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On The Road To A Green Future

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Off Kampala’s chaotic arterial streets, we are on a dirt road with speed bumps that are large mounds of red earth. The red leads to a yellow building up a slope with awkward barbed wire fencing on its compound walls.

We are at Kiira Motors Corporation’s offices in Ntinda, in northeastern Kampala, home to what the company calls ‘Africa’s first electric car’ and ‘Africa’s first solar-powered bus’.

Outside the main building, a large white bus is parked under a makeshift shed. A scaled-down model of the same is placed under the stairway leading up to the offices. In the distance, a profusion of plantain trees; and a searing sun at 9:30AM.

The bumpy roads to Kiira are in a way akin to the journey ahead for this automobile start-up, ever since the green transportation initiative it kick-started in a little corner of Uganda.

“It’s an uphill task but we are working round-the-clock to deliver on our promises to our nation and the world,” says Allan Muhumuza, Vice-President, Marketing & Sales of Kiira, on the company’s mission to build eco-friendly mobility solutions for urban masses in a country of about 40 million.

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It all started in 2007 as an extra-curricular activity by a group of students and teachers of the Department of Engineering and Mathematics led by Professor Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa and Paul Isaac Musasizi, currently CEO of Kiira, at Uganda’s Makerere University.

Tickodri-Togboa was head of the department and, together with Musasizi, decided “the paradigm for training university students should be changed, as by the time they graduated, they didn’t have the skills for a working world”.

So they decided to start various extra-curricular projects for students after normal class hours.

Along the way, they were invited to be part of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) initiative with the aim of designing and producing a five-passenger plug-in hybrid electric vehicle targeting the Indian market.

Makerere was “the only participant from Africa”, and as part of the project, eventually developed the two-seater Kiira EV, aptly the color green.

The financing came from the Presidential Initiative Fund for Science and Technology Innovations, and the electric car designed and built in Uganda for the first time was launched by President Yoweri Museveni in 2011.

“The original idea was to use the electric car in the Makerere University campus,” recalls Tickodri-Togboa.

In 2014, the team built Kiira EV SMACK, a sedan its makers say is ‘Africa’s first electric hybrid vehicle’; and thereafter in 2016, the 35-seater Kayoola Solar Bus, again ‘a first in Africa’.

“That we have talent in Uganda has been demonstrated with minimum resources… and we also have very good natural resources,” says Musasizi, the engineer-entrepreneur behind Kiira.

A prototype hybrid sedan is being ripped apart at the Kiira headquarters. (Photo supplied)

The government of Uganda, acting through the Uganda Investment Authority, has now allocated 100 acres of land for a vehicle assembly plant expected to open in Jinja, a town in the eastern region of Uganda, in 2018.

In contrast to the used expensive imported vehicles on Uganda’s roads, these will be factory-fresh vehicles made in Uganda.

READ MORE: The Missionary That Built A Business Empire

Right now, Kiira has the three prototypes, and is looking at 305 units in the first year of production. These will mostly be pick-up trucks and buses.

The idea is to also convert the masses using public transport – mostly the ubiquitous matatus and boda bodas.

“We want to shift the market from 14-seater matatus to this. But most of all we want to reduce traffic and congestion. Our buses will be bigger to seat more people,” says Muhumuza, also an engineer.

“We realized that if we are to solve Africa’s traffic woes, the biggest need was to address public mass mobility, as that’s where the volumes and problems were. But also at the same time provide sustainable green solutions… Our emphasis was on the technology, to show that Africa can build solutions for Africa and these can be futuristic as well.”

At the time it was built, the solar bus cost an estimated $150,000 – it has solar panels on the top that powers lithium-ion batteries. If mass-produced, costs will come down.

“It’s a capital-intensive project and we are open to get tech and financing partners,” says Muhumuza, adding Kiira is in advanced talks with some technological partners.

“We are seeing a niche, a special place in public mobility in urban spaces that can be addressed by green buses,” says Musasizi.

East Africa’s automobile sector seems on track for more news. In neighboring Rwanda, there are reportedly plans to set up a Volkswagen manufacturing plant.

Outside the offices of Kiira, the prototype hybrid sedan is being ripped apart by men in blue overalls and being re-engineered. The car is a mere skeleton of its former self, but its journey on Uganda’s bustling streets, powered by an African sun, may just be about to begin.

Current Affairs

Morocco Looks To French As Language Of Economic Success

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Morocco’s economy is getting lost in translation.

With so many students dropping out of university because they don’t speak French, the government has proposed reintroducing it as the language for teaching science, maths and technical subjects such as computer science in high schools.

It also wants children to start learning French when they start school.

The country’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh, or Berber. Most people speak Moroccan Arabic – a mixture of Arabic and Amazigh infused with French and Spanish influences.

In school, children are taught through Arabic although they don’t use it outside the classroom. When they get to university, lessons switch to French, the language of the urban elite and the country’s former colonial masters. Confused? Many are.

Two out of three people fail to complete their studies at public universities in Morocco, mainly because they don’t speak French.

The linguistic morass has stymied economic growth and exacerbated inequalities in the North African country, where one in four young people are unemployed and the average annual income runs at approximately $3,440 per person, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – less than a third of the world average.

The plans to broaden the teaching of French go to the heart of Morocco’s national identity.

They would overturn decades of Arabisation after independence from France in 1956 and have triggered a furor in parliament, where members of the Islamist PJD party, the senior partner in the coalition government, and the conservative Istiqlal party view them as a betrayal.

The disagreement has delayed a vote on the changes.

“Openness to the world should not be used as an excuse to impose the primacy of French,” said Hassan Adili, a PJD lawmaker.

Proponents say the changes reflect the reality that French reigns supreme in business, government and higher education, giving those who can afford to be privately schooled through French a huge advantage over the majority of the country’s students.

“In the Moroccan job market, mastery of French is indispensable. Those who do not have command of French are considered illiterate,” said Hamid El Otmani, head of talent and training at the Confederation of Moroccan Employers.

Even before parliament votes on the changes, Education Minister Said Amzazi has okayed the roll-out of French in some schools, declaring its use in teaching scientific subjects as an “irreversible choice”.

Like many Moroccan politicians, his children received a private education.

“When decision-makers start sending their children to public schools, only then can we say that we have a successful education system,” said Jamal Karimi Benchekroun of the co-ruling socialist PPS party.

Amzazi did not respond to a request for comment.

Frustration over jobs and poverty has fueled periodic protests in Morocco, but the country has avoided the sort of instability suffered by other North African states, where pent-up anger has triggered uprisings and provided fertile ground for Islamist extremism.

King Mohammed VI, the ultimate power in Morocco, has proven adept at introducing limited reforms in response to popular protest. He has spoken publicly about the need to teach foreign languages to students to reduce unemployment and has made the economy a top priority.

Last year, he sacked the minister for finance after calling on the government to do more to boost investment.

C’EST LA VIE

Problems with language are not unique to Morocco. In neighboring Algeria, another former French colony, students are also schooled in Arabic only to be greeted “en francais” in university and the workplace.

French’s pre-eminence reflects Paris’ continuing influence in the region. France is the biggest foreign direct investor in Morocco and large companies such as carmakers Renault and Peugeot employ tens of thousands of people.

Privately-run universities such as the International University of Rabat (UIR) have courses geared toward high-growth industries such as aerospace and renewable energy and offer tuition in French and English.

But a year at UIR can cost up to $10,000 in fees, way beyond the budget of most Moroccans. They go instead to non-fee paying public universities, where the abrupt transition to studying in French is frequently a burden for students and their lecturers.

“Sometimes we find ourselves giving French language courses during economy classes,” said Amine Dafir, economy professor at Hassan II University, a public institution in Mohamedia, near Casablanca.

Hamid Farricha, 37, dropped out of his applied physics and computer science degree at Hassan II University during the first year. He dreamed of becoming an engineer but the language barrier meant he struggled to keep up.

Trying to find Arabic translations for French scientific words was a drain on his time.

He switched instead to studying mechanics at a vocational school. He still had to master French to get hired.

“The biggest challenge after earning my diploma was writing a CV and sitting for job interviews in French,” Farricha said.

He got a job as a technician at a plant repairing car frames, paid below Morocco’s minimum monthly salary of 2570 dirhams, or $270.

Farricha was one of the lucky ones. Morocco’s economy cannot absorb all the young people looking for work. Around 280,000 graduates entered the labor force last year but only 112,000 jobs were created.

The unemployment rate for graduates is 17 percent, above the national rate of 9.8 percent, according to data from Morocco’s planning agency.

Morocco’s reliance on small and medium-sized companies which do not typically employ graduates, and austerity drives which have cut public sector jobs are part of the reason for the high rate of graduate unemployment.

The education system is also failing to prepare students for work.

In addition to high dropout rates, Moroccan students score badly compared to peers on international tests, and at university level, students oversubscribe to social science fields at the expense of technical subjects, according to an IMF report in late 2017. That means many don’t have the skills employers are looking for when they graduate.

Even for roles not requiring a degree, French is a must. On the French website of Morocco’s job promotion agency, almost all employers were looking for French speakers, including for jobs as guards, waiters, cooks and drivers.

Determined to get ahead, Farricha worked on his French while employed at the plant. He read newspapers and books in his spare time and gave himself a daily list of new expressions and vocabulary to learn.

He went back to university in 2014 for a degree in French law and is studying for a masters in diplomacy and international arbitration.

To meet his living costs, he teaches French to other students. -Reuters

Ahmed Eljechtimi

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Focus

Software Pirates Use Apple Tech To Put Hacked Apps On iPhones

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Software pirates have hijacked technology designed by Apple Inc to distribute hacked versions of Spotify, Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, Minecraft and other popular apps on iPhones.

Illicit software distributors such as TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox have found ways to use digital certificates to get access to a program Apple introduced to let corporations distribute business apps to their employees without going through Apple’s tightly controlled App Store.

Using so-called enterprise developer certificates, these pirate operations are providing modified versions of popular apps to consumers, enabling them to stream music without ads and to circumvent fees and rules in games, depriving Apple and legitimate app makers of revenue.

By doing so, the pirate app distributors are violating the rules of Apple’s developer programs, which only allow apps to be distributed to the general public through the App Store. Downloading modified versions violates the terms of service of almost all major apps.

TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Apple has no way of tracking the real-time distribution of these certificates, or the spread of improperly modified apps on its phones, but it can cancel the certificates if it finds misuse.

“Developers that abuse our enterprise certificates are in violation of the Apple Developer Enterprise Program Agreement and will have their certificates terminated, and if appropriate, they will be removed from our Developer Program completely,” an Apple spokesperson told Reuters. “We are continuously evaluating the cases of misuse and are prepared to take immediate action.”

After Reuters initially contacted Apple for comment last week, some of the pirates were banned from the system, but within days they were using different certificates and were operational again.

“There’s nothing stopping these companies from doing this again from another team, another developer account,” said Amine Hambaba, head of security at software firm Shape Security.

Apple confirmed a media report on Wednesday that it would require two-factor authentication – using a code sent to a phone as well as a password – to log into all developer accounts by the end of this month, which could help prevent certificate misuse.

Major app makers Spotify Technology SA, Rovio Entertainment Oyj and Niantic Inc have begun to fight back.

Spotify declined to comment on the matter of modified apps, but the streaming music provider did say earlier this month that its new terms of service would crack down on users who are “creating or distributing tools designed to block advertisements” on its service.

Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds mobile games, said it actively works with partners to address infringement “for the benefit of both our player community and Rovio as a business.”

Niantic, which makes Pokemon Go, said players who use pirated apps that enable cheating on its game are regularly banned for violating its terms of service. Microsoft Corp, which owns the creative building game Minecraft, declined to comment.

SIPHONING OFF REVENUE

It is unclear how much revenue the pirate distributors are siphoning away from Apple and legitimate app makers.

TutuApp offers a free version of Minecraft, which costs $6.99 in Apple’s App Store. AppValley offers a version of Spotify’s free streaming music service with the advertisements stripped away.

The distributors make money by charging $13 or more per year for subscriptions to what they calls “VIP” versions of their services, which they say are more stable than the free versions. It is impossible to know how many users buy such subscriptions, but the pirate distributors combined have more than 600,000 followers on Twitter.

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Security researchers have long warned about the misuse of enterprise developer certificates, which act as digital keys that tell an iPhone a piece of software downloaded from the internet can be trusted and opened. They are the centerpiece of Apple’s program for corporate apps and enable consumers to install apps onto iPhones without Apple’s knowledge.

Apple last month briefly banned Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc from using enterprise certificates after they used them to distribute data-gathering apps to consumers.

The distributors of pirated apps seen by Reuters are using certificates obtained in the name of legitimate businesses, although it is unclear how. Several pirates have impersonated a subsidiary of China Mobile Ltd. China Mobile did not respond to requests for comment.

Tech news website TechCrunch earlier this week reported that certificate abuse also enabled the distribution of apps for pornography and gambling, both of which are banned from the App Store.

Since the App Store debuted in 2008, Apple has sought to portray the iPhone as safer than rival Android devices because Apple reviews and approves all apps distributed to the devices.

Early on, hackers “jailbroke” iPhones by modifying their software to evade Apple’s controls, but that process voided the iPhone’s warranty and scared off many casual users. The misuse of the enterprise certificates seen by Reuters does not rely on jailbreaking and can be used on unmodified iPhones. -Reuters

-Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave

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Economy

Fintech Companies Raised a Record $39.6 Billion in 2018: Research

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Venture capital-backed financial technology companies raised a record $39.57 billion from investors globally in 2018, up 120 percent from the previous year, according to research by data provider CB Insights published on Tuesday.

Funding was raised through 1,707 deals, up from 1,480 in 2017, the research said.

The surge in funding was due in large part to 52 mega-rounds, or investments larger than $100 million, which were worth $24.88 billion combined, the research said.

A $14 billion investment in Ant Financial, the payment affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, accounted for 35 percent of total fintech funding alone last year, the research said.

In the last three months of the year, five companies joined the coveted ranks of fintech “unicorns”, or companies valued at more than $1 billion. These include credit card provider Brex, digital bank Monzo and data aggregator Plaid.

Venture capital investors have been pouring billions of dollars into fintech companies, in the hopes that they can gain market share from incumbent financial institutions by offering easier to use and cheaper digital financial services.

Fintechs have emerged globally across all sectors of finance, including lending, banking and wealth management.

While the large rounds minted new unicorns and led funding to hit a record high in 2018, CB Insights estimates these will likely delay initial public offerings.

“IPO activity is likely to remain lackluster in 2019,” the research reads.

Asia saw the biggest jump in number of deals in 2018, growing 38 percent from the previous year and accounting for a record $22.65 billion, according to the study.

In the United States, fintechs raised a record $11.89 billion through 659 investments, while the number of deals dropped in Europe, but funding reached a record $3.53 billion. -Reuters

-Anna Irrera

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