More on Africa and what mashups can be used for.

I have rambled and ranted before about African based industry, software deployment even African Mathematics, but I figured it was time for another rant on Africa and social media.

James Farrar posted this question a couple of weeks’ ago  when reviewing the blogger coverage of the Davos gathering.

Surely all these gadgets, communications and software we hold court on can offer something to help in terms of improved communications, institutional development, education and economic development for countries like Kenya. Something

He is right. In our  industry we talk so much about the tools, we  sometimes forget that there is more to the world than using one set of tools to talk about another set of tools.

Quoting him from a different context altogether, Jeff Nolan had this to say..

Check out this snapshot of Techmeme today. As is typically the case, Google scratches its left ear lobe and an entire industry of bloggers kicks into gear dissecting what it means.

It reminded me of a cartoon from the always funny often insightful Oliver, over at Geek and Poke



I started watching a video clip from Demo 08, thinking that I was going to blog about some of the cool African start ups in social media, mobile phone innovations, and laptops powered by bat droppings  but after watching it I  changed my mind.

You can watch the video here please,if the embed fails. (the video is about 30 minutes)

 Mike,one of my regular link victims, Erik Hersman who writes the brilliant White African blog, and Juliana Rotich of the excellent Afromusing  appeared on the panel.

Yes, they covered off some of the interesting solutions and services on the web in Africa,  talked about mobile phones, and developing market economies, all good stuff but what made me stop multitasking and really really listen was the discussion on Kenya, and I think it goes some way to answering James’ question.  Watch the bit about the Ushahidi project , and spend some time on the site.

Mashups of where the nearest Starbucks drive through is located have their utility, and I’m not knocking them, but seeing a google maps mashup of violence outbreaks in real-time reminds me that there are other, more important challenges and uses for the tools. Blogging is great to cover the latest cool new laptop launch, but there is something fundamentally good about being able to get a post up on in minutes to highlight Brian’s plight.



One of the most thoughtful commentators on Africa in the blogosphere is Ethan Zuckerberg. His piece on the Kenyan middle class is worth a read, but I’d like to quote from one his posts about TED.

Mwenda points out that mainstream media doesn’t cover Africa, in print, in television or on the web. When it’s covered, “journalist behave like scavengers of disaster”. When coverage of disaster captures the truth, it’s only capturing part of the reality. They’re missing all the stories of ordinary people doing amazing things. “When people like Sergei Brin think about Africa, they think in terms of giving aid, not in terms of opportunity.”

Although  comedy, this clip from the Onion is rather too close to the truth for comfort. (you will need click here   because seems to disagree with oinions)

Nation Of Andorra Not In Africa, Shocked U.S. State Dept. Reports

Technology can play a vital role in times of crisis, but more than that, I have a hope that social media will help Africa tell its own story. As Zuckerberg notes, the web enables him to point, not tell. 

If you are interested in learning more about Africa,  then TED is an excellent place to start understanding its beguiling complexity.  Have a look at Joseph Lekuton, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Andrew Mwenda,  and Chris Abani. TED Africa 2008 looks to be a must view event.

Afromusing has an excellent blogroll, and herewith a random excerpt from What an African Women Thinks.

I’m very cross with Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga and their respective hardline surrogates today, for putting us in this position where the “International Community” have all the excuse they need to swagger into our sovereignty and order us around.
Because Condi, Milliband, and that tall German whatsisname guy with an unkempt moustache would not be all up in our faces being patronizing if Kenya’s erstwhile leaders just left their mountain-sized egos outside the negotiating room and got their acts together already. We want back our country and our pride. Give us back our country and our pride.
Seriously, today: Me. Cross. At these so called leaders of ours.
Wincing and squirming and cross.

There is more out there than techmeme. But if you are wedded to knowing the latest and greatest gadgets then please add Afrigadget to your RSS feed.

Oh, and finally again via Afromusing I’d like to remind you that Africa is open for business 

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Dusting off the Weber

Most of the time when I think about Weber, I mean one of these.


photo thanks to massdistraction.

Not this fellow, Max Weber.

Max Weber 1894.jpg

photo from Wikipedia.

While browsing through my feedreader  (actually I think it was on Techmeme) this morning I read this article, the Wisdom of the Chaperones.

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site’s edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.

Nick Carr, who often writes about wikipedia, said something similar a while ago.

The myth begins with the idea of radical openness, the idea that Wikipedia is a creation of the great mass of humanity in all its hairy glory. It’s a myth encapsulated in Wikipedia’s description of itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” As we now know, that’s never been precisely true. According to cofounder Jimmy Wales, there have always been filtering mechanisms to restrict certain people’s ability to edit certain articles. Those mechanisms have been expanded and tightened over time. In Wikipedia’s early days, the encyclopedia asked contributors to maintain a “neutral point of view,” but, as the official history of Wikipedia notes, “There were otherwise few rules initially.” Since then, rules have proliferated, as the encyclopedia has adopted a de facto bureaucratic structure.

And Andrew McAfee at Harvard includes a wikipedia case study in his MBA course, and his picks on Wikipedia’s  bureaucratic nature.

Thinking about wikipedia, elites and bureaucracy took me back almost 20 years, to a sunny afternoon in Pietermaritzburg with Prof Irvine. We were discussing a paper I’d written about J.S.Mill and Max Weber on bureaucracy and democracy. Much of Mills’ thinking has since slipped into a dusty corner of my brain, but Max Weber has stayed with me ever since.

Although he was writing about 100 years ago, I don’t reckon he would have been surprised by how Wikipedia, or indeed most of the web 2.0 world is organised.

II. The principles of office hierarchy and of levels of graded authority mean a firmly ordered system of super- and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones. Such a system offers the governed the possibility of appealing the decision of a lower office to its higher authority, in a definitely regulated manner. With the full development of the bureaucratic type, the office hierarchy is monocratically organized. The principle of hierarchical office authority is found in all bureaucratic structures: in state and ecclesiastical structures as well as in large party organizations and private enterprises. It does not matter for the character of bureaucracy whether its authority is called ‘private’ or ‘public

From Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, part III, chap. 6, pp. 650-78. (more at this site).

Some learned commentary here.

Bureaucracy is in fact the division of labour applied to administration, and bureaucracy occupies the same place in Weber’s account of the development of modern civilization as division of labour in general occupies in Adam Smith’s account. For Weber this species of division of labour is more fundamental than the others because it initiates and orders other divisions of labour. Instructions come to the factory floor from the office. Just as Adam Smith saw division of labour in general as the cause of progress toward modern, generically commercial, society, so Weber sees bureaucracy as one of the most important causes of the development of capitalism specifically. He points to many cooperating causes (see Collins), and in The Spirit of Capitalism puts some emphasis on the moral causes – on the factors that made people strive for ever increasing profit, and to use their profits not for consumption but for further investment. But among the causal factors he often mentions the adoption of rational accounting methods: no amount of will to make a profit, or willingness to invest, would have had the desired result if investment and management had not been guided by systematic accounting, carried on of course increasingly by a bureaucracy. Once some began to be systematic others had to follow suit or go under. Labourers were ‘separated’ from the old-fashioned means of production by the superior effectiveness of production guided by systematic accounting – they could get a better living as employees. Capitalists adopted machinery and other innovations when their bureaucracy analyzing the possibilities of investment found that such innovation would be profitable. In fact a bureaucracy finds its own capitalists. As modern Weberians have pointed out, modern firms are run, not by owners, but by their managers, who often initiate the issuing of shares to raise capital, or seek loans or investments.

As I sit in the sunshine today, slightly more than a stone’s throw away from where Max Weber did much of his teaching and writing, I wonder what he would have made of today’s online world? What would have impressed him? What would disappoint? Would he find his Iron Cage and the polar night of icy Darkness, or would  he be pleasantly surprised?

The great social theory thinkers of the past 150 odd years;  Tonnies, Parsons, Durkheim, Comte, Spencer,  Mill, Bentham, Weber, and even Marx can teach us  a whole lot more about today’s online cultures, institutions and behaviours than we realise. 

I’m hoping that somewhere in a political science or sociology department there lurks a Weber 2.0, someone that will apply the same levels of rigour, research, insight and original thought to today’s world as Weber did at the turn of the last century.  I also hope that he/she has  a blog.

from wikipedia.

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Well done Hasso Plattner Ventures


(photo thanks  DFarber)

I  have received this Business Week article from a friend of mine, thanks Mike. Excellent news.

On Feb. 15, Hasso Plattner, the billionaire co-founder and former CEO of German software giant SAP (SAP) announced in Cape Town, South Africa, that he is starting a new $42.3 million pan-African venture capital fund with the help of Germany’s MAN Ferrostaal, a global provider of industrial services and key player in alternative energy. Plattner is investing $36.48 million of his own money in the fund, while the remainder comes from MAN.

Plattner has recruited an impressive team of managers. Among them: Malengane Machel—son of the late Mozambique President Samora Machel and Graca Machel-Mandela, who is now married to South African icon Nelson Mandela—will be a venture partner. In addition to providing capital, the new fund should help open doors for African companies throughout the tech industry and in such industrial sectors as heavy engineering, automotive, and green technology.

I am sick and tired of Africa being written off as a basket charity case, so it fabulous to see a significant venture fund targeting African start up innovation.

Hasso Plattner Ventures Africa will focus on pre-profit innovative companies, Böhmert says. “This is a First World country when it comes to research and development capabilities, but at the same time a developing country, so it is perfectly positioned to develop solutions for the Third World.”

Indeed, poor inhabitants of South Africa’s townships are clamoring for services such as mobile banking so that they can wire money to relatives and friends or prepay for utilities such as water or electricity. “We are seeing some companies already that will be a good fit for the new fund,” Davidson says. “There will be a big emphasis on social entrepreneurship. We can make the world a better place and make money at the same time.”

Social entrepreneurship, goodness indeed. 

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A holiday and a new start.

Greetings  reader(s),

I had a hectic couple of weeks wrapping up at SAP.  I wanted to post a couple of things then, but time just slipped away.  I’ll get back to them eventually. 

Now I’m back from a break in the snow.  I was offline for about 10 days.  Not even a tweet.


 Picture 060

The family and some dear friends had a fantastic break in Verbier, Switzerland.

Should you wish to have a combination of awesome party, brilliant service and perfect off and on piste guidance, combined with unique South African hospitality, then check out Verbier-skiing. Although we South Africans are fond of a superfluous  superlative adjective on occasion, this was indeed a ski holiday of epic proportions.

Where else can you have a braai in the snow?

With Boerewors.

And this view.

Picture 003

The team ski-bike ride from the top of the mountain is not to be missed, but the highlights for me were seeing the girls elegantly gliding down red slopes, and the boy on the smallest skis in the shop.

My better half  provides a succinct review of the week here.

George, the main honcho at  Chalet Venus, also plays a mean guitar, and could make a living as a stand up comedian should be be so inclined.  His team are so friendly I had more people say “hello Thomas”  in 20 minutes of arriving at the chalet than I’ve had in 10 years of living in Germany. 

But now I’m back, and in the process of settling into my new job. The first week has been fabulous.  My blogging will be a little sporadic as I get settled down, and I need to figure the direction that the blog will head in. It will probably need a new name for a start.

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