Africa & Technology: From Famine to Facebook

A salesman from Zimbabwe works with a phone at a store in South Africa.

by Jessica Andrews

If someone were to ask how you would rank all the continents in terms of accessibility to technology, I think almost anyone would rank Africa last. But that may not be true for much longer. Media are finding new ways to grow and expand in Africa and these projects and initiatives are life-changing, and in my opinion, often even life-saving. There’s been a lot of media coverage on the subject recently, from major international news sources, like TIME, to smaller non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Internews, which use traditional media methods to spread their messages and success stories.

The biggest surprise portrayed in these stories is the huge difference between what you expect to hear about Africa and what you actually get these days. Western cultures tend to have a very stereotypical view of Africa. Some pieces of the stories tell about refugee camps, violence and malnourished children. In other words, what we have come to expect in Africa. But other aspects are a little more surprising. Next to the hospital in a Somalian refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, is the internet café where the camp’s youth spend their time updating their Facebook status.

A recent article in TIME is calling Africa, in particular Kenya, the Silicone Savanna. Companies are actually making and marketing technology just for African customers. There are tech conferences being held there. Companies are creating technologies that allow users to do things from cell phones as diverse as run social networking sites, do their banking online and even check if a prescription drug is legit by scanning its barcode.

Back to the refugee camp I mentioned in Dadaab. Internews sponsored a project there where they trained nine young refugees to survey their fellow refugees. Nothing new there. NGOs are all about surveying the populations they serve to find out their needs. The twist comes in the form of how they are taking these surveys and the type of questions they are asking. These nine volunteers have been trained to record all of their data on smart phones. And they are asking their fellow refugees about the media sources they have access to, how they get their information and how they feel they could be better informed about things like healthcare, housing and nutrition. The results have resoundingly proven that there is a need for more necessary information to reach the refugees. Of the newly arrived refugees, 60% say they can’t get the information they are looking for. (To see a video about Internews’ work in Dadaab, please see below.)

There are websites like Ushahidi, which started in Kenya, but is now being used all over the world. Ushahidi is a technology that began in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 political unrest that collects data about ongoing violence that is submitted through e-mail, social networking sites and text messages (sometimes called SMS). Then it is all put together to essentially digitally map the area and inform people about what’s going on. Ushahidi has since been used to help manage all kinds of crises in 128 countries.

Another Internews project is also using text messaging to help protect women. In Ghana, they are starting a helpline that is based on text messages. The project is meant to battle the trafficking of women and children, as well as sexual violence against women. Women can send text messages and they will immediately be connected to professionals who are trained to help in these situations.  (To listen to an audio program with more information about the Internews initiative in Ghana, please go here.)

All of these projects are improving the quality of life for Africans. That is obviously the most important point. But beyond that, these projects are also making Africa more of a player on the global level. The fact that a technology like Ushahidi was created in Africa, but has spread all over the world is unprecedented and says a lot for the future of Africa.

(The photo is by cresi-Africa via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. CRESI-Africa is the Co-operatives & Rural Enterprises Support Initiative of Africa.  The video about the work of Internews in Dadaab is below.)

This entry was posted in Africa, Cell Phones, Crowd Sourcing, Facebook, Famine, Ghana, Internews, Kenya, Smart Phones, Social Media, Somalia, Technology, Ushahidi and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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