No. 58: Do You Remember the T-Mobile Sidekick?

Do you remember the T-Mobile Sidekick? Did you ever ask how it was made? I sure did not. Here’s a cool profile on the phone, its creator – Andy Rubin, and its evolution into Android. Incredible stuff.

I remember some of my classmates at Woodberry having the phone. My only thought on it was that I could not afford it, let alone ask questions about how it was made. Who made it? What is the software like on the phone? What does it take to make that kind of software? Could I make something like that? Pretty simple, but mind-shifting questions, right?

Growing up, I loved taking apart our home PC and figuring out how to navigate its applications. In response to questions about what I wanted to do in life, I always said computer engineer. At some point, I lost interest thinking that taking apart and putting computers together was as much as I could do in that field. Perhaps, had I not nearly paralyzed myself the first day I ever hit somebody playing football in 7th grade, I would have had the awareness to ask one or two of the above questions (probably not). By this time, I placed a lot of my identity in being an athlete and spent a good bit of my time trying to get better there.

Over the past few years, I have started asking more of the above questions, and it is fascinating to dig below the surface on the technology we use on a daily basis. I really believe that encouraging these sort of questions in the African-American community is one of the gamechangers for the wealth of the African-American community. Since Black in America aired four years ago, I have discovered more and more black folks who are absolutely killing the technology game – Tristan Walker, John Thompson, Erin Teague, Eghosa Omoigui, Paul Judge, and Chinedu Echeruo, to name a few.

There’s no limit on how many more black tech leaders there could be. There are certainly a lot of questions that could use some solving:

  • How do we insert more African history into our daily media consumption?
  • How do we increase the efficiency of purchasing Air Jordan’s on release day, and use that event as a teaching moment for investing? How do we create real-time playback analysis of those butt whippings from grandma?
  • How do we nurture the identification of business opportunities between what a kid is learning in school and the real world experiences of his dad who is working two jobs to provide for the family?
  • The list could go on…

I’m excited about encouraging myself, Anna Olivia, my siblings, and kids who grow up on streets like the one I grew up on to ask and take the next step of building solutions to address them.

No. 21: Lessons From a Zambian Poultry Entrepreneur

Sydney Musonda with his first batch of chickens

Never have I been so excited about chickens! Earlier this year in Uganda, I and Sydney Musonda developed a business model for a chicken farm he would run in Zambia. He spent the next five months pursuing financing for his venture and secured funding in November. To date, he has purchased 205 day-old chicks and secured a facility to house them. He will be ready to make his first sales at the end of January.

Sydney and I recently caught up on his venture and our conversation reinforced two things concerning entrepreneurship. The first is that the external environment, both political and macroeconomic, will always make things challenging for entrepreneurs. The second is that entrepreneurs can leverage these kinds of challenges to grow their confidence, brand, and business model.

During the five months Sydney spent pursuing funding, he had a difficult time getting potential investors to buy into his idea. He got a significant amount of great feedback on his model, yet the investors he approached were having difficulty with their finances and were concerned about the political environment in Zambia at the time, it being an election year.

Zambia is one of the better performing economies on the African continent, with its current $16.19 billion GDP projected to grow at an average rate of 6.9 percent between now and 2015, though the country is still trying to make sure that growth is inclusive. Like most of the world though, the economic crisis in the European Union is surely having an impact Zambia’s economy as well.

The country seems to have transitioned well to President Michael Sata’s administration and Patriotic Front party after President Rupiah Banda’s three-year term and the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy’s 20-year control of power. In the months leading up to the election, there was tension on the ground. Sydney shared that one of the banks was taken over by the Zambian government showing that their concern was not completely unfounded.

Despite the challenges he faced, Sydney says that his confidence continued to grow pitch after pitch. He was able to glean advice from the investors he approached and found the feedback helpful in refining his model. In the face of his disappointments, he did not give up and finally secured his funding.

Sydney is launching his business at what seems to be a promising period in Zambia’s poultry industry. Mathews Ngosa, President of Poultry Association of Zambia, noted that Zambia’s poultry industry closed at 2011, having produced 40 million broiler chickens and 2.1 million layers. He projects production growth to land between 20-25 percent, a marked difference from the 40 percent reduction in growth the country experienced in 2009, and an increase from the 17.5 percent growth in 2010.

I look forward to watching Sydney grow his business. The energy in his voice was so infectious as we spoke, and I am really excited that he has progressed this far with his venture. I am sure he will face further challenges considering that his venture is still young but I think his tenacity will help him drive the business forward.

No. 12: Partnerships Needed: Atlantan and African Entrepreneurs Ripe to Connect

While receiving an award for Excellence in Commercial Diplomacy at Howard University’s Africa Business Conference, Florizelle Liser, Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa expressed her desire to see entrepreneurs in the African-American community and in African countries seek out partnerships with each other. The city of Atlanta, Georgia has a mix of key ingredients to make this happen:

1. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Atlanta has the second largest number of black-owned businesses in the United States. One cannot help but notice the entrepreneurial spirit within the black community, with individuals operating in industries ranging from dry-cleaning to management consulting.

2. Through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, Delta launches direct flights to Accra, Johannesburg, Monrovia, Abuja, Lagos, and Cairo. One can fly to Accra in a time not much longer than it takes to fly to Los Angeles.

3. Mayor Kasim Reed has a vision for Atlanta to be the Western Hemisphere’s logistics hub – an aspiration that will contribute to the growing impact of the African Growth and Opportunities Act on trade between the US and African countries.

4. Georgia Tech University develops numerous engineers whose skills could contribute to Africa closing its $93 billion gap in infrastructure development.

5. Though not in Atlanta, the University of Georgia develops a talented pool of students in the agricultural industry who could contribute to Africa reaching $880 billion in agricultural output by 2040.

Dr. Adetunji Adegbesan, a strategy professor at Lagos Business School, shared an incredible story that crystalizes the potential of entrepreneurship on the African continent. An MTN executive monitoring data usage on the company’s Nigeria network noticed that a significant amount of data was passing through the network, but someone was not paying for that usage. After alerting the company’s network engineers, MTN blocked the source of that usage. A few weeks later, the same executive noticed more data passing through that was not accounted for financially. He again approached network engineers who blocked the source. Yet again, data was passing through after a few weeks and the executive approached engineers in Europe who established an elaborate block that was sure to keep the data from passing through. Data was passing through the block a few months later.

Who was breaking through MTN’s network? The company tracked the source of the data and located a small college city where a group of graduates helped families set up their computers. As part of the package they offered, these entrepreneurs “installed” the internet on these computers. They figured out a way to log the computers into MTN’s internal network while keeping the computers’ identities masked. The end result – MTN hired these innovators.

Entrepreneurship is essential to economic growth on the African continent and in the US. One can be sure that the vibrancy found in that small college city in Nigeria is not isolated, and US entrepreneurs would do well to engage this movement. Atlanta-based entrepreneurs should take the lead in engaging fellow entrepreneurs in African countries.