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MoMokla, M4D 2010, and ICT Life in Kampala

Stéphane Boyera · November 16, 2010


Following our week in Nairobi, I moved to Kampala (Uganda) to attend a couple of events, and sync back with all the people we met last year when we came with Tim.

The week started with the Mobile Monday Kampala, aka MoMoKla. Impressive attendance, probably more than 100 people.
I was a little a frustrated because the event was organized in collaboration with the M4D event, and therefore all speakers were foreigners. Surely a great opportunity for the local crowd and the format is fully understandable, but I would have loved hearing about local stories!

That said, I really appreciated one particular talk from Matt Berg, and specifically one point he made around cooperation between different tools and the need for open standardized format. In few words, there are tons of different tools, some are open source, some are free, etc. What’s critical, overall, is that all these tools are using standard interface, and open format so that it is easy to build your own infrastructure by adding different tools together, and to plug something new in an existing setup.  At the Web Foundation, we are pushing for such an approach, but this is the first time I’m hearing someone else making such a point.

Daniel Stern and Sean Krepp preparing MoMoKla

I personally believe that open format, and open data/api is more important than open source, because it enables the co-existence of different tools in an integrated world.

The second event I attended was the Mobile for Development conference. It is an academic conference taking place every two years, organized by Karlstad University (Sweden) and this time in collaboration with Makerere University.

There were about 80 participants there. I really enjoyed the availability of proceedings before the event so that I could look in details about the papers I was particularly interested in, and have in-depth discussion with the author.

Concerning the content, as usual with conferences, I was disappointed by some sessions, and very excited by some others. I really liked the discussion around mobile banking. On this topic, I’m amazed by the amount of research on the potential of mobile-banking for the “unbanked” that completely overlook the technological issue, and the total absence of cross-operator systems.

The presentation by Nicola D’Elia from GSMA Development Funds was both very interesting and very worrying. Nowadays, mobile banking is going to be a new way for the dominant operator in a given country to kill competition, and kill other operators. Because it is critical for people to run financial transactions, they will obviously go to the biggest operator, and stay with them. This was clearly demonstrated in the presentation. That’s good for major players …  that’s terrible for competition, pricing, etc.

bird in Kampala

The session I chaired on access and inclusion had very interesting papers. The two I would like to highlight are from Jonathan Donner (“A Note on the Availability (and Importance) of Pre-Paid Mobile Data in Africa”) and from Vanessa Frias-Martinez (“The Anatomy of Mobile Handsets: On the development of effective cell phone services”). The first one is essential for the future of mobile-browsing in Africa. Jonathan is one of the only people I know who believes strongly in the future of mobile browsing.

Here again, I’m amazed by the number of people wbo have opinions based on myth and misunderstanding. Mobile Web does not require smartphones and 3G — the simplest Java phones and GPRS are enough. Data services are not expensive, but up to 1000 times cheaper per character than SMS. Clearly this misunderstanding even at the operator level has a large impact on the market offer for data service. That’s the focus of the work on Jonathan, and that’s very critical.

The second paper I mentioned above is also very important. It is a study of IMEI numbers from Telefonica, and how to extract devices characteristics. I’m not sure how many operators really understand the importance on this information. In our Mobile Entrepreneur in Africa project in Ghana, it is essential to offer a way for entrepreneurs to measure the size of the market they will address depending on the technology and product they are selecting. I will explore this further, and see if it would be possible to get the information from operators. Obviously, there are legal issues, there is business intelligence that operators are not willing to give to their competitors.  However, giving some stats about the types of devices in the market is nothing really sensible and very easy (apparently) to extract.

So all in one, I was really happy with what I learned during sessions and, as usual, during good corridor chats!

Except from these two events, it was a real pleasure to meet again the IT scene in Kampala, who is largely driven by a small group of very enthusiastic geeks: Kyle Spencer, Simon Vass, Reinier Battenberg, Daniel Stern, Matt Griffiths. I’m impressed to see how committed they are to make Kampala active and up to speed on the IT front. The amount of energy they are putting in for the community is also amazing, from organizing MoMokla, to help watching the 2011 election, from building the internet exchange point, to setting-up Hive Colab, a concept similar to iHub in Nairobi.
So i really enjoyed meeting again all these people and spending time with them. It was also a real pleasure to synch up with the Grameen Foundation App Lab, and its new head, Sean Krepp, who i knew before from his Nokia time, and who has lots of exciting projects.

So, as you can see, it was not wasted time for me, and I really hope that we will be able to launch activities in this wonderful country in a very near future.


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