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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.

READ MORE: Power Woes Stall Uganda’s Rise

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.

Technology

‘WFH’ here to stay?

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The home will be hub and flexible working the norm. The result? Renewed employee trust, wellness and cost savings, say more companies.

Even the words out-of-the-box seem out of date at a time when shipping containers are turning into ICU hospitals and arms firms are making ventilators and personal protective equipment.

If technology is being repurposed, so too homes and humans.

Over the last few months the world over, the pandemic-induced ‘new normal’ has seen homes turning into head offices, with the volatile economy forcing businesses to rethink long-term strategies in a work from home (WFH) environment that looks here to stay.

Even the big corporates say this could extend post-pandemic.

Barclays CEO Jes Staley said its staff will not revert fully to its pre-January work habits. “There will be a long-term adjustment in how we think about our location strategy; the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” he said after the company reported its first quarter profits for 2020.

Internet giant Google said all staff are expected to work from home until 2021, according to a May 2020 report in Bloomberg. S,imilarly, Facebook will let staff work remotely through 2020. Twitter, on the other hand, announced a short while later it would let staff work from home “forever”.

Euromonitor International’s Global Consumer Trends 2020 report has highlighted areas that Covid-19 will have an impact for the year ahead. Some of these include multi-functional homes where, in the long-term, the home becomes the hub and businesses will adapt accordingly; private personalization, which will put privacy concerns on hold in the short term but will return in the long term; and inclusivity for all would see disabled communities benefitting from technology.

In South Africa, the government has stipulated five levels of lockdown dictating how businesses may be carried out, including which sectors can operate as levels change. This requires flexibility and being able to adapt from one week to the other.

Jordan Rittenberry, Edelman Africa CEO, says the company’s transition towards more flexible working policies has been sped up by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the process has been a success with renewed trust in employees.

“We believe that flexibility, particularly in the current environment, is a useful way for companies to treat their staff right and foster mutual trust,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. “The pandemic has required a rapid mind-set change as companies take on new responsibilities towards the people that work for them and employee wellness is the first port of call as we navigate these uncharted waters.

“Every crisis presents opportunities and new ways of doing things. The shift we are seeing now is one of those that could help to meaningfully improve employer-employee relationships if managed carefully.

“As more people work from home, we will naturally require less space over time and this will yield cost savings to the business that can be passed on to clients.

“Besides employee costs, real estate is our biggest expense,” he says. Pieter Bensch, Executive Vice President at Sage Middle East and Africa, has come to a similar conclusion. “We realized that we do not need as much office space going forward and working remotely using cloud technology tools has maintained productivity levels from our colleagues,” says Bensch to FORBES AFRICA.

“Our entire workforce began working remotely before lockdown and are in no rush to return until it is safe but have encouraged video calls so they can see each other.

“Our cloud accounting and payroll product sales have increased, which is a clear indication that our customers now understand the power and benefits of cloud solutions to maintain business continuity.”

The mental wellbeing of employees has also been top priority.  “All Sage colleagues received a free subscription to Headspace, a brilliant award-winning app and guide to everyday mindfulness,” adds Bensch. The company also formed a ‘[email protected]’ community for staff looking for peer support on how to adapt with differing family needs and challenges.

A Johannesburg-based agency called BetterWork that specializes in design thinking for human resources has been hosting weekly lunchtime Zoom calls since the beginning of lockdown in South Africa. Attendees include a mix of its professional network, members of The GoodWork Society and other members of the general public. Some of its takeaways have proven that WFH is more productive than working in the office, which cited minimal distractions and the extra hours gained from not having to sit in traffic. Additionally, introverts seem to be thriving and tend to feel more comfortable with contributions to teamwork. On the other hand, BetterWork says parents on the call have expressed being overwhelmed with not just their own work but also the additional responsibility of being teacher-guides to their children.

The company believes the home-office is now the responsibility of the employer where people-focused services such as tele-therapy, support for parents and social programs become an additional duty to ensure a healthy, productive team. It adds that an obvious benefit would be the compensation or subsidizing of laptops, stable internet connectivity, webcams, etc.

Palesa Sibeko, Co-founder of BetterWork, says offices are typically expertly assessed and constructed to suit an organization’s work activity needs, but the same is not true for the millions of homes that are now acting as places of work. “There is not a concerted effort to view home-work life more holistically, to identify the needs and address them to create environments conducive to doing great work.” BetterWork says it is currently looking into how to support organizations on this important mission.

– Nafisa Akabor

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Warning: COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Could Be Turned Into Tools For Domestic Abuse

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If governments don’t focus on strong privacy protections in their COVID-19 contact tracking tools, it could exacerbate domestic abuse and endanger survivors, according to a warning from women’s support charities.

They’ve urged the U.K. government to include domestic abuse and violence against women and girls (VAWG) experts in the development of such initiatives.

Though the U.K. doesn’t yet have a widely available track and trace app, the charities – including Women’s Aid and Refuge – are already anxious enough about the current tracing program, where infected people are called up and asked to register themselves online as someone who has contracted COVID-19. They’re then asked to share details on people with whom they’ve been in contact so they too can be informed.

In a joint whitepaper, the nonprofits said they were anxious about contact tracing staff inadvertently leaking contact details of survivors to perpetrators. They also raised fears the program could be turned into a “tool for abuse.” 

“For example, perpetrators may make fraudulent claims that they have been in contact with survivors in order for them to be asked to self-isolate unnecessarily, and in these circumstances survivors will have no means to identify the perpetrator as the original source,” they warned. “Perpetrators or associates may also pose as contact tracing staff and make contact with victims [or] survivors requesting they self-isolate or requesting personal information.”

The paper also claims abusers are already using the coronavirus pandemic for “coercive control,” in some cases deliberately breathing, spitting and coughing in survivors’ faces. As Forbes previously reported, the sharing of child abuse material has also spiked during global COVID-19 lockdowns.

As for apps, the report warned they required location services to be switched on. “While the NHS app itself doesn’t collect location data, if a perpetrator has installed spyware onto a survivor’s phone or is able to hack into it, then turning on location services will expose their location.”

Problems with Palantir?

The charities also raised concerns about a number of companies who’d partnered with the U.K. on the contact tracing initiatives. They said Serco, which is handling recruiting for contact tracing staff, “has a significant track record of failings and human rights violations, including running a controversial women’s immigration detention centre where staff have been accused of sexual misconduct and involvement in unlawful evictions of asylum seekers.” Serco also recently had to apologize for leaking email addresses of contact tracer staff.

Serco denies that it has any kind of significant track record of failing and human rights violations and that the evictions to which the charities are referring were in Scotland and were ruled legal. It also said that in seven years there had been no substantiated complaints about any sexual wrongdoing at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where reports had revealed allegations.

“We are proud to be supporting the government’s test and trace programme with our Tier 3 contact centre team working from pre-approved Public Health England scripts. This is important work and we would like to thank all our teams who have stepped forward. In just four week we mobilised many thousands of people, which is a huge achievement, and we are focussed on ensuring that all our people are able to support the government’s programme going forwards,” a Serco spokesperson said.

Palantir, the $20 billion big data crunching business, also raised an eyebrow. The company, which has secured millions of dollars in contracts to help health agencies manage the outbreak, has come in for criticism for assisting U.S. immigration authorities on finding and ejecting illegal aliens.

Palantir hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

UK’s delayed COVID-19 app

The charities’ warning comes as the U.K. announced its contact tracing app would be shifting to the Apple and Google models, which promise stronger privacy protections than the app being tested by the government. The main difference is in where user information goes. In the government’s app, anonymized phone IDs of both the infected person and the people they’ve been near are sent to a centralized server, which determines who to warn about possible COVID-19 infection. In the Apple and Google model, only the phone ID of the infected person is sent to a centralized database. The phone then downloads the database and decides where to send alerts. The latter means the government has access to far less data on people’s phones, pleasing some critics but aggravating the government.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that Apple’s restrictions on third-party apps’ use of Bluetooth may’ve been one reason the government’s own app wasn’t as successful as hoped. Bluetooth is being used to determine whether an infected person has been in close proximity with another person’s phone.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International cybersecurity researcher Claudio Guarnieri warned that global rollouts of contact tracing apps were a privacy “trash fire.” After analyzing 11 apps, he found many contained privacy shortcomings. So concerned was Norway that it suspended its tool.

Even with lockdowns easing, those who’re infected are still being advised to isolate. However,  the NHS guidance says that “the household isolation instruction as a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse.” That message may not have been amplified as much as it should’ve been.

Thomas Brewster, Forbes Staff, Cybersecurity

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Twitter Begins Asking Users To Actually Read Articles Before Sharing Them

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TOPLINE Twitter announced Wednesday that it will test a new feature that will prompt users to open up a link to an article before sharing it, which appears to be a move to further combat the spread of misinformation on the platform.

KEY FACTS

  • Some Twitter uses may be subject to a prompt to click on a link if they try to retweet without reading the article first, billed by Twitter as a feature “designed to empower healthy and informed public conversation.”
  • English speakers on Android devices will be the first to see the tests.Users will still have the ability to retweet a message without clicking the link first if they chose to tap through the prompt.
  • According to Twitter Support, an official company account, the platform will only check if a user has clicked the article link recently through Twitter, not elsewhere on the internet.
  • Twitter denied some skeptical users’ accusations that the platform is testing the feature to establish a revenue stream via click-through to outside websites, saying the platform is not testing ad products with the prompts.
  • Twitter Support told one user it would watch to see if reminding users to read an article before they share it leads to more informed discussion.

CRUCIAL QUOTE

“It’s easy for links [and] articles to go viral on Twitter. This can be powerful but sometimes dangerous, especially if people haven’t read the content they’re spreading. This feature (on Android for now) encourages people to read a linked article prior to retweeting it,” Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour commented upon the announcement of the feature testing.

KEY BACKGROUND

The new prompt tests are the latest Twitter effort to curb the spread of misinformation on the platform. Twitter last month displayed fact-check tags on two of President Donald Trump’s tweets that featured misleading information regarding mail-in ballots and voter fraud. Twitter also rolled out testing for a new feature to allow users to limit who can reply to their tweets. The platform has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks, from conservatives over accusations of censorship and from the left for not doing enough to stifle misinformation.

Carlie Porterfield, Forbes Staff, Business

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