All posts by Martin Stadler

Closing a circle: Talk at Berlin JavaScript User Group

Connecting communities is one of our goals. And we define ourselves as members of our local tech communities with the idea to share our experiences. So when I gave a talk about the AfricaHackTrip at this month’s BerlinJS meet up I felt I was closing a circle.

My personal highlight was that I could show videos of KampalaJS and NairobiJS greeting BerlinJS.

AfricaHackTrip helped founding these user groups so it’s great to hear from them. Of course BerlinJS answered:

Here’s my slides:

Reset.org Interview on AfricaHackTrip

The following interview with Gregor about the AfricaHackTrip was originally published on reset.org as part of their TIMES Pieces series – a monthly editorial series of interviews with people who use tech for social and environmental good. 

With kind permission we post it here.  

What led you to start AfricaHackTrip?

I’d read an article on BBC written by Erik Hersman in autumn 2012 and it fascinated me. I’ve worked with developers and designers with remote teams for a long time now, and I realised I’d never worked with someone from an African country – either for business or open source work. Then there was also this map of Hubs in Africa and I wondered: where are all these people working in these hubs? Why don’t we hear from them?

I tweeted the article and suggested – rather meant as a joke – that we should go and see for ourselves. I got four or five responses from friends that they were in, and the AfricaHackTrip was born.

How did the various African communities react to your project?

It was different from city to city but there was usually a lot of confusion at first. It took a long time to make people understand that we’re not backed by any corporation or non-profit organisation, and that we’re not a charity trip of any kind.

It was a private journey of developers and designers coming from Europe to meet the their colleagues in Africa. Once that was understood there was an overwhelming appreciation for what we did; for our interest in the people and their projects; what they are struggling with; and what their plans are. We weren’t trying to sell anything, teach our product, or find lucrative investment opportunities. It took a while to break the ice, but once we did it was really great.

What role do you think technology can play for an ecological and social change, and has your perception of this changed since returning to Europe?

Compared to other industries, I think IT technology can play a significant role in all aspects of the respective societies simply because it requires very little infrastructure. Once there is decent Internet and access to computers, there are very little costs when it comes to solving local problems or improving an existing system with IT. The governments of the countries we visited understood that and put ICT high on their priority list.

We tried not to come with any expectations but, in theory, the local developers in East Africa have access to the same knowledge as we do. They can train themselves in the same skills as we did. We learned all these skills with content freely available on the Internet, not in school. That is true – but the truth is also that the young creatives simply don’t have as much free time available as we do. The circumstances are harder: they often have to support their family who expect them to earn money for them because they had invested in their education.

Another factor is the comparably slow and expensive Internet. As a developer, when you face a problem with a programming language you google it. But if the internet is down or each page request takes minutes, you simply cannot make the same progress as you could do with fast internet. However, given the development of the past few years, I’m positive that the environment will continue to improve at a fast pace. The IT industries will thrive.

What was your biggest discovery about Africa’s tech scene?

Personally, it was the incredible support and smart policies from the Rwandan Government. I’ve never heard of a comparable support from any other country in the world. The amount of support offered by initiatives from the private sector is great. Women in tech (as in the entire society) also get a lot of support, and smart policies do the rest.

An example of this is mobile payment has not been accepted in Rwanda because of the lack of one dominant player, like Safaricom is in Kenya. There are three big players with their own solutions, all of which are incompatible to each other. But now the government ruled that all telecommunication providers have to comply to open standards. That means users can switch between providers and keep their money, as well as transfer across providers. Without any big investment, Rwanda has become a great market for mobile payment.

You visited some of the fastest growing countries for ICT. What sustainable initiatives were you seeing come out of this growth, if any?

Good question. Right now, the most important initiatives are the ones that create and improve the infrastructure – like continuing to bring fast internet from the sea cables to the inner country. Rwanda is building a 4G network across the country. Once the infrastructure is good enough, growth will come by itself. I predict a bright future because of the lack of legacy, the lack of competing industries, and the opportunity to compete on a global market with very little barriers on one side and very little costs on the other.

What will you do with all the knowledge you’ve gained from the AfricaHackTrip and EuroHackTrip?

We will collaborate when it comes to details. For example, one lesson was that the AfricaHackTrip went “too fast.” One week per location, including a 2-day event didn’t provide enough free time to build deeper relationships, or start working on projects and so on. I hope to be able to participate on the EuroHackTrip myself.

KampaBits

On our last day in Kampala we visited KampaBits, a school teaching underprivileged youths web design, print design and web development. It was incredibly inspiring to see how motivated and ambitious the students are. Most of them haven’t even used a computer or a smartphone before they started the class. After some training they are able to design posters and business cards and design simple web pages coding HTML and CSS. Advanced classes include web development with PHP and Drupal, animations, etc. Everybody we talked to was eager to start their own business, looking forward to making a living through ICT.

When interviewing them for the AfricaHackTrip documentary movie we found the youths to be very self-conscious and proud of what they already achieved. It was apparent that they feel the power they gained by being able to create things. We got a lot of questions about our professions like how designers and developers should work together and how to start a successful business as a freelancer.

Notably, almost half of the students are girls.

KampaBits is an NGO and a franchise of NairoBits in Kenya and is funded by various donors. Most teachers are volunteers. They are looking for more donors and also teachers. We really like the concept and with a 60% success rate it is obvious they’re doing it right.

It was a pleasure to visit KampaBits and we are very happy that the kids also had a good time as you can tell by this message we got the next day:

What a Week

It’s been only a week since most of us Hack Trippers arrived in Africa. We’re just done with chapter one out of four but our impressions and experiences are already enough for a whole trip.

We started organizing our events right away, checking out iHub and discussing details of the concept and schedule. Getting some feedback on our ideas from people like Alex from Mozilla also led to our first interviews. We found the iHub to be a really cool place to work and meet people and everybody was really supportive and made us feel very welcome.

The events were a huge success. I think all of us share the feeling that things worked out even better than we dared to hope when we started the project. There was this moment when everybody was asked to introduce them and name a few “tags” that describe their interests best and we realized that we really were a big group of hackers – Africans and Europeans – passionate about the same things. Sweet!

I enjoyed the Barcamp a lot because in every session the participants instantly started talking, discussing and exchanging views and ideas. I didn’t feel any gap between cultures, just talking technology and design, no matter what level of expertise. We were hoping that this trip could also help connecting African communities more and this definitely happens. For example in the session “JavaScript for App Development” a fine group of passionate developers gathered of which most didn’t know each other before and as a result the user group Nairobi.js will be started!

On the Hackathon the next day many people from the Barcamp showed up again and everybody obviously enjoyed working together. Some really cool projects got started or were even finished.

The feedback for our events made us really happy and showed us that we are doing it right. Many participants pointed out that they enjoyed the collaboration and asked for more events of that kind. The approach of self-organized community events doesn’t seem to be so common here and we hope that members of the community step up and continue this exchange. It feels so rewarding that our format is greeted with so much enthusiasm.

Connecting through the events is actually happening. We are sharing Twitter handles and email addresses to keep in touch and continue working on the projects we started. We visited impressing initiatives like the Nairobi Dev School which is providing a full-time web development class completely run by the community that will also soon start an OpenTechSchool chapter in Nairobi!

Oh, and we climbed a volcano and some of us saw giraffes in the wild.

One thing is for sure: There’s developers and designers with the same skills and attitude like us. We call them hackers. We found them. We even have the first Africans actually talking about a EuroHackTrip and planning from both sides already began. This is amazing! Our wildest hopes might actually become true!

Kampala Barcamp and Hackathon

Registrations are now open for our events in Kampala next week, Friday 4 and Saturday 5 October at Outbox Hub and Hive Colab. We look forward to meeting many interesting people at the two different venues!

Check out what the events are about on our Lanyrd page: Barcamp, Hackathon.

Official registrations: Barcamp, Hackathon – If no spots are left but you really want to take part, get in touch, preferably via Twitter.

Attacks on Nairobi shopping mall

We are shocked and deeply sorry about what happened and still happens in Nairobi. We’d like to send our sincere condolences to those who lost their loved ones, and wish everyone who was injured a quick recovery.

Gregor is already in the city since a few days and was even in the Westgate area when the attacks started. Fortunately, he’s alright and he already donated blood.

Our trip will officially start in three days (25 Sep) in Nairobi and our plans haven’t changed. We are worried and we take things seriously but we are still very excited to finally be there. Let’s kick off more collaboration!

 

Gregor‘s video message:

Event planning

We are organizing one or two events in each city as our main means to get together with local designers, developers and entrepreneurs. We don’t really know what to expect and it is hard to organize remotely, but we already got and will continue to get a lot of help from the hubs, co-working spaces and other contacts.

The main goal of AfricaHackTrip is to connect with fellow hackers and to establish an exchange of knowledge, ideas and culture regarding the tech world. Us presenting or teaching something would not really convey the core of these goals. Additionally, although we as a group share a lot of interests and values, we don’t all do the same thing, so what would we present and teach?

Still, if we just say that we wanna check out what’s going on and meet people, maybe working on interesting projects together, people are a bit confused about that. Yes, we tried… But how can you advertise that? How can you get members of the communities interested in something that blurry?

We needed something more tangible. We needed to come up with exciting descriptions of our events that can be published on the venues’ websites, that appeal to tech people, entrepreneurs, sponsors and press alike. And if the talking and working together part is not working out as we hope, it would also be good to be able to present something instead.

So our event concept now includes barcamp-style unconferences and hack-a-thons as a compromise between prepared presentations and workshops, and more or less unstructured hangouts. We got some valuable feedback from the venues about the potential participants for our events. Still, we don’t have a concrete feeling what to expect, and we believe we should not schedule too much and instead be open to let things develop and encourage participation as much as possible. Thanks to my involvement in OpenTechSchool I have some good experiences with this approach.

We are currently working on writing event descriptions that will contain general topics such as “open source”, “world-wide collaboration”, “web technology”, “open standards”, “web UX design”, “diversity in tech”, “open knowledge exchange” that we stand for.

We try to get a community together based on these topics.

In addition we will name FirefoxOS as a concrete technology and product that represents many of our values and that we would love to present and talk about. FirefoxOS is a hot topic right now, probably a good fit for African markets, and we hope to meet people that are excited about it, too. Thanks to our partner GeeksPhone we will have a few phones with us that we can use for presentations and workshops and donate to co-working spaces.

We have a lot to talk about. Judging from what we learned so far, there will be loads of projects to be worked on, so our events will be a full day each. Thanks to our partner GitHub and the efforts of the venues we can offer catering for the participants so we can focus on what is important to us.

The events are the heart of the trip and we would love to get feedback about our plans. Get in touch or comment here. We want your ideas, your questions, your complaints and your favorite topics!

We are all excited and looking forward to this!