This week, we are in Nairobi with Al Kags, one of the rare African tech evangelist who has seen the African tech sector emerged from the early 2000s.
He entertains a selective audience at his blog Alkags.me. In 2004, his company “Multiple Choices” was the first to release a blogging tool, Peupe, entirely developed in Africa. Long before viral marketing becomes a fad, Al published ebooks that went viral online, reaching millions. He is also the founder of Goode Africa, a marketing and advertising company dedicated to social & nonprofit sector.
In this interview, Al Kags shared his passion for art, poesy, Business and Open society. I love speaking to Al Kags.
Silicon Africa (SA): Good Morning, Al! You are my favorite thought leader. You always push the limits to see what is possible. For example, last year, after the Kenyan election, You loudly wondered “Why Can’t Kenyans vote by SMS?”, when they can now transfer money by SMS. Were you serious about this idea?
Al Kags: I am serious about this idea. As African governments are getting used to electronic voting, others are beginning to experiment with online voting. Why, I wonder, can we not leapfrog technologies and use the mobile technology that we have used so well in other industries like business? We would save time – as people would not need to wake up at 3am to queue to vote, close their businesses for hours to vote and then wait for hours for the results, which can be tampered with. SMS voting is real time. So my suggestion, lets pre-verify everyone’s identity and their number before hand. On the voting day, they vote at their discretion and we know the results in real-time. Of course, there are problems with this idea – e.g. sociological ones, but they are not insurmountable.
SA: You have been labelled socialist, because you want to send the Nairobi’s $200-brand-shining-shoes programmers to Kenyan rural areas to connect to local communities and realities, with the purpose to decentralize the hype, is that correct?
Al Kags: I have been involved in the development of the ICT space since 2006 – I have as a private individual partnered with the Ministry of Information & Communications in Kenya as we developed through the stages: infrastructure (fibre optics network), access (the pasha centres), content (Tandaa) and now open data.
The challenge that I see in Kenya is that the ICT industry is mainly centred in Nairobi (Kenya’s capital). I want to see developers and innovators being grown in rural Kenya – in other counties across Kenya. This may seem a little socialist but from that blog post it seems it is gaining momentum.
SA: Awesome Stuff you are doing. Few years ago, you were doing “The Quarterly Colour Series” of Poetry, which collect the best poems around the world, and your ebook was read by over 185,000 people worldwide. The ebooks were spreading virally by email, tell us more about this. Do you still do it?
Al Kags: I haven’t done the Quarterly Colour Series since 2007. My friend, June Wambui and I started it in 2006 because we could not be published as poets. So we instead went ahead and designed QCS primarily as a self-publishing means, and we invited others to participate. The way we published is we sent the book to our entire address book and asked people to forward it to theirs and feed us back. We seemed to try “viral marketing” before it became a fad. It was immensely successful. Each book has been read by over 1 million readers and forwarded more times than we have been able to track. We are now working out a “coming back series”.
SA: Your latest social project, If I’m correct, is “Living memories”, where you’ve collect Kenya’s colonial history before independence in 1963, from ordinary people like your grandmother, who lived in these extraordinary times. You’ve collected stories from more than 147 old people, septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians. What was your motivation to start this project? How has this changed you personally?
Al Kags: My book “Living Memories” is the first of many. I have a strong interest in history – especially that of the normal every day person. I am curious about the lives of our grandparents who were adults in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. How did they survive as ordinary people? What parts of our history is not easily documented? That’s what interests me and what I seek. So far I have done 203 interviews in Kenya alone. The next book will be an ebook before its on paper. Readable on mobile phone too.
SA: In 2007, Your company “Multiple Choices” was the first to release a blogging tool, Peupe, entirely developed in Africa. You’ve teamed up with John Wesonga (known in the bloggosphere as the “subsaharancoder”), and the first blog was your company blog at http://alkags.peupe.net. Tell us more about this project
Al Kags: Multiple Choices was my first real venture – a company I started in 2003 with john Wesonga and Charity. We did a lot of experimentation and we build Africa’s first blog for companies in 2004. Unfortunately we were ahead of our time. Today MClabs (which is what the company was rebranded to) focuses on mobile – mainly building apps for mobile health. We are still a little ahead of our time given that we have a high R&D focus, but we are happy that we have great partners we work with – including Trademark East Africa, WHO etc.
SA: Al, you are not only a social activist, a technology evangelist, you are also a known poet and writer. Can you share with us 3 events in your life that have completely change your worldview and personality?
1. Meeting my wife, Liz Lenjo-Kags and the birth of my son, Harry Kags
2. Kenya Open Data Initiative (bringing it to life)
3. Working at Goode Africa
SA: Awesome! You are a big believer in the “Power of Open”, from Open thinking, to Open Data, Open government and of course Open source. Ushahidi has been a pioneering project, and you belong to the movement “We pay taxes, We demand accountability. We demand Good services”. How could the Power of Open help this kind of movement?
Al Kags: My perspective with regard to Open is that citizens need to be directly involved in their governance and in their growth as a society. The only way this happens is if they can participate in government, influence decisions and more importantly develop real life solutions to their problems.
I advocate for governments, companies and civil society organization to be Open and share their data freely – and therefore open themselves to public participation in their work and direction.
The key aspects of this would be first, to ensure that the citizen has access to the data (therefore the government is actively providing it). Secondly to ensure that the citizens informants use data to tell stories – these include Civil Society Organizations and Media. Thirdly, to ensure that the citizen responds to the Openness by demanding and participating in their governance.
SA: You run a marketing and communication firm at http://www.good.co.ke, and you offer business solution to companies. We have many people reading this interview who work for companies which might need your service. Why should they buy your service instead of going to the competition. What differentiates you?
Al Kags: Actually Goode Africa is the only marketing & Communications agency that EXCLUSIVELY 100% dedicated to the Social sector. We become partners of our clients and effectively deliver what is in their best interests. To this extent, we have no competition. Our message for African governments and non-profits working in Africa is that if they would like a team that owns their communications strategy and objectives, then Goode is who they should speak to.
SA: I’ve read an article today on Entrepreneurship.com (http://www.entrepreneurship.org/en/resource-center/whats-next-for-finland.aspx) that said ICT now represents 21% of Finland export. That is really huge for a major economy like Finland. Do you see the same trend happening in Kenya?
Al Kags: It slowly is. A lot of Kenyan companies are now working for clients outside of the country. However, it isn’t yet as good as it could be – hence my thoughts in Tech2Shags.
I can see new opportunities coming into the country especially for IT ourtsourcing and for other professionals providing professional services to other countries in the world. The only way to do this, in my view, is to strengthen the capacity of professionals all over Kenya. The main imperative here is employment.
SA: Lot of young people are excited by the opportunities to start their own company. There is huge trend in that direction everywhere in Africa (there are some dangers too:http://www.siliconafrica.com/lessons/the-danger-of-silicon-valley-driven-startup-mania-in-africa/), What advice will you give to those young people who want to start their company today?
Al Kags: My advice is think hard whether you really need to set up your own company – because often your objectives are better met working with someone who already has set up a company… an entrepreneur often finds themselves with no time to indulge their passions – you are accountant, messenger, procurement officer, strategy manager, marketing manager, PR officer etc… all at the same time. If you work with someone who already is set up, you can really make a change. If you just start your own, I am big on COLLABORATION. Work with others, who have opposite strength as yours and who complement you.
SA: How could our readers get in contact with you?
Al Kags: Twitter is the best way: @alkags
Thanks Al Kags