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Ory Okolloh’s Fascinating Career from Activist Blogger to Manager at Google

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Ory Okolloh Mwangi might be one of the most well-known women on the internet, at least across Africa, gaining recognition for her creation of online platforms to monitor Kenyan politicians and map violence.

Activist, Lawyer, Blogger, Manager

Ory Okolloh Mwangi might be one of the most well-known women on the internet, at least across Africa. Born in Kenya in 1977, she studied Political Science as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, and also gained a degree from Harvard Law School. She rose to fame for her role in creating a public website to monitor Kenya’s parliament. Two years later she created another monitoring utility aimed at reporting violence during the tumultuous elections, and she later worked as Policy Manager for Africa at Google. Okolloh has earned a spot on Forbes’ top 20 Power Women in Africa, as well as TIME’s 100 most influential women.

Keeping politicians accountable in the public eye

Okolloh first came to prominence with the launch of Mzalendo, a non-Governmental, non-partisan Parliamentary monitoring website in Kenya. With many details of MPs missing from the official parliament websites, and finding constituencies and boundaries difficult or impossible, Mzalendo was launched as a way of systematically recording speeches, bills, attendance of MPs and their voting record. The name comes from the Swahili word for patriot, and the goal was to increase public participation in politics and to hold MPs to account. In 2010 the site received funding from Omidyar Network which allowed for a relaunch. Users of Mzalendo can now see ‘scorecards’ for each Member of Parliament that assesses their attendance, contactability and spending performance.

Testimony to violence 

Okolloh, who was living in Johannesburg at the time, returned to Kenya to vote in the now-infamous 2007 elections. After a contentious election where the results were called into question, riots and looting swept the country. During a period of limited news and few official statements, Okolloh used her blog to give updates from political parties, journalists and sources within parliament. She reached out for help, and soon like-minded people had set up a new site with a link to Google Earth, allowing Okolloh to add the information to the map – where violence was taking place and what and where peace efforts were active.

This was the tumultuous birth of Ushahidi, a phrase that means ‘testimony’ in Swahili. It has since evolved into a platform that can be used by anyone around the world to gather and map reports to create a crowdsourced archive of events with geographic and time-date information.

From crowd-sourced activism to google to beer?

In 2010 Okolloh caused a shock by joining Google as Policy and Strategy Manager for Africa. When asked why she left her position at Ushahidi she stated, “It is a huge opportunity to bring Google’s resources to bear as far as the growth and development of the internet in Africa (and hopefully a reminder of why I went to law school in the first place!).” Google’s operation in Africa at the time already included Gmail and Chrome in Amharic and Swahili, YouTube South Africa, University Access Programs, Google SMS and Google Trader.

In 2013 she moved to Omidyar Network as a director of investments, staying with the company until January 2020. While Okolloh maintains her blog and is prevalent on Twitter, her latest job is something of a departure from her previous roles and she is currently Independent Non-Executive Director of East Africa Breweries.

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Google Helps African Startups to Grow and Thrive

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Helping Startups

Startups can find the first stages of development very challenging. While many people tend to think of funding and investment as being the main hurdle, there are also other challenges that can make or break a new business. Google’s new Startups Accelerator: Sustainable Development Goals program aims to fill those gaps, help startups meet challenges head-on, and to do so while meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals which include inequality, poverty, climate issues, environmental concerns, increasing prosperity, and ensuring peace and justice. 

The programme, new for 2020, is aimed at technology startups in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The aim is to provide those startups with the expert advice and help Google can provide in order to allow the startup to thrive and build solid companies that can have a social impact. 

On offer are a number of ways in which Google mentors – and some external experts – can assist the business. These include help with technology, advice on design and branding, product development, how to attract funding, and training in leadership skills. 

With 1,200 applications received, only 11 startups were chosen to be part of the first programme, and three of them were from Africa. So who were they? And what will they bring, not only to the Google table, but to the communities they operate in.

Flare – Uber for Ambulances

Aimed mainly at the healthcare sector (though they do also work with fire services), Kenya’s Flare is an innovative app that serves both customers and providers. For customers, it has been described as the medical version of Uber, allowing them to see the closest, or best, options when it comes to medical assistance or ambulances. Founded by Caitlin Dolkart and Maria Rabinovich, who have many years of experience in the medical sector between them, they see Flare as the next-generation 911. 

The 24/7 service aims to have assistance to the client within 15 minutes. And if it does not arrive within 30 minutes, the company will refund your annual membership fee. The service will also allow hospitals and ambulance services to work closer together and for ambulances to update their destination hospital on arrival times and patients’ conditions. 

Solar Freeze – Helping Small Farmers Increase Productivity 

A major issue facing African farmers, particularly smallholders, is the lack of reliable old chain storage and transportation. In fact, an average of 45% of harvested crops can spoil in developing nations due to the lack of these services. Solar Freeze, another Kenya-based startup, aims to reduce that figure and help low level farmers across Kenya increase their output to market and their prosperity. 

With a diverse team of 11 Kenyans, and with an average age of 27 years old, they have produced a solution for the farmers that does not require internet access and runs simply on USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data). Using their service, farmers can access various logistics services as well as portable solar-powered cold storage services that may eradicate any losses after harvesting crops. 

mDoc – Digital Healthcare for Sub-Saharan Africa 

The third African startup joining the programme is Nigeria’s mDoc. mDoc was founded to address the issue of people in sub-Saharan Africa not being able to always access the health services they need. With some 80% of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) occurring in low and middle income countries, this can be a very real issue that causes widespread distress. 

mDoc aims to address these issues by providing both mobile and web-based platforms that people living with chronic diseases can access on a 24/7 basis in order to get care and medical support from a network of providers. They also aim to assist doctors and other medical services to access the patients themselves to offer education on a range of related issues as well as being able to give those patients a self-management toolbox to help with any medical conditions. 

Founded by L. Nneka Mobisaon and Imo Utek, the startup believes that by bringing healthcare and technology together, they can improve the lives of many in the region and also help to develop the full potential of countries and people. 

Looking to the Future, Encouraging Growth

Time and time again, we have seen that technology and innovation can be two of the biggest tools in helping propel Africa forward. By harnessing technology at different levels that can be accessible to rural populations – such as mobile apps and USSD – companies can overcome the oft cited issue of lack of access to internet connectivity. 

Hopefully, Google’s first round of their Startup Accelerator Programme will prove to be a major success and will lead to increasing numbers of new businesses being supported in future years. By including the U.N.’s sustainable goals in their programme, they also ensure that companies aiming for positive social impacts will receive the support they need and deserve.

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Google starts taking payments for apps via Kenya’s M-Pesa service

Comments (0) Actualites, Africa, Business, Economy, Technology

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Google Play apps and games store has started accepting payments in Kenya through Safaricom’s mobile phone M-Pesa service to boost downloads in a market where many people do not have a credit card.

M-Pesa, which enables customers to transfer money and pay bills via mobile phone, has 27.8 million users in the nation of 45 million people where Google’s Android platform dominates. M-Pesa has been mimicked across Africa and in other markets.

“This is very important to the developer ecosystem in markets where credit card penetration is low,” said Mahir Sain, head of Africa Android partnerships at Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc.

Safaricom has 13 million smart phones on its network, most of them using the Android platform. It partnered with London-based global payments platform provider, DOCOMO Digital, to enable users pay through M-Pesa, both firms said on Thursday.

Safariom started M-Pesa in 2007, offering money transfer services between users. It has grown to allow users to make payments for goods and services through thousands of merchants.

It also allows users to save, borrow and buy insurance, through partnerships with commercial banks.


(Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Edmund Blair)


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Tech Titans: The Battle for Africa

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured

Microsoft 4afrika initiative

The tech giants are busy building in Africa as the continent represents a golden opportunity to reach new customers while transforming African society.

We all know the names Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and IBM. These are the tech titans who have forged the modern world we inhabit and hardly entities that the general public associates with Africa. However, foresight and innovation enabled these behemoths to propel the developed world to a new future. Now, the tech giants have foreseen that Africa’s future is one of abundant potential.

The reasons behind this trend are actually rather simple. Africa possesses 7 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. As a whole, Africa is the fastest growing region on earth. For tech companies this has created two general fronts on which to engage the continent. Firstly, this growth has led to the emergence of the African middle class. Tech companies suddenly have a new market in which consumers are hungry for their products. Secondly, this new market has enormous potential to grow. With limited tech infrastructure, such as internet access and mobile networks, the adoption of new technologies is still very much in its infancy across huge parts of the region. If top companies generate the conditions for mass tech usage, they stand to gain an enormous new customer base while improving the lives of millions; a veritable win-win situation.

Africa, a new frontier for Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM

Microsoft was arguably the first global tech company to take a major active interest in Africa. Three years ago, the company started its 4Afrika initiative. The $75m program was designed to train thousands of Africans either for their own businesses or for the company’s 22 African offices. Simultaneously the program focused on getting affordable smart devices into the hands of millions of new customers. Amrote Abdella, the regional director of the 4Afrika project said, “In order to drive the knowledge economy, we need to drive connectivity so Africans can create and access content.”

As a result the company is experiencing strong growth in the region. However, rather than resting on their laurels, Abdella went on to explain why Microsoft intends to build on its successes: “Three years down the road one of the things that we have learnt is that the need and the demand on Africa is about doubling down on investments we are making around connectivity and smart services.”

Digify, Project Loon, Link… Ambitious plans for Africa

Project Loon

Project Loon

The connectivity race is on in earnest. Google first tested the African waters back in 2012, with an SMS based version of its Gmail service. Today, their efforts have intensified while becoming more imaginative. Google intends to utilize its cheekily named “Project Loon” in the region. Loon is a network of communications balloons positioned high in the stratosphere that can be strategically maneuvered to provide connectivity in remote areas where coverage is lacking. Data is then passed through the balloon network before being transferred down to the global internet.

Google has two other notable initiatives in the region, Link and Digify. Link has seen the installation of metro fiber optic Wi-Fi networks across Uganda and Kampala, with a further roll-out underway in Ghana. Digify is a major commitment to train 1 million Africans in digital skills. Google spokeswoman Michelle Atagana explained the strategy behind the project: “The idea is to improve people’s skills so that they can increase their chances of becoming employed or start their own businesses.”

Not to be bested, Facebook is focused on waging ambitious campaigns in the booming new market. In 2015, the social media giant opened its first African office in Johannesburg. Additionally, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg highlighted plans to provide satellite internet to rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. He explained why he felt the move was key by saying, “To connect people living in remote regions, traditional connectivity infrastructure is often difficult and inefficient, so we need to invent new technologies.”

Investing to impact

IBM has also been incredibly busy in Africa in recent years. The company has opened new research centers, invested in local businesses, funded a $60m computer skills program, and created new initiatives designed to drive the usage of big data, analytics and cloud computing. Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, the director of IBM Research explained why the company is taking such a significant interest: “As scientists we believe that science and technology is an enabler to express your needs, it is an enabler to shape your own future. And this is why IBM is making this very significant investment into Africa.”

Where the tech giants go, immense progress and social transformation follows. Economically, Africa will benefit immeasurably as the continent gains skills and business is increasingly done in today’s tech space. Socially, Africans will be able to access a global treasure trove of information, use life changing services and communicate in a way never before possible.

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Tidjane Dème : the face of Google in Francophone Africa

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Leaders

Tidjane Dème

Meet the face of Google in French-speaking Africa

Senegalese Tidjane Dème, 41, is working with Google to unlock affordable broadband access for Africa. Dème has worked for the giant global internet search and advertising giant since 2009.

Google recruited him to be its lead for Francophone Africa in Dakar well before most Africans had regular access to the internet, he noted, and Google understood that.

“Their approach was: ‘In a few years, Africa will be ready. It will be a big business opportunity for us,’” Dème recalled.

He said Google had also decided it didn’t want to recruit an expatriate for the job. Instead they were looking for someone with tech skills, with knowledge of the region and experience working in it.

“For them, that combination was necessary to develop their activities in the region.”

Tech education, experience

With European studies in technology, a stint working in Silicon Valley in the United States, and a record of entrepreneurship in Senegal, Dème fit the bill.

After high school in Dakar, a scholarship enabled him to continue his studies in France. He studied science at the prestigious Ecole polytechnique in Paris, where he discovered programming and computer studies. He went on to do specialized studies in telecommunications and information technology at the National College of Advanced Techniques, also in Paris.

From there, Dème worked as a consultant to Cap Gemini, one of the first information technology firms in France.

At Cap Gemini, “I was often the youngest, most inexperienced in a position where I could learn a lot from my colleagues,” he said.

Witness to the boom, bust

Then he joined a U.S. telecom start up with an office in Paris, which led to a job in Silicon Valley and a close-up view of the internet boom of the early 2000s.

“There was still a lot of energy and innovation in the Valley, but the bubble was about to burst,’’ he recalled.

After a few years, he returned to Senegal to start his own company. Actually, he attempted to start several companies but none took off.

Learning from failure

The lesson of failure? “It was necessary for someone like me who wanted to do entrepreneurship, innovation. You come out of a certain academic background and an early career that makes you believe you belong to a certain elite. It is a very good thing to discover your limits and learn to work with people who complement you.”

He also worked as a tech consultant in Dakar. In this role, in 2008, he met Google officials who wanted to launch a push in Africa from an office in Dakar.

Skeptical of Google

“At first I was very skeptical because I figured they would immediately try to market their products,” he said. “But they just asked what can be done to develop a dynamic, open internet for Africa.”

That convinced him to take the job.

Since joining Google, Dème has focused on fostering a technological community that can develop local content and supporting development of startups that ultimately will drive internet access and adoption. He also directs a Google team working on encouraging infrastructure investment in Africa.

Expense is a barrier to access

According to Internet World Stats, less than 30 percent of the population of Africa had access to the internet in 2015.

A May report by the World Economic Forum said affordability of broadband and equipment was a major hurdle to greater internet adoption in Africa.

Other obstacles are lack of skills and lack of understanding of the economic value of internet access, the report said. Finally, many African countries would require massive investment in infrastructure to assure affordable access to citizens.

But Dème is helping to change that. He sees a bright technological future on the continent – Africa will surprise the rest of the world.

“People underestimate the capacity of Africans … to use tools solve problems in their lives. It is the same for the internet and for every new technology that comes along.”

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Tidjane Deme Demands Internet Investment

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In 2009, Google opened an office in Dakar, the capital of West-African Francophone country Senegal. By 2015, much of West Africa is on the Internet thanks to an increase in infrastructure development, particularly with cell phones, and the work of one man: Tidjane Deme. Deme is a 40-year-old Senegalese Internet technician educated in France, and man who has played a huge part in the Africa’s Internet explosion.


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