African Solutions to African Problems: Ushahidi is Taking the Internet to the Next Five Billion

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Ushahidi's BRCK

Representing a new frontier of innovation in Africa, non-profit technology collective Ushahidi is developing African solutions to African problems

“If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere,” is the motto of Ushahidi, a Kenyan non-profit technology collective which designs and builds open source software and digital tools to help people in the developing world.

Indeed, while in the West technological possibilities are being stretched to their bounds, across Africa something as seemingly straightforward as an Internet connection is unreliable. Figures from the East African Community (EAC) suggest 90% of schools and 30% of hospitals are still off-grid. Only 24% of the developing world is connected to the internet. And, as Ushahidi comments, “power spikes and outages are everyday occurrences in Nairobi and across Sub-Saharan Africa, no matter your income level”. But in a region lacking adequate roads and clean water, developing reliable Internet connectivity is simply not a priority for governments.

There are a number of Western companies working to solve the problem – and at the same time bringing their products to the world’s next five billion Internet users. For example Google has ProjectLink Uganda and LoonBalloon, and Microsoft is experimenting with the TV White Spaces spectrum. But Ushahidi has developed an African solution that really might solve the African problem.

The Internet back-up generator BRCK

Designed to be an “internet back-up generator”, Ushahidi has developed BRCK, a piece of hardware that offers rugged and reliable connectivity. Working like a phone, it can be used in any area that gets mobile signal, as it works by intelligently and seamlessly switching as per the need between the strongest network types in the vicinity (broadband, Ethernet cable, Wifi, CDMA, and 3G or 4G mobile phone networks). It supports up to 20 wireless connections at a time. And it also has up to 16 gigabytes of storage space and a BRCK Cloud connection so it can serve as a back-up server and sync with connected devices and cloud applications.

Designed to face Africa-specific environments, the portable hardware handles the heat and dust of even the most demanding environments. And while it connects to the mains, is also comes with about 8 hours of power back up, can be charged via a car battery, or plugged to a solar charger, combating the region’s lack of reliable energy sources.

“As the next 4.5 billion people (65% of the world) start coming online, the need for rugged, reliable, and simple connectivity becomes critical in places with poor infrastructure and limited resources. While existing technologies work well in modern cities, the demands of emerging markets necessitates a rethinking of how technology is engineered, packaged, delivered, and supported. BRCK was conceived in exactly this type of environment. In particular, our struggles in Africa with reliable connectivity inspired us to rethink the entire concept of rugged internet access device – designing the world’s first go-anywhere, connect-to-anything, always available internet device,” says Ushahidi.

Ushahidi driving innovation in Africa

Indeed, Ushahidi, which is part of the thriving Kenyan tech start-up scene – nicknamed the Silicon Savannah -, developed BRCK as a solution to its own problems. “As a company full of engineers working in places with poor infrastructure, we simply couldn’t get connected as reliably as our peers in the developed world”.

Ushahidi designed and developed BRCK with $172,000 raised on Kickstarter. And in doing so, pushed another frontier of innovation in Africa. Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon in the region, but Ushahidi’s Kickstarter success has kick-started crowd-funded entrepreneurship and innovation.

UshahidiExpanding technology’s reach

Co-founder Ory Okolloh, previously Google’s policy manager for Africa and named by Forbes as “one of the most influential women in global technology”, is committed to bringing the benefits of technological innovation to Africa. The company’s first project, for example, was a location-based crowdsourcing crisis-tracker map developed in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. Empowering individuals to document and report incidents in real time, the software allows users to text, email, tweet, or photograph information which is then plotted on to a map. The idea is that media, governments, and relief organizations can see a live picture of what’s happening on the ground and can target responses in real-time. The map has since been used in India during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and in Japan during the tsunami in 2011. It has also been used to log medicine shortages across Africa and reports of violence in the Middle East.  The company takes its name from this piece of software; “Ushahidi” means “testimony” in Swahili.

And the company is currently expanding its reach with the launch of a digital classroom – the Kio Kit. Ushahidi explains: “You open a box and there are 40 tablets inside, there is a BRCK inside and on the BRCK there is a Linux [open-source] server — so we can locally cache educational content, and serve it up to the tablets.” Ever prepared for the African environment, the modem is in a watertight, hardened-plastic wheeled suitcase and acts as a wireless charging station.

African solutions to African problems has become a bit of a catchphrase, but the impact of socially motivated entrepreneurs could have huge implications for the technological development of the region.

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Fracking in the Middle East and Africa

Comments (1) Featured, Middle East, Politics

algeria protests fracking

The Middle East is a region often portrayed as under threat from fracking, but with surging domestic demand, shale oil and gas hold significant potential.

A refresher for those who need it, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of drilling around 3,000 meters down into the earth before pumping in large volumes of fracking fluid (water mixed with sand and chemicals) at high pressure, to fracture the earth’s shale and release trapped gas and oil. The process has been in use in the US since the 1940s, unlocking the country’s resources of an estimated 567 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of shale gas and 58 billion barrels of shale oil. And it has revolutionized the country’s energy: in 2014 the US produced more than 33 billion cf of shale gas and if it continues at this same rate it is set to achieve self-sufficiency by 2020. With significant resources, Russia, China, Canada, and Latin America have quickly followed suit. As have India and other Asia-Pacific countries, though to a lesser extent.

The positives: fracking has the potential to boost the world’s natural gas resources by 47%, raise national energy supplies, increase self-sufficiency, and create jobs and income. It also has a significantly lower environmental impact than say, coal mining. But it comes with concerns, not least in regard to water supply. The fracking fluid contains chemicals which reportedly can contaminate groundwater supplies. It also requires huge quantities of water, about 2 to 5 million gallons per process, depleting pure water resources. And all this water must be transported to each fracking site, coming with more environmental costs.

Large quantities of methane are also released during the process, a substance which has 25 times greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. And there are worries that fracking can cause small earthquakes. As a result, France, which is thought to have Western Europe’s biggest shale oil deposits, has introduced a five-year ban, and Germany has recently followed suit.

Significant potential for fracking in the Middle East and Africa

arabian oil and gasThe Middle East, which currently holds half the world’s conventional oil resources and 40% of its gas, is often portrayed as a region under threat from fracking as its traditional oil and gas customers become self-sufficient producers. But while it has perhaps been slower to exploit shale than most other regions, there is in fact significant potential in the Middle East and Africa. Thomas Ahlbrandt, who led a US Geological Survey in 2000, comments: “US source rocks are modest compared to the Silurian, Jurassic, Cretaceous and Tertiary source rocks in the region. The Silurian is found in Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, while the giant North Field, shared by Iran and Qatar, is the conventional leg of a huge unconventional gas accumulation”. And the region is no longer ignoring the potential.

For example, Oman is on track to become the first Middle Eastern country to produce shale gas and oil. With an estimated 48 Tcf of natural gas and 6.2 billion barrels of oil technically recoverable, it is developing an ambitious drilling program which it hopes will produce at least 1 billion cf of gas per day by 2017. Working with US Apache and Shell Egypt, exploration of four potential basins is also underway in Egypt, where there is an estimated 100 Tcf and 6 billion barrels technically recoverable. Similarly, Kuwait’s state-owned Kuwait Oil Company has identified a viable shale gas deposit and is moving to extract. Libya is seeking foreign companies to conduct joint studies on the development of an estimated 121 Tcf and 26 billion barrels. And, as of March 2015, Bahrain has an exploration program in place in the Bahrain Field, exclusively with OXY.

Shale resources could be important for the region

Scarce in water sources and dependent on groundwater, one may ask why the Middle East and Africa region is pursuing fracking. Perhaps the key reason is the surging domestic demand for energy. Consumption rates have risen, resources have become more unstable, and conventional oil prices are fluctuating.

The UAE already imports gas from Qatar through the Dolphin pipeline and is looking at the potential of importing gas from America to cope with rising demand. But it could instead exploit an estimated 205 Tcf and 22.6 billion barrels of shale resources. Traditionally resource-poor Jordan has already signed an agreement with the Saudi Shale Rock Corporation with hopes of production by 2017 to meet demand. And in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest consumer of crude oil for electricity, there are hopes that an estimated 600 Tcf of technically recoverable shale gas (more than double its conventional gas reserves) could stem a potential energy crisis. The national oil company ARAMCO has already carried out an appraisal drilling, and aims to produce 200 million cf of shale gas by 2018 to supply a new power station.

Unprecedented environmental protests across the region

But fracking is not being taken well everywhere across the region. In South Africa, environmental protests resulted in the government putting in place a shale exploration suspension in 2011. Heavily dependent on coal for 75% of its energy supply, the country could significantly benefit from tapping into its estimated 485 Tcf, predominantly found in the Karoo Basin. And Shell was one of three companies given an exploration permit back in 2010. But while the suspension has since been lifted and fracking regulations have been gazetted, it is still being strongly opposed by a coalition of environmentalists, farmers, and local residents. And recently, a two-year Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) was launched.

There’s a similar story in Tunisia, where civil rights organizations have pushed the Tunisian Minister of Industry to put fracking on hold until wide scale social dialogue has taken place.

And in the most obvious example there is Algeria, where the drilling of shale reserves has led to the breakout of an unprecedented environmental protest movement. Looking to profit from potential reserves of 707 Tcf and 5.7 billion barrels across six basins, the government has signed agreements with a number of companies, put in place tax breaks on shale drilling, and has begun a 20 year development program with a $70 billion investment. But since January this year, there have been wide scale demonstrations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and clashes with police in Warkalah and Ain Al Saleh in the heart of the Sahara. Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has vowed to continue the exploratory work, while promising to protect the public’s health and the environment.

Indeed, if the region is to be successful as a shale gas and oil producer, it must prioritize wide scale social dialogue and environmental concerns. Otherwise there is a risk that demonstrations, which are potentially dangerous in such an area, could turn into political pressure that prevents any shale exploration at all.

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An Untapped Resource: Emerging Fields of Employment for Women in the Middle East

Comments (0) Business, Featured, Middle East

middle east women in tech

Echoing global trends, in the Middle East the number of women pursuing a university degree is equal to, or higher than the number of men. In Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan women constitute respectively 67%, 63%, 57%, and 51% of university graduates. Arab women outnumber men in even the hard sciences. Indeed, the number of female STEM graduates is higher in the Middle East than it is in Western Europe. But as of yet, these advances in education have not translated into jobs. The number of women in paid employment in the MENA region is the world’s lowest, at 32%. In Jordan that figure is 16%. And women are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as men in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Kuwait, nearly 80% of the unemployed are women.

Persistent social and economic barriers – both perceived and real – are standing in the way. How will women travel to work when they’re not allowed to drive? Who will escort them? Who will look after their children? And what happens if they become pregnant? Comprehensive female employment will require governments to enact new laws. And it will require companies to create separate offices, bathrooms, entrances, and more.

However, representing a highly educated talent pool and an untapped resource that could offer the region a competitive advantage, women are perfectly qualified to play a productive role in the workforce. And indeed, there are now some positive signs that fields of female employment are starting to emerge and that businesses are starting to capitalize on the potential of Middle Eastern women.

More female Internet entrepreneurs in the Middle East than in the West

Technology is playing a significant role. In a region where nearly a third of the 355 million population are aged 15 to 25, Internet and social media penetration is very high. Nearly 90% access the web from home (except in Jordan and Egypt where the figure is 44%-50%). And nearly nine in ten Internet users log in to social media every day. Nowhere in the world does Twitter have more active users in proportion to the population than in Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, the region is also the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce market.

The combination is creating opportunities for women, allowing them to set up small businesses from home where they can at once conform to traditional social norms and work. Indeed, where only 10% of Internet entrepreneurs across the world are women, in the MENA region that figure is 35%.

sheburgerJust a few examples: Emirati Shaikha Eissa has built a successful burger company, She Burger, on Instagram utilizing her 25,000 followers. Mona Ataya has launched a baby product retail site, Mumzworld, targeting female shoppers, which employs 40 people and sells more than 100,000 products. And prominent Palestinian Instagrammers Ruba Abdulhadi and Badea Jaber, have brought luxury western fashion to the Middle East with an e-shop,, which leverages social content. was supported by Oasis500, the first early stage and seed investment company in Jordan and the MENA region. And there are many other bodies similarly investing in the region’s female entrepreneurs. The Gaza Sky Geeks accelerator is actively working to increase women’s leadership in the Gaza start-up sector. Girls in Tech is working to inform women in urban and rural communities around the world about the possibilities that tech can open up. And the US State Department has a TechWomen initiative which pairs MENA female tech entrepreneurs with American counterparts in Silicon Valley.

Fetchr is revolutionizing Middle Eastern delivery with a female workforce

E-commerce is also creating further employment opportunities for women. For example, GPS delivery app Fetchr has developed a female workforce to revolutionize delivery in the region. Currently, much of e-commerce is paid for cash on delivery (60%), but if a woman is home alone she won’t answer the door for a male driver. This results in returned products, lag times in payment, and repeat delivery trips. In solution, Fetchr, operating in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Bahrain, has employed women to make the deliveries.

Co-founders Joy Ajlouny and Idriss al-Rifai say: “In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. Our deliverywomen will not be driving, they’ll just be knocking on doors. And because Saudi law dictates that all women must be accompanied in public spaces by a mahram, a male-relative or in-law escort, Fetchr employs family teams. Father-daughter, brother-sister, uncle-niece.” The company is also actively hiring female drivers in the UAE where women are allowed to drive.

Creating new business spaces for women

Fetchr is not the only company capitalizing on the business benefits of a female workforce. In Saudi Arabia, the Olayan Group, a 30-company conglomerate led by Lubna Olayan, is similarly committed to female employment. The Group, which deals in investing, real estate, manufacturing and distribution for foreign brands including Coca-Cola, Ritz Crackers, and Oreos, currently employs some 400 women (3% of its 12,000 Saudi-based employees). It has set a target to have 1,000 female employees in roles at all levels, from the factory floor to sales and management, by 2016.

Lubna Olayan

Lubna Olayan

The Group’s first female employees, mostly disadvantaged women, made history when they became Saudi Arabia’s first ever female factory workers, sewing surgical gowns at Enayah. Coca-Cola bottling now has an all-female bottling line. And Nabisco Arabia has a woman-only production line. Olayan companies have installed female prayer rooms and created partitions in offices, canteens, and factory floors to give their women workers privacy in line with regulations. There are also women-only buses to and from work.

Because yes, in the short term female employment in the MENA region will take some investment. But in the long term, capitalizing on the potential of a whole sector of society will also come with benefits.

Read more CEO Ronaldo Mouchawar: Empowering the Middle East through E-commerce

Comments (0) Featured, Leaders, Middle East


Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, Ronaldo Mouchawar is the co-founder and CEO of the Arab world’s largest online shopping site and a pioneer of e-commerce in the region. He is also an eloquent symbol of a rising trend that’s seeing entrepreneurs reject the, if not saturated then busy, Western market, so long seen as the choice, in favor of using their expertise and innovative spirit to revolutionize and empower the market at home.

Originally trained in the West, Mouchawar was educated at Northeastern University, Boston, where he obtained a Bachelors in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a Masters in Digital Communications. He also spent the early years of his career in the US working in technology and business management, including a role as technical and systems consultant at Electronic Data Systems (EDS).

But in 2000, he returned to the Middle East with a belief he could improve the Arab world by exploiting the empowering possibilities of technology. He first launched a consulting company managing web and e-commerce projects for the local Arab market, before in 2005 joining forces with Maktoob’s Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury to launch online retail site and marketplace for third party sellers,, just as the Arab world began to embrace technology and mobile.

A decade on, Dubai headquartered, known as the Amazon of the Middle East, now operates in the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and ships to Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain, selling more than 400,000 products from consumer electronics, to fashion, household items, and babywear. And it is growing fast: in the last two years, Souq has expanded ten times over; and in 2014 it saw an annual growth of over 100%. The site sees 30 million unique visitors per month, of which more than 10 million are on mobile. And an app, launched in 2014, has now been downloaded around two million times. There are rumors that Souq is fundraising at a valuation of $1 billion.

It’s some success story. But Mouchawar still considers his company a startup. While in financial terms this cannot be considered true, he says: “If continuing to think of Souq as a startup helps us innovate, then great.”

Innovating the e-commerce model for Arab markets

Certainly, Mouchawar’s ability to innovate has been key to Souq’s success. Originally launched as an auction site modeled on eBay, he quickly redirected the company into a fixed price model, recognizing its potential in the Middle East. And while may now superficially seem like a copycat-Amazon, Mouchawar has transformed that business model for the market: he has localized and arabized e-commerce.

For example, has gone some ways to rebalance the disparity between the availability of Arabic content online (currently just 3% of all content) and the number of Arabic speakers around the world (around half a billion). Arabic content has become a Souq forte, as are localized promotions, partnerships, and exclusive products. Mouchawar has also adapted operations for Middle Eastern challenges. For instance, in Egypt, only about 10% of the population have credit cards, and in countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, 60% of online purchases are still paid for via cash on delivery. Mouchawar has developed prepaid cards which can be purchased in real life (IRL) and used online. He has also overcome an underdeveloped logistics infrastructure by developing a Souq-owned local delivery system offering “last mile” deliveries to places with no mail service or postal address, along with investing in local logistics companies and building relationships with local couriers. Souq teams are also in place in the majority of Souq’s operating countries, to continually innovate local solutions for area-specific problems.

Job creation in the Middle East

But Mouchawar believes his e-commerce solutions can have even further reaching impacts: he believes that e-commerce can empower.

“We believed the Internet and e-commerce specifically could be an empowering tool to support SMEs, and help create a knowledge base economy where we employ as many people and create jobs, as our region needed it,” he says. “It could create badly needed jobs for young people and boost the businesses that are the backbone of Arab economies.” “Imagine the access a merchant can have from a street in Cairo to a customer base in Saudi Arabia, to the UAE. If we can connect all these dots, you will have an incredible customer base.”

The website proudly reveals that it employs 1,000 people directly and has provided jobs for another 6,000 people indirectly through its networks of partners, suppliers, and couriers, “not to mention the 75,000+ sellers, many of whom have built their livelihood via the website”.

Unsurprisingly, Mouchawar has become one of the Middle East’s most prominent entrepreneurs, visible and accessible on the startup circuit, speaking at conferences, and looking to inspire where he can.

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Egyptian Parliamentary Elections: The Path to Prosperity?

Comments (1) Featured, Middle East, Politics



This week, more than 27 million Egyptians in 14 of the country’s 27 provinces began voting in the first round of long-delayed elections to choose a new parliament. The country has been without one since Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the People’s Assembly in 2012, a body which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. In place, current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – former head of the Egyptian Armed Forces who helped oust the Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 – has held all legislative powers, ever since he was overwhelmingly elected in 2014 with 96.6% of the vote.

But where Sisi has hailed this election a milestone in the country’s path to prosperity, and the final stage in the country’s three-step transition to stability (step one being the vote on a new constitution, step two, the election that made him president), Egyptian voters appear less interested and critics have called it a sham.

Low turnout in the first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections

Turnout has been low. On Wednesday, the head of the Electoral Commission reported that voter participation was 26.56%, even after the government declared a half-day holiday on Monday to encourage more to vote. Reuters put that figure at 10% on Sunday.

Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman has strongly rebuffed claims that the low turnout represents a failed political environment. He insists the country is moving toward stability. “Anyone with a basic knowledge of Egypt’s political landscape should know that this year’s parliamentary elections are subject to many complex factors,” he said, citing, for example, Egypt’s continuing development of stable political opposition parties.

But whether low turnout can be called evidence of voter fatigue (Egyptians have voted seven times since the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011), or disenchantment (most of the more than 5,000 candidates are perceived to support Sisi who has cracked-down on opposition groups and extremism), it seems that Sisi is losing some of his cult-like adoration.

What will the new parliament look like?

Held under heavy security – reportedly 185,000 soldiers and 180,000 police were deployed as a result of ISIS militant attacks over the past year -, this is the first phase of a two phase vote to select 596 MPs. The second round is set for November. 448 will be voted in as independents, 120 on party lists, and 28 as presidential appointees. There are quotas for women, Christians, youth, farmers, workers, and Egyptians abroad.

The independents list – which will form 75% of the assembly – tends to favor wealthy, well-connected, pro-government candidates. And the liberal, pro-market Free Egyptians Party, founded by telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who famously offered to buy an island for people fleeing Syria, has already seen 65 of its candidates qualify for the runoffs in 51 constituencies. Pro-Sisi coalition, For the Love of Egypt, an alliance of businessmen, politicians, and former NDP members, is also doing well, having secured all 60 party seats on offer in this first round.

Slow signs of reform

Many of these businessmen – who strongly supported Sisi’s rise to power – believe he can deliver the stability needed, and open up investment opportunities. But relations are also strained.

On election, Sisi – widely seen as a friend of economic reform – promised a rebalancing of government finances, a reduction of state debt and energy subsidies, reforms of the investment environment, a broadened tax base, the introduction of a value-added tax, labor reforms, and more. It is a commitment he repeated at the World Economic Forum in Davos, stating his intent to remove obstacles to private-sector development and resolve disputes between investors and the government.

But evidence of actual significant reform is slow. And in a country where half the population is under 25, average per capita yearly income growth has sat at around 2% since 1980. Unemployment has increased to 12.7%. Inflation is just under 10%. The economy is only projected to grow 5% in 2015-2016 (roughly the same as in 2009-2010 under Mubarak). And the main stock index is down 23% this year, more than twice the decline of the MSCI Emerging Market Index.

Sisi has focused his efforts on using the military (his preferred approach to achieving stability) to oversee huge infrastructure projects, such as the expansion of the Suez Canal area. Many think this strategy does little for long-term economic growth and reveals a suspicion of the private sector.

Courting foreign investment

Courting foreign investment should be essential for Sisi, if he is to fulfil his promises. Foreign direct investment is currently at $6.4 billion (year ending June 2015), compared with an average of almost $10 billion in the four years preceding 2011. Government debts to foreign oil and gas companies – who provide the essential fuel for industry and power stations – have grown to $5.7 billion, so many of them have pulled back or exited altogether. And the foreigners who once held around $10 billion of domestic bonds have left, and not yet returned.

But there are positives to be drawn. With Sisi holding a tight grip on the security and safety of Egypt, many believe that financial and economic policies will be the only area in which a parliament will be able to play. Particularly one with its own interests in business. And these elections are also a signal that Egypt is committed to creating stability – both political and economic – whether or not there is still a long way to go. Good news, perhaps, for future foreign investment.

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