how to think about innovations that are likely to succeed and go mainstream

Antonis Polemitis gave a very striking example about how to think about new innovations. A mental model. Here is how to gauge whether a startup or innovation is likely to succeed in future.

  1. They are good at one thing and bad at all the others: what Chris Dixon calls- they look like a toy, something funny, somewhat cool, buggy but still has some core users who love it.
  2. they are relying on an underlying concept that is growing rapidly : eg the internet or a growing trend.

A good example is google sheets and spreadsheets. Google sheets is way inferior to the capabilities of spreadsheets. but google sheets does one thing better than spreadsheets- ability to share, make simple lists and relies on the internet which is becoming better and better. Spreadsheets on the other hand is very solid, strong and can do very complex things but most of the people don’t do complex mathematical modelling, they just do simple lists with sums, additions and want to share and collaborate with others. this is what makes google sheets adopted and used more than spreadsheets.

sometimes innovation is not about complexity, but simplicity and being good at one simple thing than the others.

African Tech startup kit

  1. Innovate around product distribution and find a model that works or make a new one
  2. Most customers are pre-paid and prefer to buy in small denominations.
  3. Payments in cash or via mobile money.
  4. Ability to use a product to generate additional income- eg buy in large quantity and then resell in smaller quantities.
  5. agency/distribution model -reinvent retail models
  6. Mobile phone is a major point of contact
  7. Also recommendations/trust from friends and family is very impactful.
  8. Android platforms 
  9. One of the reasons given for not integrating african markets is that it is very fragmented. eg swahili- 100m, Hausa- 65M, Yoruba- 40M. Oromo- 36M. Zulu- 27M, Igbo-27M. Each market has peculiar habits. 
  10. Cross Border transactions is a golden opportunity for crypto in Africa.  
  11. internet= whatsapp, facebook

does higher education need radical surgery?

Can you invest in future potential of a person? If current trends are to go by, it is increasingly becoming possible. In the next few decades It will very possible that many will opt for home schooling and might not even undertake normal 4 year university course as they are structured today. If the current developments are anything to go by, the nature of what it means to learn is evolving. The biggest change is happening at the higher education level, post secondary level.

A new model is emerging that promises to ensure graduates not only increase the prospects of getting a job but are in fact assured of getting a job. A silicon-valley based school called Lamda school has generated a lot of focus on social media in the last few weeks.  It is a venture funded school that does not charge fees upfront. Students take the course and only pay the fees after they land a good job. The model is being called Income Share Agreement as explained by New York Times. In this model, education becomes an economic model investment. If graduates don’t get a job, the school loses money. Graduates who get a job paying $50,000 a year and above pay 17% of their salary to the school for 2 years. If they don’t get a job or the salary is lower, they pay nothing!!!Also if the graduate losses a job, they stop paying.

This model is gaining more ground even in Africa.

Andela has model closely related to that. Students enroll for software engineering training and paid during the training. After that they are attached to a top tech company in USA and work as a software developer, mostly remotely. The company takes a cut from the salary.

African Leadership University (ALU) has also a program for training university graduates in courses such as data science and other technical skills. Similar to Andela and Lambda, only when a student gets a job do they pay back the student fees (loan). You can read more here.

Majority of the focus seems to be data science, coding, cybersecurity and related courses. Also they are short term courses of between a few months upto a year. So for now, they are not really a replacement of current 4 year university course system. But with time, if they continue to register, success,  many will start to reconsider whether they should really undertake the 4 year course in the first place in their current form. Also of course the entry requirements are most likely very stringent. They must properly assess that you have the ability to learn and motivated enough in order to avoid losses due to failed job placements.

in USA and maybe the west, the main problem seems to be spiraling student debt which stands at $1.5 Trillion. In Africa on the other hand, it seems the problem is skills gap. But generally, there is growing demand for tech related skills especially coding. It is possible that these models could end up being fully-fledged universities. But the main question that remains what happens to less prestigious courses such as arts which are not necessarily ‘hot-cake’ courses? will they lag behind and what will that have on overall job landscape? I also don’t know yet. Also what will be the role of government seeing that everyday government is being stripped of its traditional roles slowly. Will it still make sense to pay hefty taxes? Or maybe governments will become leaner and more efficient. I think the later is true. What we are seeing with technologies such as bitcoin is that the monetary role of government might be reduced significantly if it works. Now education is following that trend. Governments of the future will be leaner and more decentralized to serve needs of people at grassroots and adopt a bottom up strategy. Time will tell.


what xerox past teaches us about new technology adoption

John Brooks book titled ‘Business Adventures’ provides 12 classic tales from the world of Wall Street.  One of them is the rise and rise of xerox during the early days of paper photocopier business.

Xerox stock grew 60X in value between 1959-67, attributed to its product, 914 paper photocopier  that is said to be one of the most successful products in history.

The rise of office production of documents coincided with rise of telephones.  Communication between people whenever it is instituted tends to lead to more ways of communicating instead of one sole purpose.

Just like any other era of mass adoption of new technology, there were fears.

The idea of photocopying was not very well received in the early 1960s, people thought it would lead to disappearance of books. One quote from the book

Various magazine articles have predicted nothing less that disappearance of the book as it now exists, and pictures the library of the future as  sort of monster computer capable of storing and retrieving the contents of books electronically and ‘xerographically”

Authors and publishers feared that photocopying would render them jobless and books would not be valuable anymore and end the very nature of writing itself.

They lobbied the senate not to liberalize fair-use policies of books and publications.

In 1967, a bill was approved that set forth the fair use doctrine and contained no educational-copying exemption.

however, author McLuhan is famously quoted as saying ‘There is no possible protection from technology expect by technology‘ in relation to protection of authors and publishers from free secondary publishing of copies that was available at the time.

These aspects of course have come to pass albeit with a few iterations. Photocopying did not mean end of books, but the monster computer predicted is now what we call Google search.

We are largely correct about the big picture of how technology might be, but most likely miss the finer details or who and how it will unfold. The idea is to be broadly correct and not precisely wrong.



What they don’t tell you about starting a startup

I am a firm believer in new ideas, innovations and trying to find new ways to solve existing problems. In business, startups do that very well. In the technology era, starting a new company has become easier. There is a lot of information online where you can learn. From my keen observation, the recipe for starting a startup is likely to consist of the following, among others:

  1. Find a good-product market fit
  2. listen to customers and make constant improvements to your product
  3. have a unique distribution channels that offer competitive advantage
  4. great team
  5. superb execution- it’s not just about the idea but how you execute it

These are very important and play a very crucial role but i also think there are other factors that are not highlighted because it is hard to quantify them.

Timing: You can have a great idea, great team, execution etc but i think timing is as important. Some projects fail because they are too early or too late. Specifically, the prevailing market, political, social conditions may not be suitable for the product you are presenting at that particular time.

Leverage: capital, time, networks. Those with better access to capital are better positioned. If you have time to tinker and experiment for along period of time, you are likely to learn a lot. If you have networks in form of some potential investors, colleagues, work background etc. These can play an important role in helping you in initial stages. Networks can also be in terms of initial customers that others may not have access to, at least in the beginning.

emotional capital: you need a good dose of emotional capital in terms of ability to withstand tribulations. This is not necessarily a good thing as much as it is marketed as good thing. If you really care about something, it will not be smooth sailing, You might need to handle heartbreaks and ability to withstand heartbreaking moments and long moments of family and friends who dont understand you, and think you are ruining your life. You might also be broke for long periods of time.

Seasons greetings

See you on the other side.

Hitchhiker’s guide to civilizations: from mesopotamia to atlantis.

Two books have really tried to explain the history of the civilizations. ‘Sapiens by Yuval Harari’ and ‘Guns, germs, and steel’ by Jared Diamond.

The main question in these text is ‘why did different parts of the world develop differently’

Here I try to summarize the research done by Jared and Yuval into how the current world came to be.

Jared Diamond’s book begins by  distinguishing between  proximate causes and the ultimate causes. Proximate causes are easier and direct. Those regions that had more weapons, military and better organised were able to defeat, conquer when they came into contact with another population. ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ tries to explain the ultimate causes.

Roughly 10,000 years ago humans decided that farming was better than moving from place to place. Initially starting from a region called mesopotamia, present day parts of eastern Mediterranean(mainly Iraq but also parts of Syria/Iran). It later spread to the nearby regions. According to Jared, the expansive Eurasia region had favorable geographic and climatic conditions for agriculture.  It was the first region for humans to change to agriculture. Initially, we were hunters and gatherers but changing to agriculture had both intended and unintended consequences.

Domestication: most of the wild animals found in the region were also suitable for domestication than other regions. Diffusion of domesticated crops and animals was faster and easier in Eurasia with longer east-west latitude: allowing for similar climatic conditions/day-length, an important ingredient for crops farming.

The whole Guns, germs and steel theory can be summarized as continental axis theory: Eurasia had better geographic conditions to gain upper hand in domestication and agriculture than Africa.

Jared continental axis theory


It is largely assumed in the book that most of the other regions continued with hunting and gathering for a while before being forced to adopt agriculture. Agriculture propelled more population growth, leading to different but mostly centralized systems of governance, growth of larger communities, chiefdoms, conflict between people, military and growth of weapons. These were able to be developed since communities settled in one place. While these advancements were being made in Eurasia, most of other regions were still moving from place, largely due to geographic factors, or just because they saw no need to settle down.  Subsequently, it was the Eurasians who millenniums later began exploring the world having developed capabilities of conquest and search for new lands. When they came into contact with other groups there was spread of germs and outbreaks such as smallpox eliminated majority of local populations. This coupled with better weapons contributed European conquest in areas of Americas, Australia. They ended up settling in these regions and displacing the local populations, however, in some regions, they were not able to settle down because they were also repelled by local tropical diseases such as malaria in New Guinea and tropical Africa. Furthermore, due to food production and settling down, there was a lot of tinkering and cultural exchange and conflicts in the Eurasia region. These allowed for diffusion of technology in the region faster.

The initial head-start by the region is still being witnessed today.  Based on this theory, the perfect recipe for building a civilization is: develop key competency in one area- spread it to as many people as possible- establish structures to enjoy the first mover advantage.

There are other viewpoints. In explaining what happened in the near history later years especially from 1400s onward, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in the book ‘Why Nations fail‘ attribute economic and political institutions played a more important role than climate and geographical aspects. The arguments made are such that regions that established centralized political systems and other economic incentives such as property rights for the people enabled more people to undertake trade and develop innovative solutions. When the industrial revolutions started in the 17th and 18th century, regions that had more developed political and economic systems would benefit highly than those who did not. Regions in sub-Saharan Africa continued to face challenges because the policies instituted by the colonial government were not really meant to empower ordinary people and even after the end of colonization, the institutions left behind were not reformed, this coupled with hundred of years of lack of robust systems meant lack of progress.

however, some points to note:

Accounts by Jared on ‘Guns Germs & steel’ are intriguing, but still fail to account for developments that existed in parts of Africa at the same time or even before European rise.

Majority of ancient history focuses on empires of Rome. In Africa, Egypt is mainly the focus due to the great pyramids. The above two books and majority of others focus mainly on European conquest, however, there is much much more.

Islam influence is thought to have been flourishing in the so called dark ages in Europe. Some great innovations and progress was made in the Islam world that spread to parts of North Africa, Middle East to present day central European region. Some of trials such as compass, camera, flying etc laid the foundation for improvements and innovations later on.

Chinese were actually among the first to explore the old world not the Europeans. They were the first to develop ships and sailed across vast parts of the world. However, for some reason they tended to resist interfering with other cultures and preferred not to share and influence other cultures. Some sources say that the cause could be local politics that led to them abandoning their quests. However, some major innovations such as gunpowder, paper money, wheelbarrow, windmills, block printing and paper are thought to have originated from the Chinese.

Also, some parts of Africa show some impressive old world progress and innovations. Some of the old kingdoms that existed in Africa include: Great Zimbabwe, It was an impressive ancient Kingdom that had huge stone walls and most powerful kingdom in the region. The robust architectural designs used at that time are incredible and exist today as ruins. Archaeological evidence shows that they were constructed by local people in the area. There are accounts of how it grew even further with trade with the Arabs, Indians, with Swahili coast serving as entry point. The great merchant trade existed between Egypt, India and coast of East Africa to the Great Zimbabwe. The enormous and expansive trade route was among the first published descriptions of ancient trades, centuries before the arrival of Europeans. One of the hot-stops was Kilwa that even invented its own currency in the 11th century in order to facilitate international trade. You can find more here.Today, the place remains and is a great tourist attraction. Impressive how some 900 years ago they were able to build such fortifications with remarkable fashion.


The Bantu expansion in Africa is also a major historical event that has led to occupation of major regions of modern day Africa from the Congo basin. The original inhabitants are thought to be the Khoisan and African pygmies. They still exists today but it very small numbers.

The Kingdom of Benin was also among the most developed. Not be confused with modern day Benin, the Kingdom was located in modern day Nigeria. It had some impressive structures and showed the prowess of the local people in making them. Apart from art, it had sophisticated methods of trade, government, rule  among others.

A wonder in its own time



Ajuran Sultanate: was an ancient powerful Kingdom of the Somali empire in the horn of Africa. It was flourishing in the middle ages. They were able to resist invaders for long periods of time, even fighting the Portuguese invasion of the Indian Ocean coast and winning several times. They had sophisticated methods of architecture, trade and governance that enabled them to trade with other empires.

Africa’s history is a puzzle of grand propositions and could only have been unraveled partly. There’s still a lot that we still don’t know. Africa has an estimated 1500-2000 languages, making it harbor about 25% of all languages spoken in the world today. Most of the history, traditions were passed from one generation to another orally. ‘some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth‘. There is a lot of mix and match in Africa and probably not all history is recorded correctly and maybe there is more to discover.

For example, whereas it might be largely known that Egypt was the first place to start Agriculture and farming in Africa, some other archaeological evidence suggests it could be the Sahara, specifically the Sahel region. In the past, The Sahara was not as dry as it is today. If that is true, then there is probably a lot we don’t know about the region yet. Like the ancient lost city of Atlantis. could it be in west sahara?

There are other great ancient kingdoms such as

Kingdom of Kush (Sudan)

Mali Empire: it was ruled by Mansa Musa who was the richest person in the old world.

Aksum empire: One of the 4 great powers of the old world together with China, Rome and Persia. Located in modern day Ethiopia, it existed around 100 – 950 AD and was a major commercial route for roman and Indian trade. It even invented its own currency called Aksumite currency. Later came the Ethiopian empire which was equally impressive. The Ethiopians, led by Menelik II were able to defeat Italian invasion during the Battle of Adwa in the 1896.  Before that, it has rich history of powerful dynasties such as Zagwe dynasty and Solomonic dynasty as well as purported home of Queen of Sheba.  One of the other figures in the modern times was Emperor Haile Selassie who was even the Time Man of the year in 1935 after his world-moving speech at the League of Nations calling for ‘collective security’ and resisting the renewed Italian invasion.

There are many others. I hope one day we get to see such depictions in popular culture.

Like other places in ancient Europe and Asia, Africa also had empires and kingdoms that flourished. There were periods of conquest, rise and decline just like in other parts of the world. People developed in different parts based on the region they were in. Innovations were largely based on culture, environment and climate needs. However, what is true is that talent, human ingenuity existed in all parts of the world.

Education Odyssey: a class of notables: makers of a nation

The Kenyan students airlifts to study in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s could as well been one of the most defining moments of Kenya at the cusp of new independent Kenya. The impact of the airlifts, which boost an incredible alumni pool, has had reverberations for Kenya for decades even after the programme ended. The foresight, dedication of the organizers catapulted Kenya to become one of the few African countries that was ready for post-independence Kenya.

The term ‘class of notables’ is thought to have famously been uttered by Carey Francis, in reference to Alliance High School class of 1945. They blazed the trail to what become one of the most consequential achieving alumni class of that time.

The spillover effect in terms of economic, political and social ramifications for Kenya and the region has been phenomenal to say the least. The airlifts helped Kenya prepare for what happened after independence in 1963. It laid the groundwork for Kenya’s political and economic take-off for the newly independent nation.

Most of them came back and took important positions in the newly formed government. the policies, and strategies put forward by majority of these men and women propelled Kenya to become a leader in the region and Africa as a whole.

It could as well have been Kenya’s finest ‘hour’ in terms quest for education and spearheaded by the late Tom Mboya. Though there were challenges shortly after independence especially with assassination of Tom Mboya and period of slower growth, corruption, ethnic divisions later on, Kenya still laid a firm foundation in terms of ability of Kenya’s to take over from the Brits in terms leadership and steering the country into the future. By 1965, there was a considerable number of people who had a university degree and were absorbed into government ministries and local universities as they came up later in the next decade. Educating the populace, and at a fast pace, was important ingredient to enable the African nations propel their own destiny after independence. DRC, at the time of independence, some studies show that only 16 people had a university education. In Kenya, between 1959-63 more than 500 students were part of the airlifts.

At the Centre of the Airlift was Tom Mboya, Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano and several others.

The period boosts men and women who went on to do great things. All those who went to study abroad during that period were not direct beneficiaries of the airlifts since some like Barack Obama snr went on their own but can be summed up as being part of the airlift generation:

Tom Mboya: Firebrand and main advocate for the programme. even met John F Kennedy, when he was senator who later became president. JFK gave a $100,000 grant. Mboya’s also looped in other key personalities to support the programme: Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson.

Julius Gikonyo Kiano (first kenyan to obtain a doctorate degree, 1956).

Prof Wangari Maathai: Left in the 1961 airlift. first African woman to win Nobel Prize. Also a lecturer at university of Nairobi and later assistant mister in Kibaki’s government in 2002.

Barack Obama Senior: made his own way to US not through the airlift but is considered to be part of period of high number of Kenyans seeking education abroad at the period.

Others who had early influence on African modern education:

Aggrey James: from Ghana, earned a PHd from Columbia university in 1898. Sometimes called, Booker T Washington of Africa or ‘Father of African education’.

Jaramogi also organized other programmes mainly from the Soviet Union.

At the time there was ideological differences about western American versus Soviet education.


‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it’-
― Frantz Fanon

Ability to foresee the new world developments and ensure the people anticipate and are ready is one of core pillars of advancements in modern world. I would marry this viewpoint with generational shift thinking. Either people can be optimistic or pessimistic about the future and they can plan for it or just roll by. When the future is deemed to be better than the present, there is  more rigid planning for it and anticipation. There are also better frameworks, better politics and institutions. When the future seems bleak, there is a culture of taking shortcuts in order to get out as soon as possible before everything comes crumbling down. I think the period 1950s-1960s there was a lot of optimism, followed by pessimism period between 1970s through to early 1990s. The early 2000s were period of optimism leading up to Kibaki coming to power. This was again followed by period of pessimism post election violence and all. I think we might be still in that period but maybe not evenly distributed, i think many might disagree with this.

The organizers,benefactors of the Kenyan Airlift programme did what they deemed fit for themselves and their people. In the end their impact reverberated beyond themselves. We might not know it yet, but our actions now will be judged years to come as to whether we contributed to betterment of ourselves and our people or not. It’s good to have a longer term vision once in a while even if we might not achieve it, but we dared to dream: and that might just be enough.

ed. Note: Although i praise the efforts made to gain formal education, it by no means indicate that there was no education by Kenyans/Africans in general before the European colonisation. It would be very naive to assume/conclude that. Evidence exists to show the technological progress by many African regions prior, eg Ancient Benin City.  But that’s a long story to cover in another post, maybe. However, the gist of this article is appreciating the need for people to harness new realities in order to survive in the modern world. The context is therefore based on and after the independence.

The title and overview is partly inspired  by the book: Kenyan Airlifts to America 1959-1961 An educational odyssey. more here.