Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Idea for a payment network

In my last entry, I suggested that it was time for the average Ghanaian developer with an Internet connection to participate in the new web economy. I concluded that the main barrier to entry is a distribution network for the money being earned.
Today, I present to you an idea for a tropically tolerant money distribution network.

The problem statement is this:

  • Ghanaian banks do not make interbank transfers easy.
  • Its really expensive to transfer money from outside the country.
  • A good percentage of the population don't use banks

Whiles it is true that most Ghanaians do not use banks or have bank accounts, most Ghanaians have mobile phones. There is a joke that even the beggar at the stop light has at least two cell phones. The pervasiveness of mobile phone networks can be used as a tropical solution to the money distribution network.

Mobile phone operators have already established large cross-country distribution and payment systems. In order to establish a globally integrated payment network - there is a need to implement a system that connects say Paypal to the local mobile phone network. The implementer would have a Paypal account for incoming/outgoing international systems. On the ground in the tropics - there would be a need to implement and deploy a system that interacts with the mobile phone operators payment system and the Paypal API. The design / implementation should be minimally invasive to the already established mobile phone operators payment system. This will make it easier to create buy-in from the mobile phone operators.

To better illustrate my idea here is a use case:
The Characters:
Kofi Babone - a Ghanaian web designed based in Takoradi, Ghana.
Abrotsire Fashions - a Zambia owned clothing retailer in Canada
Shikatse - a Ghanaian company that implemented the system i am proposing.
Spacefon - a mobile phone operator in Ghana

Kofi Babone gets a job to design a website for Abrotsiri Fashions in Canada. Upon complention, payment is made to Shikatse's paypal account with a unique id for Kofi. Shikatse then credits Kofi's Spacefon account in Ghana with the money minus the paypal's commission, shikatse's commission and spacefon's commission. Shikatse's system notifies Kofi via an SMS text message that his money is available. Included with the text is an encrypted password. Kofi uses his personal password/key to decrypt this password and goes to the nearest Spacefon payment center. He presents the unencrypted password and he is given his money. He walks out with a smile and heads to the nearest akpeteshie bar.

Issues and Assumptions:

  • Creating buy-in from the mobile phone operators
  • Assumption that all payment centers are part of a wide-area-network(WAN).
  • I haven't looked at Paypal's licensing policy
  • Laws - there might be some laws that could prevent this
  • Ease of integration with payment system

Thanks to Profit for the initial seed in this idea and to Paypal Mobile for the proof of concept.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Earning dollars in a cedis economy or Participating in the new web economy

About two months ago, during a fienipa conversation with Paa Kwesi, we started talking about search revenue. This inadvertently led to a discussion about firefox and flock. The conversation about flock is quoted below:

  • me: flock has a similar idea

  • Paa: ah, like the search box
    i know one of the flock guys

  • me: who? the yale MBA guy ?

  • Paa: yeah, hehe,
    kwee, this guy has become popular damn

  • Paa: well, he's a whiz
    another discouraging thing when i think ghana wants to compete

  • me: compete ?
    yeah - we can compete

  • Paa: not in ghana

  • Paa: maybe out here where i sit together with "flock guy" in class and brainstorm together

Edited for grammar and brevity

Yes, we cannot compete in Ghana but we can compete in the global village. Just to be clear, I am not saying Ghanaians cannot compete but rather the web economy in Ghana is virtually non-existent. There is however no shortage in skills and a desire to earn dollars.
How should the people with these skills generate dollars ? Simple - build an outward facing product.

By outward facing I mean a product geared towards an audience in developed countries. Lets take the dollar theme a step further. Ghanaians should build a web product for an American audience. How ?

The following are required to build a web product

  1. Developers to develop the web application

  2. Hardware to host the site

  3. Revenue generating model

  4. A product

Developers is a non-issue.

Hardware to host the site is also not a very big deal especially in the beginning stages when traffic is low. Once the product achieves viral status, scaling of the hardware becomes an issue. However, services like Amazon's S3 and EC2 look very promising. They are currently not very cost effective but the hope is that it is just a matter of time.

Revenue generating model - this is a no-brainer: ADS. Why spend the time trying to figure out complicated pricing models when you can subscribe to the ad-network of your choice and boom revenue is generated so far as you get enough site traffic. However, there is a catch. How do you get access to your hard earned dollars ?

The Ghanaian developer in Ghana has no easy way to get the ad network in America to transfer the money to him. Paa Kwesi elaborates further on this challenge. The challenge of an easy payment system that is globally integrated is a key problem that needs to be solved in order to participate in the new web economy.

Coming up with a product geared for an American audience is difficult but not impossible. There are two possible tracks to follow.

  1. Come up with a unique idea from scratch

  2. Take an existing idea and add a unique twist

It seems like most of the new start-ups are going for option 2. For example there are a number of social book-marking services available each with its own quirk. This week alone two web-based instant messaging start-ups launched. But I digress ...

The point is there is money to be made. Ghanaian developers only need to come up with a globally integrated payment network, an outward facing product and voila: dollars.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Internet connection not required

In this previous post, I mentioned that one of the ways to handle the connectivity problem of a tropical region is to cache data locally and sync with a central server when a connection is available. Well, guess what ?

A company called Webaroo has done just that. Webaroo recently released a free beta of their web unplugged service. This service allows users to search and browse portions of the web anytime, anywhere and unconnected. It accomplishes this by crawling the web, analyzing the pages and creating topic specific web packs for download. The downloads are stored locally on a users computer and served via the Webaroo server/client over local http. In addition it allows a user to cache and index specific websites for offline browsing. The locally stored data is updated when the user goes online.

The Webaroo server/client is a free download with the following system requirement:
Laptop/Desktop System Requirements

  • Windows XP SP1+ or Windows 2000 SP4
  • 1 GHz+ Pentium class processor or equivalent
  • 500 MB RAM (Recommended 1GB for larger Web Packs)
  • Internet Explorer 6.0+ or Mozilla Firefox 1.5+
  • Microsoft .Net 1.1 (Downloaded during installation if required)
  • Broadband Internet connection while downloading and updating content
Sadly, the system requirements are not tropically friendly. In addition, on my DSL line(384Kbps - 1.5Mbps), it took about ~15-30 minutes to download the world soccer web pack. On the "plus" side, a search for Ghana, whiles offline, did not fail to remind me of Ghana's 2-0 loss in the FIFA world cup game against Italy.

For those of us who are unable to meet the system requirements, a poor mans version can be implemented using a browser. Most browsers allow a user to save specific web pages for offline browsing. A more challenging method, would be to write/modify a Firefox extension to provide similar functionality.

Alternatively, the combination of web feeds and news aggregators present interesting tropically tolerant ways to access web content. I will cover this in a later post.

There is an argument to be made that instead of developing technologies to cache and serve data we should focus on expanding broadband availability. My response would be, there is nothing wrong with a multi-tiered approach or a stopgap solution.

In a world where internet connectivity is intermittent, cache-and-browse is the way to go.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Anti-social bookmarking

I call them bookmarks, others prefer the name favourites, and a minute number of people use the term hotlists. According to wikipedia, "Bookmarks are pointers - primarily to URLs - built into the various internet web browsers".

Bookmarking is a way for an internet user to find his/her way back to a web-page on the world wide web. Without them many-a-page would fall through the cracks in our memory, never to be found again.

Traditionally, whenever an internet user discovered a web-page worthy of keeping, they used their browser to store the URL locally on their computer. Whenever they needed to go back to the page, they went to their browsers and with minimum fuss found their way back. This methodology works great for users in "developed countries" but it is not necessarily a good fit for sub-saharan africa.

Millenium Indicator 48 for Ghana: 38% of the population have computers and 78% of the population use the internet(Source: UN Statistics Division).
Lets ruminate on that for a minute.

Okay, time's up.

I don't know about you, but for me the fact that 40% of internet users in Ghana use public computers means that the traditional method of bookmarking is not tropically tolerant (tt). So, what are we going to do about it ?

Nothing, its already been done for us.

The solution: storing the bookmarks server-side, can currently be found in social bookmarking websites. These services exist mostly for social-networking and folksonomy purposes. However, looking at them from a tropical mindset, social-networking and folksonomy are secondary features. Social bookmarking sites are simply, free, online storage for bookmarks. What this means is that an internet user in Ghana can have his own "private" list of bookmarks that is available whenever he is online without having to own a computer.

Fellow tropical netizens, what we have here is tropically tolerant bookmarking.


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Friday, April 21, 2006

Tropically Tolerant

This blog is my humble attempt to look at technology both old and new through the "tropically tolerant" microscope. I will focus on technology that has great potential for use in the tropics. There will be excursions into technology policies that are not tropically friendly like net neutrallity. In summary anything that can be tagged technology and tropically tolerant is a possible topic for this weblog.

Tropically tolerant is a term coined by Hermann Chinery-Hesse of Soft Tribe. Chinery-Hesse used the term to describe the software that is designed and coded with the realities of modern day Ghana. The realities include but are not limited to power issues, connectivity and piracy. Soft Tribe's software writes to disk often to counter the issue of inconsistent power. The connectivity problem is handled by caching data locally and syncing to a central server when a connection is available. Piracy is tackled by having engineers travel to customer sites to install

I believe that the concept of tropical tolerance can be applied to all attempts by the modern african to acculturate western culture. Reggie Rockstone stumbled upon this truth when he localized hip-hop. The appeal of hip-life to all generations of Ghanaians in contrast to hip-hop bears witness to the validity of my belief.

In technology, we need to only look at the success of Soft Tribe's point of sale software. This POS software was designed with the tenets of tropical tolerance in mind making it a more viable option than imported software. This is not to say all imported technology is bad. Rather, foreign technology should be given the "Reggie Rockstone" treatment. It should be remoulded to fit the tropics.

Welcome to tropically tolerant.