General

Supporting Self Help Group Facilitators with our Digital Platform

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facilitator trainings are an important part of leading SHGs Over the next year, we will be actively building the ecosystem around our Self Help Group Digital platform.

Our free digital app helps SHG facilitators mentor new Self Help Groups that mobilize the poorest of the poor to save and loan to each other.

SHGs are self-governing and by saving with and lending to each other for microenterprise projects, they create social bonds that signficantly improve their family's economic situation.

The net benefit of SHGs is not just in the financial empowerment experienced by its mostly women members, but the social networks of empowerment and lasting bonds that they create for women in underserved areas.

The use case for our Self Help Group app is SHG facilitators who, through the digital platform, have access to a job aid for the functioning of SHGs and supportive supervision by a network of their peers.

SHG facilitators use the meeting guide as a job aide

Objective of the SHG Platform

With our early adapter partners, we built the Self Help Group app with the support of expert SHG facilitators and program coordinators.

The hypothesis was that a digital guide for SHG facilitators would help to scale the self help group model and raise the quality of the group's experience by providing the very best learning content to groups.

As the SHG facilitator uses our app to prepare meeting content and lead members through the basics of forming a thriving self help group, they grow their professional skills as social sector leaders in their communities.

 

 

Experiments in Collaboration

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proportional piling helped us visualize what indicators were the most important to capture in the app Early this month, we invited nearly 50 people to join us in Nairobi for a two day “Co-Creation Workshop” in order to help us determine development and partnership priorities for our Self Help Group Digital Platform.

This mobile app began as a simple directory of content, tailored to the cultural context and organizational needs of Tearfund in Ethiopia (who have great expertise with the program model). But we built for scale and our app is becoming a multi-lingual, content-rich digital platform capable of meeting the needs of a much wider partner ecosystem.

There are hundreds of millions of people around the world who participate in savings groups and self-help groups. And there are scores of organizations who devote time and money to founding and supporting these groups because of the transformational impact such groups have demonstrated in vulnerable communities.

There is a diverse and fast growing ecosystem of technologies being built for these groups, often focused on digital bookkeeping, mobile money transfers or enabling monitoring and evaluation protocols to provide transparency into group health and function.

We’re focused on providing a content-rich, field-tested volume of curricula specifically crafted for facilitators to use during group meetings, along with curricula that helps facilitators to develop their skills outside of the meeting context.

The organizations that joined us in Nairobi included large international organizations that are already household names, to smaller national NGOs that may be focused on spreading just a few hundred groups per year. A few donors, technologists and government organizations rounded out the field.

Nathaniel Calhoun leading a discussion on development priorities for the next version of the app

Different NGOs have different thematic priorities like improving conditions around water and sanitation, for example, or improving maternal and neonatal child health. They also run different varieties of group, for different durations and with different norms and expectations around interest and “pay-outs” or “graduation.” On top of that diversity, organizations operate in a variety of linguistic and cultural contexts.

When we received funding late last year, we made it clear that we’d need to gather together our potential partners in order to take direction from their needs and perspectives. That’s what this workshop was all about: bringing organizations together to look for areas of consensus that can determine where we invest and develop.

In advance of the workshop, there was trepidation among organizers and participants. After all, in other contexts, these organizations can emphasize their differences and their special ways of modifying the basic programmatic nugget: people saving small amounts of money together each week for their mutual benefit.

Although 90% of the people in the room focus many of their working hours on promoting and supporting self help or savings groups, when we asked people to raise their hands if they knew five or more people in the room, only a handful could do so.

We thought it would be helpful for these different organizations to learn about one another's (sometimes competing) priorities for (at least) two reasons: first, it will help our user community to understand that our development priorities are not set at random and that things which might not be immediately helpful within one organization’s context might be critical to another; second, we hoped to see priorities converge.

Our sessions focused on a few key areas:

* The front-end of the application—what you can see if you download the app from the play store (link)—which is what our facilitators and group members see;

* The back-end of the application—what you see if you have a password-protected coordinator login. Dashboards and panels that give you an indication of how your groups are functioning and what sort of data has been gathered from them.

* Different methods for monitoring and evaluating the groups, whether to validate the program model in general by surfacing increased resilience and prosperity, or whether to track aspects of the impact of our involving technologies in particular.

* What sort of thematic content is most urgent for these groups? What is most live-saving? What brings the greatest prosperity and health?

We assigned seating so that people from the same organizations and countries were rarely together and relied heavily upon table discussions to fill out worksheets that would then be presented to the larger group. We’re still chewing through roughly 150 pages of concrete and quality suggestions and perspective from the event.

And one of our favorite event innovations was to leave the last two and half hours relatively free on the second day, a Friday. We asked each organization to sit with one of our team members for 15 minutes at a pre-agreed time and provided a table of 15 minute time slots—all the rest of which were open. We encouraged participants, throughout the event, to make meetings with one another and to use those two and half hours to connect with one another.

But this was a Friday afternoon after the formal closing session of the event; so there was, understandably, some worry that people might pull a vanishing act. Instead, organizations sat together in all sorts of combinations even past the time we’d allotted for the meetings.

Having been at a ton of conferences that generate momentum and then end with some calls to collaborate afterwards, it felt great to move the “end” forward by a few hours and actually give that collaboration a chance to develop.

We’re grateful to all those who attended and to the Foundation support that it made it possible for us to hose this event. Stay tuned to hear what development priorities float to the top and which organizations join us soonest to continue improving upon this powerful open source tool for development.

Diverse partners implementing self help and savings groups came together to inform our app development process

JOB POSTING: Project Coordinator for the Self Help Group Digital Platform

*** JOB POSTING *** Title: Project Coordinator for the Self Help Group Digital Platform

Thematic areas: Education, m-learning, poverty alleviation, entrepreneurship, ICT4D, women’s empowerment, micro-finance, micro-savings, Africa, India

Commitment: Half-time, with some international travel

Location: Location independent, with Internet access required

Duration: 18 months, starting in November 2016

Salary: USD $4,000 per month

Project overview: In 2013, Code Innovation partnered with Tearfund Ethiopia and One Hen, Inc. to digitize a powerful development program called Self Help Groups (SHG), creating a free and open mobile resource in Swahili and Amharic to help these groups self-organize and self-advance. To date, the Self Help Group mobile app has reached over a thousand users with its curriculum and facilitation guide. For the next 18 months, we will be significantly building out the app, including new language versions, new thematic content and new features and functionality, so that it can be used by new global partners implementing SHGs and similar approaches.

Activities: The Project Coordinator will support the SHG Digital Platform team with the following:

  1. Test new versions of the app for quality assurance before they are released. This includes formal bug and issue tracking;
  2. Coordinate User Acceptance Testing with teams in the field before each new version can be released with our implementing partners;
  3. Track and report on the statistics generated by the app’s admin dashboard and Google analytics;
  4. Train new partners in how to use the app and assist in the creation of digital training materials;
  5. Help to provide ongoing technical and program support to facilitators and coordinators in the field;
  6. Assist with developing new content for the app and ensuring quality of different curricular texts in a variety of languages (translator-assistance will be provided);
  7. Draft internal communications materials for our coalition of partners and stakeholders; Moderate the social section of the platform to encourage purposeful sharing of stories and best practices between facilitators;
  8. Contribute to the team’s day-to-day discussions and problem solving.

During the last 6 months of the project, the Project Coordinator will train and supervise a Product Tester to assist her with quality assurance and app testing.

Qualifications: We’re seeking a Project Coordinator who is engaged in using technology for social impact. As our product scales and attracts wider buy-in and support, we need a technical, detail-oriented Coordinator to keep track of all the moving pieces of a significantly complex build and to shepherd the SHG app through this exciting phase of development. Attention to detail is a must, combined with the ability to organize and maintain large, dynamic spreadsheets and databases. You will be working on your own schedule without close supervision, so you will need to show that you have experience working in this kind of open environment successfully. Because our partners are scattered around the globe, you must also be willing to join phone calls at awkward times of day, at least a couple times each month. International experience is highly relevant, particularly in the ICT4D sector. A track record of working in Sub-Saharan Africa is a big advantage.  Experience training people in the use of complicated technology is also an advantage.

There is room for growth within our organization, up into strategic and leadership positions. If you’re interested in development work and program design and in becoming more expert in any of the areas that we operate, please describe this ambition within your cover letter so that we see your motivation and growth potential. This is not a requirement by any means, as we will also have a steady supply of positions like this one.

To apply: Please email your CV and cover letter to Elie Calhoun, Director of Operations at Code Innovations: elie@codeinnovation.com. Applications should be submitted by COB on 11 November 2016. Shortlisted candidates will be contacted by 18 November 2016. Strong candidates who respond quickly may be interviewed and accepted even quicker.

Co-Creating a Free Rape Crisis Counseling App

Crowdfunding our Rape Crisis Counseling app for survivors of gender-based violence to receive emergency medical care (www.codeinnovation.com) An estimated one in three women is sexually assaulted over her lifetime. If the woman (or girl) is able to access emergency medical assistance with the support of a rape crisis counselor advocate, the chances of her healing increase exponentially. Without appropriate medical or psychological care, she is more likely to suffer from physical, mental and emotional after-effects that prolong her suffering and impact not just her own quality of life and productivity, but that of her family and community.

For over 40 years, rape crisis centers around the world have provided emergency room advocacy for survivors of sexual violence, ensuring that they receive appropriate treatment and care to begin the healing process. However, in low-resource environments and socio-cultural contexts where the seriousness sexual assault is minimized, survivors are often confronted with hostile or uninformed health care workers who may be unwilling or unable to provide the basic emergency services that help prevent pregnancy, STIs and HIV.

In these cases, which are by far the global majority of rape cases, a rape crisis advocate would make a significant difference in the survivor’s ability to secure adequate care while helping to mitigate the incidence of trauma.

Within the best medical systems, local rape crisis centers offer face-to-face training that prepares new crisis counselors for volunteer service in local hospitals. But in many countries and cities, these trainings are not available and advocates are not present.

We are digitizing the training curriculum of the Pittsburgh Action against Rape coalition and other U.S. rape crisis centers to create a free Rape Crisis Counseling mobile app that will make it easier for women around the world to get the support they require. The app will be released into the Creative Commons and include:

  1. M-learning Rape Crisis Counselor training material for anyone interested in learning the skills to be of volunteer service in their community;
  2. In-hand resources (a script, essentially) that enable a colleague, family member or friend to advocate for a survivor of sexual assault to emergency medical services;
  3. In-hand resources for a survivor herself, so that women without access to advocates can be as empowered as possible on their own.

We are partnering with U.S. rape crisis centers and coalitions to transform their rape crisis counseling training course into an m-learning resource. We also have approval from the U.S. Department of Justice to adapt and use their training resources.

Women’s rights associations and human rights defenders from around the world, as well as a network of aid worker survivors of sexual assault, will review the content for its appropriateness in a variety of challenging use cases and environments.

To date, no mobile resources exist that support survivors and their advocates as they access what can be life-saving medical care. We’re going to change that.

On Sunday 14 February, a global day of action to end violence against women, we’re launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise the funds to develop and translate the first Rape Crisis Counseling app for Android and iOS.

Join us in supporting rape survivors around the world on their road to recovery.

To get involved, email Elie Calhoun at elie@codeinnovation.com.

#rapecrisiscounseling

Design for Scale vs. Bootstrapping: Reflections on Digital Development Principal #3 (Design for Scale)

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Tanzanian villagers with Self-Help Group facilitator and our savings and credit group Android mobile app (www.codeinnovation.com) We are eagerly anticipating the first time that Code Innovation receives the funding to design a technological tool that is optimized for scale from the moment of its official launch. Building for scale, as a fantasy, in my head, sounds something like this: We could incorporate a customized content management system that enables us to add new activities and modify our material painlessly in real time across a variety of languages. We could incorporate an unobtrusive yet unavoidable monitoring and evaluation protocol that feeds data into a back end that is easy to sort and clean, one that produces donor and media-relevant reports at the click of a button. We could bake in critical APKs for our social media strategy and optimize our design for the ten most common screen dimensions and the thirty most used Android devices—incorporating modular design elements to enable seamless re-branding that sweetens the deal for donors and partners hungry for visibility. We could have a big team, content gardeners, bug support in local languages . . .

Most of the innovations that we hear about in the ICT4D space do not enjoy circumstances like this. Instead, we are often bootstrapping minimum viable products through multiple too-brief program cycles each called a “pilot” phase—kicking down the road the choices about when to spend real money and hoping to transform our hacked together little tool into something robust and versatile enough to be picked up and used by the development community at large . . . and hoping, lastly, that this makes our code stylish and widespread enough to be maintained by the open source community out of love.

The Constraints of Scale with Limited Resources

Code Innovation is hitting an inflection point with one of our favorite projects that is forcing us to consider how to optimize our code for scale, but with highly limited resources. The project: an Android application that supports the facilitation of small groups that come together on a weekly basis, saving tiny sums of money, learning about businesses, starting businesses and then loaning to one another, thereby lifting one another out of poverty (take a peek at our free and open source Self-Help Group app here. Early versions of this application needed to function in Amharic and English. They needed to digitize about 70 pages of existing facilitator guides and meeting curricula and they needed to present these materials in an orderly, device-optimized way that technological novices could grasp after, at most, one quick training. Other requests piled on: social media component (sigh), interoperability with a pre-existing, ODK-based M&E app (gulp), report generating back end for funders and partners and so on and so forth.

But, at the beginning we had at most 30% of the money that it would cost to build a sufficiently rugged content app and it would mean contributing weeks of pro bono time to get our alpha version into the hands of vulnerable populations in Ethiopia. It didn’t feel like building for scale. It felt like proof of concept.

Then the usual thing happened: new partners came along with just enough money to add exactly what they want the most (a new language, perhaps, or some modules about disaster risk reduction); but not enough money to conduct a proper build. Not enough for us to build for scale. And sure, we apply a few times for large pots of Gates Foundation-type money, hoping to up-level our technology, to bring on new countries and hit our stride; but our reality continues to be bootstrapping from one version to the next, giving exceptional weight to the feature and content requests that come from whichever funder is willing to support our development next. There’s often a gentle tension between the requests of a short-term donor and the interests of our imagined, global, future customer base.

But suppose we have some promising leads? Suppose we allow ourselves to imagine building for scale just as a thought experiment? What would that look like? Or, more interestingly, what it would it look like if it were done in hefty stages rather than all at once? What if we had to prioritize the that would bring us to scale and scalability?

We admire all of the RapidSMS-based systems that our colleagues and friends have built and rolled-out through national ministries or with the paid-support of well-distributed program officers and we’re entirely aware of the benefits of short codes, dumb phones and standards. But our content and use case has driven us onto a more troublesome format (smartphones) and into an arena that is not as cut and dry or hierarchical and organized as Ministries of Health. In fact, the different partners who are most likely to adopt and scale our product do not agree about content or program models—quite apart from the fact that they often speak different languages.

So how do we articulate and prioritize the different investments into our content and technology that would help transform a narrow, bespoke application into a robust open source tool that is best in class?

Tanzanian women with Self-Help Group facilitator and our savings and credit group Android mobile app (www.codeinnovation.com)

Our primary considerations for taking an open source Android app to scale:

* Connectivity Management:

This isn’t a feature. It’s a constant high level development consideration until free Internet rains down from the heavens. Whenever we forget this variable, we open ourselves up to unnecessary failure. We need to ensure that our app respects the hyper-low and infrequent connectivity of our users by refusing to incorporate any commands or experiences that rely upon wifi or data signals. We must also anticipate database-device conflicts that result from infrequent connectivity, for instance groups naming themselves identically when offline that might become confused when they first connect. Building for low to zero connectivity is our primary constraint; it means we can’t rely on user logins or passwords, it complicates things and it makes it harder to use out-of-the-box chunks of open source code.

* Inbuilt Monitoring and Evaluation with administrative back end:

In early phases, it’s feasible to conduct monitoring and evaluation personally and to rely on Skype calls or emails as a fallback in case user information from the App is sparse or unreliable. But as we scale, our technology must gather and sort this information for us more dependably and we need to ensure that this information is visible and actionable for backend administrators who are not also our coders and developers.

* Support more Devices:

We will need to optimize our code for a growing number of devices and screen sizes. At first we could control what hardware was used with our product. But going to scale will mean the loss of this control and a bunch of design work will be required to keep content legible and navigation pathways obvious. We also have to set funds aside for keeping up with changes to the Android operating system. (For others operating in Africa, we’ve found that Tecno tablets are good for our purposes. They are widely available, robust and not big targets for theft. There are some quirks that make them a bit difficult to code for; but they’ve been hassle free in the field.) Sometimes affluent allies to our project bemoan the unavailability of our app on the Apple Store. The only justification we can see for coding this for iOS is that it might be useful for fundraising and visibility at some point when money is not an object.

* Social & Sharing:

Because we have partners who are committed to creating a social media component: we need to build out a way for groups to “share stories.” This will ultimately require an interface for reviewing, moderating and even editing the content that is uploaded to our system. (We also need to build out trainings for our end-users about the privacy considerations of sharing stories about themselves and their businesses.) We anticipate eventual requests for APKs with locally relevant social networks for cross-promoting stories and insights and can see the utility of this when begin to pursue unstructured growth amongst individual users.

* Solid Content Management System:

We will need a better content management system. Our current system was the cheapest and most familiar thing our developers could find; but it isn’t suitable for the use of our program officers because the interface requires use of html and is tiny and hard to search. Adding new languages and changing content should be easy enough in the future that relatively low-skilled, non-technical team members can do it. Our future CMS should also make it easy to change pop-ups, buttons and navigation prompts.

* Inbuilt bug Tracking:

Crash reports are great; but we need to adopt and move onto a formal issue-tracking system like Redmine and incorporate into the app some way for our users to let this system know when they encounter inclarities with content or problems with usability.

* Branching Curriculum:

Because we want to create one application that is sufficiently useful for a number of similar but different program models, we need to invest considerable time (and consensus building) into the maintenance of a one-size-fits all curriculum that will probably soon require a new user interface feature for when content branches. So, for example, the activities about supplying loans would have to branch to accommodate Islam’s prohibition of interest-charging or an activity about group milestones would have to split to address Volunteer Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) program models that pay-out from the communal kitty. The Self-Help Group model that inspired our work seems the most impactful of these initiatives and has drawn the attention and support of Melinda Gates. But it isn’t the most widespread model—in order to increase its reach, we’ll want to accommodate the needs and interests of closely aligned programs.

* New Content & Content Architecture:

We need to expand the scope and functionalities of our resources and supplementary materials. At the beginning it was fine to create a little directory of hard-to-see pdfs to satisfy an unanticipated partner request. But the quantity of high-quality material that we are now hosting deserves a whole ecosystem, complete with loads of new instructional language and the option for users to email themselves forms and templates that they find helpful.

* Finance Tracking:

Hovering in the future is the expectation that the app itself start to track the savings and money-usage of the groups, perhaps synching up with mobile money or sources of external capital. We’ve had good reason to postpone this so far; but it will be requested or required of us sooner or later. Here also we anticipate some healthy tension between a digital development principle six, which encourages us to use Open Data and principle eight which reminds us to address privacy and security concerns.

* Inbuilt Trainings:

To move away from conducting trainings during field visits, we should create some digital tutorials that help tech novices understand how to use the app—and these will have to be in a variety of languages, with a directory of audio files (optimally). From our point of view, the chief rationale for digitizing a successful development work initiative is to remove the cost of scale created by field visits, workshops and trainings. Where these Self-Help Groups are growing traditionally, organizations strain to raise funds for facilitators who require transport, accommodation, connectivity, benefits and so forth. So even though building dynamic trainings into an app can feel like an extravagance, it pales in comparison to the cost of field visits—especially from senior staff who command hefty day rates.

What We Have So Far

There’s more. But these represent some considerable investments of time and money. In an ideal scenario, we get a war chest and we build the seventh wonder of ICT4D in the next three months, our product wows our implementing partners who want it in the hands of ten thousand facilitators ASAP and program officers around the world begin inviting us to collaborate with their field workers.

But I suspect we’ll be juggling this list of priorities and I suspect we’ll be juggling them along with heavily-weighted surprise requests from partners that we can’t anticipate. For example, we’ll probably have to persuade a new partner that instead of paying us to adapt and incorporate new modules about their favorite Sustainable Development Goal, they should pay us to update our content management system. Or we’ll learn that they’re only interested in the possibility of upgrading our underlying code after they field-test a version of that has been slightly modified to include their urgent priorities. In such cases, the implementing organization may be building our app for scale within their ecosystem, even as, from a technical standpoint, they are encouraging us to make it less appropriate or robust for a wider, general scale up.

There are heuristics to help us make sensible decisions about what to develop when funds for tech improvement are scarce. Investing in structural or systemic modifications that facilitate additions of content and upgrades is better than making ad hoc additions and upgrades. From a programmatic standpoint, we need to prioritize helping our users with their primary duties before we create new ones for them (such as becoming story-tellers or youth journalists). We also must do what we can to assist with data gathering and monitoring and evaluation so as to capture, quantitatively, the results of our tinkering.

There’s often a slight tension with the Digital Development Principles, too, in the area of being collaborative. Because making the decisions that truly build a technology for scale can mean behaving inflexibly in the face of stakeholder and beneficiary requests. If we figure out any magic tricks, we’ll definitely let you know. Stay-tuned to our blog at Codeinnovation.com to follow the noble struggle between bootstrapping and building for scale!

African Tech Hub Interviews: e-Mobilis in Nairobi, Kenya

Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling African tech hubs and innovation labs to highlight the strength and diversity of the ICT4D sector across the continent. We’ll interview our friends and colleagues here and ask them to share their stories about start-up, innovations and all things tech. Here, we interview Ken Mwenda – a co-founder and the Managing Director of eMobilis Mobile Training Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. Please share a bit about who you are and how you got started in tech.

 eMobilis is a software development training institution and incubation hub based in Nairobi, Kenya that has been in operation for the past five years.

We train youth and develop custom mobile applications for organizations both locally and globally – everything from e-learning mobile apps to business apps designed to streamline operations.

Our organization was founded at a time when Safaricom, the creator of Mpesa, overtook East African Breweries as the most profitable company in East Africa. That and the entry of four new telco’s into Kenya, marked the advent of a boom in the telecommunications sector and the dire need for talent to avoid the rampant poaching of network engineers and mobile product developers. When we opened our doors to students we were the first of our kind in Sub Saharan Africa.

It was necessary to pioneer this kind of training to respond to digital opportunities in a focused way as no other colleges or universities were doing so at the time. From courses on network infrastructure, GSM, the evolution of 3G and radio propagation we then progressed to launch programs on Java, PHP, mySQL, HTML5, Android and Windows Phone as the industry evolved and it become clear that there were also phenomenal freelance and entrepreneurship opportunities presented in the exploding mobile software development space as a result of global app stores and the low barriers of entry for developers with a globally appealing software product.

eMobilis is accredited through the Government of Kenya and has trained over 2,200 students to date, 65% of these on scholarships funded through industry collaborations.

Our vision is to empower local youth to tap into the myriad opportunities that the mobile and software development industry offers so that they can innovate, create and improve their situation in life through use of digital tools.

How did your organization get founded and how is it being run now?

eMobilis was founded by 3 directors who pooled together capital and resources from personal savings. We set up in an area known as Westlands within Nairobi’s core and now have three fully equipped labs and an incubation room. Each of the three labs has a capacity of 30 students at any given time and part of our commitment to students is to offer high speed internet, high performance PC’s and a conducive environment for learning which includes test devices and a test server.

It took us one and a half years to get government accreditation through the local Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This rigorous process vetted our teaching staff, included inspecting our premises and also scrutinizing the curriculum.

Typical courses run between one month and three months and all require creation of a mobile app as part of the hands on methodology. We also expose students to the publishing process and give them some ideas on how to monetize their skill.

We also offer off-site Boot Camps and have partnered with top universities in Kenya to conduct certain trainings at their campuses. Over the years we have worked with University of Nairobi, JKUAT and Africa Nazarene to train their students in mobile programming.

eMobilis has been engaged by both Google and Microsoft (Nokia) to conduct specialized training programs. In the case of Google it involved a series of workshops to assist small and medium sized businesses to set up their own websites using the GKBO (Getting Kenyan Businesses Online) tool.

Our software development division is 2 years old and sprung from the numerous requests we were getting from companies that wanted a specific, custom mobile app created and the whole project managed by a vendor. Having expertise and a reasonable amount of experience and accumulated research on mobile apps, we ventured into creating apps for companies on contract.

What is your business model?

Our business model is multi-pronged. We run some programs where students pay full tuition while other programs are on full scholarship.

For instance in the mlab East Africa program where the mandate was to grow and develop the mobile technology ecosystem, the best and brightest students were shortlisted competitively and given full scholarships for a four month training program. Many have gone on to form start-ups, some work on a freelance basis and another 60% have been absorbed into employment by banks, IT companies, small businesses and multinationals, typically in their IT departments. Funding from Infodev, a division of the World Bank enabled us to offer full, merit based scholarships at the mlab facility with our lecturers and curriculum.

eMobilis is also a co-founder of mlab East Africa, a World Bank initiative consisting of 5 regional mobile laboratories around the world tasked with incubating start-ups, hosting a major developer pitching conference, training, mentoring start-ups and supporting the growth of the mobile tech ecosystem. The consortium hosting the lab consists of iHub, University of Nairobi and eMobilis.

We seek out partnerships with corporate’s to offer custom tailored programs. One such partnership was with Nokia before they were bought out by Microsoft. Their goal was to promote local content on their devices through relevant and exciting mobile applications that helped them sell more phones. Nokia would fully fund a program for students which helped upskill and expose strong developers who create useful and appealing mobile applications.

We have partnered with organizations such as Google, Microsoft, Safaricom, Salesforce and KEMRI to offer youth trainings on Android, website development through HTML5, Windows Phone and USSD mobile software development programs.

On the software development division we have worked with different international organizations including Code Innovation and One Hen Inc. to develop a ground breaking, multi-lingual mobile app that enables Facilitators of Self Help groups in Ethiopia to effectively learn and manage groups through mobile tools, resources and the app’s user friendly interface.

Our model is also to seek out partnerships to create amazing apps for private as well as for not for profit organizations that want to leverage the power of mobile and to extend their reach and effectiveness with their customers or constituents.

Do you work in open source? What is your experience with the open source community?

We do. When we run programs on Android, HTML5 and others we build on curriculum and resources openly available through the open source community. We also direct our students to developer forums and communities so that they can contribute and also further their research as they code.

We consider the open source community an amazing place to share ideas and learn best practices from each other.

What has been most challenging? (or: what advice would you have for somebody who wants to start a tech hub in your country?)

There are numerous challenges, many of them that come with the territory when you decide to pioneer a concept as novel as mobile software development training in Africa. Code schools and academies are still fairly uncommon. In the early days there was very low awareness on this area of training. Traditional education and institutions did not teach mobile software development and so we had to spend heavily on marketing and awareness building so that potential students could get excited about the opportunities afforded by the mobile space and how they could learn through us.

As a start-up we had cash flow issues and lack of bank financing as software related businesses in Kenya typically do not qualify for bank loans and are considered high risk. Expenses spanning rent, salaries, quality equipment and marketing proved quite high as we raced to ramp up and attract solid student numbers to cover operating costs.

Being in the Education sector we also needed to get accredited by the Government and that took a great deal of time and effort to help the Quality Assurance department at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology understand our curriculum, process and the outcomes of the training. This was long and rigorous but important to us since as an organization we wanted to be compliant and to be able to assure parents and students about the quality and value of what we offer.

Additionally there was the challenge of both finding highly qualified and passionate lecturers who understood this relatively new field, had developed their own apps and could communicate effectively to train students and motivate them as developers.

Another challenge to contend with is adapting to the rapidly changing technology landscape where technology companies fold, new programming languages emerge, standards compete, equipment becomes obsolete and staying on top of all this to remain relevant is not entirely painless.

What are your organization’s specific areas of expertise?

-Software development training – Android, Salesforce, HTML5 etc

-Youth capacity building

- Mobile software development for private firms and Not-for-profits

What are the issues or problems that you care most about?

- Solving the unacceptably high rate of unemployment in Kenya which stands at 40%.

- Ensuring that globalization does not leave our youth behind as the world rapidly goes digital and we lose out on opportunities for work.

- Facilitating creativity and unleashing the potential of our youth to innovate.

- To establish Kenya as a hub of excellence for software development globally and to ensure we train top notch talent.

- Building the tech ecosystem including attracting venture capitalists to invest in African start-ups to solve the funding issue and to provide mentorship.

- Growing as an organization and escalating our impact.

What projects are you most excited to be working on?

Mobile software development projects with partners who can pilot, who have the reach and ability to roll out our mobile apps across Africa and have the desire to collaborate with us to iterate and grow together on various projects with proven social impact potential.

What are your plans for the next few years and what sort of help do you need to achieve them?

- To open 4 more centers with fully equipped labs across Kenya.

- To form 10 key partnerships with mobile value added services companies.

- To hire 2 dedicated staff for business development and to secure software projects.

- To expand the range of programs and courses that we offer as technology evolves.

- To work on 8 innovative and meaningful mobile app projects by Dec 2016.

- To secure a $ 70,000 grant to allow us to offer scholarships to approximately 100 bright youth from East Africa over the next 12 months.

- To hire for an Alumni and Jobs Manager to strengthen our job placement office.

What companies or organizations would do you most like to be connected to and why?

We would like to be connected to organizations that fund scholarships and those that want to outsource software development work and are willing to form a partnership either for knowledge transfer or collaborative social impact projects. We would also like to connect to Singularity, Stanford and MIT for exchange programs and teaching partnerships.

Our Singularity Hub article, "How Mobile Technology Can Bring Trauma Relief After Ebola"

Code Innovation founder Nathaniel Calhoun and I co-wrote an article for Singularity Hub about how mobile technology can be used to bring relief to people living with complex trauma in communities affected by the recent Ebola outbreak. You can read the piece here. It explores recent donor-funded projects that seeks to ameliorate the mental health of affected communities and profiles our own Community Mental Health app project, for which we're actively seeking funding.

Please get in touch if you'd like more information by emailing us at info@codeinnovation.com.

African Tech Hubs: eMobilis in Nairobi, Kenya

e-Mobilis-lab-training-Kenya-African-tech-hubs-codeinnovation.com-code-innovation.jpg

computer teaching training a young woman at eMobilis technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya African tech hubs and innovations labs train the next generation of African leaders and entrepreneurs who will use technology to solve challenges faced by their countries and communities.

In order to help bridge their work and make connections between African tech leaders and Silicon Valley, where we spend the summer teaching at Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program, we’re profiling a handful of African tech hubs and innovations labs.

In this ongoing series at Code Innovation, we’ll be asking tech leaders from across Africa how they work, what their business model looks like, what challenges they face and how those with capital and resources can support them.

Our intention is to encourage connections and collaboration between the African tech scene and Silicon Valley.

In our first interview in the African Tech Hubs series, we’re profiling Ken Mwenda, co-founder and Managing Director of eMobilis Technology Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Code: Hi Ken. Welcome to our interview series! Would you share a little bit about who you are and how you got started in technology?

Ken Mwenda: Hi. I’d be happy to. eMobilis is a software development training institution and incubation hub based in Nairobi, Kenya that has been in operation for the past five years.

We train youth and develop custom mobile applications for organizations both locally and globally – everything from e-learning mobile apps to business apps designed to streamline operations.

Our organization was founded at a time when Safaricom, the creator of Mpesa, overtook East African Breweries as the most profitable company in East Africa. That, and the entry of four new telecom companies into Kenya, marked the advent of a boom in the telecommunications sector and the dire need for more talent to avoid the rampant poaching of network engineers and mobile product developers.

When we opened our doors to students, we were the first of our kind in sub-Saharan Africa. It was necessary to pioneer this kind of training to respond to digital opportunities in a focused way, as no other colleges or universities were doing so at the time. From courses on network infrastructure, GSM, the evolution of 3G and radio propagation, we then progressed to launch programs on Java, PHP, mySQL, HTML5, Android and Windows Phone. As the industry evolved, it become clear that there were also phenomenal freelance and entrepreneurship opportunities presented in the exploding mobile software development space, as a result of global app stores and the low barriers of entry for developers with a globally appealing software product.

eMobilis is accredited through the Government of Kenya and has trained over 2,200 students to date, 65% of these on scholarships funded through industry collaborations.

Our vision is to empower local youth to tap into the myriad opportunities that the mobile and software development industry offers so that they can innovate, create and improve their situation in life through use of digital tools.

student learning mobile programming at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: How did your organization get founded and how is it being run now?

Ken: eMobilis was founded by 3 directors who pooled together capital and resources from personal savings. We set up in an area known as Westlands within Nairobi’s core and now have 3 fully-equipped labs and an incubation room. Each of the three labs has a capacity of 30 students at any given time and part of our commitment to students is to offer high-speed internet, high performance PC’s and a conducive environment for learning that includes test devices and a test server.

It took us one and a half years to get government accreditation through the local Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This rigorous process vetted our teaching staff, and included inspecting our premises and also scrutinizing the curriculum.

Typical courses run between 1 month and 3 months and all require creation of a mobile app as part of the hands-on methodology. We expose students to the publishing process and give them some ideas on how to monetize their skills.

We also offer off-site Boot Camps and have partnered with top universities in Kenya to conduct certain trainings at their campuses. Over the years, we have worked with the University of Nairobi, JKUAT and Africa Nazarene to train their students in mobile programming.

eMobilis has been engaged by both Google and Microsoft (Nokia) to conduct specialized training programs. In the case of Google, it involved a series of workshops to assist small and medium sized businesses to set up their own websites using the GKBO (Getting Kenyan Businesses Online) tool.

Our software development division is 2 years old and sprung from the numerous requests we were getting from companies that wanted a specific, custom mobile app created and the whole project managed by a vendor. Having expertise and a reasonable amount of experience and accumulated research on mobile apps, we ventured into creating apps for companies on contract.

Code: What is your business model?

Ken: Our business model is multi-pronged. We run some programs where students pay full tuition while other programs are on full scholarship.

For instance, in the mlab East Africa program, where the mandate was to grow and develop the mobile technology ecosystem, the best and brightest students were shortlisted competitively and given full scholarships for a 4-month training program. Many have gone on to form start-ups, some work on a freelance basis and another 60% have been absorbed into employment by banks, IT companies, small businesses and multinationals, typically in their IT departments. Funding from Infodev, a division of the World Bank, enabled us to offer full, merit based scholarships at the mlab facility with our lecturers and curriculum.

eMobilis is also a co-founder of mlab East Africa, a World Bank initiative consisting of 5 regional mobile laboratories around the world tasked with incubating start-ups, hosting a major developer pitching conference, training, mentoring start-ups and supporting the growth of the mobile tech ecosystem. The consortium hosting the lab consists of iHub, University of Nairobi and eMobilis.

We seek out partnerships with corporations to offer custom tailored programs. One such partnership was with Nokia before they were bought out by Microsoft. Their goal was to promote local content on their devices through relevant and exciting mobile applications that helped them sell more phones. Nokia would fully fund a program for students that helped up-skill and expose strong developers who create useful and appealing mobile applications.

We have partnered with organizations such as Google, Microsoft, Safaricom, Salesforce and KEMRI to offer youth trainings on Android, website development through HTML5, Windows Phone and USSD mobile software development programs.

On the software development division, we have worked with different international organizations including Code Innovation and One Hen Inc. to develop a ground-breaking, multilingual mobile app that enables facilitators of Self Help Groups in Ethiopia and Tanzania to effectively learn and manage groups through mobile tools, resources and the app’s user-friendly interface.

Our model is also to seek out partnerships to create amazing apps for private as well as for non-profit organizations that want to leverage the power of mobile and to extend their reach and effectiveness with their customers or constituents.

computer lab at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: Do you work in open source? What is your experience with the open source community?

Ken: We do. When we run programs on Android, HTML5, and others we build on curriculum and resources openly available through the open source community. We also direct our students to developer forums and communities so that they can contribute and also further their research as they code.

We consider the open source community an amazing place to share ideas and learn best practices from each other.

Code: What has been most challenging?

Ken: There are numerous challenges, many of them that come with the territory when you decide to pioneer a concept as novel as mobile software development training in Africa. Code schools and academies are still fairly uncommon. In the early days there was very low awareness on this area of training. Traditional education and institutions did not teach mobile software development and so we had to spend heavily on marketing and awareness building so that potential students could get excited about the opportunities afforded by the mobile space and how they could learn through us.

As a start-up, we had cash flow issues and lack of bank financing as software related businesses in Kenya typically do not qualify for bank loans and are considered high risk. Expenses spanning rent, salaries, quality equipment and marketing proved quite high as we raced to ramp up and attract solid student numbers to cover operating costs.

Being in the Education sector, we also needed to get accredited by the Government and that took a great deal of time and effort to help the Quality Assurance department at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology understand our curriculum, process and the outcomes of the training. This was long and rigorous but important to us since as an organization, we wanted to be compliant and to be able to assure parents and students about the quality and value of what we offer.

Additionally, there was the challenge of both finding highly qualified and passionate lecturers who understood this relatively new field, had developed their own apps and could communicate effectively to train students and motivate them as developers.

Another challenge to contend with is adapting to the rapidly changing technology landscape where technology companies fold, new programming languages emerge, standards compete, equipment becomes obsolete and staying on top of all this to remain relevant is not entirely painless.

graduating students at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: What are your organization’s specific areas of expertise?

Ken: Software development training – Android, Salesforce, HTML5 and so forth, youth capacity building, and mobile software development for private firms and non-profits.

Code: What are the issues or problems that you care most about?

Ken: Solving the unacceptably high rate of unemployment in Kenya, which stands at 40%; ensuring that globalization does not leave our youth behind as the world rapidly goes digital and we lose out on opportunities for work; facilitating creativity and unleashing the potential of our youth to innovate; establishing Kenya as a hub of excellence for software development globally and to ensure we train top-notch talent; building the tech ecosystem, including attracting venture capitalists to invest in African start-ups to solve the funding issue and to provide mentorship; and growing as an organization and escalating our impact.

Code: What projects are you most excited to be working on?

Ken: Mobile software development projects with partners who can pilot, who have the reach and ability to roll out our mobile apps across Africa and have the desire to collaborate with us to iterate and grow together on various projects with proven social impact potential.

Code: What are your plans for the next few years and what sort of help do you need to achieve them?

Ken: To open 4 more centers with fully equipped labs across Kenya, form 10 key partnerships with mobile value added services companies, hire 2 dedicated staff for business development and to secure software projects, expand the range of programs and courses that we offer as technology evolves, work on 8 innovative and meaningful mobile app projects by Dec 2016, secure a $70,000 grant to allow us to offer scholarships to approximately 100 bright youth from East Africa over the next 12 months, and hire for an Alumni and Jobs Manager to strengthen our job placement office.

Code: What companies or organizations would do you most like to be connected to and why?

Ken: We would like to be connected to organizations that fund scholarships and those that want to outsource software development work and are willing to form a partnership either for knowledge transfer or collaborative social impact projects. We would also like to connect to Singularity, Stanford and MIT for exchange programs and teaching partnerships.

Code: This has been great, Ken. Thanks for the interview! How can people get in touch with you?

Ken: Karibu! They can visit our website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or get in touch with me directly by email at ken@emobilis.org.