Telecom Business Makes Money, Brings Peace

Nasra Malin is one of many entrepreneurs who recently attended the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington. She is co-founder and chief financial officer of NationLink Telecom, a phone company in Somalia.

Jennifer Bunting-Graden works as an associate attorney with a multinational law firm in Atlanta. She was born in Sierra Leone, where she is trying to set up a joint venture.

Nasra Malin

Nasra Malin

Nasra Malin:
I was one of six entrepreneurs who, in 1997, founded NationLink Telecom in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia… and the center of violence in our country. We were not sure if we would survive, first because there were three established telecom companies and, second, because the security challenge was tremendous.

But we invested in the business hoping to make profits and bring stability to our country.

NationLink has become a major telecom operator in Somalia, offering wireless and fixed-line services to 300,000 customers. It employs 1,500 people. With two other companies, we formed Global Internet Company, to provide Internet access.

Still, the fast-growing telecom industry in Somalia is fiercely competitive — competitors are hostile at times. Also, in a country with no strong central authority, we must protect our business. We have more than 600 security people, which is not the ideal solution. We know that someone somewhere will try to extort money if we need work done. We usually pay, because if we fight them, someone may get killed and, at the end of the day, the work may still not be done.

As the only woman among company executives, I face unique challenges. (In Somalia, women are rarely in business circles; you hardly see them at the executive level.) I was prepared though, because, when young, I worked at my family’s businesses and learned to think independently. At NationLink, I have tried to achieve the same or better results than my male co-workers. I led a middle-management team with little difficulty. This helped me to bring more educated women into the company.

I and other successful women want to be role models. We hope girls and young women in schools and universities, seeing us succeed, dare to search for new opportunities and feel empowered to seize them.

Jennifer Bunting-Graden

Jennifer Bunting-Graden

Jennifer Bunting-Graden:
Ms. Malin and other founders of NationLink Telecom have it exactly right that entrepreneurship, investment and job opportunities within a community can serve as a catalyst for peace and development. NationLink is an example of the new breed of homegrown entrepreneurial ventures in developing countries, which not only seek profits, but also embrace the responsibility for driving the development of their respective economies. Although NationLink has a profit-making purpose, its business by its nature helps facilitate peace by creating jobs, providing access to information and improving the quality of life. And just by being there in the middle of a chaotic environment in which the company operates may provide some measure of stability.

But dealing with challenges of security and poor infrastructure in countries affected by conflicts is no small feat, and adds to business ventures the dimension unknown to entrepreneurs in our country. As Ms. Malin indicates, basic institutions and processes vital to the success of any business such as the rule of law are less often the norm in countries that lack stability.

Ms. Malin’s personal story of success in a male-dominated environment and the positive impact her career has had on other women in her country illustrate another value of homegrown entrepreneurship. Women generally form the backbone of society in developing countries, and it follows that developing countries will be successful when local women are given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Internet Disenchantment

My job involves writing about how the Internet is important to fostering human rights and economic prosperity, and how clever activists can use technologies – such as the mobile phones and video —  to defend freedom.  But all along I’ve known that if the “good guys” can find ways to use technology to help humanity, the “bad guys” can find ways to use the same technology to suppress human rights.  Even activists who are steadfast about the positive use of the Internet as a tool for promoting democracy and human rights recognize that repressive governments are determined to “fight fire with fire.”

But the most depressing assessment of the failure of the Internet to usher in a new era of freedom and political activism that I’ve come across to date is in May/June edition of Foreign Policy.  In an article called “Think Again: The Internet,” Evgeny Morozov, a Belarus-born researcher and blogger who focuses on the political effects of the internet, shoots down every platitude you might have heard about the Internet being a force for good.

“A networked world is not inherently a more just world,” Morozov says, and may have created “a confusing news junkyard” for many of its users.

“Two decades in,” Morozov writes, “the Internet has neither brought down dictators” nor “ushered in a post-political age of rational and data-driven policymaking.”  The Internet, he says, is “a hypercharged version of the real world, with all of its promise and perils.”  That may be true, but I still can’t help but think that the Internet provides the best platform to date to promote human rights values and expose abuses.  What do you think?

Google and China

The Blogosphere is buzzing with talk of Google and China.  Here are some examples of the different points of view of bloggers who are following the issue:

Global Voices contributor Oiwan Lam gives her take on Google’s migration to Hong Kong:

Another find from Global Voices:

Democracy Digest wonders if the Google-China row will eventually confirm what they term, “democracy’s comparative advantage:”

And the Center for International Private Enterprise weighs in on a blogging initiative in China and its relation to the Google incident:

Computer Geeks Fighting the Good Fight

We’ve all heard of “computer geeks” who use their skills to hack into computer systems. Most of us, I think, would consider them to be dangerous but brilliant amateurs who enjoy defeating firewalls and creating fear and chaos; they threaten individuals, government and big corporations just because they can.

On the other end of the spectrum are computer geeks who work to allow human rights activists to get their messages out to the public, despite the efforts of repressive governments to control the Internet. One organization that employs geeks to ensure freedom of speech and association in cyberspace is Front Line, an international foundation that helps protect human rights defenders.

Andrew Anderson, a deputy director for Front Line, was among the human rights activists I met during the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit sponsored by Freedom House and Human Rights First February 18-19. He told me his organization offers software he called “security in a box” to help human rights activists protect themselves and sidestep Internet controls imposed by authoritarian governments. He acknowledged that such security is only good for a year or two before the Internet censors figure it out. Even so, Front Line’s efforts buy valuable time, he said, for Internet freedom.

But other speakers at the summit complained that all too many Internet users living under repressive governments have come to accept Internet controls — if they can shop, play games and find most of what they want. This “bread and circuses” approach seems to work as well today in some parts of the world as it did in ancient Rome. Are we all in danger of becoming too complacent?

Is the Internet Causing a Backlash Against Human Rights?

Hanif Mazroui at computer

Iranian blogger Hanif Mazroui was jailed in 2004 for writing about the Islamic system but later released. He continues to be harassed by government authorities.

Last week I spent two days attending talks at the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit sponsored by Freedom House and Human Rights First, two nonprofit organizations that monitor human rights issues. The summit brought together human rights activists from around the world to discuss the current state of the freedom of speech and the freedom of association – two important fundamental rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The consensus of the speakers seemed to be that the Internet, which can bring people together and create a great marketplace for sharing ideas, is creating a “backlash” against human rights. According to Michael Posner, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, authoritarian governments are “freaking out” (his exact words) over Internet control.

As a result, repressive governments are harassing and imprisoning Internet journalists, bloggers, and nongovernmental organizations who try to promote human rights and expose abuses. Web sites are blocked, Internet censorship is rampant, and some savvy authoritarian governments use the Internet and social networking tools to spread misinformation.

Maria Leissner, Sweden’s Ambassador for Democracy, called it a “backlash on freedom.” Even as democracy has made inroads around the world, she said, democracy depends on human rights to evolve. Freedom of expression is the backbone of democracy, which is why democracy is under attack, “because this is about power,” Leissner said.

It seems the battle for freedom and human rights has entered cyberspace. But has it caused a “backlash”? Are things actually getting worse because repressive regimes fear the power of the Internet?

Are Social Networkers in Fact “Disconnected”?

The Internet and social networking were supposed to bring people together. But could it be that it “disconnects” them in certain ways?

That is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested January 21 when answering questions after her major foreign policy speech on Internet freedom.

Near the end of her appearance at the Newseum, the secretary took a question about Muslim youth being disaffected from their own governments and that of the United States. In her answer, Clinton suggested that youth the world over suffer from this “disconnect.” The reason: the Internet!

Here’s what she said: “Young people across the world are increasingly disconnected from authority, from government, from all kinds of institutions that have been historically the foundations of society, because they are so interconnected through the Internet….”

She noted that some young people spend more time on the Internet than with their families, and she added that this phenomenon was “something my generation can’t really understand.”

Well, I’m part of Clinton’s generation, and her comment was a real shocker to me! Why? Because, as a heavy user of the Internet, I often feel “disconnected,” too. In my case the disconnect is with what I see as a somewhat befuddling world of social networking.

Clearly there is a generation gap at work here, and Clinton addressed that: “When you think about the power of this information connection to young people, I don’t think it should cause panic in people my age…. We ought to figure out how to better utilize it.”

Here at, we’ve been working hard at reaching young people via Twitter, Facebook and blogs like this one. How effective do you think these efforts are? What do you think is the best way for government to meet the information needs of and connect with young people?

Internet Censorship: Bad for You, Bad for Business

As I listened live to Secretary Clinton’s remarks this morning on Internet freedom, two things in particular jumped out at me. One was her statement that countries or individuals who curtail free expression or engage in cyberattacks should “face consequences and international condemnation.” The other was her call to American companies to undertake a “principled stand” against complying with a country’s censorship requirements as the price for being allowed to do business there. Clinton wasn’t just referring to the current disagreement between Google Corporation and China.

She argued that it is in every publicly listed company’s interest, not just those from the United States, to resist restrictions for the sake of immediate business interests. Investors will ultimately lose confidence if they know that corporate decision-makers don’t have unhindered access to all the news and information that is available. “From an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech,” and the denial of either “inevitably impact on growth,” she warned.

Clinton’s ideas, if implemented, can greatly help cyberspace continue as a platform where people can freely air their ideas and interact online with whomever they wish, and put political and economic pressure on the countries who are currently censoring 31 percent of the world’s population.

Putting it succinctly, Clinton said the ultimate question is over “whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.”

The Internet’s social networks are already demonstrating their ability to mobilize huge numbers of people in record time, and that potential can only increase as more and more get connected. As Clinton said, one of the lessons of the 20th century’s Cold War is that it is “very hard to keep information out.”

But instead of the old “Iron Curtain,” an “information curtain” is descending on much of the world as censorship practices increase. She said viral videos and blog posts have become “the samizdat of our day.”

Ensuring a free Internet will require not only broad agreement by the international community, in the form of universal norms and guarantees, but also cooperation from the business world, whose investment and participation is vital to helping development and continued economic growth.

Is that kind of cooperation out there? What do you think would motivate companies to take a “principled stand” and not comply with censorship requirements as the price for doing business in some countries?

Kenyan Portal Could Give Small Firms Access to a Big Market

[guest name="Kinoti Gituma, Imran Qidwai and Herman Nyamunga" biography="Entrepreneur Kinoti Gituma is the founder and chief executive of KinConsult, an Internet business consulting firm. He lives in Santa Clara, California. Expert Imran Qidwai is president of Zaviah, a high-tech consultancy firm in Boston. Expert Herman Nyamunga is an independent development consultant and a blogger."] asked finalists from among the more than 700 African immigrants who submitted business plans to the “African Diaspora Marketplace” to blog about their ideas. Sponsored by USAID and Western Union Company, the African Diaspora Marketplace is a contest that will award seed money to approximately 15 winners to help them bring their ideas to life in their home countries.

Kinoti Gituma, entrepreneur:

Kinoti Gituma

Kinoti Gituma

Living and working in Silicon Valley has exposed me to many facets of e-commerce: from selling rugby apparel on eBay to marketing high-end servers on Google. Having been born and raised in Nairobi, I am excited about recent developments in the Kenyan technology sector, particularly the launch of broadband.

Within KinConsult, a U.S. online and e-commerce consulting firm based in Sunnyvale, California, I have envisioned Johari, a Web and mobile portal that will bridge the digital divide in Kenya by providing a platform for small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) to tap the potential of broader markets. It is currently under development.

By marketing their products and services on Johari such businesses will gain access to a consumer market that transcends local boundaries. And I believe that giving SMEs the platform for information gathering and collaborative technologies will help them grow and prosper. This, in turn, will boost business generally in Kenya by giving consumers a greater choice.

The biggest risk is fraud. Initial challenges include attracting, vetting and listing a large number of SMEs and persuading them to use Johari to list their products on a continuous basis. It will take time for the Kenya society at large to embrace new technologies to reach a critical mass.
Questions for experts:
1. How do you mitigate the risk of fraud in operations of a mobile and Web portal in a developing country?
2. How do you create an effective viral marketing campaign for a quick roll out in a region that has high mobile penetration but very low Internet penetration?

IMRAN QIDWAI, business expert:

As I was reading your blog post, the paramount issue of fraud was dancing in my head. It was good to see you identify that as a major challenge yourself.

Identifying the target market segments that will benefit the most from your business will be a key to your success. You need to identify the type of products that would be best served by your online market within the targeted region, both for the buyers and sellers. Thus, commodities may not be the best unless you are sure that buyers will achieve significant overall savings or benefit from the convenience. You also may need to hand-pick a few merchants for such products that pass through a strict selection filter. You may launch the business with few such merchants and closely monitor the transactions for overall customer satisfaction. Using the best practices learned during the early phases, you may have to come up with your own Better Business Bureau type seal of approval. You will then be ready to scale up the business with more merchants and a greater variety of products. You will need to be vigilant throughout and set up a fair process to vet the merchants. You also may need to encourage buyers to provide their satisfaction ratings for merchants and products upon the completion of transactions. Once you have a well-oiled marketplace that is also profitable for the merchants, I am sure that other merchants will be dying to get in.

As for viral marketing, there is a technique called Word of Mouth Marketing being promoted by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. You may wish to check out their site [] to learn and adapt this and other techniques to the local market.

A Johari promotional photo of a Kenyan Masai warrior

A Johari promotional photo of a Kenyan Masai warrior

HERMAN NYAMUNGA, business expert:

The impact of fraud on businesses across the globe is phenomenal. Although every effort is being taken to find a lasting solution to this problem, there is no silver bullet yet. However, there are industry-tested strategies that developing countries can employ to mitigate the risk of fraud in operations of mobile and web portal. They include these:
1. Developing a secure platform for information exchange,
2. Effective and efficient electronic verification system supported by well trained fraud analysts,
3. Rolling the portal in phases to permit system modification,
4. Utilizing mobile financial systems like Kenya’s M-PESA – which are transforming the way people save, use, and transport money in poor countries – for most of the transactions,
5. Educating consumers on how to protect themselves against fraudulent activities,
6. Developing and applying due diligence in verifying sellers’ identity before listing them in the portal,
7. And information sharing between credit card companies, businesses, law enforcement agencies, and consumers.

As to a viral marketing campaign, due to limited availability of the Internet, mobile phone networks have proven to be a vital piece of technology for Africa. The technology is ubiquitous and plays an important part in bridging the infrastructure divide. As a cheap alternative, it presents a great opportunity for creating an effective viral marketing campaign to assist businesses in connecting with consumers. The strategy involves recruiting a group of trusted people in every target market, earning their trust and using them as a platform to transmit your message to their network of friends. This strategy has been successfully used in Africa to support initiatives such as Mapping stock-outs, Mobile learning, Mobile search, Mobile Banking, etc.

“Sustaining an Open Dialogue”

Obama at Shanghai town hall

The U.S.-China relationship “has not been without disagreement and difficulty,” President Obama acknowledged during a town hall in Shanghai November 15. The key to a strong relationship based on mutual interests is “sustaining an open dialogue,” Obama told the student participants.

The president’s comments on Internet access in China received a lot of attention in U.S. media today. “In the United States, the fact that we have free Internet, or unrestricted Internet access, is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged,” Obama said.

“I’m a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter,” Obama said. “The more open we are, the more we can communicate. And it also helps to draw the world together.”

Obama’s China visit comes in the midst of a multi-country Asia tour. In Japan, he met with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and discussed the need to strengthen the nations’ already strong alliance. In Singapore, he gathered with numerous Asian leaders for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit which focused on sustainable growth strategies.