Virtual Reality – Recommended Reading

Here’s a first stab at what I would consider good starting reading on virtual reality – both to get a sense of the topic from researchers and VR developers, as well as some defining visions of what virtual reality might become:


Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984) – A truly visionary work of science fiction that gave us the first fully realized imagining of cyberspace, and deeply influenced a generation of science fiction writers and researchers alike. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab says Neuromancer, “was without a doubt what inspired me to become a scholar of avatars… Large government grants have been awarded to me for building and testing Gibson’s ideas. Academic papers are improved by Gibson quotes that sum up the big ideas of the research. PhD students walk out of my office with a copy when searching for dissertation topics. Undergraduates who can’t imagine the world without the ‘cyberspace’ that Gibson predicted (or perhaps facilitated) grumble about my using it as a textbook in my lecture classes… Without Neuromancer, the world of virtual reality as a whole would look very different.”

Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson (1992) – This was my first exposure to the cyberpunk genre, as an assigned reading in a 1995 undergraduate elective class on technology and society. Michael Abrash, formerly of Id Software and Valve fame, and now Chief Scientist at Oculus, describes the influence of Snow Crash this way, “It all started with Snow Crash. If I hadn’t read it and fallen in love with the idea of the Metaverse, if it hadn’t made me realize how close networked 3D was to being a reality, if I hadn’t thought I can do that, and more importantly I want to do that, I’d never have embarked on the path that eventually wound up at Valve.”

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2012) – Another hugely entertaining, imaginative vision of virtual reality, and influential for the latest generation of developers. Palmer Luckey recommends this to everyone at Oculus, and Ernest Cline is similarly a fan of the Rift. As he remarked on the difficulty of timing in science fiction writing after being invited to Oculus, “You’re often wrong when you try to predict the advancements of technology and in this case, I feel like I underestimated instead of overestimated, which is really exciting.”


Interview with Jaron Lanier on Virtual Reality, Whole Earth Review (1989) – An early interview with the so-called godfather of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier. Aside from being a great window into the astonishing range of thoughts Lanier has always had about the potential of VR, here he puts forward the argument that the real potential of VR is social: “Other people are the life of the party in Virtual Reality. Other people are the unique things that will animate Virtual Reality and make it astonishingly unpredictable and amazing.”

Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of our Virtual Lives, by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson (2011) – A fascinating tour of VR research by two top researchers in the field. This book focuses on how the human mind behaves in virtual environments, and the social and psychological issues that will become hot topics as VR becomes a mass market technology.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: how body maps in your brain help you do (almost) everything better, by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee – recommended to me by virtual reality researcher (and new Oculus employee) Will Steptoe, this book delves into the emerging science of “body maps” – how your sense of self extends into the space around you and the objects you hold. Though not specifically focused on VR (though there is a special chapter on VR and body maps) the topic as a whole will be central to how effectively VR becomes an ’embodied’ form of both computing and cognition.

What would you add to the list? Comment below, and I’ll include any good suggestions in future iterations.

Journal article: Teaching International Relations with New Media

I’ve just published an article on teaching International Relations with new media in the German journal of IR, Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen.

The full text can be found here: ZiB 1/2014 – Teaching IR with New Media

My conclusion:

Our students will likely spend their lives increasingly reliant on the Internet, mobile computing and online social networks to navigate the complexities of their world. They will be entering a networked information economy that differs significantly from the industrial information economy that preceded it, and must develop news skills to cope with rapid increases in the volume, variety and velocity of information in society. They will be required to engage with new media spaces in order to make their voices heard in these new public forums, and a premium will be placed on their ability to meaningfully discover, make critical sense of, and contribute to knowledge flows.

As the complexity and speed of global communications continues to increase, digital information literacy will become a more challenging and more important skill set to acquire. Bridging their firsthand experience with the Internet, social networks and mobile devices with rigorous analysis of the social and political impacts of those forces is an exciting opportunity in International Relations teaching. Building this into the design of our classes creates the opportunity for learning and reflection by both teachers and students on many complex, important themes of the digital age.

It is important to help break down the traditional isolation of the university classroom by connecting students more deeply to ongoing academic debates, to their classmates and teachers through collaboration, and to the wider world outside the classroom through these new public spaces. Technology can facilitate the goal of university courses to step beyond their traditional role as centers of expert knowledge transfer, into more dynamic venues for the analysis, critique and collaborative creation of knowledge by students themselves. By taking this step we are more likely to see our students think rather than just learn, and we in turn are more likely to learn from them. In an era of accelerating technological disruption in every area of public life, we all have much to learn.

In the future…

In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes.

– Andy Warhol


In the future everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.

– Banksy


Chomsky: Twitter is not a medium of a serious interchange

In a recent interview, the MIT linguist and critic of mass media Noam Chomsky was asked about social media, and had this to say:

Well, let’s take, say, Twitter. It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication… It is not a medium of a serious interchange.

Although this conforms with many mainstream views of the shallow nature of digital communication, it perhaps misses the point, considering that Twitter and many other forms of social media often aren’t trying to be a medium of “serious interchange”. By serious exchange, I’m assuming Chomsky means substantive argument, but why should ‘serious communication’ be limited to persuasion?

Among the many uses of language, two important forms are persuasive, and informative. We use the persuasive mode when we try to convince others of the correctness of our views or the necessity for action, while the informative mode is used to exchange information about our world and coordinate action. 140 characters is a terrible length for persuasive arguments – a claim, reason, evidence and acnkowedgement of counterarguments don’t fit well into 140 characters – but it’s an excellent length for exchanging information: “there are rioters burning the bank on High Street”, “floods expected in the north of the city, residents should evacuate.”, or “read this amazing persuasive argument: (link)”

In situations like this, a Tweet might be a better idea than a serious interchange

Where Chomsky goes wrong is in assuming that ‘public’ language is the only significant language. While exchanges like Twitter posts may be displacing some types of communication, in many cases, they can also enable and enhance other forms of serious, though non-public discussion.

Further Reading:

• Nathan Jurgenson, ‘Why Chomsky is Wrong About Twitter –

• An interesting recent interview with Chomsky covering everything from the comic potential of bananas to 1940’s baseball statistics to Twitter and transparency in government, can be found here. Incidentally, this post includes some great photographs from around Chomsky’s office at MIT

Concepts to Know: Crowdmapping

What is Crowdmapping?

Screen shot of Libyan Crisis Map from

Crowdmapping is the aggregation of crowd-generated inputs such as text messages and social media feeds with geographic data to provide real-time, interactive information on events such as wars, humanitarian crises, crime, elections, or natural disasters (the results are sometimes referred to as crisis maps). If properly implemented, crowdmapping can bring a level of transparency to fast-moving events that are difficult for traditional media to adequately cover in real-time, or to longer-term trends that may be difficult to identify through the reporting of individual events.

Who can create crowdmaps?

Anyone can create crowdmaps using tools such as, which runs on the open source Ushahidi platform.

Ushahidi is a Kenyan technology initiative developed in response to the 2008 post-election violence:

Potential benefits of crowdmapping

Although the benefits depend on effective organization, public awareness and accurate information (no small feat to coordinate all three), the use of interactive, real-time mapping to track fires, floods, crime, political violence, the spread of disease, or instances of government corruption are just a few of the ways crowdmapping promises to enhance knowledge and transparency about a range of public health and safety issues.

For public security organizations such as police forces, crowdmapping could be used to build stronger connections to the communities they serve. If an effective, widely known crowdmap had existed for London during the recent rioting, perhaps more time could have been spent coordinating an effective police response and less time wasted following in the footsteps of Hosni Mubarak by trying to figure out how to shut down Twitter.

The challenges of effective crowdmapping

The deployment of crisis mapping technology is on its way to becoming a standard tool to collect and track ground truth from crisis zones, but very little work has been done to evaluate and mitigate the threat posed by adversaries with offensive infosec capabilities.

George Chamales

Aside from questions of building effective public awareness, the scope of usage, and the reliability of user information, the flip side of the optimistic public service vision of crowdmapping is that of a repressive regime using the technology to more effectively track and quash dissent, or adversarial groups engaging in disinformation campaigns.

The more that individuals learn how to effectively self-organize using social media tools, the more authoritarian governments or adversarial groups will learn about how to effectively use these same tools for their own ends. Crowdmapping was used in the recent Egyptian revolution, and this blog briefly explores the exchange between Egyptian activists using Ushahidi and the government authorities who tried to disrupt them.

For an interesting exploration of these issues, see veteran crowdmapping organizer George Chamales’ presentation notes and slides on defending crisis maps from the 2011 Black Hat security conference. Although I didn’t have the chance to attend, it sounded like an interesting exploration of just these sorts of issues:

In this session we’ll setup, operate, attack and defend an online crisis map. Bring your laptop and toolsets because you will have the opportunity to play the bad actor (a technical member of the secret police or terrorist organization) as well as the defender (the response agency, citizen on the ground, and sysadmin trying to keep the server online).

The experience will bring together everything we know and love and hate about defending online systems including buggy code, naive users, and security vs. usability tradeoffs and do so in a situation where people are dying and the adversary controls the network. We’ll also introduce some not-so-typical concepts like building trust on the fly, crowdsourced verification, and maintaining situational awareness from halfway around the globe.

See also this piece from the MIT Technology Review on Chamales’ presentation: Why Crisis Maps Can Be Risky When There’s Political Unrest

My introduction to crowdmapping came through researching Kenya’s tech scene, and talking with Ushahidi team members Erik Hersman (Director of Operations & Strategy) and Heather Leson (Director of Community Engagement) at a recent community development meeting at iHub Nairobi. I can tell you from personal experience, they’re an exceptionally talented, energetic and helpful group of people, who are serious about the expanding the reach and utility of their platform. Expect interesting things from them.

What can we learn about Somalis from their Facebook networks?

Facebook network visualization of +1000 friends

After the initial focus on the Somali dominated economy and social structure of Eastleigh, I hoped to contribute additional material to the project by mapping out the online social networks of Somalis (or at least as many as I could convince to grant me access to their network data). I hoped such material would add a quantitative element to the oral reports of geographically distributed social and economic trust networks prevalent among Somalis in Eastleigh, and give us a way to create interesting, simplified visualizations for complex data sets.

I intended to find out whether online social networks serve as relatively close proxies for real social networks, and if so, whether comparative analysis of several ethnic groups might reveal significant differences in the geographic diversity of Somali social networks relative to other groups. The loose hypothesis being that a wider geographical distribution of the social networks of Somalis living in Eastleigh compared to their non-Somali neighbors could perhaps explain some of their relative economic success, due to wider access to information, economic / trade opportunities and sources of funding.

Brief note on methodology:

Facebook network data was collected using Netvizz, with the resulting gdf file fed into Gephi for visualization and analysis. This was done with the subject present after a short briefing of what data would be collected, and a short demonstration of what can be seen with the resulting data. Subjects were selected from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, though demographic diversity was limited to available facebook users, which tended to be in the 18-34 year-old range. Samples were taken from Somali diaspora living abroad in countries like the US and Sweden, Somalis who fled Somali directly for Kenya and settled in Eastleigh, and Kenyan Somalis who were born and raised in Kenya.

No subjects declined access to their network data or refused permission for the data set to be retained, and all were quite interested in the resulting visualizations. Many reported that they were impressed with the visual structure of their network, were surprised by finding unexpected friend-to-friend linkages during the analysis, and most requested a copy of the resulting visualizations, often so they could share them back on Facebook. There seemed to be a certain pride in seeing their friend networks, with comments such as “this is my universe”, or “my galaxy of friends” common.

Collection of online social network data was seen as a way to avoid problems of weak and unreliable data commonly associated with self-reporting of social network connections. Some newer methods of tracing out personal social networks promise significant improvements, but at the moment are quite time, space and material consuming, and relatively impractical for a brief exploratory study such as this one.

Early assessment of the methodological approach

Although the evidence collected thus far has been quite interesting, I have strong doubts about whether such an approach would yield quantitatively significant evidence to support the original hypothesis.

The first problem comes from selection biases. Are the groups that are significant users of social networks here likely to represent a broad enough cross section of the population here in Eastleigh to tell us anything applicable to the broader community – I would tentatively conclude no, for three reasons:

1)    The surprising diversity of the Somali community as a whole.

–       Somalis came to Eastleigh in multiple waves over more than a 100 year period, and effort to define what actually constitutes a diaspora are problematic. Cleanly dividing Somali Somalis from Kenyan Somalis, from Issac Somalis, much less clan divisions such as Darood and Hawiye for example will require much more in-depth research and survey work before the various groups’ economic impact can be examined. Simply put, there is too much diversity within the community to make simplistic assumptions about a ‘Somali diaspora’ whose communal and wider social ties can be meaningfully aggregated into a single comparable group that can be measured relative to another Kenyan ethnic group.

–       There are also deep questions about geographic dispersion that need to be further understood before any generalizations can be made about the community as a whole. Are Somalis living in the United States more or less significant sources of funds and opportunities than Somalis who have a much longer history in Dubai for example? How could we weight the economic impact of those groups, much less for the dozens of other Somali diaspora communities spread across the globe?

2)    The limited sample of the community that are active facebook users

–       While Facebook usage seems to be surprisingly widespread, with only 3% of the total Kenyan population using facebook, would this be a realistic way to make broader assumptions about the community as a whole?

–       Although the demographic profile of FB users in Kenya is perhaps good for understanding youth and young professional networks (62% of Facebook users are between the ages of 18-34), are these mostly the young and urbanized? There are also questions of gender representation. With only 37% of FB users in Kenya being female, how does this compare with rates of female participation in the Eastleigh economy?

3)    The wide diversity of usage behaviors even within the community of active facebook users.

–       The sheer range of facebook network sizes encountered has been surprising. Discovering last year that Somali and Kenyan facebook users tended to have much larger average network sizes than Europeans, I was expecting to find a greater degree of fidelity in those networks in terms of identifiable clusters of context (individual networks sub-groups that represent distinct groups of friend interconnections, often denoting geographic separation)

–       The meaningful identification of network clusters corresponding to real-life social contexts or connections, however, seems to be a combination of network size and behavior associated with link establishment. For example, on the low-end, typical German social networks are often in the range of 50 – 200 friends. From informal surveys of small networks, I would conclude that little meaningful information about larger social structures, past experiences, deeply connected communities, or social behavior can be generated from networks of less than perhaps 200 connections. There hust isn’t enough community density to tell much about real-world social contexts.

A network of 129 friends. Although sizing nodes relative to betweenness centrality revealed significant friends, modularity partitioning reveals little discernable contextual structure.

–       The mid-range of say 300-600 friends seems to generate a good deal of clearly discernable structure, depending on friendship behavior (are the connections those actually known and deemed even somewhat significant in real-life by the user?) These are common, but may be representative of little more than individual idiosyncrasies in friend selection behavior.

Network of 340 friends with clear community clusters and several significant friends identifed by betweenness centrality weighting of node size

–       Networks of 1,000 and above seem to lose the clarity of structure, as dense central clusters and high betweenness centrality (typical measures of context and closeness, respectively in the mid-sized networks) are often unrepresentative of meaningful social ties, rather than highly permissive friend acceptance behaviors.

Facebook network of +1100 friends, with large number of unconnected isolates indicating very weak social ties. Even the densely conntected central cluster were largely unknown persons using pseudonyms, and high betweenness centrality was unconnected with actual closeness of social ties

Another network of +1000 friends. More distinguishable community clusters, but densely interconnected central cluster does not represent a homogenous context, and high betweeenness centrality does not correlate with actual close friendships. Creative use of filtering would be needed here to make meanngful conclusions about the ties within this social network

–       Even significantly larger networks are reportedly common. Just as an illustration of the diversity of social network ‘friending’ behavior, in a focus group run with a cross section of young Somalis, within a sample size of only ten people, diversity ranged from 50 friends, to more than 14,000 friends spread out over 3 personal accounts.

A focus group of 10 relatively homogenous Somalis, yet facebook network sizes of the participants ranged from 50 friends by one user who was only trying to find an old girlfriend, to more than 14,000 friends spread out over three accounts by a Somali journalist who uses facebook to distribute news and collect source information

–       It appears very common to establish facebook connections almost as a casual form of business card exchange – less formal than a phone number exchange, but offering the possibility for social discovery and continued contact. –       Multiple accounts specifically tailored for individual audiences are common. For Somali girls especially, one account may be created with a family audience in mind, and another for purely ‘social’ use. This would be a venue where forms of interaction that might be unacceptable to the family (photo sharing, humorous wall posts and exchanges, flirting, etc) would take place. One informant reported that it’s common for some young Somali girls to create many more accounts, “One for a boyfriend, one for girlfriends, one for the family, one for a cousin who’s a notorious snitch, and so on.”

A small network of 90 friends, constructed by a young Somali woman for family use


Recommendations for further research:

This diversity which makes many generalizations impossible, also reveals quite a lot about the identities of Somalis negotiating lives within multiple cultures, and yields rich ethnographic and sociological material on their views about subjects such as appropriate forms of socialization in the digital world, the use of digital information flows, and perceptions of online security.

Although these are all topics that warrant separate discussion, one interesting anecdotal insight to emerge is the nearly inverse perceptions of physical vs. cyber security threats to what is commonly encountered in Germany. In Germany, the physical world is often viewed as relatively low-risk environment, and the digital world full of dangers (threats to privacy, fraud, hacking, identity theft, reputational dangers, potential for the misuse of personal data, etc.), while nearly the opposite is true in Eastleigh. Here the physical world presents a host of dangers to guard against, while the digital world is often viewed as relatively low-risk.

Analyzing how social networks evolve over time could prove insightful (network dynamics is currently a hot area in Social Network Analysis), as current methods such as these offer merely a snapshot of network structure, which may be conditioned by a number of factors previously listed. Observing the evolution and development of these networks over time could help researchers develop more incisive questions about social behavior and the dynamics of knowledge flows in online social networks than is practicable with current methods.

Early conclusions

We may be able to learn quite a bit about individual Somalis through the analysis of their online social networks, but for the moment probably best as an adjunct to the more traditional methods of direct oral engagement. In simple terms, when it comes to the bigger questions of global connections, I doubt facebook network analysis in its current form can tell us much that we don’t already know, or couldn’t find out simply by talking to people. Thus I would conclude these sorts of instruments should serve as a compliment to, rather than a replacement for, more traditional methodologies such as interviews, self-reporting of data, surveys and participant observation.

As a final disclaimer, none of this is meant to be an authoritative summary of research findings, but merely some early observations to set up as road markers of a sort, and ideas to be shared with others who might see different weaknesses or opportunities with this methodology.

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

A brief list of references for further study:



Gephi resources page of SNA study examples from the community of users




An excellent non-technical introduction to the science and theory of networks is: Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, by Duncan Watts

Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL: Insights from a Connected World

Mining the Social Web: Analyzing Data from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Other Social Media Sites


Academic papers

Lewis, Kaufman, Gonzalez, Wimmer and Christakis, Tastes, ties, and time: A new social network dataset using, Social Networks, 2008

Bernie Hogan, A comparison of on and offline networks through the Facebook API, December 1, 2008, Oxford Internet Institute, 2008

A good methodology for the development paper-based sociograms is: Hogan, Carrasco and Wellman, Visualizing Personal Networks: Working with Participant-Aided Sociograms, Field Methods 2008

For large-scale social network information collected from mobile phone data, see Eagle, Pentland and Lazer, Inferring friendship network structure using mobile phone data, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009

A sense of the general debate over these new methods can be found in this recent New York Times article on analyzing historical court records, with one critic claiming that for much of data mining, “as yet it’s all method and no results.”

How mobile technology helps Kenyan farmers get a better deal

An interview with Jamila Abass, CEO and co-founder of M-Farm

Jamila Abass, CEO of M-Farm

The winner of the first IPO48 Nairobi event in November 2010, M-Farm is an all-female mobile / web start-up that seeks to improve the economic condition of Kenya’s farmers. Using a basic SMS interface, M-Farm helps farmers by providing them with access to current market prices, aggregating their needs into discount orders with suppliers, and giving them direct, collective access to both regional and export markets for their products.

The young company has faced many challenges over the past 9 months, not the least of which was a change of their short code by mobile service providers after four months in operation that necessitated an awareness and retraining campaign for their existing customers (the current short code is 3535 in case you’re in Kenya and want to use M-Farm).

Despite a host of steep learning curves, challenges and setbacks familiar to many startups, M-Farm is currently used by more than 2,000 farmers. M-Farm is planning to target five additional regions for marketing and awareness campaigns starting later this month, and have a goal of adding 10,000 more users by the end of the year.

I met with CEO and co-founder Jamila Abass, a 27-year-old Kenyan Somali from Wajir, at this year’s IPO48 event and asked her about life since the launch, lessons learned, her perspectives on the Kenyan tech scene, and her thoughts on the promise of mobile digital technologies for development.

What first got you interested in technology and computing?

Well, my path was a bit different. My dream was always to become a neurosurgeon, but that never happened. I got a scholarship to study in Morocco, and I thought it was to join the medical school, but we got there, we found out that of the seven of us who had received the scholarship, only one of us would get to study medicine.

I had to look for other options. One of my friends from Sierra Leone was studying computer science, and he encouraged me and showed me what computers can do. That’s how I ended up getting a bachelor’s in software engineering. I wasn’t prepared for it at the start, but I’m really, really glad that sometimes nature dictates what we are supposed to do.

Jamila's Facebook network, visualized with Gephi. Click for larger image.

It’s so exciting, the little effort you put into technology, and how it can change people’s lives. The beauty of it is that you can do whatever you have to do anywhere and anytime. As a technologist, you can come up with something that touches a lot of people’s lives.

How did you first get involved with the other women of M-Farm?

I was working with a company called Kenya Medical Research Institute, as a medical records… developer? I’ve even forgotten what I used to do! All I remember is that I used to develop medical records systems. One of my colleagues told me about iHub being put together, and the first thing I saw on the blog was something about AkiraChix – this group of ladies who came together to promote the presence of ladies in the Kenyan IT community. I was wowed… I never knew such a thing existed. I emailed them and they welcomed me to the iHub. When I saw this place being built, I realized there was a big potential here. When iHub was launched, the IT boom was just crazy. It was a hard decision, but I quit my job and joined the iHub as an intern.

Inside iHub Nairobi on the first day of IPO48

You see how they have all the daily newspapers over there in the rack on the wall? Me and Susan Oguya (M-Farm’s CTO) noticed that the farmers were complaining – at one point you’d see at least three articles every day talking about different complaints. They don’t have price information, the middlemen just come and dictate what the prices are – they’ll come and tell the farmers, ‘the markets are really flooded, there’s overproduction, so you can’t get good prices. You either sell it to me cheap, or you’re not going to find anyone who will buy.”

People were just manipulating the lack of transparency in the market and the farmers were the ones losing. So we linked the farmers’ complaints to a lack of information. We said, ok, what do we know how to do best? Delivering information, right? So how can we use that knowledge to deliver that information to the farmers? As we were brainstorming it, IPO48 was announced. Then we got more serious about our idea, and decided we were going to present it.

M-Farm’s winning final pitch at IPO48 Nairobi in 2010:

During the 48 hours, Susan, Linda Kwamboka and I and two other ladies kept on working on the idea. We developed the business plan, the prototype, everything within the 48 hours, and we won. I remember that night, I didn’t believe we won. When they mentioned our names, you know all that excitement that you really won, and that you wanted all that to pass through, launch it, and become a business… we all left out jobs to make this business work. Then here you are – you’ve got the opportunity to make that happen. So it was so overwhelming, those first three day, it was crazy. Nobody knew us before, but all of a sudden within three days of competition we become a local star. OK… what next?

Was winning a blessing or a curse?

Can I say a combination of both?? Most of it was a blessing, and some of it was a curse. The blessing was we got free publicity and free marketing. Almost everyone who’s a blogger here talked about us, so the word got out very quickly. Many NGOs and farmers’ groups got to hear the news quicker than we thought. So that was the big blessing. The second blessing was we got many people interested in the idea, and many more people beyond our small team believed in the idea, so we got support from the whole community.

With Linda Kwamboka of M-Farm (second from left) and friends at IPO48 this year

The curse was, sometimes you’re just too new, you don’t know what to do with what you have. You have this big anxiety inside of you. You don’t know how to control it and it overpowers you. You just won the investment prize, but that takes some ownership of your company before you have any concept about valuation, legal or financial issues… the list goes on and on.

Also, having all these people who know about you and are interested in your idea, it really becomes difficult to select who to talk to and who not to talk to. We didn’t know how to selectively choose who to set up meetings with. So the first three months were non-stop meetings, everybody wanting to talk to us, everybody wanting to meet us. Some days I would spend all day replying to emails… some of our time was simply misused.

What’s been the most difficult part of developing a viable business in the year since you launched?

The most difficult thing was getting the business model right. When you’re sitting in your office, you think that your business model is really set. It isn’t. When you go out into the real world, launch the product and hear what the people who are supposed to use the product say, everything changes.

When you’re an entrepreneur, you really wish that people will really accept the idea that you brought forward, and they will buy the service from you and you’ll start making money quickly. But when you have to spend six more months coming up with new business models, testing it out, coming back, changing everything… you have to be very, very patient for that kind of work. So that’s been a really big challenge.

Tweaking the code

How would you describe the change from the business model you started with to the one you have now?

The change isn’t so drastic, but things that we thought would work easily didn’t work out. For example, we started with the business model where the farmers would use the service to collectively buy farm inputs like seeds and equipment. Having aggregated the farmers’ needs, we would link them with a supplier so they got a competitive price and that would make their lives easier. What we found is that if you’re not helping the farmers sell their produce, then they don’t have the money to investing in the planting cycle.

For us, we planned to start our relationship with the farmer from the time they put the seed in the ground to the time they harvested the crop. Apparently, it needs to be the other way around. You start from the time they harvest – that’s the beginning of the business cycle. If you don’t help them sell, they don’t have the money during the planting time, and then you can’t sell any other services to the farmer. So you have sell for them first, and do the rest afterwards.

Next, we thought the pricing information was going to be such a genius idea, but later on we found out that giving them price information alone is not enough. OK, I so you’ve given me the information, right? If I don’t have any other way of finding out what to do with this information, then you haven’t changed anything in my life. We later on found out that information alone isn’t enough. Information needs execution – without that you’re not changing anyone’s life. The way our ideas worked was almost upside down. We had to start from the selling, then to the buying, then to providing other information that they would have required.

What’s the biggest challenge for building brand awareness in a place like Kenya?

It depends on whom you’re targeting. If you’re targeting the urban dwellers, it’s really easy – TV, radio and newspapers. If you’re targeting the rural areas like we’re doing, then things take a different direction. It would be a waste of money if we started doing radio campaigns or TV or newspapers, because the people that we’re targeting won’t get the news. The challenge is finding out the proper channel to use to deliver this information.

We approach the local leaders in the rural area, tell them what M-Farm can and cannot do, and if they buy the idea, they’ll spread it to the rest of the people. That was the difficult thing, because using people as your agents to spread the word is much more difficult than running an ad campaign on radio or TV. The local leaders are trusted much more than radio or even TV, so even though the process is slow, it’s also short in a way. People will believe it because they heard about it from the local chief, the local counselor or something like that – they need someone they can trust in the process. The challenge in that approach is in scaling that up quickly and delivering the news to the people who are supposed to hear it.

How do balance the needs of running a business with the need to keep up on IT and programming trends?

Most of the time I feel outdated, especially because I also have to run a business. When you’re running a business, you can’t do everything by yourself. When you have customers waiting on you, you can’t say, ‘you know what? Let me just finish up what I’m doing now, and then I’ll come back with the software and I’ll do it myself.’ So you have to trust other people to do things. For me that means depending on other people to do the development while I run the business. That’s why sometimes I find myself feeling so backwards that when I try to look at code that other people have written, I just get lost.

What websites do you use to keep yourself updated?

Net.tuts – I like that one because they summarize everything in a sweet way, and you can easily know what’s going on. And I also like Business Insider and Tech Crunch, even though they don’t write much about programming, at least they keep you in the loop about what’s going on in the IT world.

What do you find exciting about the tech scene in Kenya?

Now we have a place we can call home in the iHub – a place where we share ideas about the problems the tech community is facing, and we have representatives who can talk about it and have our voices heard. Before having structures like the iHub and the m:lab, and the other incubation centers that exist, however loud you shouted, nobody heard you. But now you can sit together, talk about something, and all of a sudden you’re speaking the same language.

Coaching a prospective start-up on pitching skills at IPO48

With that you get to do more things. For example, you never, or at least very rarely used to walk in somewhere and meet the head of Google in Kenya for example, but that’s happening now. You meet people you’d otherwise never have the chance to meet.

Nowadays you hear lots of people in the tech scene in Nairobi using an elevator pitch. Before, nobody even knew what that was – why would you want to speak to an elevator? So we’re bringing all the stakeholders under one roof, which rarely happens. We also have more people focusing on the social problems that Kenyans are having. We have many creatives and entrepreneurs coming up with solutions, so two things happen: the entrepreneur gets to do a project that they really enjoy and you get to address a social problem that’s affecting millions of people.

Sharing ideas at iHub Nairobi

Many of the young people have been complaining about the lack of jobs, so now you’re creating jobs for yourself and other people at the same time. The other thing is information is power. All of a sudden, you’re able to put your point across and people understand what you mean. We have the means of delivering a message that we didn’t have before. In the past, how many people would have a mobile that’s internet enabled, or a mobile that could access data? Right now almost everyone does, and that’s a big change.

How is the mobile device changing Kenya?

Traditionally people would use it for calling and for SMS, just to communicate with their loved ones. Now they’re using it for business. So the more people you get using their mobile phones for business, the more opportunities developers will get to develop applications that target specific groups of people. The developer is making money by creating an app, the end user is saving money by using the app.

It’s connecting people as well, for example, most schools in Kenya don’t have quality content to present to their students – they have qualified teachers, but they don’t have the books. If they could use a mobile phone to see what a teacher in a more sophisticated school has written or used, or have s student in the heart of Turkana (the poorest region in Kenya, with a poverty rate of 94%) share a note with a student in Nairobi who has more money to attend a good private school, then sharing knowledge becomes easier.

I could also share information that is negative, but the point is, people get access to things they’ve never experienced before. Just like for myself, before I knew how to use Google, my thinking was limited to what I learned in books, but now my thoughts are broadened just because I can access something written by a professor at Oxford.

Where do you want do go with all of this? Where do you see yourself in the future?

That’s really a big question. I’ve always been passionate about empowering people. I grew up in a place where accessing information was almost impossible, a place that almost everyone has neglected. So I grew up knowing that someone has to make a difference, to go out and get the skills to bring change to the place where I was born. There’s a lot of negative energy coming out of that place, “oh the government neglected us, oh we don’t have rain, we have these droughts.” We don’t have people sitting down and thinking of what we already have and thinking about how to use those things in a positive way. That’s the person I want to be.