Category: Business

World’s first tablet cyber café opens in Senegal

Among the washer women, carpenters, busy waiters and squabbling children sweltering under the midday sun on this dusty Dakar street, an internet revolution is taking place in the world’s first tablet café.

Next to the workshops, meat stores and barbershops on what could be any bustling street in sub-Saharan Africa, a grey concrete building stands out with a garish sign advertising the Tablette Café.

“This is the first tablet café in the world, a café that works with tablets,” said Tidiane Deme, the head of Google in French-speaking Africa.

The concept, introduced by the internet search giant, is a simple twist on the traditional cyber cafés which have been springing up across Africa as the internet boom takes hold, ditching PCs for tablet computers.

People outside the Tablette Café, located in the Medina area of Dakar. (AFP)
The Tablette Café opened on May 27 2013 in the Medina area of Dakar. (AFP)

When Medoune Seck (33) opened his Equinoxe cyber café six years ago, he quickly discovered that frequent power cuts and exorbitant electricity bills were a major headache for him and his customers.

Then along comes Google which offered funding last year to turn one cyber café in Africa into a pilot tablet café. Seck applied and his café was picked as their guinea pig.

While tablets have taken advanced industrialised countries by storm and pushed cyber cafés further to the margins, in the developing world they could lead to their renaissance.

Tablet cafés could take hold in Africa because most people cannot afford to buy the devices, and tablets use batteries and mobile data connections which make them not vulnerable to power cuts.

The Equinoxe now sports 15 tablets and has installed cabins for private video chats, while a corner of the café is given over to a shop selling various items of electronic equipment.

Three PCs remain enthroned on boxes near a wall, but they do not generate much interest among clients, who recline on the café’s bright orange and blue sofas, jabbing at their touch screens.

Seck says his tablets cost more than PCs but they save on power bills as they consume 25 times less electricity.

Customers browsing the web on tablets. (AFP)
Customers pay 80 US cents per hour to browse the web on tablets. (AFP)

He believes they can help revive cyber cafés which, according to Google, are in something of a slump precisely because of the high cost of electricity and frequent power failures cutting into business.

“Tablet computers will revolutionise Africa, and Senegal,” said Seck.

The simplicity of using the touchscreen devices could help bring computing to scores of new people.

An elderly grandmother in a billowing bubu robe, headscarf and sash from the house opposite the café was among the first through the doors to “bless” her neighbour’s business, and she left amused after being given an introduction to using a tablet.

Mamadou Camara, a 16-year-old Facebook and Skype user, enthused about the improved computing experience of tablets.

He complained about “cyber café PCs which are very slow and exhaust your credit”.

Upon arrival, customers hand over an ID card and pay in advance for a set connection time before they are given a tablet.

When they leave the device is reset, wiping out any data from their session, and it is ready for the next customer.

The Tablette Café charges the same price as its predecessor did for PCs: 300 CFA francs (80 US cents) per hour.

“Our hope is that cyber cafés attract new customers interested in a more simple and interactive way of going online, and make significant savings on their number one operating expense: electricity,” Alex Grouet, Google’s business development manager in Francophone Africa, said in a blog post.

Café owners should be able to invest the savings on electricity costs into improving their connection speeds, he suggested, thereby boosting their clients’ experience.

“We look forward to finding out as the project unfolds, and hope that people living in Dakar will stop by to try out something new.”

Coumba Sylla for AFP.

A new road for Ethiopia’s ancient salt trade

Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed was 15 years old when he began trekking with caravans of camels to collect salt in a sun-blasted desert basin of north Ethiopia that is one of the hottest places on earth.

Now 51 and retired, he has passed his camels to his son to pursue this centuries-old trade in “white gold” from the Danakil Depression, where rain almost never falls and the average temperature is 34.4 degrees celsius.

Sulphur and mineral salt formations are seen near Dallol in the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia April 22 2013. (Pic: Reuters)
Sulphur and mineral salt formations are seen near Dallol in the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia. (Pic: Reuters)

But the tradition of hacking salt slabs from the earth’s crust and transporting them by camel is changing as a paved road is built across the northern Afar region.

Although the road being cut through the Danakil Depression is making it easier to transport the salt, the region’s fiercely independent local salt miners and traders are wary of the access it might give to industrial mining companies with mechanised extraction techniques that require far less labour.

“Most of the people who live here are dependent on the salt caravans, so we are not happy with prospective salt companies that try to set up base here,” said Abdullah Ali Noor, a chief and clan leader’s son in Hamad-Ile, on the salt desert’s edge.

“Everything has to be initiated from the community. We prefer to stick with the old ways,” he added.

Thousands of camel herders and salt extractors use traditional hoes and axes to carve the “white gold” out of the ground in the Danakil Depression.

Many of the salt diggers live in Hamad-Ile and hire out their services to different caravans. The work, however exhausting, still draws thousands onto the baking salt flats.

“You forget about the sun and the heat,” said Kidane Berhe (45), a camel herder and salt merchant. “I lost a friend once on the salt desert because he was working too much with no protection from the sun. Eventually he just collapsed.”

 Once workers find a suitable place to mine salt, they extract, shape and pack as many salt slabs as possible before starting their two-day journey to the town of Berahile. (Pic: Reuters)
Once workers find a suitable place to mine salt, they extract, shape and pack as many salt slabs as possible before starting their two-day journey to the town of Berahile. (Pic: Reuters)

The tarmac road will link the highland city of Mekele with the village of Dallol in the Danakil Depression, a harsh but hauntingly beautiful geographical wonder of salt flats and volcanoes once described as “a land of death” by the famous British desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

The road has cut from five hours to three the drive from Mekele to Berahile, a town two days’ trek by camel from the Afar salt deposits that one of Ethiopia’s main sources of the crystalline food product.

New roads like these are gradually helping to transform this landlocked Horn of Africa state, which has a unique culture and history but has been racked by coups, famines and droughts, into one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent.

As Africa’s biggest coffee producer, Ethiopia’s economy remains based on agriculture, which accounts for 46% of gross domestic product and 85% of employment. But its nearly 94-million population – the second biggest in Africa – is attracting the attention of foreign investors hungry for new markets.

Access to market
Further south in the Danakil Depression, at the salt reserve of Lake Afdera, industrial salt production is already underway.

A company named Berhane and Zewdu PLC came to the desert plains near Hamad-Ile in 2011 aiming to produce salt there, according to Noor.

Clan leaders saw the threat to their ancient trade and lined up to oppose the project. Fearing sabotage of its equipment, the company left the following year, local people said.

But Noor still welcomed the new road.

“The new highway will give easy access to the market, which will bring benefits and development to this region,” Noor said.

The development he talks of is visible in Berahile, where caravans from the salt pans come to drop off their cargo so it can be transported to the rest of the country. Most residents are involved directly or indirectly in the salt business.

Telephone and electricity networks have been extended to the town over the past four years, a new Berahile Salt Association was established in 2010 to facilitate trade and a recently built salt store is now the biggest construction in town.

“Thousands of people benefit from this work as the salt here is exported throughout the country,” said the head of the association, Derassa Shifa.

A man prepares bars of salt to be sold in the main market of the city of Mekele, northern Ethiopia. (Pic: Reuters)
A man prepares bars of salt to be sold in the main market of the city of Mekele, northern Ethiopia. (Pic: Reuters)

For now, tradition and modernity co-exist – the organisation buys salt from the caravans that make the four-day trek to the salt flats and back, then sells it to merchants who carry it away by truck.

The salt blocks, which were once used as a unit of money, are sold across Ethiopia, many of them to farmers to provide their animals with essential minerals. Ethiopia has the largest livestock population on the African continent.

Siegfried Modola for Reuters.

Nigeria’s creative dotcom entrepreneurs

In Nigeria, internet shopping is not all that it might seem. Take Sheffy Bello-Osagie’s recent purchase of a hair product. Instead of punching in her card details online, she emailed the seller for account details. Then she went to the bank to deposit the amount in cash.

“The only thing I buy online in Nigeria is airline tickets, and that’s because the walk-in option isn’t exactly appealing,” said Bello-Osagie, referring to the chaotic queues that are inescapable for most people in Nigeria.

Forecast to become the world’s fourth most populous nation by 2050, the country has a growing middle class and a thriving consumer sector. But parallel online growth has been stifled by deeply rooted fears about online scams.

Rolling Stone magazine won’t allow Nigerian addresses to access its site, and Apple won’t allow Nigerian-issued credit cards to buy its products online – for fear of being scammed. PayPal, the world’s biggest online payment processor, refuses to operate in Nigeria.

So Nigerian dotcom entrepreneurs have to be creative. Sim Shagaya, who hopes his company,, will become Africa’s answer to Amazon, has an unusual solution: once orders are placed online, he sends out an employee on a motorbike or tuk-tuk to collect the payment from the waiting buyers.

(Screenshot of

One of his collectors, Peter Nelson, said: “I have to explain to all our first-time buyers that we are not one of those fraudulent online companies who are going to disappear tomorrow.”

After several visits, many shoppers were prepared to swap cash payments for his portable card swipe machine, Nelson said. Only a minority entered their card details directly on to the site.

Another entrepreneur, Tayo Oviosu, is trying to build Nigeria’s version of PayPal, MyPaga. “We can sit around or we can do something about it. If other companies won’t come to Nigeria, it’s an opportunity for local businesses,” he said.

(Screenshot of

Years of soaring economic growth has failed to translate into jobs for a bulging youth population, providing a steady supply of scammers who see it as a legitimate job.

In a downtown Lagos neighbourhood, John, a Yahoo-Yahoo boy – so-called because of many scammers’ earlier preference for using Yahoo! emails – lounges outside between bouts of frenzied fraud work at internet cafes.

Shy and softly spoken, John spends his days trawling Facebook to scrape together his undergraduate fees. He finds an online “date”, then dupes her into giving him money.

But he says an average of two snares a month brings in scant reward compared with the earnings of those who work with a network of international partners, typically based in the US or Malaysia.

“They have nice cars, fine clothes, women. For me, this is just a way to survive,” he said.

As’s motorbike riders sweep through overcrowded Lagos, they might notice a curious graffito scrawled on thousands of houses: “Beware of 419 [advance fee frauds]! This house is NOT for sale!” It is a warning against charlatan agents who “sell” temporarily vacant houses to multiple prospective buyers.

Monica Mark for the Guardian. 

How SpongeBob SquarePants became a hit in Egypt

Stroll the streets of central Cairo today, and two faces stand out. The first is a symbol of resistance; Jika, a teenage protester shot dead late last year, whose likeness has been repeatedly stencilled across the walls of the city centre.

The second is rather less revolutionary. It belongs to SpongeBob SquarePants. The fictional marine sponge, historically found on kids’ cartoon channel Nickelodeon, is now the ubiquitous face of Egyptian tat – printed on everything from hijabs to boxer shorts, complete with spelling mistakes. (In Egypt, where western Bs are often confused with Ps, SpongeBob sometimes becomes a variant of SpongePop.) Name something cheap and tacky, and chances are that someone in Egypt can sell you a Spongified version.

(Pic: Ganzeer /
(Pic: Ganzeer /

His appearances have become so frequent that a blog – SpongeBob on the Nile – now documents his Egyptian adventures. Vice magazine was even forced to ponder: “Is SpongeBob SquarePants the New Che Guevara?”.

The explosion started about a year ago, SpongeBob on the Nile’s co-founder reckons. “I remember coming back in June 2012,” says Elisabeth Jaquette, a longtime Cairo resident who had returned from a year in America, “and walking through Tahrir Square, where you used to see T-shirts that said ‘Egypt’ and ‘Revolution’. But that June, half the T-shirts were just SpongeBob.”

Soon the craze spread to other wardrobe items. “Men would ask me for SpongeBob boxer shorts,” says stallholder Yasser Abdel Moneim. To meet demand, Abdel Moneim now sells three different SpongeBob pant designs – sourced from China – including one that overlays the sponge with the unlikely logo of Calvin Klein. “It’s still the thing that sells out first.”

(Pic: Patrick Kingsley/
(Pic: Patrick Kingsley /

Egypt is not the only country to have taken to SpongeBob. Jaquette’s blog memorably shows someone celebrating the Libyan revolution dressed as SpongeBob. But Jaquette argues: “People are reproducing it in ways that are very distinctly Egyptian; there are traditional hand puppets that have SpongeBob on them, tissue-box covers – a very Egyptian thing – with SpongeBob designs.”

How this all started, no one really knows. SpongeBob is shown on a private Egyptian channel, but most won’t have watched much of it. Whatever Vice‘s headline implied, SpongeBob doesn’t have any political resonance. One theory is that SpongeBob’s success is symptomatic of the way that urban space has changed in Egypt since the 2011 uprising. After the revolution, a breakdown in law and order made it easier for street traders to set up shop in city centres – a phenomenon that may have led to higher sales of Spongebob tat.

Jaquette, however, isn’t convinced. There may have been fewer vendors before the revolution, she says, “but there has always been one shirt or other that has been popular”. For now, SpongeBob’s presence is everywhere – but it may not be for ever. At the height of his popularity, Tahrir vendor Mostafa Hamed sold 30 SpongeBobs a week. But this week? Just three.

Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian. 

Kenya’s ambitious urban farmers

“You need to cut your nails if you want to be involved in this kind of work,” Jairus, the experienced farmer and caretaker, said disapprovingly.

This was Rosa’s first attempt at planting a tree on her newly acquired farm, located in Kenya’s Rift Valley. All the farmhands’ eyes were on her as she dug and shovelled. She was sporting a fresh new French manicure that cost her Ksh 450 ($5), but she was reluctant to trim them. What a waste of money that would be!

Later that night, at her home in Nairobi, Rosa prepared for her other job. She had an early meeting the next morning but was up late, struggling to get rid of the grit beneath her nails. She knew what she had to do: reach for a nail clipper.

Farming was going to be her life from now on and she had to start looking the part if she was serious about making a success of it. The farm had come into her possession when her father heard her talking about buying some land to practise farming. He was surprised but pleased, and since he was just about to sell off a large tract of his farm, he decided to give Rosa two acres of it.

One acre of the farm in this remote area is valued at about Ksh 350 000 ($4168). The money Rosa would have invested in buying the land will instead be used in preparing the field, and paying the farm manager and the four people he would hire during the planting season to weed and harvest the crops. For her first planting season Rosa invested in beans. Her farm produce will be sold in Rift Valley and neighbouring areas.

Rosa is part of a new group of young, urban working-class Kenyans who have decided to take up farming to boost their income. This choice of career may be unusual but it’s smart and strategic: they can save the extra income they’re making now for when they retire from their formal jobs, and then take up farming full-time when they’re older.

These urban farmers are in their late twenties to mid-thirties and were born and brought up in Nairobi. They’re professionals – doctors, project managers, NGO workers, journalists and accountants. Their only previous connection to farming is the fresh produce they bought at local markets or consumed from their parents’ or grandparents’ farms (which they hardly visited because city life was much more exciting).

Urban farmers have come to realise what Kenya’s seasoned farmers have always known: farming is a green gold mine. Agriculture­­­ or food processing in Kenya accounts for about 80% of the work force and is the backbone of the country’s economy.

Farmers tend newly planted trees  Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)
Farmers tend newly planted trees in Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)

In their quest to rapidly learn about farming while holding down office jobs in the city, urban farmers are forever on their phones, carrying out ‘supervisory farming’.

“Did you manage to weed today?” “Did you buy the fertilizers?” “Is it still raining?” “How are the animals doing?” “I’ll come over this weekend and check on the progress” are conversations you’ll overhear in corridors and offices as they check in with their farm managers and caretakers.

You can easily identify an urban farmer in social circles. They are the ones who will steer the conversation to “farming is the way to go” at dinner tables, lunches and casual encounters, and then pull out their cellphones to proudly show anyone who cares a picture of their first crop.

When urban farmers are not on their phones, they’re on the internet checking out farming websites and forums – how to farm the next crop; which animals to buy next. What they lack in experience, they make up for with technological know-how.

Luckily, their experienced counterparts are usually patient and happy to help them and explain the process of farming. The market for farming products in Kenya and beyond is huge, and farmers are only too aware that they can’t meet this demand on their own. Jealousy and conflicts are rare – instead, experienced farmers encourage the youngsters and show them the ropes with the aim of greater customer satisfaction in mind.

In a country where agriculture accounts for almost 51% of the GDP, urban farmers like Rosa are playing a key role in providing employment and producing a greater variety of food in Kenya. Rosa may be new at it but she’s learning fast. She has already realised the importance of spreading the risks of various forms of farming: once she gets her profit from her next harvest, she will invest it in beekeeping. She’s only 36 years old but she’s already planning her exit from formal employment in 2016.

Mary Itumbi is a journalist based in Nairobi.