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Building Apps for Mobile Phones

Ethan Zuckerman has an interesting post on, among other things, a project called EPROM that is trying to encourage people in developing nations to learn how to build applications for mobile phones. The project currently has a program running in Kenya (Kilifi and University of Nairobi).

Some slides from classes they run , including Python for mobile apps, are available here. (An aside this could be a great topic for the next Bar Camp…).

This is great stuff not just from a skills building perspective, but also because the program will provide seed funding to assist with the commercialization of programs. It’s one thing to develop a cool app, but that doesn’t put food on the table (progress will be getting to a stage where young Kenyans are motivated by more than just the hope that they’ll make money). Skunkworks guys – are you familiar with this program? What’s your take on it?

Apparently Safaricom is holding competitions with a similar kind of motivation – the development of local mobile apps.

And in somewhat related good news, I can report Fab Lab is finally coming to Kenya. I’ve been excited about the Fab Lab concept ever since I heard Neil Gershenfeld speak at Poptech. The first lab will be launched either late this year or early next year in ARC-Kenya just outside of Kisumu. It is anticipated that the second lab will be based in the University of Nairobi.

AOB: Mama news – baby doing well, growing fast and going through a phase where she can only sleep if I’m holding her at night…right now I’m blogging with her on deep asleep on my lap…now that’s skills development :-)

18 comments to Building Apps for Mobile Phones

  • That was an interesting article by Ethan, read it yesterday and thought – wow. So many cool things happening so fast! Its incredible.

  • Ory,

    The last Tuesday meeting was actually diverted to the Uni of Nbi where we attended the initial presentation of their workshop … I hope skunkworks guys will try attending these sessions.

    It was an interesting session – I actually found it very engrossing … definitely not how electronics classes in school went :)

    Eric Magutu has been really involved with these – and will be heading the SMS bootcamp once they’re done with EPROM.

    Once we get details of the class schedules – we’ll post it up on the blog and mailing list.

  • KE

    You said:
    “progress will be getting to a stage where young Kenyans are motivated by more than just the hope that they’ll make money)”

    Um….the KEY motivation for all entrepreneurs IS money! If people didn’t think they could make money, they wouldn’t do anything!! Making money is not a bad thing and should not be viewed as such. Africa’s main problem today is poverty and the cure for that is to make money.

    Bill Gates may be into philanthropy today, but when he first started out, it was ALL about money. At his core, he is a money-making businessman.

  • KE – I don’t agree fully … if the key motivator was money – then the most innovation would be happening in Africa where everyone’s hungry for it :)
    The point is – a lot of current uni students are busy thinking about how to make money & forget to innovate. It becomes easier for them to work for someone else & earn a salary.
    Innovation is about passion – believing in your idea & doing something about it. People build fun things like Google not for money at first. They build something, and realize along the way that it can be a highly profitable idea – then drop out of school at that point :)
    The problem Africa has is that failure is viewed negatively. Taking risks is hence a much bigger deal … that way – you’d look at your current job, and wonder if it’s worth sacrificing that for an idea you believe in.

  • KE


    The reason why innovation doesn’t happen in Africa (despite the high poverty levels) is because people are scared that their ideas (read: intellectual property) will not be protected and will probably be stolen! So, why slave away at an idea if you know that a corrupt government official can just come along, threaten you and steal it.

    So, money is still a very, very, important motivator. However, the rule of law must also exist to protect people’s ideas’. That’s where Africa falls short.


  • @KE,yiyaz
    About innovation in TECH, especially:
    Two main reasons that may stop people being motivated enough to think/implement ’em ideas:

    (i) You need capital (VC or otherwise) to implement the idea
    (ii) The risk of IP, trade secrets ,being stolen is real, even in the west, is very real:
    -i mean have you ever signed an NDA with a big firm? Mostly the NDA only protects the firm, not you

  • Guys,

    Where’s the fear of theft in developing a web application ? Seriously – we do NOT live in the days when govt officials can come & stifle your innovation – in the internet age ? Yet – how many internet apps get developed …
    Good ideas are copied – the world over – but the winners in the end are those that can implement them better – better service, usability – a million things. Ideas are not unique … how they’re implemented is.
    So – coz your idea won’t be protected – you don’t develop it in the first place ? 😉

  • apollo – i do agree about lack of capital – from experience – it does play a big role in the take0ff of a good idea. But there are sooo many things we can innovate without capital. But we don’t – I’m yet to understand why.
    In discussions with many ppl – we’ve narrowed it down to our education systems :)

  • JKE

    What worries me about the EPROM approach is the limitation to Series60 phones – or did I get soemthing wrong? Afaik, Nokia phones based on Series60 are rarely seen on NBO’s streets. Or?

    Why Python and not Java?

  • Eric Magutu

    Python gives you more control of the phone. With python you are able to access features on the phone easily i.e camera, Bluetooth, networking, etc that is not yet possible with java.

  • Eric Magutu

    But if you look at the website you will see that o mobile phone application development in java is also taught.

  • JKE

    OK thx Eric!

  • Eric Magutu

    But if you look at the website you will see that mobile phone application development in java is also taught.

  • Interesting post, however somewhere along the lines and the replies I lost track of what exactly the challenges here were. I think we digressed a little…

    One thing I think is for sure, building Mobile Apps for Africa will set us free somehow, since it appears Mobile phones are becoming a substitute for PC’s in the region.

    That said and done, I have a hard time trying to come to terms with how Mobile Operators control and create restrictions around building APPs around their Platforms. Safcom doesnt have an API available and getting Celtels API is almost impossible hence most companies tend to buy turnkey solutions from South Africa or the UK.

    So I don’t know if the theory that the more Mobile developers we have, whether the more development opportunities we will have. Somehow I don’t see the direct relationship because the fact that we still need to integrate these services with someones infrastructure seems mind boggling to me.

    I have been actively involved in web development for years now, I have lived in Kenya and the US. Money never really was the driver in my entrepreneurial spirits, I think just the sheer fact that I could create and develop and empower was good enough. I agree with Riyaz – passion and other aspects drive certain types of people to develop and create things, if somewhere down the line your idea stands out then money becomes the overall fulfillment factor.

    I also think there are so many Kenyan web developers, software programmers, Internet Engineers and Software geeks. However that has not necessarily translated to any innovation simply because the economic drivers and also business opportunities for innovative ideas have not been put in place for young entrepreneurs. I think we are still suffering from old money controlling new money, and nothing will change until that system gets replaced.

  • Nice discussion on a project I was immensely part of. Didn’t know it would catch so much attention. I guess it’s time Africa embraced this mobile technologies, because we don’t have a well fixed infrastructure, e.g cable, satellite and stuff. If we can’t make a kick out of this mobile stuff, then I think we’ll be left out.
    Let’s embrace the technology and even define the road map for subsequent development of the devices. We can, I believe.

  • kioko

    hi can any1 develop mobile apps here, i got a brilliant idea but i need to wak with someone whose good in java, lite basically anything mobile
    0724921100 hit me up

  • Thanks mate. Not bad blog you have here. Have some more links to point to with more info?

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