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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: development

The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D”

I have cognitive dissonance over the term “ICT4D“. The term “ICT4D” is confusing, hypocritical and has a whiff of condescension that makes me cringe.

As I understand it, it’s what NGO’s do in places like Africa and Asia, but if the same things are done in poor communities in the US or Europe, it’s not called ICT4D, it’s called civil society innovation or a disruptive product.

I’ll be the first to say that I think more communications and technology tools in the hands of ordinary people is good, it’s what we need. For this reason I didn’t come down on the OLPC project, not because I agreed with it’s strategy or reason for existing, but because I simply think that getting more computers in kids hands is good idea.

So, let me be clear: I’m not against the practice of getting more ICT into Africa, I’m just don’t appreciate the condescension and hypocrisy that the term ICT4D comes with, and I’ll bring up the reasons that it actually constrains the technology innovation culture in Africa.

What do we really mean by “ICT4D”?

Ken Banks is doing a fun “ICT4D Postcards Project” where he’s asking people who work in that field to send him a picture with a note of why it matters to them. Though a fun project, I hesitated when asked to participate, because I’m particularly put off by the terminology. But, I did one, and here it is:

A few of the UN cars outside UNMIL in Liberia

“ICT4D” represents a mental roadblock. A term that brings as much baggage with it as a sea of white SUVs, representing the humanitarian industrial complex’s foray into the digital world. It means we’re trying to airlift in an infrastructure instead of investing in local technology solutions. Like the SUVs, it’s currently an import culture that will not last beyond the project’s funding and the personnel who parachuted in to do it.

If an ICT4D-type project is done in a poor part of America, is it still considered ICT4D?

That’s the question that sums up the hypocrisy of this term to me more than anything else. Here’s a an example of what I mean, on a project that I really like and am behind: PeaceTXT. It’s using mobile phones and SMS to help with violence interruption in Chicago.

Is that ICT4D? If it was deployed in Johannesburg or Mogadishu it sure would be labeled as such.

Is ICT4D basically branding for emerging market tech? It seems like it’s a way to name interesting and innovative products from Africa and Asia as something different than their counterparts doing the same thing in the West. In the West they’re called a disruptive initiative or civil society product.

If an African company creates a product that gets millions of Africans using technology to communicate better, which seems to be the very definition of ICT4D, are they automatically that? Mxit does that… What are they?

Let’s say you’re Kilimo Salama, run by my friend Rose Goslinga, which is a micro-insurance program designed for Kenyan farmers, and a partnership between Syngenta Foundation, UAP Insurance, and Safaricom. You charge, make money and yet are helping both small and large farmers alike. Is this ICT4D?

A roadblock to African tech

I was recently discussing this term with one of my Kenyan tech friends, where he stated, “I always picture a team from the UN putting up toilets in Uganda when I hear of ICT4D.”

Uganda: poster about UDD toilets

That’s one of the key problems that the ICT4D space, because to an African it comes with all the baggage of 60+ years of failed aid and development work on the continent. It triggers that begging bowl mentality, instantly stripping the dignity away from the initiative.

It also feels like this is how international NGOs are trying to stay relevant, by creating a new department and new initiatives that the big funders will buy into and support (themselves to stay relevant). Ask yourself, how many ICT4D projects in Africa are more than pilot projects? How many are just Westerner organizations parachuting in, which have no hope of staying alive beyond the time and funds put in by their organization? Sounds like the same old “aid story” to me.

That might be annoying, but the actual problem with this is twofold.

First, the African technology startup scene is young, but it’s ready to be treated as a real industry with real investors looking to make real returns. When the people who are doing business and making money in African tech get a sniff of an “ICT4D” project, they immediately dismiss it – labeling it as a special needs project where the regular rules don’t apply.

A startup company who is trying to create value and make money, but doing so with what outsiders view as poor or disadvantaged communities, is often pigeonholed internationally as ICT4D. For instance, is Esoko the money-making agricultural product from Ghana, which is now in a dozen countries, an ICT4D company? How about if a company started off by being used in Africa, but then their product went global – such as with Ushahidi?

Second, the funds and work put into this space by the NGOs are creating a false floor in the economy. They’re undermining the community of tech entrepreneurs who could be building the same products and services and charging for it, just like we’d expect any company in the West to do if there was a valuable service worth paying for. If it’s a service that should be supplied by the government, then they’re short-circuiting those responsibilities and subsidizing actions that subvert the public offices away from their duty.

Let’s say, for arguments sake, that the only way to get a much needed project going is to get a Western team in-country to start it. Is there a reason why ICT4D projects are slow to get local ownership, management and team members? Is this technology tourism and fabricated externally run projects, created because doing work in Africa is an adventure?

In Closing

What I’m hoping to get across is that we’re doing ourselves a disservice with this terminology and that it has a negative perception in the tech startup culture in Africa. Technology is about overcoming inefficiencies in the system, and products succeed because they solve real needs within communities. In Africa, as in the West, some of these solutions are for-profit and some not-for-profit. It’s important to invest in the local startups involved in trying to solve these problems and come at it from a more objective view, instead of labeling innovative technology solutions from Africa automatically as ICT4D.

We have to thinking less of ICT as something that’s about development, and more of it as a commercial venture. We need more focus on ICT4$ than ICT4D.

Never Good Enough: Speed (pt 1/3)

We’re never good enough when it comes to speed, stability or simplicity of our mobile and web applications. This is a three-part series where I unpack my experience building apps on each of these subjects. It’s not just for those of us working on Ushahidi, these are the three most crucial abilities of any web or mobile application.

Me in a cyber cafe in Monrovia

Let me tell you a personal story:

Libera, March 2009

I’m sitting, sweating in the sweltering heat of a Monrovia cyber cafe, I have my notebook out and my am watching the clock. My goal is to see how fast I can load up the Ushahidi home page for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it has a map, timeline and list of recent events tracking the current level of unrest in the country.

It’s not looking good. As I look around, waiting for the page to load, I count 8 others in the room – 6 of which have fired up stuttering and unusable Yahoo and Skype video chat windows. Why this is the channel and usage of choice, when it so obviously doesn’t work, I cannot answer. But this is reality, and if we expect ordinary Africans to use our application, we had better make sure that it loads up relatively fast on the low-bandwidth, shared internet connections that proliferate across the continent.

Utter failure. After 20 minutes painfully watching the page load byte by byte, I give up. I quickly type out a message to our team, imploring everyone to streamline this “fat, squeeling pig of a page”. Peppering them with questions… Can I buy some caching please? What can we do with this map to make it not kill the load? Can we get rid of 75% of the images on the page? Do we need to redesign this from the ground up?

Granted, Liberia’s internet situation is worse than almost any other on the continent. Especially when it comes to the grinding halt you see in the cyber cafes during the daylight hours as the local population piles on at the same time, completely overwhelming the limited satellite connection. That’s no excuse though. Ushahidi is built on the idea that the lowest common denominator, whether it’s PC or mobile-phone based access, will work. The PC-side is clearly failing.

Worst of all, my patience is short, Liberia is pissing me off with the heat, humidity, lack of bandwidth and no electricity grid. Objectively, this is the perfect state to be in, I am now able to come up with a solution for normal users in Africa.

What other’s know

Speed… if there’s only one thing that you do with your application, make it faster. No, it’s not fast enough.

This isn’t news to anyone, or it shouldn’t be. For years the major web sites around the world have known this and have been building for it. Mozilla, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all aware of just how critical speed is to their success. It boils down to attention threshold and what we, as users ourselves, are willing to put up with.

There is no area in which our team has felt more pain than in trying to speed up the page loads of our apps. Maps tend to be page killers by themselves. Once we add multiple calls to the database we start to get some truly agonizing speeds. It’s a constant pressure that sits on every one of our development cycles, and for which we dedicate a great deal of energy.

User experience research needed in Africa

One area that hasn’t seen enough true user experience testing is Africa. We know that internet speeds are slower, sometimes by orders of magnitude. I’ve got a lot of questions, more than answers at this point. Should we cut out the maps and all images? What’s the true cost of a page load +/- 7 seconds? What is the real value of maps in Africa compared to the West – do they matter?

Jessica Colaco is a top-notch programmer who has shifted to doing research in Kenya. I hope that she, and others like Eric Osiakwan and his team from Internet Research in Ghana, will help us dig out these answers. More than that, I hope they will help us ask the right questions.

Ghana – International Development and Design Summit (IDDS)

iPhone and Computer Game Development in Africa

I’ve got a new theory: one of the best tests of a tech community’s creativity is how many people are coming up with non-business related applications and games. It makes sense that the two games below come from Kenya and Ghana, two of the biggest “tech hubs” in Africa.

Another 3d Shooter from Nairobi

I think it’s a good sign that I just heard about a new 3D FPS shooter game called Mzalendo (not to be confused with the “eye on Kenyan Parliament website also called Mzalendo that Ory and M put together…). It is being created by Morgan of TriLethal Labs in Nairobi, and they have just released the Beta version of the tech demo outlining the capabilities of the New Siege3D graphics core.

Mzalendo - FPS 3d shooter game

Mzalendo Game - using the New Siege3D graphics core

Africa’s 1st iPhone Game?

I’ve profiled Wesley before, and he’s now partnered up with another game developer in Ghana named Eyram. Their newest claim is that they’re about to release (early April) the first iPhone game from Africa, called “BugzVilla” (I’m not sure if it is the first game, let me know if it is/isn’t).

It’s a game in which you crush bugs by tapping the screen and earn points as you level. Shake the screen to release more bugs, and watch out for the red ants! Here’s a short video on their new game:

I’ll try both of these new games out as soon as I can get my hands on them. Eyram assures me that their new game will be on the iTunes App Store in April, so you can bet I’ll buy it and play it.

FrontlineSMS (v2) is Reborn & Ready for Use

One of the guys that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know over the years is Ken Banks. He’s a tireless believer, and more importantly practitioner, in the field of mobile phone as change agent in the world. His FrontlineSMS mobile phone software has been making waves from Chile to Nigeria, and it’s use is only accelerating.

Since its initial release in 2005, FrontlineSMS has been adopted by NGOs in over forty countries for a wide range of activities including blood donor recruitment, assisting human rights workers, promoting government accountability, keeping medical students informed about education options, providing security alerts to field workers, election monitoring, the capture and exchange of vegetable (and coffee) price information, the distribution of weather forecasts, the co-ordination of healthcare workers, the organising of political demonstrations, the carrying out of surveys and the reporting and monitoring of disease outbreaks.

As of today (9am GMT), the new and improved version of FrontlineSMS will be unveiled. The software will continue to be made available for free to non-profits, available in Windows, Mac and Linux formats in six languages; Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

Knowing Ken personally has a few perks, like the chance to see the new version early and know the amount of work he’s been putting into making this come into being. On top of that, Ushahidi will be utilizing FrontlineSMS as an extension to the new version of the tool we’re creating – and I know that InSTEDD plans to do the same. You know you’ve created something remarkable when you’re starting to make an impact on the NGO and the technology sides of the world.

Keeping up with Ken is difficult, as he’s a road warrior constantly speaking at conferences or in the field with his software. My suggestion is that you join the his Social Mobile Facebook group, catch him on Twitter, or read along on the Kiwanja.net blog.

Ken, congrats on this, I know it’s been a long time coming. Next drink is on me! 🙂

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