Kenya Summer 2011 Blog

Strathmore University
June 13, 2011 to July 22, 2011

Final Week

Maksim Kolysh

July 19, 2011

This past weekend, Oshani and I decided to once again combine work with travel. Mombasa Polytech University in Mombasa hosted a mobile bootcamp, a two-day intensive course on mobile applications. The two of us taught Python and Django to about 90 interested students, while Evans (one of our TA's) and Dominic (another student at Strathmore) administrated the program and instructed other students in Android programming. Attempting to teach in two days the same material that we've been teaching here in Nairobi for five weeks was a monumental task, but we did our best to give them both a general overview as well as some basic skills for them to start developing themselves. Afterwards, Oshani travelled to the Maasai Mara, while I spent the long weekend on the beach in Diani.

Today, back in Nairobi, we had a guest lecture by Nathan Wyeth of FrontlineSMS:Credit. Most of our groups are eventually planning on implementing a framework to allow basic phones to access information from their web apps, and are thus interested in the different software available for that purpose.

This week is gearing up to be the climax of the Kenya Summer 2011 program. The pitches are written, the demos are ready, and the event is planned -- this Friday, each of our nine teams will present their ideas and proposals to businesspeople, entrepreneurs, investors, and the media. We will be holding a full run-through tomorrow, two days ahead of the final presentation, in order to provide the students with last minute feedback and fixes for their projects.

Encounters and Adventures

Maksim Kolysh

July 3, 2011

With the conclusion of our second week of classes, we are nearing the halfway point of the program. Thankfully, we finished both the Python and Django curriculum for the students, allowing them to start working on their final projects. They have been assigned to teams -- each team has members with experience in a wide range of fields, such as business, entrepreneurship, communications, web development, and programming -- and most of the teams already have some notion of what they will be working on for the next two weeks in preparation for their final pitches and demos.

Apparently, Nairobi is the silicon valley of Africa -- there is a huge MIT and other techie presence here. Recently, the Sanergy ( team arrived to Nairobi. They are a new company of mostly MIT students who are working on efficiently converting waste into usable energy in urban slums. A few of their members are staying with us. Additionally, Oshani and I were lucky enough to meet Kevin Gibbs, the lead developer of the Google App Engine, who just happens to be in Nairobi on sabbatical. We have invited him to come speak to our class about his extensive experience working at Google and to give them some advice on developing web apps. It should be a very energizing and relevant discussion, as our students will ultimately be deploying their applications using the GAE.

Between writing lectures, labs, and meeting new people, we have had some time to explore more of Kenya. Our trusty TA Kelvin agreed to take us to Mount Longonot, an inactive volcano within two hours of Nairobi. It took us five hours to go up the mountain, walk around the entire crater, and get back down (10 km total, 1km vertical), but it was definitely worthwhile. The view of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Naivasha from the peak of the mountain was breathtaking, and I think it was our most worthwhile trip to date.

The Technical Program So Far

Oshani Seneviratne

June 25, 2011

We are approaching week #3, and this is a brief update on what we have doing at Strathmore University over the past two weeks.

We started the program on June 13th with a programming skills evaluation to calibrate the curriculum. The students were given four programming questions and were asked to code those up in their favorite programming language. We also asked them about their expectations of the program. Most of them said that they want to be good Java developers, and/or that they want to learn how to develop mobile apps in Android and/or J2ME. We explained to them that this year the focus will be on Python, Django and the Mobile Web. We got few questions inquiring about the similarities between these two languages, and I believe we successfully convinced them that Python + Django is a good choice when it comes to doing RAD for mobile devices.

During the rest of the week we focussed on giving the students the basics of programming in Python. We attended Pivot 25 on the 14th and the 15th, so the students had enough time to adjust to Python and do our first homework on installing Python and writing a simple hello world application. In week #2, we delivered intermediate concepts in Python: data structures, functional and object oriented programming, exceptions, etc. Max and I have been checking off the students' answers with the assistance of Yonga Kelvin--a Summer '10 graduate of MIT AITI Kenya program. I am personally very happy to see that most students are getting into Python, and learning the language so fast! Next week, we are going to cover some advanced concepts in Python, and I am pretty sure it will be a piece of cake for our students. 

I am really looking forward to the following weeks!

Exploring Nairobi

Maksim Kolysh

June 19, 2011

Yesterday, for the first time in two weeks, we decided to act like tourists and actually get to know the streets of Nairobi outside of Mimosa Court. Our first stop was the Nairobi National Museum, one of the largest collections of East African artifacts in Kenya. Although the building complex wasn't especially large, it was jam-packed with exhibits of local birds, animals, and African artifacts (not to mention the school tour groups). I was personally surprised by my inability to distinguish hawks from owls. That being said, the tour was an educational experience.

Next, we went to the nearby Snake Museum, which was more of a reptile zoo. The main attraction was a snake pit teeming with snakes, lizards, and the more docile tortoises. We were lucky enough to witness a feeding, and therefore the combat, intimidation, and other activities that resulted. Oshani captured it on tape: (notice Brian practicing for his audtion for a commentator role at the museum). 

Last on our schedule was Carnivore, a Brazillian barbeque-esqe restaurant that, with a 2500KSH ($30) price per person, sounded promising. After a first course of soup, a required stomach filler, they started bringing around the good stuff: pork ribs, beef steak, lamb, ostrich meatballs, and crocodile, to name a few (unfortunately, they didn't have camel that day). After multiple rounds of meats, along with their signature sauces, we put down our centerpiece flag as a sign of surrender. It wasn't over though -- the desserts they brought out were too appealing to pass up. We also witnessed two birthday celebrations, with the entire staff of the restaurant singing the original "Hakuna Matata". We were very satisfied with the service and food, and were full for the rest of the evening.

The Adventure Continues

Maksim Kolysh

June 10, 2011

Even though our only obligations for the day were a few minor errands (exchanging currency and buying tickets for the Pivot25 competiton), we couldn't avoid adventure on the streets of Nairobi. On our way into town, there was heavy traffic. Ng'ang'a, our driver, decided to try a shortcut, which necessitated making a U-turn on a narrow street. Right in front of us, a bus was executing the same maneuver, but because of its size it wasn't able to make it. It (and we) had nowhere to go -- and so the bus backed up directly into our car. The bus was unloaded of its passengers, and a police officer who happened to be nearby simply waved the incident off and scolded us for breaking traffic rules.

Shortly after, Brian decided to whip out his video camera on the road and get some footage of downtown. Unfortunately, on the next block was the British embassy -- the guards saw us videotaping and immediately pulled us over. After a long explanation, some passport verification, and deletion of the brief but incriminating footage, we got off the hook. And all that before lunch.

We later met with Sean, a graduate of Northeastern and partner of iLab, for coffee. The iLab hub reminded us of the Silicon Valley style incubators: people walking around barefoot, drinking coffee to stay awake, or just "wired in". We had lunch in a nearby cafe (while Ng'ang'a got the car fixed) and decided to sit down with a few guys we didn't know. They turned out to be entrepreneurs themselves, working at one of the incubators at the same building. One of them, Paul, was fascinating -- no matter what the conversation turned to, whether MIT, my hometown in Russia, or the crises of Wall Street, he always had something to contribute. He hopes to travel to MIT at some point, but for now is focused on his own small startup, as well as volunteering at local mobile web incubators to gain experience. The situation was definitely a microcosm of Africa as a whole -- so many resources untapped, so many people interested in technology and entrepreneurship. Hopefully programs like ours continue to grow and expand in order to realize the full potential of people like him.

Getting Oriented

Maksim Kolysh

June 9, 2011

It didn't take long for me to feel comfortable here in Nairobi, Kenya on my first trip to East Africa. I can already tell that living in this apartment complex is going to be amazing. We are staying at Mimosa Court, where we have a fully furnished, 3 bedroom apartment with an incredible accomodations, such as a pool and gym.

Today, Brian and I went down to Strathmore University. It's a beautiful place, and much of it is undergoing construction to accomodate the growing student population. The new Management Science building looks incredibly similar to the MIT Media Lab - pictures will be posted later. In addition to our tour of the campus, we also met with Sharon Mutisya, an administrator at the University, and Joseph Sevilla, the organizer of the program and soon-to-be director of a new iLab program at Strathmore. They briefed us on the current state of the program and how they see us being involved. It was definitely an eye opening experience to see the incredible growth in interest in mobile development by the students, some of whom had their first experiences through AiTi.

Joseph mentioned that in addition to the thirty students taking our class via Safaricom, there is additional interest in alummni of our previous classes attending this year to improve and even expand their skills. Hopefully, there will be enough resources and space to provide for these motivated students.

Can't wait for class on Monday!