Monday, 13 December 2010

Information Highways

In countries like Nigeria I'm always reminded how important information is and how hard it is to come bye. It affects everything from concert timings, flight schedules, to market prices and food delivery. Google and Time Out have spoiled us in the West. In Nigeria, I have to be in 20 different mailing lists and get a whole lot of spam, just to find out what's going on next weekend. In a city of 20mn! Crazy!!

There's clearly room for innovation here. Companies that can capitalize on the information arbitrage that exists more clearly here than nearly anywhere else stand to win big. Cool new products won't help anyone if they don't know they exist! Technology can help spread 'the message'; low technology (SMS) probably more so than high tech (internet), but whatever we use we need to have a solid understanding of how it spreads. Shamefully, this is an area most companies have completely underperformed in. Though they now know better how their products get to people, they have little clue how news of them is getting there. There's no data that could help, and often information highways bear little resemblance to what we know or can conceive. A story told by a colleague recently brought the message home.

Her sisters dogs went missing on the mainland and couldn't be found; a cause of great upset not only to my colleague's sister, who I heard whaling on the other side of the line, but of the security guard who left the gate open, who now feared for his position and more. The dogs couldn't be traced anywhere. At the same time the sheer size of the dogs had scared a motorbike-taxi (Okada) driver to drop his passenger at the sight of them  on the other side of town. A resident on the street noticed the commotion on the way back from work and found the dogs. Eventually he noticed that they were well bread and decided to take them in, telling his staff to keep an eye out for the owners. The news was told to a newspaper boy who served the house and who happend to drop papers at my colleague's sister's house too. When he heard from her guard that he had upset the family by leaving the gate open and letting the dog escape, he immedateyl remembered the story and dog and owners were eventually reunited.

This unlikely tale is more than an anecdote on the power of the word of mouth but emphasises the crucial role that information intermediaries play in societies with poor formal information highways. I know little of these opportunities to bring news to low-income households, and from experience I know that marketing departments know even less. Clearly there's an opportunity here that we must develop on if we're to build inclusive products/markets. Any companies/people out there that do this kind of research/consultancy?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Trips from Lagos

In the process of trying to persuade my family to come out here later this year, I was writing an email about where they should go when I figured I could do this in Google Maps. I'd seen it done but never been geeky enough myself. Well now I have: Quite easy really!

Below is the map, with highlighted descriptions of Lagos, Osogbo, Kano and Katsina Durbars, Calabar Area, Benin (country), and Ghana.

Given the limited guidebooks for the area (to my knowledge there's only one of any use), this might be quite an interesting project to continue. If you want to help de-personalize, detail and increase the list of places to go, let me know and I'll invite you.


View Trips from Lagos in a larger map

Monday, 12 July 2010

Insular Cabal

On quoting an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which said a recent drop in figures meant that "only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication", Chris Blattman goes one to criticize an increasingly fractionalized information market:
I share the loathing for terrible work, and increasingly obscure and specialized journals, which publish the work of an insular cabal. The great tragedy is not the production of the work, but the initiation of so many new students into mediocrity.
Not really my view at all: The Long Tail allows me to focus on what I need to focus on and help make Adam Smith' vision a reality. What's wrong is not that there's increasing specialization, but that we may not yet have built the tools to process all the information. Blattman says himself that
There are benefits to an intellectual market with low barriers to entry. A few hours a month isn’t a terrible price to pay to consume the results.
What if we could condense those few hours into a few minutes? Google and its tools, such as Google Reader are built precisely on this premise but may not go far enough. Inventions that help us sift through increasing amounts of data are going to be as important to our way of life as bicycles and cars have been.

That's not to say that we should ignore all the rest of the world. There's so much beauty in the little things that surround us, as I hope this blog shows, that simply focusing on our iota of planet is a complete waste. While we've said goodbye to the Age of Polymaths, surely we could all do with a little Thomas Young in us. The popularity of events such as TED tells me that quite a few people think this way; a counterculture to the increasing specialization is developing in parallel with it - cross-dissemination and fertilization of ideas seems to  be blossoming.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Lagos still Dark

There's growing controversy about a BBC2 show portraying life in Lagos (Welcome to Lagos, ends today), that invites you to a glimpse of the "most extreme urban environment". I haven't seen the thing myself, not having TV and being barred from BBC's Iplayer, but from the episode titles it doesnt look promising:
  1. A look at life in the Olusosun rubbish dump, where about 1000 people live in scrap houses. 
  2. A look at the lives of those who choose to live and work on the waters of Lagos Lagoon.
  3. Following Esther, who lives in a scrap house on the beach in central Lagos.
    Hold on, this feels like a we're back in "Heart of Darkness" age. I mean, I met the crew that was here at the time. They were staying in a cool guesthouse in the heart of posh Ikoyi, surrounded by art and music. They saw fun and laughter next to poverty and despair. Even if they chose to highlight the "resourcefulness, determination and creativity of those adapting to life" in Lagos, it feels like they missed their brief. Anybody who knows Lagos and Nigeria knows that there's more than pitiful locations of Makodi, Bar Beach, and Olusosun. Knows that there's a hunger and thirst for life the expresses itself in explicit acts of creativity that warrant a setting that reflects the attitude in a bolder way.

    People look at the surface and even if the show reveals, as I hope to find when I get back home, a lighter side of life in the most pressing of circumstances, the choice to portray the least appealing of places in Lagos means that the producers have stuck to the old prejudices rather than sticking their head out and showing a new side of Africa that might actually change peoples stereotypes. I can only imagine that the final decision makers thought that would be too much for the home audiences to swallow. Opportunity missed.

    I, and most of my Nigerian friends and colleagues, agree with Wole on this one. I thought that Said had managed to re-evaluate our conception of others, and helped others to overcome their own notion of self. Clearly the battle still rages strongly, maybe more strongly than ever as we near the World Cup in South Africa.

    Monday, 19 April 2010

    Volcano bonus

    Loving the inspired response from guys stuck in London due to the volcano that nobody can pronounce. TED and a VC are doing/have done unscheduled events. I'm sure there are many more. Increases my belief that, contrary to the startling figures bandied around, the Volcano-induced grinding halt seems to have a net zero effect. No tourists in, but other tourists and others who had wanted to go on holiday are stranded.

    This of course doesn't account for the plight of individual industries, such as Kenyan flower growers or airlines, but works, roughly, on an economy wide scale. Now that I've started looking, NYT insists that, unless it lasts for a while and companies start finding it difficult to cover supply needs, it wont really damage GDP.

    Of course, we could see more dramatic social outcomes, as in 1783, when the "eruption of Laki in Iceland, which lasted for about eight months, [was] linked to crop failure in France. As such, it may have been one of a number of factors that led to the French Revolution." [Guardian]

    In the meantime, those of us that remain unaffected in Nigeria can just entertain ourselves by listening to the stories of stranded passengers and their responses, such as Angela Merkel, the Norwegian Prime Minister and John Cleese.

    UPDATE: Just found this picture of thunder lightening the eruption through facebook friends, truly amazing. Hat tip, BB.

    Thursday, 25 March 2010

    Democratizing Africa

    My opinion on democracy in Africa is complicated, having written a major (and poorly reviewed) university piece about it. My general sense is that democracy in the Western sense is misplaced in different cultural contexts, and we should build upon modern forms of local governance traditions. Associations, which govern nearly every professional avenue in Nigeria and remind me a bit of Western guilds, may be one of these.

    Nevertheless, its interesting to see efforts to drive interest and make democracy work. Electionnaire.com is a striking example of this out of Sudan. Big up the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the foundation of the German Social Democrats, for supporting this initiative. I only have two questions
    1. How many people have access to the internet in Sudan and would actually make use of this tool?
    2. Where can I get this for the upcoming UK elections?
    Hat tip: Texas in Africa

    Water: The battle of the future?

    Remember that fad, a couple of years ago, when everybody was talking about how Coca Cola was buying up the worlds water supply? Or WaterWorld? Or hundreds of other books, movies, comics, stories, blogs and articles that have all talked about how our thirst for water was going to become the next battleground.

    One of the only things I share with Americans, apart from a common bloodline, is a belief in human ingenuity. I have always thought that it would show in the search for new drinkable water sources. Desalination is an obvious source, seeing that more than 71% of the earths surface is covered by it, against only 3% freshwater, and more every day. Price, energy requirement, space etc are some of the barriers that need to be addressed, and I get excited about every possible solution to these problems. One of these comes out of MIT: 1,600 of the new desalination chips they have developed (pictured) can produce up to 15 liters of drinkable water an hour at 99% purity. I'd be interested to see how it can scale and become commercially viable!

    MIT via PSFK

    Wednesday, 24 March 2010

    Cost of doing business

    We all know about the additional burdens weak infrastructure, bad regulation, corruption, and high cost of imported goods, can place on entrepreneurs and MNCs operating in developing countries. But at times practical examples make a striking point of just how deep the problem runs: Jumoke, one of the MDs of Alitheia, recently complained about her broken laptop screen - why, i wondered, would she (a) not replace it, or at least (b) get an external screen in the meantime.

    Answer:
      (a) There is no Sony repair centre repairing laptops in Nigeria. I was suprised by this and did the research, and true, in a country of 150mn people the only Sony service centre will only start accepting laptops from May. Even if she were to get hold of the spare part from elsehwere, there would be no guarantee that there's anybody in the country that can help install it.
      (b) The computer guy seems incapable of attaching a temporary external screen, which feeds into the other bit about nobody having the skill to help out.

    Result:
    The only alternative to sending it out of the country, which would cause whole other set of problems, is to buy a new computer. Imagine - instead of a relatively cheap, routine maintenance she has to go out and splash out $$$s on a new computer even though hers works fine. Crazy

    Monday, 22 March 2010

    Men who stare at (fighting) goats

    Well, Ram's actually. The annual National Ram Fighting competition, organized by the Ram Lover's Association of Nigeria, is currently in progress near the national stadium in Lagos. Very excited to have been a part of the Semi Finals, which saw the likes of AK47 take on Sledgehammer. Obama, the winner of the last two years, was not around any more. I've been told by the Grandfather of Ram Fighting that he has since been retired.

    Ram fighting, when you see it, seems perfectly natural. There are no red colours or jeers to get the beasts excited. They see each other and want to run at each other; simple. The winner is the one who intimidates his opponent most - who then runs away. If he has not been able to do so for 40 headbangs, the match is a draw.

    The finals are to be held on April 11th. The day will also see other traditional African sports. In discussion with the Grandfather it turns out that none of those sports, which include local varieties of wrestling and one-legged running, are conducted during the African Games, which see only Olympic disciplines. Seems to me that despite all the quirkiness of this particular events this kind of activity carries more significance if viewed in the general context of a threatened African culture.

     Ram's locking heads

    Sledgehammer on the way to the court

    Stewards of the Ram Lover's Association

    UPDATE: Will published this piece in the Wall Street Journal.

    Wednesday, 17 March 2010

    Development Finance: SMEs, Finance, Growth

    This post has some interesting findings in the development economics/SME realm – in particular the impact of lack of finance for SMEs on exports and thus employment, innovation and growth. As in microfinance, the micro-level, anecdotal evidence differs from statistical analysis; Thorsten Beck et al previously found that although there is a correlation between SMEs and growth they cannot say that one causes the other.

    Other interesting subjects include the benefits of diversified conglomerates in emerging economies – which they say is derived from internal capital markets, a phrasing which does not necessarily highlight their primary advantage; that of helping the company weather shocks.

    In the same vein, but not mentioned in the blog, is the phenomena of clustering in emerging economies. Why do all the TV, scooter, book etc sellers in Hyderabad group together? Couldn’t they make more money by serving customers closer to their home and raising prices for the convenience? Surely, some entrepreneurial trader would have discovered the profit, so the answer is not only in tradition. Why does it take big corporate building malls to realize underlying value? Answers anybody?

    Sangodare

    The Adunni Olorisha Trust, the organization that is trying to maintain and promote the legacy of Suzanne Wenger, and in doing so protect the Sacred Groves of Osogbo (one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nigeria), is at work. We've organized an exhibition of Sangodare's work - one of the adopted children of Suzanne and the most promising artist amongst the New Sacred Art movement. The event's on Saturday in Lagos - email me if you want to come.

    I help the Trust out as much as I can and am up there quite often as a result. If you're in Lagos and would like to come to Osogbo sometime, let me know.

    Voyeurism in the news

    Voyeurism and exhibitionism hit the news in different ways recently. One way struck me when I was scanning the BBC website today (see pic). I don't know if this widget was intentional or not but it sure came out funny/strange. How twisted to you have to be to (a) want to watch somebody get electrocuted (b) electrocute somebody (c) be electrocuted on live TV. The latter made me think of a piece on psychopathy and reward, which I guess we all knew about. But even so - aren't all those seeking recognition on Big Brother & Co. just psychopaths in their own little way?

    Sunday, 14 March 2010

    Femi

    High time I let Femi Kuti leave his mark on this site. I've been to the New Shrine a couple of times now (the dancers have got to be seen to be believed), and his latest grammy-nominated album has been on repeat in the car for a while. Gotta say that I though Seun, his younger half-brother, was stronger but he's blown it of late with poor performances, empty words and an arrogant attitude. Plus, Let's Make History (called Day by Day elsewhere) has really pulled through for me. Check out the intro on this:


    (Artist: Femi Kuti; Title: Tell me; Album: Let's Make History [Nigeria])

    Finally Digging, or: Mr. T's magical musical wonderland

    Finally got to hang out with Mr. T, a record collecting legend in Lagos. Tony has been collecting records around Lagos for decades, and has built a massive collection. Scavengers like me have been to his Afrobeat section before me, so there's only a couple of hundred left, but that's still pure gold. As are his high-life, jazz, funk and "sentimental" sections.

    Tony's business has seen better times. Formerly a DJ, he now sells rips of his records after leaving the party business to one of his apprentices because, he says, the young guys don't understand music and he doesn't have the time for the new stuff. After being kicked out as a resident DJ at an Ikoyi hotel that's now been replaced by the Southern Sun, he set up shop in a central market. Now his landlady there has kicked him out he's back to the "ghetto" (his words), the village on the outskirts of Lagos where he's been building a house for the last 20 years. I think the house may need another 10 or so, but he's got an amazing garden, and more than enough room to stack all the music (see photo, with Mr. T).

    Spent a good couple of hours digging around, and as a start I've asked him to make a list of what he's got. The good man doesn't even know how many records he has (I reckon 6 to 10 thousand). He's also given me the names, numbers and addresses of most of the other big music oga's in Lagos, so I should be set digging wise for the next few months. Amazing!

    Thursday, 11 March 2010

    New Technology

    Ever get the feeling, standing in front of something really cool that's going to change how we're going to live, work and play, and think that "I should have seen this coming?". Not far off with Penguin's new interpretation of the book on IPad. Astonishing:



    Hat Tip: PSFK