Where Africa and Technology Collide!

African Digerati: Ken Banks

African Digerati - Ken Banks

Ken Banks is the 6th in the African Digerati series of interviews. Ken has become a recognized leader in the mobile space in Africa, primarily through his open source text messaging hub called FrontlineSMS. He speaks regularly around the world on the use of mobile technologies to meet the demands of the real world in places like Africa.

Blog and/or website:
You can find more information on Ken Banks at www.kiwanja.net. Including information on his projects, his mobile database, pictures and blog. It’s one of the best resources for information on mobile technology for Africa on the web.

What do you do?
I use a mix of 22 years in IT, 14 years working on and off in various parts of Africa, and a degree in Social Anthropology with Development Studies to help local, national and international non-profit organisations make better use of information and communications technology – particularly mobile – in their work. I’m usually based out of the UK (where I have a small flat in a lovely Cambridgeshire village), but am currently a Visiting Fellow at Stanford University on the Reuters Digital Vision Program. To pay the bills I do a mixture of paid consultancy and pro-bono work for a range of NGOs, working mostly at grassroots level, a place where I strongly believe the greatest change will come

What inspires you?
People. Technology, perhaps, but that only becomes inspiring when placed in the hands of real people. It’s what’s done with a tool that’s inspiring, after all, not just the fact that it’s a tool. I generally gravitate towards individuals who are humble, or those with a never-say-die attitude, long-lasting commitment to a cause, a positive ‘can-do’ attitude and an unselfish outlook on life. I most admire those who are willing to walk the finest line of all and take the biggest risks in pursuit of their cause.

I had the huge honour of spending time with three such people last summer – I can’t say who for obvious reasons, but the world needs people like them. I also particularly like the work ethic of the tens of thousands of conservation and development ‘foot soldiers’ out there, often quietly battling against the odds, invisible to the rest of us, but who eat, drink and sleep their cause. The role we can play is in making them visible, telling their story and equipping them with the tools and support they need to function more effectively. What doesn’t inspire me? I think people with too much of an ego, most likely. So much more gets done if you don’t spend time worrying about who ends up getting the credit

Who are some of your biggest influences?
I don’t think I’ve had too many influences in my life, but there have certainly been many people who have played a pivotal role in my journey. When it comes to a love of nature and the outdoors, for example, without doubt I have the family gene to thank. My mother was a big influence here, as were my grandparents who were all very keen amateur naturalists. David Attenborough – who I finally got to meet in 2004 – was also pivotal in my understanding of the diversity of nature, and my work at Gerald Durrell’s zoo back home in Jersey exposed me to all sorts of amazing people working all around the world.

My first chance to play with a computer – a Commodore PET 4032 – came courtesy of a social club run by a local teacher (thank you, Mr. Cooper!), and without doubt if I hadn’t been given that chance then I doubt I’d have been let loose on the mainframe computers when I began my career in finance a few years later. My introduction to mobile technology came via a leap-of-faith from two amazing people – Karen Hayes and Simon Hicks – both now doing incredible work in the DRC. Without their faith and insight kiwanja.net would not exist today, I wouldn’t be at Stanford, FrontlineSMS would never have been written and I’d be doing something far less interesting somewhere else

If you weren’t involved with technology, what would you do instead?
So, yes, this something else… I’ve always had a short attention span when it comes to work, with a two year limit on sticking in one place, doing one thing. If I wasn’t working on kiwanja.net then I’d most likely be helping some grassroots NGO in Africa somewhere, on a conservation project, or at a primate sanctuary (I worked at one in Nigeria for a year, back in 2001/2002). I find grassroots conservation and development work fascinating, and it’s really ‘addictive’ to see how far a little can go – and how much impact it can have – if it’s spent wisely and in the right place. Part of the challenge for me is creating public awareness around that

Name one book that you would label “required reading” for those in the African technology sphere:
Slightly old, but for me still relevant today… “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” by E. F. Schumacher. A pivotal moment in the birth of the appropriate technology movement back in the 1970’s

What emerging technologies are you most excited about?
Without doubt, mobile. I feel very lucky to be working in this field right now, and think we’re just about hitting a steep upward curve. Not only are mobiles providing much-needed basic communications, but they are opening up all sorts of other economic opportunities. And then there is access to information, via the internet (once the mobile web is sorted out), but also through SMS. A farmer or fisherman getting market prices by text is incredibly empowering, and yet very simple technologically. And much of this wasn’t anticipated at all. As far as I’m concerned – and I said this during my presentation at the International World Wide Web Conference this month in Banff – SMS is the killer application right now, and the ease in which it can be adopted makes it even more compelling

What do you see as the biggest advantage or opportunity for African technology development?
Interestingly, many African countries are ahead of the so-called ‘developed’ nations in the mobile sphere. As Nathan Eagle from MIT points out, he can pay for a cab in Nairobi using his mobile phone, yet we can’t do that in much of Europe, or in the United States. When you look back at what happened with computer hardware and software, much of it was simply transplanted from north to south with little thought for its appropriateness (climate, language, power issues, and so on). It was very much a case of “take this and see what you can do with it”. But with mobile we’re seeing amazing and innovative solutions to problems coming from the very African nations in need of those solutions. They aren’t waiting for us to solve them, and neither should they. Mobiles are revolutionizing voice and data communications on much of the African continent, and it’s African developers, African companies and African people doing much of the leading – and driving – of that revolution. I’m incredibly excited by that

What do you see as the biggest challenge for African technology development?
Although it’s easy to get carried away with the benefits of technology – when applied appropriately, at least – we need to remember those who can’t yet come to the party. Technology can be an incredible enabler, but we need to think about people struggling to survive on a dollar or two a day, or people living in the shadow of HIV/AIDS, or women and children spending large parts of their days collecting water or firewood to really care much about the internet, or mobile technology, and what it could do for them. We need to be aware of these people, and their reality, and try to understand how technology can benefit them. Up until now they’ve been largely forgotten, although they’re suddenly becoming more visible with the big push into emerging markets by some of the big technology companies. So, firstly, I think we need to be aware of people living in poverty. After all, there are an awful lot of them

Many people on the African continent are incredibly entrepreneurial, but infrastructure issues can often make life more difficult than it need be. In the development of technology on the continent, you could probably point to the lack of landline or broadband infrastructure and internet access (although wireless may ultimately solve this one), or the lack of regular and reliable power. These, and the poverty mentioned earlier, are probably the biggest challenges and barriers to development that I can see. Without constraints such as these I see many technological possibilities for the African continent

What are your thoughts on the impact of blogging in Africa?
In some countries where freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, are real issues there’s no doubt that blogging provides many people with an alternative, anonymous medium to air their opinions. There are undoubtedly issues of internet access, and quite probably language and literacy, and these are probably hindering an even greater growth of blogging on the continent. But for those able to air their views, and those able to read them, blogging is undoubtedly immensely empowering. Through blogging much of the grassroots has suddenly found itself a voice, and I’m all for hearing what they have to say

[listen to an audio interview with Ken Banks]


  1. very good blog congratulations !!

    regard from Catalonia – Spain
    please visit blog http://telamamaria.blogspot.com
    thank you

  2. Interesting insights, thank you. I’ve been skipping the Africa part in my Feedreader for a while, and am now trying to catch up again. 😉

  3. Mzee, welcome back! You chose a good time to return to the African blog scene, a lot is going on right now.

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