Cloud computing enabling entrepreneurship in Africa

In 2007, 33-year-old Vuyile moved to Cape Town from rural South Africa in search of work. Unable to complete high school, he worked as a night shift security guard earning $500/month to support his family. During the rush hour commute from his home in Khayelitsha, Vuyile realized that he could earn extra income by selling prepaid mobile airtime vouchers to other commuters on the train.

In rural areas, it’s common to use prepaid vouchers to pay for basic services such as electricity, insurance and airtime for mobile phones. But it’s often difficult to distribute physical vouchers because of the risk of theft and fraud.

Nomanini, a startup based in South Africa, built a device that enables local entrepreneurs like Vuyile to sell prepaid mobile services in their communities. The Lula (which means “easy” in colloquial Zulu), is a portable voucher sales terminal that is used on-the-go by people ranging from taxi drivers to street vendors. It generates and prints codes which people purchase to add minutes to their mobile phones.

Today, Vuyile sells vouchers on the train for cash payment, and earns a commission weekly. Since he started using the Lula, he’s seen his monthly income increase by 20 percent.

Vuyile prints a voucher from his Lula

Nomanini founders Vahid and Ali Monadjem wanted to make mobile services widely available in areas where they had been inaccessible, or where—in a region where the average person makes less than $200/month—people simply couldn’t afford them. By creating a low-cost and easy-to-use product, Nomanini could enable entrepreneurs in Africa to go to deep rural areas and create businesses for themselves.

In order to build a scalable and reliable backend system to keep the Lula running, Nomanini chose to run on Google App Engine. Their development team doesn’t have to spend time setting up their own servers and can instead run on the same infrastructure that powers Google’s own applications. They can focus on building their backend systems and easily deploy code to Google’s data centers. When Vuyile makes a sale, he presses a few buttons, App Engine processes the request, and the voucher prints in seconds.

Last month, 40,000 people bought airtime through the Lula, and Nomanini hopes to grow this number to 1 million per month next year. While platforms like App Engine are typically used to build web or smartphone apps, entrepreneurs like Vahid and Ali are finding innovative ways to leverage this technology by building their own devices and connecting them to App Engine. Vahid tells us: “We’re a uniquely born and bred African solution, and we have great potential to take this to the rest of Africa and wider emerging markets. We could not easily scale this fast without running on Google App Engine.”

To learn more about the technical implementation used by Nomanini, read their guest post on the Google App Engine blog.

Announcing the Africa News Innovation Challenge winners

Digital tools are an increasing impetus for innovation across African newsrooms. From crowdsourcing content to using infographics to tell stories, journalists are finding new ways to report the news. We're excited to be supporting these innovators through the $1 million Africa News Innovation Challenge, announced in May this year—the latest in a series of projects to spur innovation in African journalism.

Run by the the African Media Initiative, other partners include Omidyar Network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the U.S. State Department, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). The response to the challenge was really enthusiastic, with more than 500 proposals submitted.

The 20 winners are all exciting digital journalism projects that will contribute to solving some of the biggest challenges facing the African media industry. They range from mobile apps to mobilise citizens against corruption and improved infographics to communicate complex issues, to developing new platforms for sharing content on buses and taxis. Key themes among the projects include a growing concern about manipulated online content, the security of communications with whistleblowers and sources, and the need to improve engagement with audiences.

The projects have the potential to be replicated by media elsewhere in Africa, or to be scaled up across the continent, to create wide and sustained impact. Some projects will also develop new tools to support newsrooms and boost media revenues to support sustainable journalism. Winners will receive cash grants ranging from $10,000 to $100,000; technology support from a team of four developers at AMI’s jAccelerator lab in Kenya, and business development support from top media strategists affiliated with the World Association of Newspapers & News Publishers. Ten of the winners will also be flown to the Knight Foundation’s annual M.I.T. Civic Media Conference in the U.S., while the rest will be showcased at other important industry events.

The ANIC winners are:
  • actNOW (Ghana)
  • AdBooker (South Africa)
  • Africa Check (South Africa / Nigeria)
  • skyCAM (Kenya / Nigeria)
  • Africa’s Wealth (renamed NewsStack) (Nigeria / Namibia)
  • Citizen Desk (Mozambique)
  • Code4Ghana (Ghana)
  • ConvergeCMS (Kenya / Tanzania / Uganda)
  • CorruptionNET (South Africa)
  • DataWrapper (Nigeria / Senegal / Tanzania)
  • End-to-End (renamed LastMile Crowdmapping) (Liberia / Ghana / Kenya)
  • FlashCast (Kenya)
  • Green Hornet (South Africa)
  • ListeningPost (South Africa)
  • MoJo: Keeping media honest by monitoring online journalism (South Africa)
  • openAFRICA (Kenya / Nigeria / Rwanda / South Africa)
  • ODADI (renamed Code4SouthAfrica) (South Africa)
  • Oxpeckers (South Africa)
  • Wikipedia Zero (Cameroon / Ivory Coast / Tunisia / Uganda)
  • ZeroNews (pan-African)

You can learn more about the winners’ projects on the ANIC website.

We can’t wait to see how these innovations unfold and we look forward to working with more African journalists to help them use technologies to tell important stories.

(Cross-posted from the Africa Blog)