competing with the next class – with a the added disadvantage of a slightly outdated and somewhat unequal education (as education should be getting better with each graduating class). Many of the remaining 90% to 95% will wimple give up, going back to tried and true jobs like taxi driving, owning a small shop or working in unrelated areas to their degrees. Again, this is a cost on the state, who’ve trained highly specialized individuals who are often now doing things they could have done without an education at all.

To further illustrate my point, I’ll borrow some terms from behavioral psychologist Burrhus Skinner and his work with positive reinforcement. Essentially, he argues that there are two motivations for a person do anything. Either to avoid suffering (negative reinforcement) or to experience the pleasure of reward (positive reinforcement). Skinner argues that every decision in life is made with an internal dial that tilts from one degree of extreme to another. Now, this is important because if there’s no reward, some people don’t excel. Why would they, there’s no real point. Alternatively, achieving to avoid punishment will ensure (in my opinion) that people will only ever just enough to avoid that punishment. Whether it be working everyday (to avoid poverty and hunger), abiding the law (to avoid penalty) or sending their remittances across the Atlantic (to avoid cultural and family shame) – all of these things can be done with different motivations. It’s my opinion that truly remarkable results are achieved by people who are acting for reward rather than the fear of punishment. And I won’t go too Psych101 on you all, but there’s also a correlation between negative reinforcement and immediate gratification; and positive reinforcement and delayed gratification.

‘Reward’ in this sense could be anything from their own ‘feeling good’ about what they do or the general idea that their actions may have long term positive implications. But I digress, since I work with investors, I’ll bring all right back to the topic of this piece which is capital.

Reward and Incentive

Now, there are all types of economists and people from the financial sector who can explain the potential risks of investing in a region like East Africa. But those ideas are all based on history – watching what’s occurred and making informed projections of the future. What I will attempt to explain is the affect of such.

Going back to the story that I opened with, this particular student is very self-motivated. When I organized the Facebook Garage here last year, he was full of questions. Even before he attended, he had been working on web applications. But why? There’s no market for this type of thing AT ALL here. In the city of Kampala, I can count the number of web development companies on two hands. If you get rid of the big corporations like MTN and the start-up companies that have been around for more than a year, then one hand. Of the ones that are here, few of them make much money and thus they don’t pay very well. Yet, this particular kid was determined to do it. When his internet was cut off at home and his laptop was stolen, he was distressed. Where could he go?

Apparently I had given him my business card a few months prior at the Facebook Garage and he called to find out if I could help. But his success has very little to do with me; it has everything to do with opportunity. After a few weeks without access to his computer he’d maybe get frustrated with the curriculum at school, not being able to match his restless mind. Maybe he’d drop out and do something else, maybe he’d forge through and be one of the brilliant minds who goes abroad. If there are no opportunities, there isn’t much of a choice. His call to me, was a call to something new. He didn’t know it would pay off at the time, but for him it was worth the risk, and faced with those two options, he had nothing to lose.

So yes, individualism and tenacity do play a huge role but the point is those things have to be rewarded to exist. For example, people in Silicon Valley don’t innovate because they’re so brilliant they just can’t help it. If that were the case, Moore’s Law would have been trampled upon years ago. No, they innovate because of the multiple rewards that exist for being innovative. Maybe they just want the big checks, maybe it’s the adulation from their peers and suitors, perhaps they just want to prove that they are smarter than everyone else in the room. But there’s always some reward. Likewise, it’s absurd to expect entrepreneurial people and innovative ideas en masse in markets where there’s often the opposite of reward for such behaviour.  Investments and other types of support represent reassurance and afirmation that something (in this case a business plan) is worth pursuing.  I’m not saying investing resources is the only way to breed success. Of course there are other things that come into play like mentorship, education and the role that governments play.  But it is one factor and there certainly isn’t enough long-term capital investment in the region.

These are some of the many reasons, I mentor and invest in East Africa’s thinkers and leaders. To help them build their visions into long-term sustainable businesses, creating jobs for themselves and others.  With more of the right kinds of investors, I strongly believe that East Africa will continue to prove that there’s more than enough talent, more than enough reliable people and more than enough ideas to help reshape the region.