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Africa’s New Silicon Valleys

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Perhaps most famously, Route 128 and Silicon Valley in the United States developed around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford universities, while key European knowledge regions developed at the Sophia Antipolis high-tech park in Côte d’Azur, France, and the Leuven region in Belgium.

In Africa, however, it is a relatively new phenomenon. But some universities on the continent are working towards setting themselves up as catalysts of innovation and entrepreneurship. Notable mentions must go to the University of Nairobi and the American University in Cairo, but South Africa is leading the charge.

The likes of Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) are focusing more than ever on equipping their students to be entrepreneurs, primarily in response to unemployment issues in the country. Almost 50% of those aged between 15 and 24 in South Africa are without a job, and some tertiary institutions are adapting by equipping them to become job creators.

READ MORE: Forbes Africa Under 30 Technology Entrepreneurs

Bakang Moetse is Impact Investing Project Manager at the Bertha Centre, a dedicated entrepreneurial unit within the Graduate School of Business at UCT. She says high youth unemployment had made the promotion of entrepreneurship an imperative for many African governments.

“Whilst government may be responsible for creating an enabling environment for the development of businesses, universities play a key role in delivering skills and expertise, as well as creating enabling environments for incubation of entrepreneurs,” says Moetse.

Universities also stand to gain. At a time when the relevance of university degrees has come into question due to the number of unemployed graduates and lack of employment readiness of those graduates who do enter the workforce, promoting entrepreneurship provides a way of ensuring universities continue to be recognized as key to the development of societies and economies.

“For universities interested in taking on a more active role in this regard, there is a competitive advantage to be gained in becoming leaders within this field of research, which can further bolster their credentials,” says Moetse.

Stellenbosch University runs its own incubator – LaunchLab – and also invests in some student-run tech startups. Head of Incubation Brandon Paschal says universities that do so will produce more employable and resilient graduates, and their reputations will grow as such.

“Also, with the current student fee climate, if universities are not backing and pursuing commercializing university technology, their financial sustainability and broader access to tertiary education is in jeopardy,” he says.

So how have startups incubated by universities benefitted? G-J van Rooyen was an associate professor at Stellenbosch, and launched his bitcoin-based anti-piracy startup Custos Media Technologies out of LaunchLab. He says it had been a great space from which to grow an early-stage company.

“At a startup, you’re constantly juggling concerns and issues. Being in a supportive environment where space and facilities are one less thing to worry about makes a huge difference,” Van Rooyen says. “Since LaunchLab is a hub for startups and investors, it directly impacted our fundraising efforts, and introduced us to our angel investor.”

Michael-John Dippenaar’s on-demand storage space startup Sxuirrel first encountered LaunchLab after winning a competition run by the incubator, earning funding and support.

“Amongst other intangibles thereafter, and in the period leading up to then and now, we gained help in the form of advice, community and networks,” Dippenaar says.

“We had support in finding lawyers, connecting to additional entrepreneurs to learn from, and access to soft-skill building resources.”

READ MORE: Investment Marketplace Coming To Africa

Training students – and professors – in entrepreneurial skills and providing them a safe space from which to launch their ideas in one thing, but universities also need to ensure they have solid links with corporates and funders to help incubated startups scale. This can be a challenge.

However, Tine Fisker Henriksen, Senior Project Manager, Innovative Finance, at Bertha Centre, says the credibility associated with university brands lends itself to bringing in new partnerships and streams of funding entrepreneurs on their own would not be able to tap into.

“We are seeing increased interest from the corporate sector to get involved in supporting entrepreneurship, and we have managed to establish partnerships that have been valuable in this regard,” she says.

“From our point of view, there is great potential to expand this beyond mere sponsorship of events and once-off fundraising, as is commonly the case, and move in the direction of more sustainable partnerships approaches for rising entrepreneurs.”

The initiatives at places like Stellenbosch and UCT are well developed, with a track record of helping startups launch and raise funding for their next stage of development, but are enough universities following their lead?

Paschal says there is some evidence of this, but it takes time to transform very traditional and conservative institutions. Part of the challenge is that “startup skills” are intangible, EQ-related things that you cannot learn in a classroom.

“The push for universities spinning out companies, and supporting startups and SMEs, is disrupting the traditional role of universities. The trend is going in this direction, but generally universities are battling to get beyond the academic side,” he says.

Henriksen agrees more needs to be done.

“We have seen the top universities develop more entrepreneurial courses, hubs and initiatives. But there is definitely room for greater involvement, and coordination of efforts in this space to create a synergized impact,” she says.

– Tom Jackson

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How Google Is Using AI To Make Voice Recognition Work For People With Disabilities

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Want to schedule an appointment? Just ask your phone. Need to turn on your bedroom lights? Google Home has you covered.

Now a $49 billion market, voice-activated systems have gained popularity among consumers, thanks to their ability to automate and streamline mundane tasks. But for people with impaired speech,  technologies that rely on voice commands have proved to be far from perfect.

That’s the impetus for Google’s newly formed Project Euphonia, part of the company’s AI for Social Good program. The project team is exploring ways to improve speech recognition for people who are deaf or have neurological conditions such as ALS, stroke, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury.

Google has partnered with nonprofit organizations ALS Therapy Development Institute and ALS Residence Initiative (ALSRI) to collect recorded voice samples from people who have the neurodegenerative disease, one that often leads to severe speech and mobility difficulties.

For those with neurological conditions, voice-activated systems can play a key role in completing everyday tasks and conversing with loved ones, caregivers or colleagues. “You can turn on your lights, your music or communicate with someone. But this only works if the technology can actually recognize your voice and transcribe it,” says Julie Cattiau, a product manager at Google AI.

The company’s speech recognition technology utilizes machine learning algorithms that require extensive data training. “We have hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of sentences that people have read—and we use them as examples for the algorithms to learn how to recognize each,” says Cattiau. “But it’s not enough for people with disabilities.”

With Project Euphonia, the team will instead use voice samples from people who have impaired speech in the hope that the underlying system will be trained to understand inarticulate commands.

While the goal is to create technology that is more accessible for people with speech impediments, the end result is still unclear.

“It’s possible that we will have models that work for multiple people with ALS and other medical conditions,” says Cattiau. “It’s also possible that people, even just within ALS, sound too different to have such a machine learning model in place. And in that case, we may need to have a level of personalization so that each person has their own model.”

Google’s speech recognition technology can comprehend virtually any voice command for people without speech impairments, due to the large data set that has been available for training. But some uncertainty exists about how broadly speech technology will be able to understand and act on directives from those who have difficulty speaking. The Project Euphonia team has only a limited number  of voice samples from people with speech impediments, which allows it to focus only on specific-use words and phrases such as “read me a book” or “turn off the lights.”

Though Cattiau’s team has collected tens of thousands of recorded phrases, she says it needs hundreds of thousands more. That’s partly why Google CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled this project at the company’s annual developer conference in May.

“We are working hard to provide these voice-recognition models to the Google Assistant in the future,” he said, calling on people with slurred and impaired speech to submit their voice samples.

“Impaired speech is a very difficult data set to put together. It’s not as simple as asking people to record phrases, and there’s no data set just lying around,” Cattiau says. “We have to first put it together, and that’s a lot of work.”

Perhaps the most groundbreaking of Project Euphonia’s initiatives is its work on new interactive AI systems for people who are completely nonverbal. Also in its early stages, these systems are being trained to detect gestures, vocalizations and facial expressions, which can then trigger certain actions like sending or reading a text message.

“We want to cover the full spectrum of people—and not only those who can still speak,” says Cattiau. Although Project Euphonia is still in its infancy, it could eventually have a great impact on those with disabilities, giving them the freedom and flexibility to live independently.Follow me on Twitter.

-Ruth Umoh; Forbes Staff

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Nigeria Needs A More Effective Sanitation Strategy Here Are Some Ideas:

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In November last year, Nigeria declared that its water supply, sanitation and hygiene sector was in crisis. This was partly prompted by the fact that the country has struggled to make progress towards ending open defecation.

Almost one in four Nigerians – around 50 million people – defecates in open areas. They do so because access to proper sanitation, like private indoor toilets or outdoor communal toilets, has not improved in recent years.

In fact, it’s got worse: in 2000, 36.5% of Nigerians had access to sanitation facilities that hygienically separate human excreta from human contact. By 2015 the figure had dropped to 32.6%, likely driven by rapid population growth and a lack of sufficient private and public investment.

Open defecation comes with many risks. It can lead to waterborne diseases, cause preventable deaths, and hamper education and economic growth. It also infringes on people’s privacy and dignity.

READ MORE | Small Businesses In Africa Will Be On The Frontline Of Climate Change

The government has tried several strategies to address this problem. In 2008 it adopted an intervention called “Community Led Total Sanitation”. This is a community-level intervention aimed at reducing open defecation and improving toilet coverage.

It draws in community leaders and ordinary residents so they can understand the risks associated with open defecation. By 2014 the intervention was deployed in all 36 Nigerian states, covering around 16% of the country’s 123,000 communities.

We wanted to know how effective the programme has been, if at all. So we conducted a study and found that community-led total sanitation programmes alone will not eradicate the practice of open defecation. But they could be part of the solution.

READ MORE | With 190 million people, Nigeria most likely to give birth to unicorns

We found that the programme currently works quite well in poor communities but is less effective in richer places – that is, places with higher average ownership rates of assets such as fridges, motorcycles, TVs, smartphones and power generators.

Poorer communities distinguish themselves from richer ones in other ways, too. They tend to have higher levels of trust among their citizens, lower initial levels of toilet coverage and lower wealth inequality. But none of these characteristics is, on its own, as strong a predictor of where the intervention works better than community wealth.

Low community wealth is a simple measure that encompasses all these different features, and is associated with greater programme effectiveness.

The intervention

Community-led total sanitation typically starts with mobilisation. This initially involves community leaders and then, through them, communities more broadly. Then, a community meeting is held at which residents typically start by marking their household’s location and toilet ownership status on a stylised map on the ground. They also identify and mark regular open defecation sites.

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Facilitators use the map to trace the community’s contamination paths of human faeces into water supplies and food. A number of other activities may follow, such as walks through the community that are often referred to as “walks of shame” during which visible faeces are pointed out, to evoke further disgust and shame.

Another common activity involves calculating medical expenses related to illnesses that are caused by open defecation practices.

The research

In 2015 we worked with the charity organisation WaterAid Nigeria and local government agencies in the states of Ekiti and Enugu to design a field experiment in areas with no recent experience of community led total sanitation, or similar interventions.

The community-led total sanitation programme was implemented in a random sample of 125 out of 247 clusters of rural communities.

To study the intervention’s effectiveness, we interviewed 20 randomly selected households before community-led total sanitation took place. We followed up with these households eight, 24 and 32 months after the intervention.

We found that the programme’s roll-out didn’t lead to any changes in sanitation practices in richer communities. But it worked in the poorest communities. The prevalence of open defecation declined by an average of nine percentage points in poorer communities when compared to other poor areas where the programme wasn’t implemented. This drop was accompanied by a similar increase in toilet ownership rates.

Impact depends on wealth

Our results are in line with observations by the designers of the programme. But we are the first to show quantitatively that community asset wealth is a good predictor of whether the intervention can be expected to be successful. Unfortunately, our data does not allow us to pin down why households in poorer communities are more susceptible to the programme. However, these results have important implications for more cost effective targeting of the programme.

Most countries, including Nigeria, have access to readily available datafrom household surveys that can be used to measure how asset-poor a community is. These data can be used to identify and target communities where community-led total sanitation is likely to have the biggest impact.

Eradicating open defecation is not just a Nigerian priority. Today, an estimated 4.5 billion people globally don’t have access to safe sanitation. So we also looked at data and research about this same intervention from other parts of the world.

READ MORE | New Ways Of Thinking On Health, Arts And Humanities Are Emerging In Africa

Community-led total sanitation intervention was first developed in Bangladesh in 1999. It has now been implemented in more than 25 Latin American, Asian and African countries.

We used information from evaluations of this intervention in Mali, India, Tanzania, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The studies found widely differing impacts. These ranged from a 30 percentage point increase in toilet ownership in Mali to no detectable impact on toilet ownership in Bangladesh.

Using a measure of wealth for these countries, we found that sanitation interventions have larger impacts in poorer areas, such as Tanzania, and low or no impact in relatively richer areas, such as Indonesia. This supports the idea that targeting poorer areas maximises the impact of community led total sanitation.

Conclusion

Our research shows that while community-led total sanitation is effective in Nigeria’s poorer areas, there are two main challenges.

First, community-led total sanitation had no perceivable impact in the wealthier half of our sample. There, open defecation remains widespread. And second, even in poor areas, a large number of households still engaged in open defecation after the intervention.

This suggests that while community-led total sanitation can be better targeted, it needs to be complemented with other policies – subsidies, micro-finance or programmes that promote private sector activity in this under-served market.

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African Music Platforms Soar As Spotify And Apple Snooze

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Creators and consumers of music seek African online music platforms even as global entities and record labels hesitate to fully commit on the continent.


Africa is a continent of over a billion people, with a young, increasingly tech-savvy population that has growing spending power and a desire to find new ways of accessing a wider range of content. And, at a sociocultural level, music plays a huge role in Africa.

A ripe environment for major global players in the music industry, you would think, but things have been rather quiet around digital music on the continent.

Spotify only launched in South Africa last year, and its only other African markets are Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Apple Music is still only available in the same handful of African countries as at the time of its launch.

Where these companies have, so far, looked on, others have filled the gap. Chinese company Boomplay, founded in 2015, through a joint venture between phone manufacturer Transsion and consumer apps firm NetEase, now has 42 million users across multiple markets on the continent, and recently secured $20 million in funding to break into more countries.

Locally and regionally focused platforms are also seeing traction. Key among them is the Nairobi-based Mdundo, which has more than 3.5 million monthly active users in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.

The company works with 50,000 musicians across Africa and has signed a licensing deal with Warner Music Group.

The company’s CEO Martin Nielsen says the sector is seeing strong progress, with artists flooding to online platforms to distribute their music and labels paying more attention to the continent.

“We’re experiencing an increasing interest in Africa and the music industry, both from commercial partners, record labels, music distributors and global music services. This is a very positive development, Africa is next in line,” he says.

The growth of platforms like Mdundo, and the launch of new ones, has benefits for both creators and consumers of music on the continent. For artists, they provide new ways of getting their music out there.

Dumisani Kapanga is founder of the Malawi-based streaming platform Mvelani, which has almost 100,000 songs in its catalogue and claims to have at least 40,000 users each day. He says services like his have broken down barriers to entry for artists.

“It’s now easier than ever for musicians to put out music to their fans without relying on record labels to do so. Within minutes an artist can have their music on some of the biggest platforms out there. We are providing the means for artists to be heard easily, without the need for expensive middle men,” Kapanga says.

For consumers, it is ever easier to access music new and old, in a variety of different ways. Damola Taiwo, co-founder of Nigeria-based music downloads platform MyMusic.com.ng, says download platforms such as his own remain the most popular due to factors such as accessibility and affordability, but sees a future in Spotify-style streaming services in Africa.

“The download services seem to still be the preferred method, where individual tracks are downloaded on devices and permanently owned. This is probably due to the cost and quality of internet access on the continent,” he says.

“However, there are other more structured platforms that also exist where listeners consume music. Some of them are streaming services similar to Spotify and Apple Music while others are download services, or a mixture of both.”

What business model to pursue, and how to monetize, are key challenges faced by local music platforms, and the fact that there are, as yet, no clear answers might account for the wariness of the likes of Spotify and Apple Music to bet big on Africa. Taiwo says another key issue is the lack of major record labels on the continent.

“Most artists will fall under the ‘indie’ bracket, and even the ones that have record labels are more like a one-man business with a maximum of three artists. This makes licencing difficult as there are too many entities to talk to,” he says.

The diversity of what is loosely referred to as the “African consumer”, but is, in fact, a huge mass of people with differing tastes and preferences, also poses a problem for music platforms. Nielsen says there is a rapidly growing middle class that demands the same service that global music services offer, yet they are still very data-cost conscious.

“Plus many of the smart devices have limited storage, so we tailor-make our solution to their needs. In addition to that, we have a mass-market segment on our service with low-end smartphone devices that we see a huge potential in with simpler music offerings,” he says.

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