Most people do not associate Africa with tech – but in the last ten years, Rwanda has struggled with developing a nascent IT industry and the advent of the mobile phone has begun to have a profound impact on day-to-day life in rural African villages. (see article in Business Week) After a discussion with a friend in San Francisco who works on txteagle, a project that allows for Kenyans to make money or cell-phone credit for work on their cell phones, I saw the Africa 3.0 panel on the table for SXSW and was interested, not only due to the conversation with my friend, but also from first-hand experience of life in Sierra Leone when I traveled there in 2008. LinearB and I contacted TMS Ruge, who agreed to be interviewed just in time for SXSWi this year. - Jana
Jana Thompson: This is drawn from your panel questions, but for the readers here at GeekAustin, what is Africa 3.0? How do you define it?
TMS Ruge: Africa 3.0 is a renaissance in the early stages. It’s the empowerment of a continent through connectivity. It’s the beginnings of Africa defining itself in the cloud, amassing and showcasing its talent, its collective intelligence right alongside some of the world’s best minds. To me, it’s the rise of the underdog. We’ve been conquered and swept aside for so long that it has become the norm to expect the worst when someone mentions Africa. Your first thought is not warm and fuzzy.
You can also define it technologically. 11 terabits of broadband will be available to the continent by the end of 2011. We have massive mobile penetration–to many it is the first introduction to a piece of technology. Apple just opened it’s iTunes App store doors to several African countries carrying the iPhone. That’s a huge endorsement by itself. When you look at innovation, Kenya’s mobile banking and payment innovations are world class, South Africa’s mobile social networks are seeing massive growth. It’s also telling when Google starts opening up offices all over the continent. There’s something brewing in the digital clouds over Africa, the spoils go to those that take advantage of this renaissance.
Jana Thompson: A couple of years ago, I spent some time in Sierra Leone. What struck me there was how expensive (not to me, but relative to what I knew people in Sierra Leone earned) internet cafes were and how unreliable the electrical grid was in Freetown. Mobile phones seemed to be the best option for staying connected -- you could pay for a top off card and charge your phone at many booths along the street. This is of course a huge topic -- but a few specific questions. How do you find mobile as an ICT solution for information technology usage in Africa, particularly rural towns, where electricity is often only available via generator? Have you seen any specific instances or have any stories to relate regarding your experience that you found particularly notable in how mobile technology has changed the experience of life for people in cities and towns in Africa?
TMS Ruge: Wow! Certainly a huge topic indeed and it is not something that can fully be explored in a few short paragraphs but I will touch on a few points.
We aren’t without our challenges despite our incredible mobile penetration rates. Our existing electrical grids around the continent are woefully under capacity to handle Africa 3.0’s reliance on technology and the infrastructure is limited in reach. But what’s surprising is that this hinderance has not affected our adoption of mobile devices. My mother doesn’t have electricity or running water in her village, but she can send her son all the way in Texas text messages everyday and I can call her via Skype. Sometimes I can’t reach her because she sent the phone to the shopping center to be charged on a car battery or a solar panel. So, small businesses are finding ways to make money and stay sustainable around this platform. Wherever there’s a need, you’ll find a creative solution to the problem in Africa. You’ll find a village shop with nothing to sell except one solar panel and one car battery charging all manner of mobile devices.
The mobile phone is fast becoming the only way to stay connected and the cheapest way to stay connected. And in villages of extreme poverty, you’ll find that there’s one mobile being shared by the entire community, and it works superbly.
Additionally there are also community development programs riding on the connectivity benefits offered by the mobile and ICT. BOSCO (Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach) in Northern Uganda (http://www.bosco-uganda.org/) has some great initiatives under all running on battery power.
Question Box (http://questionbox.org/) is another initiative in Uganda relying on mobiles to connect curious villagers to information using Community Knowledge Workers working in remote villages. If someone has a question about their crop, the approach the CKW, who then calls a call center to see if there’s an answer to the question. It is sort of a rudimentary Google, but it works. Small initiatives like this are increasingly getting Africa connected to a global information network, despite the challenges, and is becoming indispensable.
Jana Thompson: Continuing on the mobile discussion, what do you think of projects such as txteagle (http://txteagle.com/) that allow people to earn money using their mobile phones?
TMS Ruge: I love that project. Nathan Eagle has been working hard on that one and I think initiatives like this are a precursor of where the mobile platform in Africa is going. Samasource (http://www.samasource.org/) also offers several mobile-based employment opportunities. The breadth and complexity of what you can accomplish on this platform will get more sophisticated as smart phones get smarter, cheaper and ubiquitous. Not only will we be able to do small tasks for money, but we’ll also be able to create those small tasks and more advanced applications. So we are offered a two-way street here. We’ll go beyond simple employment and right into innovating.
I am keeping a close eye on Nathan’s project and the great work at Samasource, and I applaud their efforts.
Jana Thompson: You are one of the co-founders of Project Diaspora -- what plans does the project have involving ICT in Africa?
TMS Ruge: One of the things we are working on is tightening the link between members of the Diaspora and those on the ground in Africa. From the knowledge standpoint, the collective knowledge of the Diaspora, coupled with their remittances is enough to fuel self-driven development. I can’t talk about specifics at the moment, but I’ll say the growth of ICT in the last few years has made it easier for us to stay connected with our homelands. Now it is time to build on that connectivity.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to promote home grown ICT innovations, promote the good news, be the voice for the positive side of the coin. Without the good news being told, we won’t be taken seriously or given a second chance on the global scale. So we have to continue drumming out the prevailing “single story” of Africa’s continued synonymity with chaos and trouble
Jana Thompson: One of the things that stuck me the most when I was in Sierra Leone was how true the old adage 'knowledge is power' was there. We have seen the power of blogging and the internet in regards to politics here in the United States -- how do you see increased access to the internet and even mobile phone connectivity to perhaps changing the politics in African countries? Do you think it will allow for more transparency with regards to governance and the populace?
TMS Ruge: Very good observation. I think the leather-faced, colonial holdout dictators are going to be facing an increasing problem. It is going to be harder and harder to fool the educated masses. I hope this comes to fruition. Especially in light of the demographic distribution across Africa. 50% of our 1 billion people are in their 20’s, a large majority of those under 15. This “cheetah” generation is entering high school, college, and the work force armed with a mobile, an email address, and a Facebook profile. They are far more exposed to information now than say 10 years ago when it was easy to rig an election or spread the wool over the populace as a politician.
The mobile phone’s role in election transparency and activism is really just coming into fruition. We saw the future of what could be done with the founding of Ushahidi during Kenya’s last elections. We got a small view of how pivotal it is in Iran’s crisis, again with Uganda’s riots mid last year. As the need arises in Africa, we’ll see more and more innovation geared towards citizen journalism and activism, and that’s going to cause a huge headache for those in power. And rightly so, Africa’s overall growth can’t be left to the hands of a greedy few. We have to start advancing.
Jana Thompson: Finally, also drawn from your panel questions -- one of the questions addresses Africans telling their own story to 'drum out traditional Western media coverage'. Obviously, access to information technology gives one the power to tell your own story -- last year's protests after the elections in Iran are one of the best examples I can think of. Are there any specific examples you like to point to as an example of that in Africa? What potential do you see for the growth of blogging and communications in African countries in relation to people in those countries having the ability to tell their own story?
TMS Ruge: I alluded earlier to “the single story,” that’s from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s excellent TED talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg) in which she warned of “The Dangers of the Single Story,” especially about Africa. For so long our history has been written by foreigners, our news thinly skewed and narrated by outsides, our image massacred by the broad strokes of generalizations. Blogging and micro-blogging tools allows us to take back the microphone and add our voice to a new chapter of the single story.
The first voices to add African intelligence to the digital human archive were members of the Diaspora. Slowly as technology and connectivity increases on the continent we are starting to see indigenous voices raising to the occasion and saying, thank you, we can speak for ourselves now. We are adding our own stories to the human archive, this is an unprecedented time in Africa’s history.
You can easily track the growth of blogs on the continent by visiting http://afrigator.com/, an aggregator of African blogs. This also has implications on the connectivity side. We are not simply downloading and consuming, we are now able to generate our own content. Maneno.org was built specifically to cater to this growth. It is a blogging platform built lean and mean just for Africa’s varied needs, and it is taking off.
I mentioned BOSCO’s efforts in community development using ICT. I mentioned the Kampala riots from last year. It was the first time for me to see just the sheer number of Ugandans who had access to Twitter, Facebook, and just how many were active bloggers. So the Diaspora didn’t only have the government’s official story to know what was going on, they got first hand account of police brutality and injustice and news of how the government was shutting down all the news outlets, but there was not much it could do to shut down communications. With official channels for new knocked off the air, the blogger went to work documenting the violence. It was very shaming for the government.
I hope blogging continues to grow as a means to communicate and tell our stories, good and bad, it’s not simply one side of the coin. ##
For more on this story, attend TMS Ruge's panel at SXSW Interactive:
Africa 3.0: A Look at the Future of a Connected Africa
Sunday, March 14 at 09:30 AM