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July 30, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Las Vegas writer raising money to go in search of technology in Africa that’s ‘not sexy, hip’

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Sam Morris

Josh Ellis says technologists used to work on big problems, “sending humans to the moon, ending poverty, ending disease. And they didn’t do it because it was gonna get them a big, badass IPO.”

Josh Ellis, a coding maven and longtime Las Vegas resident who recently blasted downtown’s heap of app/website founders for creating stuff people don’t need, wants to see how they do it in Africa.

The thing is, Ellis isn’t exactly awash in money. So he’s using indiegogo.com, the same crowdfunding website used successfully by those who want to revive Huntridge Theater, in an attempt to raise $10,000.

With the money, he would spend a month in Africa, visiting Lagos in Nigeria, gathering information for a book tentatively titled “Finding Innovation in Africa.”

“There are a lot of people working with very limited resources who are building technology designed to serve needs rather than consumer-grade stuff,” Ellis said recently.

He cites one company, M-Farm, that will text the price for crops to your phone. That timely information helps farmers get better deals for their crops and eliminates the need for a middleman.

Another app developed there allows people to do their banking on a simple cellphone, not a smartphone — a necessity when the nearest bank can be miles away and walking is the only option.

“It’s not sexy, hip technology, but it’s something that can change the way their economy works,” Ellis said.

Ellis is a local writer who back in March gave a talk at the downtown’s Speakers Series at the invitation of the Downtown Project. He challenged many of the tech-minded who listened to think outside of the box — outside of the desire to purely make money.

“Go start a porn site. Seriously. Low overhead, high revenue. Make porn if money is your sole interest,” he said. “Technologists used to work on big problems — sending humans to the moon, ending poverty, ending disease,” Ellis said. “And they didn’t do it because it was gonna get them a big, badass IPO. … They did it because technology is about improving the human condition.”

They gave him a standing ovation.

Months later, the 35-year-old acknowledges that the app designers seem “well intentioned” but they “are trying to solve problems that most of the world doesn’t have.”

He cites one app, not designed here, called Pickup My Drycleaning, which helps the user find someone to do that for a fee.

“The fact is, the tech industry is built by middle-class people and funded by rich people, and the things they want to build are the things rich people get excited about,” he added.

Africa’s technological infrastructure is nowhere near that of America, Ellis said. At the same time, the continent’s people possess an astonishing number of cellphones. In 2011, the Guardian reported that about half of its 1 billion people owned mobile phones.

And some technological backbone does exist — just think of all the emails you get from Nigerians saying you’ve won $1 million or some other scam. Ellis has an interesting take on that.

“Part of the reason I’m going to Lagos (the second fastest-growing city in Africa) is that Nigeria was one of the first countries in sub-Saharan Africa to have a presence on the Internet,” he said. “The joke is that we know it for the scams. But still, in order to do that, they had to build an infrastructure first.”

He likens those groundbreaking scammers to the robber barons of the frontier western United States.

“But over time, those robber barons and hustlers and criminals started building churches and banks and became the fair founders of our towns,” Ellis said, anticipating something similar in Nigeria.

“I’m going without guides or translators or anything, and my plan is, in addition to setting up meetings, I will walk around Lagos and Nairobi and travel outside the cities to the small villages,” he said. “I think I’m going to be very surprised by what I come across. I’m interested in seeing how tech is affecting their lives.”

Ellis’ indiegogo.com campaign is called Finding Innovation in Africa. In 10 days, he has raised $3,321 from 46 contributors; his campaign has 21 days remaining. Contributors can give at 11 different levels from $1, which entitles them to getting their name in Ellis’ book, to $1,000, for which Ellis will give a lecture, book and more. He sold his one $250 contribution level quickly — that entitles the buyer to a digital recording of Ellis wearing a hippo mask and g-string dancing to Q Lazzarus (a 1980s one-hit wonder) with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.

Ellis previously wrote an e-book, “An American Vampire in Juarez: Getting My Teeth Pulled In Mexico's Most Notorious Border Town.” He out-Thompson-ed Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo-journalistic approach seeking dental surgery in Mexico, where it is more affordable.

Juarez isn’t the safest city in the world, especially by most American standards. Ellis doesn’t expect a cakewalk in Nigeria, either. He has read stories from journalists who fly in, stay in hotels, talk to startup founders, and fly out — safely.

“They’re very careful, which makes sense,” he said, then chuckled. “I am not careful.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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