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Rise of African Content
The growing number of mobile phones, and increasing access to affordable Internet, has resulted in the rise of African content. The African ‘blogosphere’ exemplifies these changes. Three years ago an Internet search resulted in only a handful of postings from across the continent. Now there are thousands of African blogs and the numbers continue to grow exponentially. Global Voices (United States), Afrigator (South Africa), Akouaba (Congo), Naijapulse (Nigeria) and BlogSpirit (Uganda) have emerged as Internet platforms that aggregate, organize and distribute the ever-increasing amount of information.
The rise in African blogs is joined by further developments in the African mediascape. In the last three years Africa has seen the emergence of Reuters Africa, CNN Africa, CNBC Africa and many others. Other global players see new opportunities too. Heavyweight Google has opened offices in East Africa, setting up local search engines, expanding their Google maps initiative and supporting numerous efforts to translate the web into local languages. Google has also made a big push to support its Android technology that will make the mobile phone center to its African strategy. This effort is only highlighted by the company’s launch of Google SMS and the recent Google investment in the O3b Satellite project. These events confirm the company’s long-term commitment to the continent, a business that depends on content for its success.
Africa is also starting to produce talented programmers and ingenious projects emerge as a result. In 2006, Nathan Eagle of MIT launched an innovative curriculum needed to train local programmers in Nairobi. The program has now expanded to universities in 10 Sub Saharan countries and reflects growing demand and interest in the subject. The Makerere University Faculty of Computing and ICT in Kampala, Uganda is the largest program in Sub-Sahara Africa. The university is training thousands of students a year as ICT professionals. The faculty hosts a 600 seat call center and is host to a software incubation lab and programs dedicated to digital mapping and mobile programming. The faculty is consistently oversubscribed. Appfrica Labs and Software Factory Uganda in Kampala offer private sector examples where local programmers are given the space and tools needed to develop their skills and incubate their businesses. Samasource is another innovative effort that aims to source projects in North America that can then be developed by local African talent.
An emerging community and a host of dedicated events support these new talents. 2008 saw the first TED talks in Nairobi and impromptu BarCamps have taken place in locations as varied as Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Congo, Mauritius, Madagascar, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland and Uganda. Dedicated workshops have been hosted by organizations like Facebook, Google and MobileActive08. These events focus on the potential local programmers have to develop Internet and mobile applications for the local market. Once unique efforts to establish viable networking platforms, new events emerge by the day.
It is not possible to speak about innovation in Africa without recognizing Ubuntu, a Debian-derived computer operating system based on GNU/Linux, otherwise a high quality desktop and server operating system that is freely available all over the world. Mark Shuttleworth, a successful South African entrepreneur founded the project in 2004, and is a driving force in mobilizing the open source movement on the continent. As a spin-off the project has resulted in the creation of a number of unique tools for free software developers, such as the Bazaar version control system and Launchpad.net. Sub-projects include specialized desktop environments for schools and platforms that address the needs of people in specific countries or industries e.g. Edubuntu and Kubuntu. These efforts play a critical role in making software available to developers across Africa, lowering barriers to participation, and part of a growing interest to engage local programming talents.
Africa’s lack of infrastructure presents unique opportunities and inspires creative thinking. Uninhibited by legacy infrastructure, as in N. America and Europe, Africa has been forced to innovate on mobile. In 2008 Vodafone introduced its M-Pesa mobile banking platform in Kenya. The company initially planned to register 200,000 new customers, what was an ambitious projection, and proceeded to surpass all expectations. The reality is that the demand for the M-Pesa service was so high their systems crashed and the company has been trying to catch up ever since. Within one year M-Pesa was already servicing 1.6 million Kenyans. Hammond, a director at Vodafone says, ‘look, microfinance is great; Yunus deserves his sainthood. But after 30 years, there are only 90 million microfinance customers. I’m predicting that mobile-phone banking will add a billion banking customers to the system in five years. That’s how big it is.’ Needless to say, mobile banking projects are being rolled out across the continent and are now innovating network structures and models that can be applied elsewhere. Increasingly, people from around the world come to Africa to learn about how such a service might work in their own country back in N. America or Europe.
The power of mobile is also being linked to the web. MXit is an example that demonstrates local innovation with wide scale impact. Developed in South Africa, MXit is a free instant messaging software application that runs on GPRS/3G mobile phones and on PCs. The website explains, ‘It allows the user to send and receive one-on-one text and multimedia messages to and from other users, as well as in general chat rooms. MXit also supports connection to other instant messengers such as MSN messenger, ICQ and Google Talk.’ The service is cheap compared to SMS. Instead of charging for one-on-one messages, and because messages are sent via the Internet, the cost per message is greatly reduced (typically 1c for a MXit message compared to approximately 75c per SMS). As a result, MXit has become a popular communication platform with over 11 million users. They calculate about ‘17 million log-ons per day and over 250 million messages sent/received per day.’ This project successfully shows that there is local demand for information services and its no surprise to see similar services emerging in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.
The success of mobile-based platforms does not stop with transferring money and/or messaging services. Mobile phones can also serve as a source of employment. Building on several years of experience, and learning from his interactions with local programmers, Nathan Eagle has gone on to launch TxtEagle as an innovative outsourcing initiative. He has created a service where African’s exchange a few spare minutes, needed to complete short assignments on their mobile phone, in exchange for mobile phone credit. This project highlights some of the innovative thinking that can be inspired by a truly unique African context.
Mobile phones are also being used to monitor, track and report on local events. This is part of a growing effort to bring transparency to issues that plague the continent. Ushahidi is an example of a project born out of an African experience. In 2008, and as a result of mixed election results, Kenya witnessed unexpected post election violence. As the media storm began to descend on the country, which remains a faithful recipient of foreign development aid and depends on tourism as its largest source of foreign currency, the government responded by closing down both traditional and new media channels. The government made a proactive effort to ‘lock’ the local flow of information.
Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, is an open source engine developed in the effort to better map out post election reports of violence in the county. On their website they explain that, ‘the core Ushahidi platform allows for a plug-in and extensions that can be customized for different locales and needs. The tool are open source allowing others to download, implement and use the engine so that they can bring awareness to crises in their own region.’ The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in near real-time. In an African context people understand this better than anywhere else in the world. Where infrastructure is so limited, communication so costly, each kilobyte has significantly higher value. It is important to mention that programmers from several African countries have been fundamental to the project’s development and highlights a new generation of skills, talent and a rising African power to innovate locally.
This is an early initiative that shows how the development of an application, inspired by a political crisis in what was previously believed to be one of East Africa’s most stable societies, can be applied elsewhere. The platform has already been used to monitor events in the DRC, Madagascar and the recent conflict in Gaza. At the time of writing, there were also plans to use the Ushahidi engine as a monitoring tool during the 2009 elections in India. Because Ushahidi was born out of an African experience, where lack of communication infrastructure forces the design of inventive solutions; it is now positioned to meet crises anywhere in the world.
The entire African ICT space is experiencing extraordinary growth and development that changes the face of the continent forever. Like the success of mobile banking, now is the time to realize that innovation can also come from Africa. It is important to recognize the rise of local African talent, a new breed of individual that has the motivation, skill and power to develop solutions that tap into local opportunities and address local needs. Now is the time to explore these developments in more detail and from the perspective of the end user. Taking the time to recognize this dynamic context in which new actors emerge, it is paramount we review the ICT4D debate and our own role in this process. This is in an effort to better understand the changes on the ground and their implications for the future. In this way we can start to learn from these developments and benefit from this high level of innovation. Young programming talents are only now starting to emerge in African countries but the potential is clear. The more people in Africa who see the power to shape the technologies they use, the more Africa is capable of meeting its own needs. In turn, these new talents contribute to the global information society and play an active role in shaping its future.
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