The MIT Media Lab controversy and getting back to ‘radical courage’, with Media Lab student Arwa Mboya – gpgmail


People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.

And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.” 

This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.

But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, 25, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.

Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.

Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions. 

Arwa Mboya. Image via MIT Media Lab

That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when human rights technologist Sabrina Hersi Issa decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, which has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize).

Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.

As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”

From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.

But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.

Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration. 

Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?

Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.

Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing. 

Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?

Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.

From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.

Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage. 

Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.

I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”

It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.

I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.

image 4

Image from Arwa Mboya

Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?

Mboya: Exactly.




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SF based African fintech startup Chipper Cash expands to Nigeria – gpgmail


The African no-fee, cross-border payment startup Chipper Cash has expanded to Nigeria.

The San Francisco based startup, with offices in Ghana and Kenya, will offer its P2P payment service and app in Africa’s most populous nation in partnership with PayStack—the payment gateway company. Paystack CEO Shola Akinlade confirmed the collaboration.

Chipper Cash will establishe a company presence in Lagos and has hired a country manager, Abiodun Animashaun, co-founder of Lagos-based ride-hail startup Gokada.

Animashaun is one of two senior figures departing African tech ventures to join Chipper Cash. Alicia Levine will leave Nairobi based internet hardware and service startup BRCK to become Chipper Cash’s Chief Operating Officer, according to Chipper Cash CEO Ham Serunjogi.

The startup went live in October 2018, joining a field of fintech startups aiming to scale digital finance applications across Africa’s billion-plus population.

Chipper Cash was co-founded by Serunjogi (from Uganda) and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled, both of whom emigrated to the U.S. to study and work in Silicon Valley.

The fintech company now has more than 70,000 active users and has processed 250,000 active transitions on its no-fee, P2P, cross-border mobile-money payments product.

The startup also runs Chipper Checkout: a merchant-focused, fee-based C2B mobile payments product that supports its no-fee mobile money business.

Chipper Checkout will make its debut in Nigeria several months after Chipper Cash’s mobile payments launch, according to Serunjogi.

The imperative to move to Nigeria was pretty straight-forward. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya and South Africa,” he said.

“I think for any company doing fintech across borders, that is looking to be successful in Africa, it’s imperative that you have a presence in Nigeria.”

For some fintech startups, such as Chipper Cash, locating in Nigeria is not just strategic for expanding in Africa, but also to serve international ambitions.

Chipper Cash was recently profiled in an ExtraCrunch feature as one of three African fintech startups — with goals to scale globally — that has co-located in San Francisco with operations in Africa. The play is to tap the best of both worlds in VC, developers, and the frontier of digital finance.

Toward that end, Chipper Cash raised a $2.4 million seed round led by Deciens Capital this May.

The payments company also persuaded 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to join the round.

Per stats offered by Briter Bridges and a 2018 WeeTracker survey, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital and deal-flow to African startups.

A number of estimates show the continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population.

In addition to creating greater financial inclusion on the continent, African fintech products and solutions have also found traction internationally. Safaricom (M-Pesa), Flutterwave, Paystack, Paga, Mines, and Chipper Cash are among companies that offer or plan to offer their products in regions such as Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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China’s Transsion and Kenya’s Wapi Capital partner on Africa fund – gpgmail


Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion is teaming up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa that recently confirmed its imminent IPO.

Wapi Capital is the venture fund of Kenyan fintech startup Wapi Pay—a Nairobi based company that facilitates digital payments between African and Asia via mobile money or bank accounts.

Investments for the new partnership will come from Transsion’s Future Hub, an incubator and seed fund for African startups opened by Transsion in 2019.

Starting September 2019, Transsion will work with Wapi Capital to select early-stage African fintech companies for equity-based investments of up to $100,000, Transsion Future Hub Senior Investor Laura Li told gpgmail via email.

Wapi Capital won’t contribute funds to Transsion’s Africa investments, but will help determine the viability and scale of the startups, including due diligence and deal flow, according to Wapi Pay co-founder Eddie Ndichu.

Wapi Pay and Transsion Future Hub will consider ventures from all 54 African countries and interested startups can reach out directly to either organization, Ndichu and Li confirmed.

The Wapi Capital fintech partnership is not Transsion’s sole VC focus in Africa. Though an exact fund size hasn’t been disclosed, the Transsion Future Hub will also make startup investments on the continent in adtech, fintech, e-commerce, logistics, and media and entertainment, according to Li.

Transsion Future Hub’s existing portfolio includes Africa focused browser company Phoenix, content aggregator Scoop, and music service Boomplay.

Wapi Capital adds to the list of African located and run venture funds—which have been growing in recent years—according to a 2018 study by gpgmail and Crunchbase. Wapi Capital will also start making its own investments and is looking to raise $1 million this year and $10 million over the next three years, according to Ndichu, who co-founded the fund and Wapi Pay with his twin brother Paul.

Transsion’s commitment to African startup investments comes as the company is on the verge of listing on China’s new Nasdaq-style STAR Market tech exchange. Transsion confirmed to gpgmail this month the IPO is in process and that it could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.

Transsion’s move into venture investing tracks greater influence from China in African tech.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities.

Transsion’s Wapi Pay partnership is the second recent event — after Chinese owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Startups BRCK and Swvl partner on free WiFi for Kenyan ride-hail buses – gpgmail


Nairobi based internet hardware and service startup BRCK and Egyptian ride-hail venture Swvl are partnering to bring WiFI and online entertainment to on-demand bus service in Kenya.

BRCK will install its routers on Swvl vehicles in Kenya and run its Moja service, which offers free public WiFi—internet, music, and entertainment—subsidized by commercial partners.

Founded in Cairo in 2017, Swvl is a mass transit service that has positioned itself as an Uber for shared buses. “Think ride hailing, but with a bus…and instead of the vehicle coming to you…you go to the bus, and the bus picks you up at a certain point and time,” Swvl’s general manager for Kenya, Shivachi Muleji, told gpgmail via email.

The company raised a $42 million Series B round in June, with intent to expand in Africa, Swvl CEO Mostafa Kandil said in an interview.

In Kenya, BRCK has installed 15 of its units in Swvl buses and looks to offer its Moja WiFi service in 700 by 2020, BRCK’s chief operating officer Nivi Sharma told gpgmail.  Swvl pays a monthly fee for the routers and for maintenance of the routers, Swvl confirmed.

Both BRCK and Swvl see a solid fit in pairing up their product offerings. “SWVL’s objectives to provide an alternative in the transportation industry line up nicely with BRCK’s objectives of providing connectivity to commuters,” said BRCK COO Nivi Sharma.

Backed by $10 million from investors including Steve Case’s Revolution VC fund, BRCK built its platform around providing internet solutions in East Africa. Founder Erik Hersman has described Africa’s internet challenges—mainly the lowest penetration rates in the world—as shifting toward more of an affordability than availability problem.

“The demand on internet in Africa is largely driven by the 10 to 15 percent who can afford it. The real massive opportunity is trying to connect the 70 to 80 percent of the people who can’t,” Hersman told gpgmail in 2017.

SupaPossibleLead1To that end, BRCK paired up its Africa specific WiFi routers to its Moja service to offer free internet and content supported by commercial partners. Users can access Moja on their mobile phones, tablets, or laptops on public transportation or in public areas. They earn points from their browsing to apply to faster connectivity or premium content.

In 2018, BRCK began offering SupaBRCK devices to drivers of Nairobi’s highly-used Matatu buses for Kenyan commuters to access Moja. In February, the startup acquired Nairobi based internet provide Surf and its network of hotspots.

BRCK currently has 445,000 unique monthly active users on its Matatu based Moja mobile network in Kenya and Rwanda and 150,000 unique monthly active users on its fixed network—including users connecting at cafes, barbershops, and marketplaces, according to company data.

Swvl Bus with moja 2BRCK and Swvl wouldn’t confirm plans on expanding their mobile internet partnership to additional countries outside of Kenya.

Ride-hail markets in Africa have become an active sector for VC investment and global and local startups. The big players such as Uber  and Bolt are competing in Kampala and Nairobi—where in addition to car-service—they offer rickshaw taxis.

On-demand motorcycle startups are multiplying and piloting EVs with funds from international partners. And many ride-hail companies in Africa are adapting unique product solutions to local transit needs. The collective startup activity is making the continent home to a number of fresh mobility use-cases, including the BRCK and Svl WiFi partnership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Africa’s ride-hail markets are hot spots for startups and VC – gpgmail


When it comes to VC, vehicles, and startups, Africa’s ride-hail markets are becoming a multi-wheeled and global affair.

The big players such as Uber and Bolt are competing in Kampala and Nairobi—where in addition to car-service—they offer rickshaw taxis. On-demand motorcycle startups are multiplying and piloting EVs with funds from international partners. And many ride-hail companies in Africa are adapting unique product solutions to local transit needs.

In this analysis, I take a look at the leading startups in the mobility space and how the future of transportation on the continent will increasingly come from new entrants.

Africa’s in the midst of digital innovation boom

Africa’s in the midst of digital innovation boom, the components of which are intersecting rapidly across its 54 countries and 1.2 billion people.

Smartphone penetration is improving and in 2017, the continent saw the largest global increase in internet users—20 percent.

By Partech data, the continent surpassed the $1 billion VC mark in 2018. And greater connectivity and venture funding are fueling thousands of startups in every imaginable sector, including digital-transit.

While reliable markets stats for the size and potential of Africa’s ride-hail markets are sparse, there are some indicators of the sector’s potential.

Car ownership and cars per capita in Africa is among the lowest in the world. Parallel to that, any eyes and ears survey of the continent’s big cities reveals that shared transport by buses, cars, or motorcycles is big business that’s already ingrained in consumer culture. Millions of people daily pay fares to pack onto East and West Africa’s Mutatu and Danfo minibuses and Okada and Boda Boda motorbike taxis.

As Africa continues to urbanize, converts to smartphones, and discretionary consumer spending continues to rise—it all adds up to suggest strong potential for conversion to on-demand mobility services.

Unsurprisingly, the most active markets for ride-hail startups and investment in Africa align with the continent’s top spots for VC and tech activity: primarily Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.



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