Israeli Technology Companies and their Relationship with Minorities

The Financial Times looks at the lack of integration of Israel's Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jew population into the country's otherwise burgeoning technology scene. As with minorities across the globe, Arabs in the Israeli tech industry aren't often funded, though the government is trying to change the employment situation for both groups in recognition of their potential contribution to the economy (both groups have high birth rates). Israel has it's technology 'Triangle' as the USA has Silicon Valley, and funding for startups outside of the Triangle in Israel is reputedly hard to come by. 

Financial Times: Israel's tech companies slow to hire ultra-Orthodox and Arabs

How Angola's Hackers are Accessing the Web Through Zero-Rated Services

I remember listening to a Medium engineer speak at a conference about one of the strange hacks on the website last year: people would use specific hashtags to upload illegally obtained videos (films without rights, for example) on to Medium, so that others interested in it could find and watch them. The problem for them was that Medium's team used the same mechanism to identify and take down those videos. 

I was reminded of that when I read this Vice story on how Angolans are circumventing the restrictions imposed on them by the likes of Facebook and Wikipedia when it comes to internet access through their zero-rated services (restricted access was of course the same reason India rejected Facebook's Free Basics recently). This is how it went down in Angola:

Because the data is completely free, Angolans are hiding large files in Wikipedia articles on the Portuguese Wikipedia site (Angola is a former Portuguese colony)—sometimes concealing movies in JPEG or PDF files. They’re then using a Facebook group to direct people to those files, creating a robust, completely free file sharing network. 

This isn't completely new of course; as the article says Cuba gets music, videos and movies smuggled into the country on USB sticks almost every week, and a 20 year-old developer in Paraguay found a way to exploit Facebook Messenger, which was allowed on Free Basics, to access the whole web. 

A fascinating read. 

Motherboard: Angola's Wikipedia pirates are exposing the problem with digital colonialism

Interesting Startups from Y Combinator Winter 2016 Batch

Y Combinator's Winter 2016 batch had their Demo Day earlier this week. Summarised below are the startups that had products or service relevant to developing countries, or based there (there were more of them than I thought there'd be, which is a good thing given its base in the Valley). 

Paystack / Nigeria: Paystack helps Nigerian companies sell online by enabling them to accept payments via Mastercard, Visa and Verve (a prepaid cash card from Nigeria's First Bank), with easy website integration via REST APIs. Integration is supposed to take half an hour instead of a month or more, traditionally the case. 

Kisan Network / India: Delhi-based Kisan Network gives rural farmers the ability to take pictures of their crops and harvest, upload it to their phones, and wait for buyers to contact them directly. This is a complete re-haul of existing market dynamics, where there are often multiple middlemen between farmer and customer. Co-founder Aditya Agarwalla dropped out of Princeton to build the business, which has a lot of potential in terms of market size (obviously). More here

WorldCover / West Africa: The founders of the business met at MIT in 2004 as students, and went on to work in New York in finance. They provide peer-to-peer insurance to farmers, connecting impact investors with the need for natural disaster insurance in the developing world. The investors earn a portion of the premiums paid, with the money covering the farmers in the event of a drought (WorldCover are starting with drought insurance). Agricultural farmers, left to the vagaries of nature, can get peace of mind from such insurance (in India alone, farmer suicide rates have been worryingly high in recent years). In fact, WorldCover use satellites to monitor rainfall and trigger payments automatically. 

Shypmate / Ghana, Nigeria: This is an international courier business that uses inbound travellers as the couriers, effectively! Shypmate cuts down the time of delivery for a package from the US to Nigeria from 5 weeks to 5-10 days, and the cost from $200 to $20. The recipient just needs to meet the passenger at the airport. At first glance it sounded like that couldn't be legal, but it is - products sent are bought solely through Shypmate partner stores directly, and background checks are done, with a successful passenger receiving 70% of what Shypmate makes. Pretty impressive. More here

Zenysis / multiple (starting with Ethiopia): I would absolutely love to see this software in action. Zenysis takes data from the ground (health workers in a slum area for example), and integrates all relevant data into a system that developing country governments can use on an ongoing basis, and particularly when they are faced with natural disasters or humanitarian crises etc. They are currently in a $1 million pilot programme with the Ethiopian government.

Lynks / Egypt: Lynks allows Egyptian customers to buy products from US sites by pasting in a URL on their website, with customs, fulfilment, logistics etc. all  taken care of by Lynks.

TechCrunch: All 60 Startups That Launched at Y Combinator Winter 2016 Demo Day 1

Conceptual Literacy in Mobile App Design

Some useful insights into mobile phone usability and design in emerging markets in the Chicago Policy Review, based on earlier work by the GSMA. I'll pull out a couple of bits that made me re-read the piece:

First, though mobile internet access is expected to increase leading up to 2020, a majority of this will be via feature phones that require triple-tap text entry, making it very difficult to access mobile apps which aren't built for it. 

Second, the lack of awareness of conceptual literacy by mobile app designers:

In many developing countries, cultural norms are the driving forces behind many consumers’ saving needs. For example, in rural parts of South Africa, it is common for people to spend the majority of their savings on funeral rituals. As a result, local people do not find a simple savings account appealing. The interpretation of a concept may vary dramatically in different cultural contexts; therefore, conceptual literacy becomes a critical consideration in mobile application designs.

Chicago Policy Review: Progress Towards Digital Literacy and Inclusion in Emerging Markets

Why Focussing on the Emerging Markets Makes Sense

But the thing that is particularly exciting about new services in the developing world is that they may come with fundamentally new business models. And, it turns out, new business models are even more disruptive than new technologies. Microsoft can copy Netscape. But copying the Linux business model is harder. Chase can copy Venmo’s app, but copying Venmo’s business model is harder.
So I am excited to watch this second mobile revolution unfold. It may be an opportunity for US-based VCs like me. But more likely it will be an opportunity for VCs and early stage investors who have had the courage and foresight to set up shop in these emerging locations. The investors who had the courage and foresight to set up shop in China in the late 90s and early 00s have been rewarded fabulously for that. If you ask me where the next big whitespace for VC is, I would point to the developing world. It doesn’t come without its risks and roadblocks, but it feels to me that it has enormous potential.

- Fred Wilson

Finally someone who says it the way I see it. One of the many reasons I am passionate about the emerging economies is the immense potential of new business models that the West isn't exploring because they don't have the same constraints. It isn't lost on me, as Fred says above, that most of the smart investors are turning their eyes to this part of the world; as one example witness 500 Startups' new 500 Kulfi fund. Expect to see much more of this in the next couple of years. 

Fred Wilson: The Second Smartphone Revolution

Saas Companies in India: The Sky is the Limit

India's The Hindu newspaper has an article on the impressive growth that Indian Software as a Service startups are seeing - companies like customer service startup Freshdesk (valued at $500 million), travel tech startup RateGain (potential value $1 billion), online scheduling startup Appointy, and customer service startup Kayako. These are all companies that have tens of thousands of paying clients across the world. With a much lower capital investment required than e-commerce businesses, Indian SaaS businesses that can prove their products the way these companies have, are a better investment. 

The Hindu: Saas: A perfect storm brewing for India

Technology Startups and Economic Reform - The Case of Ukraine

The Financial Times has an interesting story on the startup ecosystem in Ukraine, which is doggedly trying to continue operating in the face of unrest. There have been some success stories recently, such as the mobile image enhancement app Looksery which was acquired by Snapchat in 2015 for $150 million. But it is the political situation which will determine the success of future companies, as foreign investors take Ukrainian IT teams 'to Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, for greater safety'. 

Financial Times: Ukrainian unrest does not deter technology startups in efforts to reform economy

Libraries in India get a boost thanks to the Gates Foundation

With e-books on the rise, libraries are facing closure in a lot of countries. In the UK, 400 libraries were shut down in the last five years 'due to budget cuts, technology and the internet age' as Sky News puts it

It was rather heartening then to hear of the Gates Foundation's $4.78 million grant to the Nasscom Foundation in India, so that Indian libraries can help bring more people into the internet age. 

Learning from the Pew Research Center's 2015 work on what Americans feel about libraries in their communities, India should focus on using libraries to not only teach community folk how to participate in a digital economy, but also become more engaged members of their local areas. 

Techcrunch: Nasscom Foundation gets $4.78 million from the Gates Foundation to support tech programs in Indian public libraries