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Friday, July 24, 2009

The winds of change for Africa

By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News, Oxford

William Kamkwamba (TED/J D Davidson)
Mr Kamkwamba told the conference of having started out as a "simple farmer"

Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama said Africa must take charge of its own destiny.

At the TED Global conference in Oxford this week, one speech resonated with that message.

The speaker was William Kamkwamba from Malawi.

TED Global (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is the European cousin of an already established top US event dedicated to "ideas worth spreading".

Unlike the eclectic mixture of scientists, technologists and designers gathered at the hi-tech conference, Mr Kamkwamba grew up as a farmer in the East African country.

He came to the conference to tell how people how, at the age of just 14, he had built his own wind generator.

"Before I discovered the wonders of science I was just a simple farmer," he said.

But after the family's maize crop failed in 2001, they could no longer afford to pay for him to go to school.

"It was a future I could not accept," he said.

'Never give up'

So, Mr Kamkwamba would visit a library in his spare time, reading science books.

One in particular taught him that windmills could be used to generate electricity and pump water.

"I decided to build one for myself but I didn't have the materials."

William Kamkwamba on his windmill (TED/Tom Rielly)
Mr Kamkwamba's device defines the "small wind" approach

Undeterred, Mr Kamkwamba scoured a local scrap yard, finding the necessary components: a tractor fan, shock absorber, PVC pipes and a bicycle frame.

"Many people, including my mother, thought I was crazy," he admitted.

His first model powered one light. But a later, more powerful version was able to run four bulbs.

"Soon people were turning up at my house to charge their mobile phone," he said.

This was not the first time Mr Kamkwamba, now 19, had spoken at TED; his first encounter with the elite conference was in 2007 at the TED Global conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

"Before that time I had never been away from my home in Malawi. I had never seen an internet," he said.

He said he was so nervous when he had to give his first presentation that he "wanted to vomit".

This year, he said he was feeling better. And he had one message for this year's crowd at TED Global - a message which echoes that of the US president.

"Trust in yourself and believe. Never give up," he told the audience.

Mr Kamkwamba's story has now been turned into a book: The Boy who Harnessed the Wind.

The TED Global conference runs from 21 to 24 July in Oxford, UK.

Pedal power for Kenya's mobiles

Pascal Katana on a bicycle
It takes an hour of pedalling to charge a phone completely

Two Kenyan students are hoping to market a device that allows bicycle riders to charge their mobile phones.

Jeremiah Murimi, 24, and Pascal Katana, 22, said they wanted their dynamo-powered "smart charger" to help people without electricity in rural areas.

"We both come from villages and we know the problems," Mr Murimi told the BBC.

People have to travel great distances to shops where they are charged $2 a time to power their phone, usually from a car battery or solar panel.

"The device is so small you can put it in your pocket with your phone while you are on your bike," said Mr Murimi.

It is estimated that some 17.5 million people out of Kenya's 38.5 million population own a mobile handset - up from 200,000 in 2000.

Smart charger
We took most of [the] items from a junk yard
Pascal Katana

Although similar devices already exist in other countries, they are not available in Kenya.

The two electrical engineering students from Nairobi University have been working on their own invention, which they are selling for 350 Kenyan shillings ($4.50) each, over the last few months during their university break.

In Kenya, bicycles are sold with a dynamo to be attached to the back wheel to power the lights.

The dynamo lead can be switched to plug into the charger instead, they explained.

Mr Katana explained it takes an hour of pedalling to fully charge a phone, about the same time it would if it were plugged into the mains electricity.

The BBC's Ruth Nesoba says after a short ride, the phone's battery display indicated that it was charging.

Guinea pigs

The cash-strapped students used old bits of electronic equipment for the project.

"We took most of [the] items from a junk yard - using bits from spoilt radios and spoilt televisions," said Mr Katana.

Dynamo on bicycle wheel
The dynamo is attached to the back wheel

Workers with bicycles at the campus were used as guinea pigs, including security guard David Nyangoro.

"I use a bicycle especially when I'm at home in the rural areas, where we travel a lot," he said.

"It's very expensive nowadays charging a phone. With the new charger I hope it will be more economical, as once you have bought it, things will be easier for you and no more expenses."

Mr Murimi says so far they have only made two chargers - but are making five more for people who have seen it demonstrated.

"And a non-government organisation in western Kenya wants 15 so they can test them out in rural areas to see how popular they prove," he said.

The two friends are about to start their fifth and final year at university in September.

"We are not planning to stop our studies," Mr Murimi said.

Kenya's National Council for Science and Technology has backed the project, and the students hope they will find a way of mass-producing the chargers.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Analyst: Undersea cable can boost connections

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- The Seacom cable being promoted as a computer lifeline for Africa will contribute to social upliftment but not immediately, a telecommunications analyst says.

Seacom cable laying in the Red Sea.

Seacom cable laying in the Red Sea.

James Hodge, who specializes in competition and regulation, says initially Seacom will predominantly benefit those already connected.

Hodge said it will not initially change the lives of those poor people, sitting in the rural areas without lights or electricity.

He added that because of the competitive climate surrounding Seacom, it will lead to cheaper connectivity, making the Internet more affordable for more people.

And that says Hodge, means that in the long term it will contribute to social upliftment.

Seacom plans to provide African customers with access to inexpensive bandwidth via 15,000 kilometers of undersea fiber-optic cables.

Seacom is the first cable supplying east Africa which until now has been reliant on satellite connections.

Hodge pointed out people in South Africa have already benefited.

Service providers have reacted to the imminent arrival of the Seacom cable by adjusting their prices, and we'll see more cuts as the local providers respond to the increased competition, he said.

Seacom is owned by a lot of divergent companies, all competing amongst each other.

Strong competition within the cable itself should drive prices down and avoid any price collusion amongst the various providers, Hodge said.

He added that would please the cynical South African consumer and help liberalize South Africa's communications industry, long seen as lagging behind everyone else in connectivity due to lack of competition.

Cable makes big promises for African Internet

Enlarge font

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- A undersea cable plugging East Africa into high speed Internet access went live Thursday providing an alternative to expensive satellite connections.

The cable links southern Africa to Europe and Asia.

The cable links southern Africa to Europe and Asia.

SEACOM, the cable provider company, opened up its 17000 kilometer submarine cable, capable of 1.28 terabytes per second, allowing the region true connectivity.

Most Africans rely on expensive and slow satellite connections, which make the use of applications such as YouTube and Facebook extremely trying.

"This is going to reduce the cost of doing business in Africa, within Africa and with international parties" said Suveer Ramdhani, SEACOM spokesman in South Africa.

"The cable is as thin as a hair strand and in one second it can download the same amount of data that 160 people use in a month."

SEACOM, privately funded and 75 % African owned, will provide retail carriers with open source access to inexpensive bandwidth.

It has taken less than three years to complete the mammoth project, providing landing stations at South Africa, Kenya, Madagascar and other points along the east coast of Africa.

But telecoms analyst James Hodge said that some of the more ambitious hopes for the system -- such as impacting the continent's socio-economic problems -- will be long-term, and that initially it will be those already connected who will see the benefits.

The launch was delayed by a month because of increased activity by pirates along parts of the African coast.

Security teams were beefed up to protect the slow moving cable layers.

Neotel, a South African communications network operator is the largest shareholder in SEACOM.

It is also the anchor tenant and the South African landing partner, providing both the coastal landing station and Johannesburg data center for the submarine cable.

Neotel managing director Jay Pandey is excited about the opportunities for growth presented by the SEACOM cable.

"With this cable coming in, the pipe size opens up, so more and more people are able to get faster and better connectivity, hopefully at a lower price. It can't be more expensive than what it is today."

SEACOM chief executive officer Brian Herlihy added: "Turning the switch 'on' creates a huge anticipation but ultimately, SEACOM will be judged on the changes that take place on the continent over the coming years."

South Africa has been hobbled by high costs and extremely slow bandwidth, effectively keeping the country on an information back road rather then the superhighway.

There is much anticipation and hope that the cable will ensure Africa keeps up with the developed world in Internet connectivity, providing greater speed, flexibility and, potentially, a complete socio-economic transformation.

Tanzanian President Josiah Kikwete said in his opening address: "It's the ultimate embodiment of modernity."

His speech was beamed via SEACOM from a launch in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to the simultaneous launch in Johannesburg, South Africa

Prize for 'Sun in the box' cooker

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Painting box
At the heart of the idea is a simple black painted box...

A cheap solar cooker has won first prize in a contest for green ideas.

The Kyoto Box is made from cardboard and can be used for sterilising water or boiling or baking food.

The Kenyan-based inventor hopes it can make solar cooking widespread in the developing world, supplanting the use of wood which is driving deforestation.

Other finalists in the $75,000 (£51,000) competition included a device for streamlining lorries, and a ceiling tile that cools hot rooms.

Organised by Forum for the Future, the sustainable development charity founded by Jonathan Porritt, the competition aims to support concepts that have "moved off the drawing board and demonstrated their feasibility" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but have not gained corporate backing.

With as many people as there are in the developing world today, they can't just cook using trees - they'll finish off all the trees
Jon Bohmer, Kyoto Energy

"The Kyoto Box has the potential to transform millions of lives and is a model of scalable, sustainable innovation," said Peter Madden, the forum's chief executive.

It is made from two cardboard boxes, which use reflective foil and black paint to maximise absorption of solar energy.

Covering the cooking pot with a transparent cover retains heat and water, and temperatures inside the pot can reach at least 80C.

As many as two billion people in the world use firewood as their primary fuel.

Scaling up

The idea of cooking using the Sun's rays has been around for centuries, and a number of organisations including Solar Cookers International are already supporting their manufacture and distribution in the developing world.


Reducing reliance on firewood reduces deforestation, but also improves the health and wellbeing of villagers who do not have to trek for miles collecting the increasingly scarce wood nor spend hours inhaling wood smoke, a major cause of respiratory disease.

What impressed the judges about the Kyoto Box was the potential for production to be scaled up significantly in a number of developing countries.

"It's really the mass manufacturing aspect," said Jon Bohmer, who founded the company Kyoto Energy in Kenya.

"We can take existing factories like cardboard factories and begin to make thousands and thousands of the cookers each month," he told BBC News.

"So far, solar cooking has been a DIY project with people making them on their own in slums and so on; but this could be the Volkswagen, you might say."

Evaporating tile
An evaporating tile was another of the competition's finalists

Mr Bohmer hopes to gain funding from the international carbon market.

By demonstrating that using the Kyoto Box reduces greenhouse gas emissions, he can gain "carbon credits" from western countries and companies.

"With as many people as there are in the developing world today, they can't just cook using trees - they'll finish off all the trees," he said.

Other innovations reaching the competition's final included

  • a feed additive for livestock, derived from garlic, which can cut methane emissions from cows and sheep by at least 5%
  • an indoor cooling system that uses a building's exhaust air to evaporate water held inside hollow tiles
  • a giant microwave oven that turns wood into charcoal
  • an aerodynamic cover for lorry wheels that reduces drag and thus fuel use

The Climate Change Challenge competition was also supported by the Financial Times newspaper and technology company HP.

Kenya cable ushers in broadband era

Kenyan man on a mobile phone, generic

The first of four undersea cables bringing high-speed internet to eastern Africa goes live on Thursday. The BBC's Anne Waithera, in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, finds a nation impatient to join the broadband revolution.

In a busy cyber cafe in Nairobi dozens of people, mostly young, are hunched over computers surfing the net.

I try to strike up a conversation with one of them but he will not even look my way. Without looking up from the monitor he signals with his hand that I should wait until he is done.

You'll see a lot of YouTube and Facebook stuff now made for Africa by Africans
Idd Salim
Symbiotic Media Consortium

This is perfectly understandable. It costs slightly less than $1 to surf for about an hour in a cyber-cafe in Nairobi and internet connection speeds are very slow.

But he is ready to talk after he pays his bill.

"It's not good. It's hanging and keeps wasting time and frustrating me," he says.

Another frustrated user complains: "I've spent more than 15 minutes instead of 10."

But things are about to change for these internet users.

The Seacom undersea fibre-optic cable goes live on Thursday, promising changes that will be felt right across eastern and southern Africa.

The switch will take place simultaneously in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Maputo in Mozambique and Mtunzini in South Africa.

The switchover from relying mainly on satellites to the submarine cable is expected to massively increase connection speeds.

Cables being laid on the ocean floor
The cables are being laid on the floor of the Indian ocean

One of the biggest setbacks of satellite connections is that a change in weather almost always leads to unstable connectivity.

It is hoped that cyber-cafe owners will transfer the benefits to their customers, as they will be making a huge savings on international links.

"When the fibre-optic cable goes live this means the speeds will be fantastic, we'll have a higher turnover of clients and that translates to increased income," says Fred, a cyber-cafe manager.

These benefits will also be felt by millions of phone users, who will enjoy cheaper international connections and quicker voice transfers.

"The fibre-optic connection enables faster voice transfer unlike satellite, which has an average response time of 650 milliseconds, thus introducing some delays in our voice communication," says Mahmoud Noor, Seacom's cable-station manager in Mombasa.

Mr Noor says the new service will reduce this to an average of 90 milliseconds for calls between Europe and eastern Africa, and an even faster response of less than six milliseconds between Dar es Salaam and Mombasa.

Potential squandered?

In Kenya, various sectors of the economy are expecting a major boost following the launch of the undersea cable, and investors are anxious about it.

Mombasa workers haul in an undersea cable, June 09
The first undersea cable was launched last month, but is not yet live

"At the Nairobi stock exchange there is a possibility that things like day-trading will be introduced, where you make an order and in two minutes you will know if it has been sold or not," says Idd Salim of the Symbiotic Media Consortium, a software firm in Nairobi.

"That is not possible right now because you have to make an order today then wait for two or three days for it to clear."

Mr Salim says that Africa's potential is being hindered by the absence of fast internet connectivity and this technological advance will open new avenues.

"For instance computer programmers cannot start a video service or a powerful website because the connection is slow," he says.

"You'll see a lot of YouTube and Facebook stuff now made for Africa by Africans.

"Look at things like medicine - people will be able to be diagnosed from their homes because now we can have virtual hospitals."

The use of the undersea cable is expected to be immediate, save for some ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who may want to test it within their networks for a few days first.

Last month the Teams fibre-optic cable was launched in the coastal city of Mombasa, but it has yet to go live.

Map showing Africa's new fibre-optic cables