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At TEDGlobal: Somali start-ups and a new kind of map

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ARUSHA: From fostering innovation in one of the world’s harshest environments to novel ways to repel mosquitoes and map the world, here are some highlights from the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania.
Seeds of a Somali tech scene

Somali scientist Abdigani Diriye believes that at some point, his country needs to do more than devote all its resources to fighting piracy, Al-Shabaab and famine.

“We also need to plan long term,” he told AFP on the sidelines of the international version of the prestigious TED conference, devoted to “ideas worth spreading”.

Tech companies wage war on disease-carrying mosquitoes

So about six years ago, he returned from the UK, where his family fled civil war in 1989, to his home in Somaliland to create the country’s first start-up incubators and accelerators. He had already seen interesting products and ideas mushrooming out of a system broken by decades of conflict.

It was not easy, his organisation has had to work with universities and government to make start-ups ‘cool’ and convince people it is a viable career option.

“We hand-pick the most exciting and promising innovators and start-ups and provide them with training, investment and mentoring,” he said. So far they have trained more than 25 start-ups.

One of his favourites is Muraadso, a start-up which struggled to establish an online shopping system before realising that Somali customers wanted to see and feel what they were buying as in a real life market. So they set up an online-offline business model and now have half a dozen stores employing about a dozen people.

Diriye realises tech won’t solve all of Somalia’s problems, “but it is a great vehicle to address many other challenges” such as healthcare, unemployment and education.

Others have since followed in his footsteps such as the iRise innovation hub which lanched in June in Mogadishu.

Meet you at ‘prices.slippery.traps’

When you look at a map of a Brazilian favela, or township in South Africa, you may see a few streets and a lot of empty space, whereas a satellite image shows an area packed with homes and shops.

Like billions around the world, these are people living without an address, meaning they cannot get post, an ambulance or even have a pizza delivered.

In 2013 Chris Sheldrick of UK-based company What3Words developed a new system of mapping the world by dividing it into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and giving each of these squares a three word address which will be the same today or in 10 years. So instead of complex co-ordinates, you could merely find someone at “prices.slippery.traps” – a specific spot around the Eiffel Tower.

Sheldrick said postal services in Mongolia, Djibouti, Nigeria and Ivory Coast have adopted the system while the UN uses it in disaster areas.

In recent months the British embassies in Yaounde, Cameroon as well as Mongolia have adopted their own three word addresses. And in the Caribbean, Domino’s pizza is using it to finally find their customers before their dinner grows cold.

Mosquito-repellent sandals

At ‘Mosquito city’, as Tanzanian scientist Fredros Okumu affectionately calls his lab – the world’s biggest mosquito farm – he and his team at the Ifakara health Institute are working on new ways to repel and eliminate the carriers of malaria, dengue and Zika.

Through a rare study of the mating habits of mosquitoes they discovered that male mosquitoes gather in swarms in the exact same location, at the same time, year in and year out to wait for females. They are currently working to map these breeding spots using volunteer villagers so they can identify and destroy the swarms.

While mosquitoes are the deadliest and most studied animal, the best line of defence is still bed nets and insecticides – to which resistance is growing.

Okumu and his team have developed a repellent that can be worn in trendy “mosquito-repellent sandals” or placed under chairs, that can protect several people in the immediate area and last for up to six months.

This is currently being tested in Tanzania and Brazil, he told AFP.

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Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot can now do unbelievably good backflips

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THE VERGE — It’s been a while since we’ve seen any updates to the Atlas robot after Alphabet sold Boston Dynamics to SoftBank in June. After unveiling a teaser of its SpotMini robot just a few days ago, the company is now back with a new video of Atlas just casually performing gymnastics moves like it’s Tokyo 2020. Most of the video highlights the Atlas’ ability to hop up straight and stabilize itself on a platform, and jump while turning 180 degrees. Its movements are more fluid than ever, and Atlas appears to maintain great form.

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A Tech Hub in Mogadishu Aspires to Link Investors and Innovators

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Joblessness among young Somali adults is a chronic issue confronting Somalia.

Their unemployment rate is at staggering 67%. And the issue of youth joblessness is exacerbated by the large number of Somali students who graduate—from secondary schools and from tertiary organizations—with skills that are neither appropriate for Somalia nor competitive elsewhere.

Nonetheless, this aside, after almost three decades of turmoil—and of protracted conflict, terrorism, and piracy—Somalia is making huge entrepreneurial, socioeconomic, and political strides. This progress is encapsulated in a famous hashtag, popularized in 2017 and known as “#SomaliaRising.” In keeping with the spirit and momentum of this, we turned “Rising” into “iRise”—to demonstrate both how Somalis can improve narrative, and bring our innovative and entrepreneurship ingenuity into play.

Our brand name is a catalyst for this hashtag and aims to popularize the movement.

The iRise Hub is the first co-working space for technologists, innovators, and members of the business fraternity, giving them a place to collaborate and build local solutions to local problems. Based in Mogadishu, iRise offers incubation services and the best mentoring for local start-ups.

Our goal is not to just offer space and services but also create a large community of stakeholders committed to diversifying a war-torn economy. Social networks are often a powerful tool used by tech hubs to build these stakeholder communities. By using social media and blog posts, we engage our community members in various topics, and convey information on the technology and affordable solutions that are available to them.

iRise provides an environment where innovators and investors can collaborate in all walks of job-creating. It is widely known that the amount of capital injected into Somalia through remittances is higher than that brought in by development aid. We try to tap into this available capital by placing young digital innovators in the same room as those who are willing to invest. And iRise employees also hold one-on-one meetings with the community members to advise and help them with all their technical and business needs.

iRise facilitates equitable access to information for a tech-savvy youth population. We invite the top talent in all industries to give talks and fireside chats in our space, and make it open to all members of the community and public who show an interest in it. This will help young people receive market information that can make their brand or product competitive in Somalia and beyond.

iRise also collaborates with Devcon organizers to bring internationally recognise lecturers to Mogadishu. In the digital age, access to information is the most important currency for innovative growth and job creation.

We offer training and mentorship to youth on entrepreneurship and innovation, using technology to connect them to potential investors. iRise will collaborate with institutions of higher learning, corporations, and government institutions to increase the chances of young Somalis with tech talent being mentored and employed.

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Somali News

Somalia’s ‘touch and feel’ e-commerce hit

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When Saed Mohamed, a young entrepreneur from Somalia, pitched his online shopping business Muraadso as part of an East African start-up competition in 2015, he was prepared for rejection.

And rejection is what he got.

Abdigani Diriye, head of the Somalia-based accelerator, Innovate Ventures, which oversaw the competition, was not impressed.

“We had a few applications from e-commerce start-ups and they just weren’t really doing it for me,” he told the BBC.

But Mr Mohamed and his team were not about to give up.

“We have had a lot of rejections and we have learned to be persistent. We wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he says.

They did eventually get on the programme and ended up winning it.

“The irony is they went on to become the most successful start-up we took on,” joked Mr Diriye.

But the business they were pitching – a online store selling mainly electronics – “failed miserably” at first, admits Mr Mohamed.

It seemed Somalia wasn’t ready yet for online only. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that less than a third of its 14 million people are able to access the internet and few have bank accounts. It’s an uphill struggle to get any online business off the ground.

So he looked to how Western retailers were combining offline and online sales to revive the flagging brand.

“The hybrid model is the thing right now. Amazon has opened a physical store and Walmart and other traditional retailers are acquiring e-commerce sites,” he told the BBC.

Muraadso did the same and “sales sky-rocketed,” he said.

Opening bricks and mortar stores in three different cities meant that potential buyers could go and touch the goods first before committing to buying them.

The site offers traditional home deliveries and flexible ways to pay, including cash on delivery.

Many purchase are made via mobile money transfer service, Zaad, which operates in a similar way to Kenya’s famous M-Pesa platform.

Zaad has an 80% market share in Somalia, charging no fees to send or withdraw money, but making its money instead from offering extra services and mobile airtime.

“The hybrid model wasn’t a concept that I was familiar with, but Muraadso started implementing it late last year and they have been growing ever since, going from a three-man team to employing dozens and looking to raise another round of funding,” says Mr Diriye.

E-commerce in Somalia is nascent, and across Africa generally, online shopping remains niche, says Matthew Reed, a consultant at research firm Ovum.

“Many people are still living on desperately low incomes, so e-commerce is really just for the middle classes. And there are other big challenges for e-commerce firms, not just in Somalia,” he says.

Chief among them is lack of infrastructure – both decent roads that enable quick and efficient deliveries, and the telecoms infrastructure that allows people to access the platforms in the first place.

But things are changing.

Millions in Africa have bypassed traditional telephone landlines and leapt straight to mobile – the oft-quoted “leapfrog” effect. According to mobile body the GSMA, there will be 725 million unique mobile subscribers on the continent by 2020.

And Somalia is benefiting from this improved connectivity.

In 2013, fibre optic firm Liquid Telecom connected the East African country to its 17,000km (10,500 mile) network of cables that already crosses 11 other African countries.

“There is increasing connectivity, mobile is increasingly widely available, and more of that is data-enabled with the increase of 3G and 4G networks,” says Mr Reed.

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