June 28, 2009

Microsoft App Helps U.S. Consumers to Understand Energy Usage

I have addressed the issue of energy conservation in this blog and I want to share a valuable online application Microsoft Corp. launched on June 24, 2009 "that enables consumers to better understand their energy usage, get recommendations and start saving money. Microsoft Hohm uses advanced analytics licensed from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the United States Department of Energy to provide consumers with personalized energy-saving recommendations. Microsoft Hohm is an easy-to-use tool that helps consumers lower their energy bill and reduce their impact on the environment. The beta application is available at no cost to anyone in the United States with an Internet connection and can be accessed directly by visiting http://www.microsoft-hohm.com."

I agree with Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, when he said that "technology will play a pivotal role in tackling the global energy issues we currently face." Developing an Internet-based service combined with advanced software demonstrates Microsoft Hohm as an added-value application to "help people track, understand and manage their personal energy usage," explained Mr. Mundie.

Outlined in Microsoft's press release, "Microsoft Hohm provides savings recommendations, which can range from placing new caulking on windows to removing air leaks to installing a programmable thermostat. These recommendations are tailored based on specific circumstances in the consumer’s home including house features, usage patterns and appliances. The savings will vary based on the information shared and the characteristics of consumers’ households. If consumers don’t provide their data, Microsoft Hohm will base its recommendations on local and national averages. Microsoft Hohm will leverage the energy usage data and feedback from its users to refine and improve the accuracy and relevancy of recommendations. In addition, consumers will be able to compare their energy usage with that of others in their area and connect with the Microsoft Hohm community to find referrals and exchange ideas."

Expanding Microsoft's presence in cloud computing, Microsoft Hohm is built on the Windows Azure cloud operating system and leverages Bing search as well as the Microsoft Advertising platform, and is accessible from any computer using a modern browser." Microsoft's partners in launching this innovative service include Puget Sound Energy, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Seattle City Light, and Xcel Energy Inc., with plans to name more partners soon. Here is a video of bloggers sharing their thoughts about Microsoft Hohm:

June 27, 2009

An Ethiopian Immigrant's Organization Helping Small U.S. Businesses

CNN recently highlighted the work of an Ethiopian immigrant living in the United States helping low-income entrepreneurs start or grow their businesses, which I think is worth sharing with you. Alfa Demmellash, who grew up in impoverished Ethiopia, is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Rising Tide Capital, Inc., a Jersey City, New Jersey-based nonprofit organization "whose mission is to assist struggling entrepreneurs and communities to build strong businesses that transform lives, strengthen families and create vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods." The organization's vision "is to build a replicable model for high-quality entrepreneurial development services that can be locally adopted in other low-wealth communities and used as a catalyst for social and economic empowerment." (Photo courtesy of Rising Tide Capital, Inc.)

Focusing on transforming lives and communities through entrepreneurship, Rising Tide Capital offers three programs to traditionally underserved populations such as women, formerly incarcerated persons, minorities, unemployed and working poor, and immigrants & refugees:

  • The Community Business Academy (CBA) is a ten-week "intensive course in basic business management and planning, where entrepreneurs gain hands-on familiarity with the fundamental concepts, tools, and skills needed to plan and run a successful business. The Community Business Academy is designed specifically for the start-up entrepreneur with little or no business experience or someone in the process of growing a micro-business";
  • Business Acceleration Services include "one-on-one coaching, targeted business acceleration courses and access to markets and networking events designed for individuals struggling to open, stabilize or grow a business. Program initiatives include the 100 Day Challenge – an intensive goal setting and achievement track for those seeking to make dramatic leaps in their personal and business performance"; and
  • Access to Capital: While Rising Tide Capital does not provide loans directly, graduates of the CBA will receive assistance in identifying microlending organizations most suited for their needs. I strongly support the organization's advice to CBA graduates as they seek funding opportunities, "Remember a loan is just more debt unless you know what to do with it to benefit the sustainable growth of your business."

Rise Tide Capital's philosophy and methodology include:

  • Transforming individual lives by providing a viable means of economic self-sufficiency and a tangible sense of hope for the future;
  • Strengthening families by empowering parents to better provide for their children and to make better decisions by reducing the emotional strain of financial instability and insecurity; and
  • Creating thriving, vibrant communities by developing local leaders in the form of business owners, who will build the community from within by offering employment opportunities and concrete examples of success through hard-work for the next generation.

Here is CNN's video highlighting Ms. Demmellash's important work in making tools available to individuals trying to improve their lives through entrepreneurship:

June 25, 2009

Using Mobile Telecommunications to Monitor Africa's Weather

According to a press release dated June 18, 2009, "The Global Humanitarian Forum and its President, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, together with Ericsson, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), mobile telecommunications company Zain, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University...announced a major initiative, dubbed 'Weather Info for All', to radically improve Africa's weather monitoring network in the face of the growing impact of climate change." Speaking at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva, Switzerland, Mr. Annan said, "The world's poorest are also the world's most vulnerable when it comes to the impact of climate change, and the least equipped to deal with its consequences. Today you find cell phone towers in almost every part of Africa. We have never been able to establish weather monitoring on that scale, until now." (Photo courtesy of the Global Humanitarian Forum)

Richard Black, an environment correspondent for BBC News wrote, "The project aims to deploy 5,000 automatic weather stations across the continent mounted on phone masts. They will gather data on aspects of weather such as rainfall and wind, and send it to national weather agencies."

A Global Humanitarian Forum report claims that climate change "is responsible for some 300,000 deaths each year and over 100 billion US dollars worth of economic losses, mainly because of shocks to health and agricultural productivity. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for close to a quarter of these losses, and is the region at the most immediate risk of droughts and floods. Agricultural yields in some areas are expected to fall by 50% as early as 2020."

Global Humanitarian Forum's press release further says, "Mobile networks provide the necessary connectivity, power and security to sustain the weather equipment. Through its Mobile Innovation Center in Africa, Ericsson will also develop mobile applications to help communicate weather information developed by national meteorologicaland hydrological services (NMHSs) via mobile phones. Mobile operators will maintain the automatic weather stations and assist in the transmission of the data to national met services. The initial deployment, already begun in Zain networks, focuses on the area around Lake Victoria in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The first 19 stations installed will double the weather monitoring capacity of the Lake region."

"Approximately 70% of Africans rely on farming for their livelihood, or close to 700 million people, and over 95% of Africa’s agriculture depends on rainfall. Changing weather patterns due to climate change render obsolete traditional knowledge relating to agriculture otherwise reliable for centuries, creating a great need for meteorological information." Here is a video about the "Weather Info for All" program:

June 15, 2009

The Role of the Private Sector in Stabilization: Providing Sustainable Employment in Afghanistan

On June 10, 2009, I attended "Role of the Private Sector in Stabilization: Providing Sustainable Employment in Afghanistan," a conference sponsored by the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) in cooperation with the National Defense University-Near East South Asia (NDU-NESA) Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C. I served on a panel titled, "Practices and Ideas for Financing SME Businesses and Economic Growth," which discussed sustainable solutions to Afghanistan's recovery and reconstruction through private sector development. While the focus of the conference was on private sector development, it was clear that any sustainable economic solution will require a collaborative effort of the governments, nongovernmental organizations, private investors, and the local population. Immediate needs include access to capital, capacity building in public sector, public infrastructure development and maintenance, and access to international markets to facilitate exportation of Afghan-made goods.

The one-day conference brought together several speakers representing government agencies, nonprofit organizations, Afghan entrepreneurs, and American investors. Major General Arnold Fields, USMC (ret.) Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), correctly said, "People want to live their lives well" and the people of Afghanistan should be more involved with redevelopment since they provide the best information and resources. Saad Mohseni, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Moby Capital Partners, elaborated further by claiming the private sector can do a better job at economic development than the government. He recommends a sector-by-sector approach and noted patience is needed since the government and people will make mistakes.

A repeated message throughout the conference was the need to improve access to capital. Bernie Carreau, Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University's (NDU) Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) recommended that the Afghan Diaspora needs to be more engaged in private sector development and increasing foreign direct investment (FDI). Mildred Callear, Chief Operating Officer of the Small Enterprise Assistance Fund (SEAF), a Washington, D.C.-based global investment firm focused on providing growth capital and operational support to businesses in emerging markets and those underserved by traditional sources of capital, discussed SEAF's Afghan Growth Finance fund. Created in 2007, the size of the Afghan Growth Finance fund is USD $25 million and provides investments in the $500,000 to $2 million range. Several small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from a wide array of sectors including agro-processing, construction, media (local language), technology and Internet service providers are benefiting from SEAF. According to Ms. Callear, for every $1 invested generates $12 in the local economy.

Several Afghan entrepreneurs questioned the effectiveness of government-sponsored development projects. Mahmood Karzai, Chief Executive Office of Afghanistan Investment Company and First Vice-Chairman of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce & Industries (ACCI), noted that government contractors are compensated whether regardless of the project's success whereas Afghan entrepreneurs draw salaries only when their respective business generates a profit. David Beg of Barakat Group of Companies and president of Metro Pact Corporation, a Virginia-based company whose focus is international trade and government relations management, asserted that government contractors do not invest with their own capital and government funds should be directed to those who are willing to invest in themselves. In the panel, "Countering the Drug Cartels: Boosting the Legitimate Agricultural Economy," several of the speakers pointed out that increasing employment in the formal sector will have a direct effect on reducing the lucrative opium and related narcotic trade.

During the panel discussion on private sector finance strategies, Francis Skrobiszewski, an investment fund advisor and member of the AACC Board of Directors and chair of the AACC Working Group on Private Sector Investment and Access to Capital spoke about the need and opportunity to create a "US-Afghanistan Investment Fund" to finance Afghan private sector development and sustainable jobs supporting peace and stability, including the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) border areas. Mr. Skrobiszewski said, "Using private sector risk-taking and decision-making approaches with appropriate funding and proper mandate to complement traditional governmental initiatives such a Fund could creatively adapt and implement existing mechanisms and models to counter the drug cartels, which utilize their own commercial approaches in agricultural regions.

Philip Mistretta with the U.S. Department of Defense said Afghanistan's banking system has grown rapidly with 17 licensed banks, $2.4 billion in deposits, and $1.0 billion in loans as of January 2009. Furthermore, according to Mr. Mistretta, the Afghanistan Central Bank and Finance Ministry have established a market-oriented legal, policy and regulatory framework, and other non-bank financial institutions, such as donor-supported microfinance institutions, operate throughout Afghanistan. He noted that Afghanistan needs to develop financial markets for foreign exchange, debt instruments, and (eventually) equity securities.

Linton Wells II, Ph.D., Distinguished Research Professor and Transformation Chair at NDU explained information and communications technology (ICT) has not been utilized very well in Afghanistan and having access to ICT determines the winners and losers. There is a need for better collaboration between the Afghan government and private sector, according to Dr. Wells. This blog post, "Cheap and Effective Solutions for Humanitarian Emergencies," provides additional information about about Dr. Wells' work on STAR-TIDES, a research project focused on affordable, sustainable support to stressed populations.

My presentation focused on the need to develop a bottom-up approach to achieve sustainable social and economic development. For example, one of Afghanistan's greatest challenges is information (knowledge) sharing. I explained there are several investment and entrepreneurial opportunities in ICT (mobile solutions, including telemedicine, distance learning, and entrepreneur training), renewable energy to power villages, manufacturing and processing facilities. In addition, while I agree there is an immediate need to increase capital, there is an equally important need to facilitate access to export markets. My presentation further explained the need to create centers for entrepreneur development as a community resource and incubator for SME development. I ran out of time before I had the chance to explain the need to create investment vehicles such as private equity and enterprise funds (e.g., the US-Afghanistan Investment Fund) to support private sector development and SME growth.

An afternoon panel, "Reducing Corruption via Sound Economic Governance," focused on rule of law issues in Afghanistan. Clare Lockhart, co-founder and Director of The Institute for State Effectiveness explained the need to create a legal framework to facilitate business growth and handle legal disputes. Mariam Atash Nawabi, an attorney, television host, and co-founder of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group presented Afghanistan's comprehensive rule of law network through the creation of several administration agencies.

While the conference provided essential information regarding the role, challenges, and opportunities of the private sector in Afghanistan, there remain a few unanswered questions:
  1. What are the entrepreneurship opportunities for women?
  2. Is success in Afghanistan's private sector for American investors contingent on the U.S. maintaining a military presence?
  3. What is the vision of a regional solution to Afghanistan's recovery and reconstruction?
  4. How can Afghanistan become competitive in a global economy? What is Afghanistan's competitive advantage?
  5. How will Afghanistan build an educated workforce necessary for sustainable economic development?
Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

June 7, 2009

Afghan Telecom Expands Telemedicine Solutions

While preparing to serve as a panelist for a conference, "Role of the Private Sector in Stabilization: Providing Sustainable Employment in Afghanistan," sponsored by the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) and in cooperation with the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington, D.C. on June 10, 2009, I learned that Roshan, a leading telecom operator in Afghanistan, expanded "its first-of-its-kind Telemedicine solution in Afghanistan beyond Kabul to include provincial hospitals. Bamyan Provincial Hospital will be the first provincial medical facility linked to the innovative Telemedicine project, which uses broadband technology, wireless video conferencing and digital image transfer, to provide hospitals in Afghanistan with real-time access to specialist healthcare diagnosis, treatment and training expertise from abroad." Roshan's partners include Cisco Systems, the Government of Afghanistan, The Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi (AKUH), French Medical Institute for Children (FMIC), Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS), Bamyan Provincial Hospital (BPH) and other technology suppliers.

Launched in 2007, "more than 340 patients have benefited from Telemedicine and more than 231 Afghan medical personnel have participated in diagnostic and training opportunities facilitated by the technology." Roshan's vision is to extend Telemedicine links to other provincial hospitals and medical institutions in Europe and North America and the company will invest US$1.5 million over the next three to five years in the Telemedicine project that began through the company's Corporate Social Responsibility department. "The Telemedicine project developed in Afghanistan is also seen as a model for addressing healthcare delivery shortcomings in other developing countries where access to medical diagnosis, treatment and training is limited."

Roshan further explains, "Telemedicine involves the use of broadband technology that provides real-time high speed access for the transfer of medical imaging, video, data and voice. Applications include the ability to send real-time X-ray, ultrasound and CAT Scans (Computerized Axial Tomography) for evaluation. The technology also enables e-learning and learning through video conferencing. The initial service provided is teleradiology, the electronic transmission of radiological patient images. There are currently an average of 40 teleradiology cases evaluated monthly between FMIC and AKUH and ongoing training provided to medical professionals to build capacity. Telemedicine capabilities will gradually be expanded to other rural regions of Afghanistan, to include the use of smart-phone and PDAs, and to address different services and procedures including evaluation of tissue samples and the on-line performance of medical and surgical procedures."

Telemedicine creates an opportunity to increase capacity of services to a large population who require medical treatment or wellness education. Moreover, telemedicine offers an opportunity for businesses and entrepreneurs to develop programs and support services required to implement an essential service in improving the quality of life for vulnerable populations. Click here to watch an interesting video on Global Health TV about new technologies solving global health problems.

June 1, 2009

UN to Provide Technology for Development Training for Afghan Policymakers

In an effort to bridge the digital divide in Afghanistan, I support the United Nations' announcement that it "will be holding an information and communications technology (ICT) 'training the trainers' programme in Kabul to educate the country's decision-makers on using the latest innovations to promote development." The first in a series of eight modules, the UN will produce a four-day workshop "based on the Academy of ICT Essentials for Government Leaders Programme designed by the UN Asian and Pacific Training Centre for ICT for Development (APCICT) to give decision-makers the necessary knowledge and skills to fully leverage the technology in achieving Afghanistan’s social and economic development goals." (Photo courtesy of the United Nations)

As an entrepreneur and business advisor, I see many opportunities in developing innovative products, applications, and services tailored for people, from top government officials to rural farmers to school-aged kids, living in developing nations. Governments of industrialized nations use the latest technological innovations in warfare, but there are few efforts in developing technological tools for recovery and reconstruction of developing nations. For example, while the industrialize markets are slowly adopting 3G technology, 4G networks are currently being deployed throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Mobile broadband is an ideal channel for delivering a variety of solutions in the developing world. The problem exists, however, that policymakers and ordinary citizens in developing nations lack the hardware (mobile devices), content (mobile applications), and training to effectively utilize the latest mobile broadband networks. Service and equipment costs also pose an large obstacle to gaining access to much needed solutions. This problem creates an opportunity for entrepreneurs who design ICT hardware and applications and I encourage world governments, civil society, and the private sector to collaborate more effectively to harness the latest technology in providing solutions to bridge the digital divide.

The UN announcement explains, "The programme is a collaboration between Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), the body mandated to promote and implement ICT projects in the country, and APCICT, a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). As part of its commitment to ICT capacity building, MCIT has set up 34 training centres throughout Afghanistan to run programmes for local governments and the public."