Click: Africa

image by mutua matheka

If you look for images of Africa online you’ll find an overabundance of wildlife or urban poverty. And, while these are part of our narrative, the vast quantity of these pictures would lead you to believe that this is the main story. Maybe it is for people who don’t live here, but why are we letting others own that?

This was brought up by Mutua Matheka, a friend of mine who is one of Kenya’s great photographers, as he was describing what drove him to get into photography. Mutua was annoyed by the fact that the images that he found online didn’t represent the country and continent that he knew. With a degree in architecture, he set out to capture the Africa he knows, not just Kenya, but the cities, buildings and people across the continent.

In Africa in particular, the world tells stories about us, other people create the imagery.

When the world isn’t the way you would like it to be, you have a choice to do something, or not. Mutua has clearly chosen to do something; he’s chosen to be one of the Africans who create the imagery and narrative of Africa for all of us.

What are the images that best define Africa’s challenges and opportunities?

Besides being a fan of Mutua, I’ve had the joy of working with him on the #Kenya365 Instagram project. Now, again we get to work together, as we are both on the judging panel for a new competition that IBM is running, called a ‘World is Our Lab’ over the next 3 months.

the IBM Africa photography competition

Now, unlike Mutua, I’m not a professional photographer. I’m a bit of a hack, to be honest, playing around with my phone and limiting myself to what I can shoot with that small device. This is good, it means that if you’re entering into the competition (which you should!), then even if you’re not a pro, you’ve got a chance as I’m just like you. :) The other judges are Salim Amin from A24 Media and Uyi Stewart. Chief Scientist, IBM Research – Africa.

What you can win:

  • A chance to visit IBM’s new research lab in Nairobi, Kenya
  • Laptops with photo editing software
  • Photography workshop with a leading African photographer
  • Trip to Hemingways Watamu Hotel on the Kenyan coast

The three main categories:

  • African Grand Challenges
  • African City Systems
  • African Innovation

Judges will be looking for photos that express how people living in Africa manage their energy or water needs, how they commute, how cities live and breathe and how people come up with innovative solutions to address their needs and create new opportunities.

Traffic Updates by SMS in Nigeria

eNowNow is a service in Nigeria where anyone with a mobile phone can sign up to receive updates on traffic conditions in different areas around Lagos.

How it Works

Traffic via SMS in Lagos Nigeria - mapArmed with a mobile phone, a team of 4-6 motorcyclists ride to different, pre-designate parts of the city. They take pictures of the current traffic conditions and MMS that image to the central office. That image is then geolocated and given a score of “slow”, “moving” or “free”. Anyone who has signed up for SMS or email alerts is then sent a message with the traffic update.

Challenges

I asked Simon, one of the people putting the service into action, what some of their challenges are. His reply:

“Collecting information in this way, although not that technical (lots of people have said why not use stationary webcams it would be technically superior), is turning out to be more difficult than we expected. Finding people who can grasp the concept behind the service, ride well through the crazy Lagos traffic, and are reliable has been tricky, added to that we’ve had lots of issues around harassment and even arrests from the police (many police officers apparently believe you need special police permission to take photos of traffic) and just recently the weather has been in our way as the rainy season has just started in Lagos making operations more difficult and a few phones have been dropped in puddles! “

The business side

eNowNow doesn’t see much value in charging premium SMS rates for their services. They believe margins are low, and they don’t think the uptake would be high enough amongst their target market to make it work. Instead, they have plans to subsidize the service with revenues from licensing traffic information to Sat Nav providers and logistics companies.

“In Nigeria the networks will take anything between 40 and 75% of a premium SMS’s cost to a subscriber for themselves (pull or push) leaving you a tiny margin for profitability and driving the industry standard (and therefore what the networks will allow you) per SMS cost higher. Most people think that traffic only affects those in cars and they can therefore afford to pay for a service, but most of Lagos’ population aren’t in that bracket and those on public transport still have choices about which buses they take, which routes and what time they leave work.”

Thoughts and ideas

Maybe it’s because I’m a motorcycle fan, or maybe it’s because I have a deeply ingrained detestation for being stuck in traffic in Africa’s mega cities, but this application hits the sweet spot for me. I’ve been wanting just this type of thing in Nairobi for a long time…

One additional idea, to make this even more dynamic, and spread it over the whole city is to create a way for ordinary drivers to text into the system when they come across a new or growing traffic problem. I imagine that Lagos has areas with traffic that is not on the pre-designated points that eNowNow operates in currently.

This is a classic locally grown tech initiative, and I hope that they can pull it off. If so, it can definitely be replicated in other major metro markets across the continent.