14 April 2011

An African connection

I have loved travelling all of my life but I can honestly say that with the exception of wanting to see the Pyramids of Giza and the markets of Morocco, Africa has never hit my travel radar.

John is the Head of Technology Governance for Asia and Africa. It basically means that any technological implementations need to first pass through him for consideration and approval. As John's job entails potential business trips to both Africa and Asia, it is of no surprise that general conversations around technology in Africa have surfaced. These conversations did not only place Africa on my radar but also raised my curiosity about technology in Africa.

When you think of Africa, what comes to mind? Poor, over-populated, technologically backwards, Sahara desert, savannahs, oasis, dare I say warlords? Depending on your experience it could be any one of those things and most possibly others.

Here my focus is on technology. Internet access and mobile phone penetration. Services we consider standard in our society, easy to access and affordable but are a complete challenge to the many poverty stricken Africans.

Take these statistics for instance. Africa has a population of 1 billion people but only 11% of that population is connected to the internet. The connections are largely in South Africa and parts of North Africa. The lack of penetration is quite evident in central Africa and parts of East Africa such as, Ethiopia, Somalia, Niger, Congo to name a few.

Compare that penetration to North America at 77% or Australia at 80%. Could you imagine life without the internet / Facebook / email / sms / Skype / instant messaging? Cause I sure can't. Firstly, I would not even be writing this.

Now don't get me wrong. Just because many parts of Africa are poor or technologically immature, it does not mean they are not hankering for high-speed broadband access. Consider this: Australian user growth from 2000 to 2010 was 180%, whereas Africa was 2,357%. There is no doubt about the desire for internet access. The sad part is that much of the infrastructure is internationally owned, thereby making access quite expensive to the locals (who are often charged by the minute on dial-up internet) and inaccessible to the lower socio-economic group.

Imagine the jobs information technology could create. First world countries export call centre services to India and manufacturing to China because it is cheaper, imagine what it can do for the Africans. All of sudden it could open possibilities for Africans to work for international companies without ever leaving their home town. Bonus for the companies as they open up a new labour market and bonus for the Africans who can now earn a better living to look after their families.

Unfortunately, laying optical fibres continentally wide is hampered by poor infrastructure and the cost of installation (and the occasional leader who doesn't want his people to have access to free information. Imagine that they should get any ideas about freedom). Some of the north African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have been successfully cabled by one of the longest submarine optical fibres reaching a "mere" 38,624km in length and connecting 4 continents. South Africa is connected via a 28,000km cabling system that runs from Malaysia to India via Sth Africa & parts of Western Africa through to Spain & Portugal.

Whilst East Africa is not connected at this stage, plans are underway by various telco consortiums. Should these plans come to fruition, Africa will have a ring of submarine cables connecting most of the coastal countries.

However, how will the land-locked countries benefit from these cables, what kind of infrastructure will it require, will they have the funds to initiate cable installation programs? Some of the countries are already doing the best they can by using power grids, railway lines and oil pipelines but the answer on a grander scale remains elusive at this stage, particularly for the sub-Saharan countries.

The effort and interest is definitely there and they are to be commended for those efforts and the desire to bring Africa into the 21st century. Whilst they may have a way to go, it would be curious to see their successes and tribulations in years and decades to come.

What can high-speed fibre optic networks achieve in Africa? To name a few: foreign investment, globalization, digital long distance education, access to current research materials.

So in the meantime Africans without internet access use mobile communication, mobile banking and any other form of mobile data transfer via satellite networks. With mobile capability, telecommunication penetration is at 50% of which only 10% are fixed lines due to its limited availability (basically the same problem as the low uptake on internet usage).

Whilst competition is high in the telco environment and new customers in the lower income group are targeted one of the challenges in keeping prices down is the fact that much of the telecommunication infrastructure is again owned by international companies. This means that a call from one African country to another African country is re-routed via Europe or the US thereby making the call more expensive than if the individual made a direct international call. Without increased African ownership of telco infrastructure, these high expenses will continue into the future.

Nevertheless, Africans are amazingly resourceful. Whilst they often can't rely on internet access, because it is either unavailable or too expensive, they use their mobile phones to do what we would do via internet. Their technology solutions ensures that it can cater even to the lowest socio-economic group in order to give their old handsets the capability to perform what we do on our broadband or multi-function phones, even if that means travelling from their village into the local town to get signal.

So the next time you are frustrated with your broadband, ADSL, mobile, iPhone, iPad and particularly the service providers, spare a thought to the African continent and the long journey ahead of them.


Acknowledgement: Much of the information was sourced from the "Developing a Fibre Optic Backbone in Africa" report, authored by Jabulani Dhliwayo of the NEPAD Council.

If you are curious enough about the sea cabling network worldwide check out this image: Internet's Undersea World.  It consists of a phenomenal 153,000kms of cabling throughout the world.

09 April 2011

Another lesson learnt

The next time the taxis are in abundance in Singapore on a Saturday night, make sure we hop into one and take 10 min to get home not 75 min. We opted for the train ride home because we promised Trini. Except down the other end, there were no taxis to get ourselves home.

It's usually a half hour walk but with Trini it's closer to an hour. Twenty minutes into our walk we realise that Trini just can't go further (partying too late last night with the next door neighbour's kids didn't help). John ends up being my hero tonight as he carries 15kg of deadweight for the next 40 min. I am mopping up the dripping sweat off his face and ear lobes whilst Trini is snoozing away. It also didn't help that I have an inflamed hip and couldn't help with carrying her.

As we were walking I realised that sometimes as parents we put ourselves into awkward situations in order to keep a promise because if we break a promise the first time then it's likely that we'll do it again and again. That teaches my girl that she can't rely on our word. So we were hot, sweating and uncomfortable but our daughter got to ride the train and smile and laugh all the way home.

So what's the lesson here? Consider the best mode of transport on a weekend before we make any promises.

What's the reinforced value? A promise is a promise regardless of the circumstances. Fulfill it so that Trini can always rely on our word.

07 April 2011

Colouring Books

Can you remember the last time you picked up a colouring book and pencils and coloured just for the sake of it. The last record of me drawing is 1985 (I was 15yo). I had no skill and still really have no skills.

My aunty, who resides in Italy, is a self-taught watercolour artist and has been for about 20 years. She has produced some really lovely works that my siblings and I have had the privilege of owning. I wish I had sufficient walls to display her collection. The best I can do is store them in artist's folders and flick through them every now and then.

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland reproduced from a photograph I took during our 2007 travels. It was a gift for John's birthday. Given our love of castles, this is our favorite in her collection.

This painting made especially for Trinity was reproduced from a very old fairytale book.

In recent years I have had the desire to learn how to paint and spend more time being creative/artistic. Art is a tremendous way of expressing oneself and immensely satisfying. Much more so than writing a financial plan or advising someone on how not to spend money they haven't earned (sleeeeeppy time).

However, I predominantly operate from the left side of my brain. I am very comfortable in the world of finance, organisation, logic, problem solving, reasoning... get the picture? My best friend is a right side operator and it shows in her artistic explorations. Whilst she can work from the left side (you need to be able to as a Personal Assistant), she is very comfortable with chaos (check her desk at home when she's creating), has millions of creative ideas and it is visible in her finished products. You sometimes wonder how we have sustained such a fabulous friendship for 22 years.

My difficulty as a left brain operator is that I find it difficult to tap into my creative side. Give me instructions for x-stitch, tapestry, jewellery making, sewing and I'm okay, I can deliver. Give me a colour pencil or paint brush and I just sit there staring at the canvas, having not a clue as to what to do with it. It's also perhaps why I struggle with the more creative side of photography as well. Unlike my buddy Peckster who has given me some great photos and am the proud owner of his sunset photo of the St Kilda pier and cafe (before the cafe burned down).

This was proven some years ago when my girlfriend did just that. Gave me pencils and paper. Whilst she was happily painting away, I sat staring at the drawing paper. My heart rate elevated after some time, felt stressed, frustrated and pressured. Imagine that? This was meant to be relaxing, creative and fun. That was the problem solver in me rearing its ugly head. I could not solve the problem of creating. After 3 hours I managed to scrounge together some geometric shapes and then colour them in. In 2 colours only. Red and white. There was relief though. I solved my problem. Did I have fun, hmmm can't remember, but sitting in my girlfriend's company chatting more than makes up for my lack of creativity any day of the week.

What does that have to do with colouring books? Well it is ten years on and I still can't draw but upon a visit to the Reject Shop, I came across a collection of Doodle Design colouring books. Jam-packed with gorgeous patterns and scenes, I couldn't resist picking up the Garden Fairies, World of Animals and Country Cottages. Each one of them resonated somehow with me. Having a little girl who loves animals, pink and dollies made those an easy choice. The country cottages just reminds me of the gorgeous cottages I saw throughout Scotland.

On a whim, during my 2009 Bali trip with my sister, I took a couple of the colouring books. It was the nicest flight as I whiled away the time colouring in. I have no idea what the passengers around me were thinking nor did I care. Incensed by the relaxing and fun experience, I then spent an entire afternoon (6 hours to be precise), colouring with my sister... under the palm trees, near the pool, with a Bintang or two. No stress, no pressure, no need to problem solve. Why? Because the outline is already there. I don't have to have the skill to draw it, just the inclination to experiment with colours. I have the pleasure of a pretty finished product that I can look back on and reminisce.

The afternoon was so touching to both of us that we often refer to it and prior to leaving Melbourne we did it all over again. The dining table was scattered with pencils, felt tip pens, crayons, glitter, even hijacked my nephew's awesome texta collection. It was difficult to fathom that we were two moms, 40+ playing with colouring books. But at that moment in time we were just a couple of girls enjoying the simplest thing.

Today, I unpacked the art box and came across coloured princesses and fairies and I remember the days we coloured in Bali and the afternoon around my dining table. As my sister is due to arrive for a visit in two weeks, I have an unfinished princess which she needs to complete (and we may be able to steal an afternoon just for colouring).

My conclusion is that you are never too old to colour, especially in the company of children. You don't need special artistic skills, just the desire to play. And when the going gets tough, just colour for a while, you never know what solutions may come to you when your mind has the space to think.

As for my daughter and I, I can hardly wait to colour with her and create pretty pictures. In the meantime, it's crayons and blank paper for lots and lots of scribbling, the prequel to colouring as this artwork by Trinity attests to.

04 April 2011

Floating city....

Living on the 22nd floor, we are blessed with the most sensational view of the Straits of Singapore. Sprinkled with commercial vessels of every size, our scene is everchanging as vessels come and go each day. Where have they come from and where are they going is surely pondered on many an occasion.

Singapore's strategic geographical location has made it one of the busiest ports in the world. Can you fathom that this tiny island of 700 sq km holds the record of total shipping tonnage which in 2005 was recorded at approximately 1.15 billion gross tons. It has held this record for 25 years. According to Singapore's Maritime Authority (MAS), last year the port turned over approximately 150,000 vessels. This is a staggering number wouldn't you say? Every minute, 2-3 vessels are either arriving or leaving.

Emma Maersk, one of Denmark's biggest vessels, measuring in at 397m in length, made its maiden voyage to Singapore. This phenomenal vessel is capable of carrying 11,000 containers.

Historically the port has had to compete with neighbouring ports in the Strait of Malacca. By the 15th century and following the ascendance of the Malacca Sultanate, Singapore's international trade declined and by the 17th century it had ceased to exist. Sir Stamford Raffles the founder of Singapore city was a British statesman who was so impressed with the waters in Keppel Harbour that he re-established the port and international trading commenced once again.

The anchored vessels outside my window, whilst a feast on the eyes during the day, are aptly named by John a "floating city" at night. Lit across the Strait for several kilometres, the view never ceases as far as the eyes can see. And you wonder: what do they do at nights, how do they fill in their time as they wait to reach port, what stories can the captains and crews weave, what wild storms have they passed through. I do not for one moment romanticise the notion that it would be an adventure but they are curious questions.

Perhaps if my curiosity persists, I can book a passage on a cargo liner instead of a cruise liner. I can leave my evening wear and high heels at home, and pack cargo pants and t-shirts. Photography opportunities could be interesting but what would raise my interest would really just be the stories told. Maybe one day there'll be a blog about this...

02 April 2011

A day in the lives of the Neilson family.

As I contemplate my day with sighs of satisfaction, I reflect on one of those perfect family days.

Starting with a very slow coffee and breakfast, Trinity is hankering to pull out all her animals, the dinasours and mythical figures to make a circle. After a handful of photos in the animals circle, the tea set is setup and mummy is served a cup of tea.

As the novelty wears off with the cubs spinning on the lazy susan, the wooden blocks come out. So we put the animals back in the cupboard and tea set away. The floor puzzle foam play mat is slotted together to provide seating on the floor (marble tiles look great, but they are hard and cold) and a castle is being built. Unfortunately at this stage, Trini is threatened within an inch of her life if she crashes the castle (a tendency she has acquired). Of course once the castle has been built and admired, along with some piccies, Trini is allowed to crash it and then repacked.

Lunch, juices and more coffee follow suit. Of course Trini is not interested in an afternoon nap (too much fun playing), so we choose to head out to the tennis courts. Trini was a fabulous ball girl, whilst John and I ran around rallying and dripping with sweat. We were literally drenched within 45 min and were desperate for a dip in the pool. So back upstairs we go, get changed and in no time find ourselves cooled off in the pool, a couple of Heinekens, juice for Trini and a pizza.

Trini's patience is relative to mine. Meaning ZERO. We asked her to wait before she gets back in the pool so we can finish lunch. As I keep my eyes on her, she's told not to get in without her floaties. So it went something like this: "Trini don't get in the pool, you haven't got your floaties on...", "TRINI!!! Please put your floaties on". I watch as she inches herself to the edge of the pool, knowing full well that she will jump in without her floaties. She is super confident that she can swim without the floaties. Annnnddddd off she goes into the pool without her floaties. It was surprising to note that as she was sinking, she was furiously kicking her legs to bring herself to the surface (the knowledge of treading is definitely kicking in). John, faster than Superman jumps in and lifts her out. No harm would have come to her we were too close but the lesson was learnt. "Trini can I put your floaties on now?" and the nod comes my way.

She is learning at a phenomenal rate. Last weekend she learned to tread water in 2 days and jump in the diving pool from the lowest diving board. This weekend she jumped from the highest diving board, swam the width of a 50m pool by herself and dipped underwater and through the middle of John's legs to bob up behind him. She loved it so much we kept having to practice and take turns.

After having several goes on the water slide in the toddler pool, the tropical rain arrives fast and furious and lasts barely 5 minutes. It was long enough though for us to bunk up in the cafe and indulge on ice cream. As expected with so much activity, Trini fell asleep whilst sitting but not before she finished her ice cream. And so it is 6pm and the day is over. Time for a shower and dinner.

This could be seen as a simple day but the satisfaction is in knowing that Trini had our undivided attention. No laptops, no mobiles. We had a lot of fun doing lots of things and just simply being together.

On a final note my daughter is eating the house out. So I think I am expecting a growth spurt. It is certainly long overdue. It also explains the unusual behaviours we have encountered in the last 2 days. Shortly I will be packing up all the size 2 and fishing out the size 3 clothes from under her bed storage.

So whilst I sit back enjoying a glass of white wine, I will continue sighing with satisfaction and look forwards to Sunday and whatever it brings our way.