Ricardo and I spoke by phone for ninety minutes about our laboratory’s strategy for the Includer and making the most of limited Internet access in Africa.

Thank you to our African participants – Samwel Kongere, Kennedy Owino, Fred Kayiwa, Peter Ongele, Kofi Thompson, James Njunge, William Wambura, Wendi Losha Bernadette, Joseph Runnel Lule, Betty Kyewa, Josephat Ndibalema and many more! – for giving our Minciu Sodas laboratory such great vitality around the world.

We’re impressed at your enthusiasm to overcome challenges -
traveling miles to the Internet cafe by foot, bus or taxi – paying $1
an hour or $100 a month – waiting your turn, suffering power outages,
slow bandwidth, worrying about coming home safe at night.

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One year ago I asked for our help to work on a flash drive editor,
a device for our African participants at home to read and write emails
stored on their USB flash drives, so they could upload and download
them later at an Internet cafe. We now call this the Includer. This endeavor is fantastic and strategic in that it helps us appreciate the importance of many related endeavors and make progress on them all. Similarly, Marcin Jakubowski’s open source tractor is a “keystone species” for a whole “ecosystem” of endeavors in appropriate technology.

What have we achieved in this year? Our greatest success is that Ricardo is with us. I learned of Ricardo through his Sneakernet page at the OLPC wiki. Ricardo is a software engineer in the UK. He works with Samwel Kongere, Dan Otedo, David Mutua to set up Internet access centers. He sent refurbished laptops to many of our lab’s participants. He solves and documents technical challenges such as how to get online with a phone. He is organizing trading clubs and helping Kenneth Chelimo and others get established on PayPal and eBay. He has written dozens of pages at our wiki and made very concrete the technical options (Bluetooth, PDA, laptop motherboard and so on) for us to pursue for our Includer.

I won a 2008 Knight News Challenge Award to blog about the Includer at the PBS website. Thanks to an idea from Barry Dobyns, I wrote a proposal that online services fund us to develop offline versions. I am very glad for Ed Prentice’s help from Silicon Valley, and also I had lunch with Christian Crumlish of Yahoo! and Charles Warren at Google. The world is definitely moving towards simpler laptops and e-book readers. Yet I haven’t been able to make the needed contacts to take the Includer closer to reality.

The challenges for our Includer are:

  • The market for the Includer is a moving target. Many people might
    benefit from the Includer, but typically, within a year or two or
    three, they will have moved on to have their own laptop and Internet access. Franz Nahrada and I observed in Hungary a similar challenge with telecottages,
    which are very meaningful when nobody has Internet, but within two or
    three years they generate a demand for Internet at home, which can make
    the telecottages not so relevant.
  • We don’t have a leader in Africa to champion the Includer. We know
    from our African participants that it’s a worthwhile idea. But they are
    finding ways to get computers and get online (often thanks to Ricardo!) So we have to consider who in Africa cares about the Includer and why.
  • I haven’t been able to make corporate contacts with budgets who might pay us to develop interfaces or to organize large global teams. I spent five weeks in Silicon Valley
    but didn’t get very far. However, we are getting more participants
    there. We need a corporate strategy – if there was a company with five
    Minciu Sodas participants, then we would surely get paid work. If we
    keep writing our dreams and identifying who we’d like to work for, then we can work across our network to make the links (through LinkedIn, FaceBook, events) and organize independent thinkers in corporations.
  • We don’t have a hardware team or even a software team. We’d like to have students, retirees or other enthusiasts who we could send hardware parts
    to for trying out small projects. There’s a lot of software that we
    could develop and try out. We also need a project leader. Ricardo
    doesn’t want to make that commitment.

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I thanked Ricardo and asked him what he’s found most fun and meaningful. He’s very excited about his work with Pamela McLean and John Dada. Pamela is traveling in Nigeria and she is forming digital camera
clubs there. Ricardo is preparing a photo editing course for them.
Ricardo is a photography enthusiast. Pamela has linked a class in a Nigerian school with Steve Thompson’s class
at his school in the UK. Everyday they are exchanging a photo and a
caption, showing to each other their everyday lives. This is very
exciting and shows how David Mutua and others at Teachers Talking are reaching out to include other Africans into our online world.

Ricardo and I agreed on four priorities, in the order below, for our work on the Includer and marginal Internet access:

  1. What would you like to share online? We want to encourage our African online experts to reach out and include more people. William Wambura in Tanzania teaches the children. Fred Kayiwa in Uganda leads a soccer team and has relatives in the village. Wendi Losha Bernadette links us with women in Cameroon. Samwel Kongere is training women at an ICT center in Kenya.
    Involving them would make our network much more valuable. How would
    they like to participate online? What groups would they like to engage?
    What kind of software or hardware innovations would be helpful?
  2. What
    is the business value of such people with marginal Internet access? Who
    might value our work as individuals or large teams? What can we do
    useful online and offline? What markets might we foster?
  3. What are new technical solutions that we might develop and promote? Ricardo thinks of many, including broadcasting data by FM radio from community radio stations (I note also One World), or having a large display that works with a mobile phone by Bluetooth (see Jeff Hawkins’s Foleo and also netbooks, there are more than twenty of them).
  4. What technical skills (hardware, software) might we encourage in Africa and around the world? for building Includers or even open source tractors? and how might we help and organize open source hardware makers?

I encourage us to write about all of the above, but especially
reaching out and including those further out. Our next step is to survey our African participants about how they access the Internet. I am still looking for a smart way to set that up online. I have set up a Ning social networking site which I invite us to join. I will try to set up the survey there (I found this software).
Then we will know the kinds of people we are reaching out to, the kinds
of uses for the Includer, and the different kinds of Includers we might
work to develop.

Thank you all for inspiring us and including us!