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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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Australia

My Australia: From washing dishes to Qantas executive

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‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.

Jamila Gordon is a long way from the small village where she was born. She fled Somalia’s civil war and came alone to Australia as a young refugee. She couldn’t speak a word of English.

But that didn’t stop her from becoming a top tech executive for companies including Qantas.

“The village (where I was born) was very desolate, dusty, we had water in the wells,” Ms Gordon told SBS News.

“My mother was pregnant every year, or she had a baby … In the end, she had 16 children.”

At 18 Jamila was separated from her family and sent to Kenya.

Her family moved to Mogadishu to avoid a drought. But just before the civil war broke out they were separated. Ms Gordon was sent to live with distant relatives in Kenya.

“Through my friends in Kenya, I met an Australian backpacker. It was his second day in Kenya and we became friends and he sponsored me to Australia,” she said.

At 18 years old, Jamila found herself in Sydney alone and unable to speak the language.

She quickly learned English at TAFE and got a job washing dishes, earning five dollars an hour. She went to university in Melbourne to study accounting, before taking an IT elective and falling in love with it.

She says IT had some surprising similarities to her first school in Somalia.

“The process I used to memorise the Koran in the village where I was born, was exactly the same as the process of software programming that I used when I was at Latrobe University,” Ms Gordon said.

Jamila arrived in Sydney a young refugee with no English.
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After university she got a job as a software programmer and climbed her way up the ladder, working in Europe for major companies including IBM. She later returned to Australia to become chief information officer at Qantas.

She is currently based in Sydney and works with smaller tech start-ups, helping them get off the ground.

Rod Bishop CEO of Jayride, a start-up marketplace for transport hire, says working with Ms Gordon has been a perfect fit.

“There’s really not a lot of growth-focused technology people operating at an extremely high level in Australia. So it was an absolute pleasure and we saw eye to eye straight away,” Mr Bishop said.

Jamila Gordon today.
SBS News

Former professional colleague David Thodey, who is the chairman of the board at CSRIO, says Jamila brings a unique approach to her work.

“She’s always had a vision for what she wanted to do, but a great determination and incredible will and drive to get the job done.”

 

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Tech

Crowdfarming is being used to bring Somalia’s livestock market into the digital economy

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Somalia is a global leader in the export of goats and sheep, and livestock trade generates about 40% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Yet almost every other year, recurring droughts and water scarcity take a toll on local pastoralists’ ability to keep their animals live and healthy. In 2017 alone, livestock loss has ranged from 20%-40% in the southern regions and 40%-60% in the north, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. This threatens the livelihood of the animal farmers and hinders their ability to regularly trade in markets.

But a Sweden-based startup wants to change this by creating a tech-powered livestock market that is open all year round. The goal of Ari.Farm (“Ari” means “goat” in Somali) is to get investors to purchase livestock from locals, injecting much-needed cash into the market and potentially making a profit.

Once a purchase is made, an investor is able to name his animals, follow their progress online, and even gift or donate them. Ari.Farm takes care of the animals in two farms, one located outside Galkayo town in south-central Somalia and the other outside the capital Mogadishu. As the number of animals one owns grow from breeding, they can decide to sell them at the local market price. That amount could then be used to re-invest in more livestock or be withdrawn by the financier.
Ari.Farm founder Mohamed Jimale, a former nomad himself, says since beginning operations in 2016, people from 26 countries across the world have bought almost 1,000 goats, sheep, and camels through Ari.Farm. “The Somali livestock owners are not poor, they have wealth,” Jimale told Quartz. But if they are to survive “they need to find a market for their livestock.”

Across Africa, Ari.Farm is hardly the only start-up committed to crowdfarming as an avenue for investment, tackling unemployment, increasing social impact, and unlocking multi-million-dollar markets. Livestock Wealth in South Africa, Mifugo Trade in Kenya, and AniTrack in Ghana are but some of the applications bringing livestock trade into the digital economy. In Nigeria, agro-tech start-ups like FarmCrowdy and ThriveAgric have also enabled middle-class Nigerians to fund existing farms for between $200 and $750 for a harvest cycle.

Ari.Farm has now gone a step further and introduced cryptocurrencies as a payment method. Jimale says this was necessitated because customers and financial institutions kept asking about the risks of investing in Somalia. For decades, Somalia has had a freewheeling economy with the majority of the currency in circulation considered fake. But as the price gain for Bitcoin surges past $11,000 and also gains ground in the developing world, Jimale says it allows them to attract more customers and sidestep some of the conventional central banking requirements.

So far, about 10% of Ari.Farm’s transactions are traded through bitcoin, and the company hopes to integrate Blockchain technology for a trading platform in the future. Part of that might come as Ari.Farm looks to close seed funding of up to 2 million Swedish Krona ($237,000) in the coming months.

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There’s growing concern about the price Africa will pay for internet shutdowns and fake news

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EPA/Will Oliver

ABDI LATIF DAHIR

The internet has been lauded as a panacea for Africa—a tool for economic, political and social transformation. The availability of mobile broadband and fiber optic connections has been hailed for enabling e-commerce and spurring innovative industries in education, health, insurance, and beyond. Lower smartphone prices are also driving a digital revolution across the continent, allowing more people to access the internet at unprecedented levels.

But Sudanese-British billionaire and businessman Mohammed Ibrahim now says that internet shutdowns and the spread of fake news on social media threaten the continent’s digital development. In an interview with Quartz, Ibrahim lamented how governments continue to frequently block the internet and social media outlets—including as recently as last week during Somaliland’s presidential elections.

“Closing down of the internet is really a crime. And that should not be tolerated,” Ibrahim said, specifically mentioning the 93-day blackoutthis year in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions. “To try to gag the people and silence them is not appropriate really. It’s not acceptable.”

Ibrahim was the founder of Celtel International, one of the first mobile phone companies serving Africa and the Middle East. He later sold it to the Kuwait-based Mobile Telecommunications Company—now Zain. Ibrahim spoke to Quartz after the launch of the 2017 Mo Ibrahim Index, which ranks African countries on a broad spectrum of indicators including rule of law, safety economic, political and human rights.

“Are we producing people from our education systems who are able to build dams, grids, roads, factories and get into IT services?”

Ibrahim also bemoaned the dissemination of so called fake news and misinformation online, and how they are used to meddle in elections. As seen in Kenya, where Facebook and WhatsApp were being used concertedlyto spread misinformation and to sway public opinion in the run-up to the election this year.

“We need to be careful about [the] use of social media,” said Ibrahim. “We’ve seen all these abuses elsewhere and we hope to get the benefits of social media without the perils and inappropriate use that this media has produced elsewhere.”

Earlier this month, Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka also expressed grave concern about the role of fake news and social media in society.

Against the retreading or slowing political and economic reality in Africa, the Index shows a decade of consistent growth when it comes to digital technology and infrastructure. Ibrahim noted that there needs to be increased financing of the sector by angel investors, venture capitalists, and private equity funds in order to catalyze the internet’s contribution to the overall gross domestic product or iGDP. Education systems should also be improved in order to bridge the gap of education to skills mismatch, he said, which leaves many young people unemployed and lures them to migrate or even join terrorist organizations.

“Are we producing people from our education systems who are able to build dams, electric grids, build roads, factories and get into the IT services?” Ibrahim asked. “These are huge areas where we lack skilled people, and we need to deal with that.”

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