What Traversing Africa by Road Can Teach us about Technology, Community, and Impact

Crossposted on the Ushahidi blog

TLDR: The scope of impact in Africa for work is great and an inspiration for the work ahead in 2015. Similar problems exist in various African countries and similar opportunities and the incredible chance to participate in a bolder stake on the future of the continent. Local communities have a key role in shaping strategy and can teach us a lot about what works where. With Ushahidi’s interlocking role of creating software tools for empowerment with its innovation catalyst role, the sandbox for its impact can be expanded.

Market TZ

This is a picture of a market in Tanzania. To the right of this picture is a parking lot with cabs and trucks and as I was waiting for my colleague Mark to register SIM cards, I could hear lectures by Julius Nyerere blaring from a Volkswagen van. In addition, the cab driver was listening parliament proceedings. Coming from Kenya where engagement with government is not as robust as this, it was quite encouraging. (Later found out that there was a major scandal and many were following because of that, but still, the level of citizen engagement in Tanzania is inspiring). The potential to add technology to this engagement equation was inescapable and something we’ll be keen to explore with partners currently working there. The big take away was that because of this variability in citizen engagement, the strategies for implementation and adoption of technology (including Ushahidi’s tools) will need to be adjusted to keep this in mind. What is needed is more connection with the key local organizations and learning how best to serve them.


This is a picture of Co-founder of Bongohive Lukonga Lindunda speaking with entrepreneurs outside Bongohive space. Lukonga, his co-founders and team have been in touch with us at Ushahidi for several years now. It was an immense honor to meet them in their beautiful new space adorned with African art and filled with entrepreneurs,volunteers who I recognized from working together on Bantuwatch in 2011 (an implementation of Ushahidi to track the elections in Zambia) and women like Chisenga who’ve been part and parcel of growing Bongohive. This was the location of greatest connection and an important lesson that community is always important, and that with the expansiveness of the continent, it is important to keep connecting with the key drivers in each country who are building ecosystems of opportunity. Communities like iHub and Bongohive are important for building stable and equitable societies and key users of Ushahidi tools.


It is a long game/long road… but when you meet a startup/social enterprise that is less than 2 years and already creating jobs, it just adds more reason to Ushahidi’s role as a catalyst, assisting and supporting (without supplanting) wherever possible. To foster environments that protect and reinforce fundamental human rights, it is going to take engagement on many levels, with various initiatives and partners. In building on the discussions with board of Ushahidi, partners who spent time with Ushahidi in Nairobi this last quarter, it is exciting to envision scaling our work, moreso with communities in Lusaka, Zambia, Johannessburg, South Africa, Harare Zimbabwe, and Maputo in Mozambique. We have the pieces in place with the software development group, the solutions team and Gearbox, iHub, Making All Voices Count partnership on the catalyst end. One of Ushahidi’s spin outs – BRCK continues to provide the hardware that will be useful to expand our work to the edge of the network. That is where even more impact can happen.

Looking forward to the new year with current and new partners engaged in creating more opportunity.

Shindana Kuunda – Google East Africa Gadget Competition

Google announced a competition for students in East Africa to build gadgets (as in software). I am blogging this here just in case the skunkworks crew hadn’t seen this already. The competition is open to university students in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Burundi.

The deadline for this is March 17th; so if you have some great ideas, you can still submit them for consideration. The categories/types of software gadgets and apps that they are looking for include:
(1) Best Gadget UI
(2) Best Local Content Gadget (Most Locally Useful Gadget)
(3) Best Education Specific Gadget
(4) Best Procrastination Gadget
(5) Most Technically Sophisticated Gadget
(6) Gadget Most Likely to Get International Traffic
(7) Best Social Gadget

What the winners get:
“Six students will be awarded prizes. Five students will receive a $350 USD stipend and 1 student will receive a $600 stipend. All winners will receive a Google t shirt, pen, and notebook valuing $7 USD (£13).”

More Information on the contest
Rules and fine print

Other Info: Hash’s post on Google moving in East Africa. It is no wonder that one of the categories is ‘Best local content gadget’. I think that the market for localized, useful and contextualized software is huge. When you have African developers creating applications for use in their own communities…I would say “prepare to be amazed”. I am really looking forward to seeing the ideas and applications that come out of this competition.

Hat Tip Think >>Innovate

If you dont like the network, make your own!

Well, i am paraphrasing Jim Forster’s line which in its entirety reads, “If you don’t like the network you have, go out and make your own“. This was one of my favorite quotables at TEDGlobal in Arusha.

Jim Forster is the distinguished engineer at Cisco, the veritable maker of routers and switches that form the backbone of the internet, amongst other products and services. He is also one of the contributors to the invaluable free resource “Wireless Networking in the Developing World” – An in depth guide to planning and building low cost telecom infrastructure.

In his 3 minute presentation at TEDGlobal he talked about the current state of telecom, likening it to a railroad system where everyone is a customer but it doesn’t reach all the areas ‘last mile’ as it were. The model that we should be considering is one that is composed of many private networks, similar to the model of the internet, or a ‘network of networks’. We need to encourage our governments to support the idea of many networks that are run either privately or as businesses providing network access to others. Please click on the graphic below to download the presentation that he has made available.
Presentation at TEDglobal

There is also more information available on the site Network The World.

While on the topic of wireless networks, Riyaz of skunkworks pointed me to Meraki’s june announcement of the first solar powered outdoor wifi access kit.

Priced at just $99, Meraki Outdoor can send a signal up to 700 feet. Paired with Merakiâ??s existing indoor $49 Mini, the Meraki Outdoor repeater can power access for dozens of households sharing one high speed connection. Meraki Outdoor can be easily installed on a wall or even a pole outside the house. It marks another step forward in Merakiâ??s efforts to change the economics of Wi-Fi access, driving the cost per household of high speed connections to $1 to $2 a month.

Adding the Meraki Solar accessory kit will allow the repeater to broadcast a signal without being connected to any electrical source, making it an ideal solution for any community, even emerging markets where electricity is scant or unreliable.

The skunkworks crew and other wireless networking experts, you are very welcome to comment on whether you see any private networks being set up in Nairobi or other parts of Africa that utilize the ideas alluded to above. Meanwhile…no whining!

The Network
Image from the internet superstar – Hugh Mcleod.

**Tangential Digression – Weird Cell behavior on the border.

On crossing the border from Tanzania into Kenya and vice versa, i got the following text message on my safaricom line…from Celtel. It stated “Welcome to Kenya & thank you for choosing Celtel.International access code is 000 or +.The tourist help line is +254733617499.Celtel. Making life better.”. Worrisome to say the least. Is celtel just broadcasting a signal to all and sundry? How did they get the safaricom number? What expectation of privacy should safaricom customers have? I later found out that everyone gets that sms whether they are on a celtel line or safaricom. I mentioned it to Mr. Forster and he pointed out that some networks do play nice and share infrastructure even base stations. Its quite curious…Do chime in if you’ve experienced something similar, even weirder, or if you can shed light on how and why this occurs. Does the same thing happen on crossing into Uganda?

Sustainable Rural Development Project, Tanzania

While at TED Global, i got a chance to speak with William Makali, the president of a company called Full Dimensions in Tanzania, and a TED fellow. His view of development is what he terms ‘The Big Idea!’.

The Big Idea is to create a Rural Development Community Role model sustainable Project. The Community members from other areas will be invited and get immersed in the community activities to learn the Power of Ideas to eradicate poverty. This will help to transfer information to other communities which will evidently result in transforming other communities.

The project is already underway in Singida region, Yullansoni Valley Tanzania, a remote rural village. Please click here for a google earth placemark of Singida. What they have been able to do so far is expand a mobile clinic that started in 1996 into a health center that caters to the community, and install a 38000 liter water tank to store rain water. The exciting thing is is what Mr. Makali is working on now. In his own words:

Installation of the Solar Power at the clinic to upgrade the medical services.

Upgrading the Clinic to become a referral Hospital in the future.

Education of the Solar Power cooking to the community to protect the environment from deforestation and erosion.

Installation of the Sunflower Oil Press industry.

Provision of modern Agricultural tools.

Initiation of Rural Microfinance Credit Bank Facility

Mobilizing the community to create communication Infrastructure.

Mobilizing the community to preserve the environment.

Introduction of Vocational Training School.

Well drillings and water harvest to introduce irrigation system.

Upgrading the Pre school to Primary school and to a secondary school level.

For more details of Mr. Makali’s inititiave in rural Tanzania, please click here for a word document. (He can be reached at wn_love [at] yahoo dot com.)
As you can tell from the list of things he is doing, these are initiatives that aim to serve and involve the community. Although it is still an early stage project, it has a bottom-up component that i particularly like. The initiatives are formulated by him a Tanzanian who is familiar with the realities and challenges of rural development, and not from without. Not only did i find what he is doing laudable, i really liked the by line on his business card. It says “Think Big, Think Smart, Think Creative, Think Positive, Work Smart, Make a difference”.