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A Young Entrepreneur Puts Kenya On The Map - In More Ways Than One

David Kobia's thriving start-up helps aid organizations by mapping violence and disaster online. Even Google has taken notice of this new generation of African innovators.

David Kobia, part of Africa’s young start-up generation
David Kobia, part of Africa’s young start-up generation
Tobias Zick

Web developer David Kobia was a good 13,000 kilometers from Kenya — in Alabama, actually — when civil unrest broke out in his home country following incumbent President Mwai Kibaki"s victory in the December 2007 election. Militias spurred by opposition politicians went on violent rampages attacking members of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe with spears and machetes. So Kenya, previously considered an island of stability in crisis-addled East Africa, began 2008 mired in bloodshed.

Then Kobia got a call on his cell phone. A friend of his told him about a Kenyan who had suggested on her blog that somebody post a Google map on the Internet where attacks could be recorded in real time.

Seldom has the expression “born of necessity” been quite so pertinent. Kobia lost no time getting to work, and launched his own portal two days later, marking the start of his successful business Ushahidi (or “Testimony” in Swahili). The site made it possible for witnesses of violence anywhere in Kenya to phone in place and time, which were then mapped.

Five years later Ushahidi has a worldwide reputation for its crisis communication software. The Ushahidi platform, which makes it possible to easily crowd-source information — via SMS, email, Twitter and the Web — is now being used in 30 countries.

After 2010's Haiti earthquake aid organizations used the system to locate people who’d been buried alive or were starving, and to map collapsed bridges and refugee camps. The information had been gathered from some 25,000 SMS messages and 4.5 million tweets, and the data allowed them to put together a detailed visual of the disaster. A spokesman for the U.S. Marines that were carrying out rescue flights praised the interactive mapping system, saying it had “rescued lives every day.”

A new generation of entrepreneurs

Kobia, who has since received a number of international honors such as being named MIT Technology Review"s Young Innovators Under 35 Humanitarian of the Year in 2010, is now one of the most prominent representatives of Africa’s young start-up generation. The continent people often associate with starvation and other major crises has in the past few years seen the creation of ever more successful Internet start-ups — a phenomenon undoubtedly related to demand and undersea Internet cables that have finally made it possible over the past three or four years for many African countries to gain Internet access nationwide. Before, people in many places had access only to the more expensive satellite connection.

Sub-Saharan Africa is also the fastest-growing market for cell phones. “And parallel to that you have a growing sense of self-confidence among young computer specialists,” Kobia says. He says the time he spent in the United States was particularly helpful in creating his company because he found it easier to overcome his own inhibitions there and to persuade investors to back him. “In Kenya, as a young person, you don’t really get the feeling that you could change things,” he says. “Only older people can do that. But in the States I discovered a whole other mentality, and that certainly helped.”

Even though Ushahidi began as a way to help aid organizations, Kobia sees himself as an entrepreneur, somebody who also wants to make money. “Some of the best programmers in Kenya work for non-profits when in fact they could be building this country’s economy.” He believes that in many cases such organizations “have disturbed free entrepreneurship and reduced Africans to beggars.”

Even Google takes notice

Which is why he and some colleagues in Nairobi co-founded iHub, an innovation incubator for the technology community that has become well-known beyond Kenya’s borders and has inspired the creation of similar hubs in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and South Africa. After a visit to iHub, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt wrote on Google+ earlier this year that “Nairobi has emerged as a serious tech hub and may become the African leader.”

Many of the first innovations were actually imitations of existing applications — for example, a kind of African Twitter — and were short-lived. The ones that survived tended to specifically address African needs. The most prominent example is M-Pesa, founded in 2007, a system that enables people to transfer money with their cell phones. It now has more than 20 million users in Kenya, where it has helped many people overcome routine difficulties of every-day life.

Heads of family working in the big cities, for example, no longer have to board long-distance buses (or buy the tickets in the first place) to make tiring overnight trips to their home villages to pay their kids’ school fees. They just transfer money into their M-Pesa accounts and send their relatives credit notices on their cell phones. With that the relatives can go to their local kiosks and get the sums paid out in cash. Like many other African digital innovations, M-Pesa is so successful in part because it works on cheap, old cell phones.

Government-supported innovation

If Kenya is now the leading country in Africa for start-ups, part of the reason is the federal government’s innovation-friendly policies and support. For M-Pesa, for example, the national bank waived the requirement for a banking license. Kobia also sees historical and sociological reasons for the success: “Since independence, Kenya has invested heavily in education,” he says. Compared to other African nations, a large percentage of Kenyans can read and write. “And because the UN and many other organizations have a presence in Nairobi, it is one of the most international of the African capitals, so there is a constant exchange of ideas.”

The Kenyan government has ambitious plans to grow the digital boom: in Konza, a small city some 60 kilometers from Nairobi, they are planning a new development on 5,000 hectares called Konza Technology City that will have universities, data processing centers and research laboratories. It’s already been dubbed Silicon Savannah, and it's expected to create new 200,000 jobs by 2030.

For their part, David Kobia and his colleagues at Ushahidi recently received international recognition for a new invention: BRCK, a modem that looks like a brick and is supposedly similarly robust. It can connect to the Internet several ways: via Wifi, mobile phone networks and broadband cable. And it selects available access automatically.

David Kobia's BRCK — Photo: Juliana Rotich

The development of BRCK is based on a recognition that Internet connections are often unreliable and expensive, despite the digital revolution sweeping through Africa and a presence of cell phones even in the most remote villages. So why rely on technology from the industrialized world? Why not develop technology adapted specifically to Africa?

The modem is being launched in November. Kobia is hoping he will also be able to export large numbers of the devices. “It's built for use in the most basic conditions, for people who travel to and work in developing countries,” he says. “If it works in Africa, it’ll work in a lot of other places around the world.”

African solutions for African problems: increasingly a success formula for a young generation of entrepreneurs.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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