Where are all the grasshoppers?

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At the beginning of the twentieth century a young woman was born in the USA.  Her name is Grace Hopper and she was a genius. Grace Hopper grew-up in an era where she lived through a world-war (she was a naval officer in the US Navy) and worked in a heavily male dominated environment as a computer scientist.  Her brilliance ensured that she was recognized for her ability and not limited due to her gender.  She lived in a world where woman struggled to compete with men on equal terms, yet she advanced and made contributions to society that influences much of the way we live today.  She faced similar struggles to many women on the African continent.  

Those of you reading this, with a deep interest in technology history, specifically of computer systems will know who Grace Hopper is. Grace Hopper’s contribution to computers is arguably as influential as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  She advocated the idea that computer programming languages should have syntax closer to English than machine code. She changed the way computer programmes work and essentially made it easy for computer programmers to be trained without necessarily needing a university education. She literally created a new industry that has created employment for millions of people and influenced technology evolution forever. 

It is this kind of brilliance that Africa needs. Africa needs to find a Grace Hopper.

Grace Hopper had one huge advantage growing up in the USA as opposed to a modern African woman at the start of the twenty-first century. She still had access to better infrastructure, education and opportunities than most African woman have a hundred years on. 

The African continent lingers behind the rest of the world in almost every key indicator; GDP, internet access, human rights, gender inequality, infant mortality rates, and the list goes on.  Africa needs someone to emerge and to become a technology changer on the African continent.  It seems as if Africa, and possibly South America, are the only densely populated societies to not have contributed to the field of computer science in a substantial way.  There are exceptions but there does seem to be more to this than just an under-developed field in African societies.

The African continent has structural issues across every aspect of life.  Africans generally lack infrastructure to support educational brilliance and to identify talent to ensure that these individuals have the opportunity to excel.  In some countries, the lack of training is so severe that the computer science courses are not available at any universities anywhere in the country – such as Mozambique – or the computer training department at the university is combined into another faculty; the computer training skills are so insignificant that providing adequate resources to students is limited through lack of knowledge or budgetary constraints – such as in the Congo or in Angola.

The ability to identify possible talent is limited.  Never mind the issue of over-coming the lack gender equality in many African societies, the reality is that even if a person of brilliance wanted an opportunity to enter the technology sector there are only a handful of countries on the continent that could create a path for the person to rise up out of the poverty, overcome the frequent political instability and the many cultural issues they may face.

The title of this post in some ways has many meanings related to all of these points.  The obvious relates directly to Grace Hopper.  My thoughts are directed towards her and how we can develop more Hoppers?  I see a grass-hopper as a wonderful thing.  It is a creature that can fly and as a predator can be veracious, wiping out crops and dominating landscapes.  It would be fantastic if Africa could develop an industry that dominates the international landscape, much the same way the Indians have done.

But grasshoppers in African folk-lore have other meanings too.  The fable about the argument between the toad and the grasshopper which caused a rift in their friendship when they could not dine together (read it at, is a simple and effective analogy to highlight the differences amongst diverse African societies.  Differences we need to celebrate together to create the opportunities to allow the continent to develop a Grace Hopper, a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs.  The differences should not be a reason why we point fingers at each other or fight wars.  Our differences are what make us unique and create the opportunity for brilliance to emerge.

There are more stories, but the point is this.  As Africans we need to come together and create opportunities for the information technology industry to grow.  No one should be excluded from partaking, regardless of their gender or culture.  As individuals we should hold governments accountable to put the mechanisms in place to grow this industry. We celebrate the ‘greats’, a Bill Gates and a Grace Hopper.  We need to find our own greats and then celebrate them. This is what I think.


Building for the future – can Kenya get it right?

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I recently presented some of my thoughts on the skills shortage in the IT industry to 7 universities as a part of an IBM initiative to enhance and improve IT skills in terms of the training programmes offered by academic institutions. The idea is to bring business closer to academia and ensure that young IT professionals emerge from university with skills linked to current trends in IT. In the presentation I asked a few questions; amongst these were if anyone knew what the definition of big data is or what the hot trends in IT are now? I did not mean reading a Gartner report or an IDC survey but really understanding what these were and how they affect Africa.

Let me start by writing about the 4 hot trends in IT.

These have been identified by a few research organisations; IDC, Gartner, Forrester and others, so I am rehashing what they have said, but for completeness let me quickly run through them.

Top of the pile is mobility. This is going to the case for the next 2 to 3 years and there is a world-wide shortage of mobile skills; analysts, developers and solutions providers. Mobile is hot right now.

Next is cloud computing. Let me put it bluntly, if you are not in cloud now, you will be by 2020 and this will probably become the main focus in the second half of this decade. So prepare yourself if you have not already. (On a personal note, I like cloud technology and think there is loads of interesting things happening here). This is not a cloud post but my conversations tend to make me think that most people don’t understand cloud, so maybe I will write about this some other time.

The next 2 hot topics are social business and big data.

Social business is I think the easiest for people to understand. It is beyond turning Facebook or LinkedIn into a marketing platforms but rather using social business as a delivery platform to add business value and engaging with the next generation of youth who use social media to communicate. It will probably replace email and ultimately business applications will be built within social business where people can actually integrate their work into a social media platform. (You may be thinking how? Or this sounds like rubbish. Another topic for another day and if anyone wants me to write about this, I can, leave me a comment).

Big data is possibly the most perplexing. Data has been around for millennium but the rate at which we gather it today is accelerating all the time. This is ‘big’ data – not just the volume of data that is added to the world every day but also the type of data. As an example, big data includes pictures, video clips, blogs, large documents, scanned images, and so on. Think of it this way, how do you know what is in a YouTube video? You can read the byline and tag it; but what if a computer could scan it to determine what was actually in the video without any text? The process of determining this and being able to report on it is what big data is all about – there are issues of storage, the network congestion and reporting tools to getting meaningful information out of it. As more and more big data is created applications are developed to find out what can be gained from it. Here is an excellent example. As recently reported on the 1st of May, Al Qaeda plans for a terrorist attack were hidden within a pornographic video. Having the ability to mechanically scan a video would obviously be beneficial to finding this out quickly, and then taking action to prevent any attack would benefit society.

On the 30th of April, Kenya announced, that they are going to roll-out one of the largest fibre networks on the African continent. Liberia has made a similar announcement. This may seem like an innocuous announcement but this is actually a massive step to bringing these countries into the international IT arena.

One of the major issues facing all 4 of the hot trends is the capability of the network infrastructure to manage the transmission of data for each of these big trends. Without the right networking infrastructure to support the emergence of these trends, the in-country IT industry cannot develop and grow. Any country with ambitions to become an emerging regional IT hub has to ensure that they can attract and support businesses that specialize in these technologies, which in turn leads to job creation. Without the infrastructure the under-developed country will have to rely on the developed economies to provide the support for these trends (even for their own needs). It will effectively be the same economic terms between the developed economies and the under-developed economies. The under-developed will be living off the scraps of the economic powerhouses unless they make the changes themselves.

So when Kenya and Liberia want to build high-speed capable networks, it makes you think that maybe they are going in the right direction.

South Africa lacks technology infrastructure.

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The latest World Economic Forum “The Global Information Technology Report” (2012) places South Africa in 71st position along with Colombia.

As a country ranked in the top 25 in terms of GDP South Africa clearly lacks the will to improve the technology infrastructure.  This is a brave statement, so why make it?

Technology infrastructure accessibility has been shown to bring competitive benefits to the economy and open up new economies for workers traditionally excluded from mainstream economic activity.  As an example, to build a competitive call centre industry in an economy requires access to affordable labour and reduced IT costs.  Telecommunications and the infrastructure associated for this at a cheap price is key to this success. South Africa lacks both.

Addressing poverty by opening the economy to more people requires the will on the part of the government to make it happen.  This is not only related to the technology industries but all industries.  With technology, business and consumers are acutely aware of this though.  With poor infrastructure and a national carrier protected by the government the ability for businesses to compete on a global stage is hampered.  Is this reality though?  In Mozambique, a country further down the ranking than South Africa with a massive expansion programme, a 4mb ADSL line costs the equivalent of (USD 118) R920 per month.  The equivalent offering in South Africa is 3 times that price. In addition, IT labour costs are at least 30% cheaper in Mozambique than they are in South Africa.  Sure Mozambique is a smaller economy but building a services business that relies on new technologies specifically linked to technologies such as cloud or mobile where the technology can be housed anywhere, makes you wonder how long it will be before businesses in South Africa move more services off-shore.  South Africa has already shifted technical skills to the Asian sub-continent primarily due to the lack of adequate training in South Africa, highlighting even further the lack of government desire to truly sort this problem out.

This is of course an opinion, but as a business we experience poor service and inadequae support all the time.  We have regular telecommunications outages, so much so that we are now required to use two suppliers to ensure we have a back-up service available.

It is difficult to see how small tech businesses in South Africa can build a global footprint and compete internationally when the key to the industry is so poor.

To see the full report –

Mike Backeberg – April 2012

Is technology the key for Africa to catch-up and pass the rest of the world?

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When Getrude, gathers water and firewood to prepare her meagre family meal, she lives in a world of technology isolation.  She has no idea of how her life can change and she has no way of improving her life.  Gertrude is an imaginary person who lives rural Africa.  She has multiple children and she struggles to feed them, every day is just survival for her.  Her children attend a poor school with limited resources and she lives in a country with few opportunities for her family.  The government is struggling to deliver services to her and the community in which she lives.  Constrained by funding and infrastructure, the government has very limited means to change this in a traditional model of development.  She has no access to business opportunities or access to commercial services like banking.  Can this change?

There are 2 technologies which may be game changers for Africa – businesses and governments.  Cloud computing can shift infrastructure, data and business critical applications to stable environments allowing African companies to compete on a global scale.  Social media and the platforms that support these – i.e. tablets and smart-phones can deliver business-to-business solutions, business-to-employee enablement and business-to-consumer solutions.

Implementing these solutions, delivering content via a mobile phone and using the limited skills available in country, a limited budget and by sweating the cloud can provide opportunities to make in-roads in these rural communities.  A focused approach to building niche skills in some centres as areas of technology focus can transform the way technology is used.  A technology industry can be started without necessarily requiring thousands of skills.

The benefit is if one country gets it right, the service can be sold to their neighbours and progressively a regional IT hub can be developed. To focus and build cloud and mobility channels is the way for under-developed states to catch up and even get ahead.  Technical resources earn less, real-estate is affordable and the technology can be quickly deployed.  Watch out Asia, Africa may be on the rise.

Mike Backeberg – April 2012