Social tech in Uganda through the eyes of a foot soldier

Felix Mwebe, to the right, at UNICEF Innovation Lab, Kampala.

Felix Mwebe, to the right, at UNICEF Innovation Lab, Kampala.

@valanchee Kampala, Uganda

Felix Mwebe passionately swears by the mantra: give me a platform. He succinctly seems to suggest that all he's ever needed is to be given just access to the big stage. With that he promises to perform feats of magic never seen before.

His mantra is perhaps analogous to giving a hacker unencumbered access to a zero-day (for the uninitiated, a zero-day is system exploit that is not yet discovered by the system architects. Many last inordinate lengths). Having access to a zero-day is more like giving them power to do whatever they deem important, at least as long as the loopholes exist.

But certainly, when the loopholes in the systems are patched, then the hacker would have to wait for another hand out, another zero-day. Another day.

With the benefit of context, many young people in sub Saharan Africa are basically hacking through the challenges which continue to pillage the cog of service delivery. The passion, purpose and the unwavering resolve to develop meaningful solutions to some of their communities’ biting problems and challenges radiate in the air. Just the way it is supposed to be. But without doubt, addressing these problems especially through the use of technology for social good has met significant bottlenecks, even while not foregoing the immense successes birthed thereof.

Felix Mwebe is the founder and managing director of Projectic Group of Companies. A fledgling design agency in Kampala, Uganda. At face value, his company looks like a struggling lone wolf inundated by the imposing superiority of the sub Saharan mara, but on the contrary, there is so much more than meets the eye. Projectic does a bevy of things; from branding and design, to research, and a division he calls Think tank and innovation – the social tech division of the conglomerate for lack of a better word.

We had the pleasure of having a chat with Felix Mwebe especially about his journey and experience developing tools for social tech innovation in Uganda, given his vast and previous experience with UNICEF Uganda.

On Joining UNICEF Uganda and Discovering His Star

It was one bright afternoon in 2010, during his undergraduate studies in Telecommunications engineering at Kyambogo University where he serendipitously bumped into Seth Harry, a man working for UNICEF Uganda.  As luck, and deliberate efforts, would have it, Felix kicked off a friendship that got him invited to the UNICEF’s innovation lab in Mbuya, a suburb out of Kampala city.

Just an invitation, like being given a platform, saw him getting offered an internship/volunteering opportunity with the ambitious innovation lab of the time. At his time in UNICEF Uganda, he mainly worked with extending support to the development of the Digital Drum/Rugged ICT kiosk project targeted at the youth centres. The major objective was to extend solar-powered and maintenance free knowledge-sharing computers to millions of young people who lived and still live in rural areas notoriously known for lack of basic amenities such as clean water and electricity, and lately the internet.

But not limited to only the digital drum project, he also participated, among others, in the development and maintenance of the WASH project aimed at improving water sanitation in the country where access to safe and piped water remains a preserve of just about half of the population.  

The Role of Young People in Finding Solutions to Local Problems

“The future is now, but we aren’t any better from yesterday.”

Well, to a large extent Uganda and sub Saharan Africa at large have made significant leaps in development of public civic infrastructure, trade positions, health, education, etc. But with these improvements, the continent continues to significantly lag  behind the developed world.

Behind the scene are explosions in population all over sub Saharan Africa. This puts the average age of Africans at 18 years, compared to say 44 years for Japan. Yet what we continue to see are high dependence burdens and searing pressures on scarce resources.

"Nonetheless, sub Saharan Africa continues to have hope in its young people as is evident in the initiatives taken to forge life especially where the governing authorities have fallen short." He adds, "The hunger to improve the status quo has undeniably been noticed by some players in the private sector I have worked with. Although I am quite sure there are many others betting against the winds of institutional shortfalls."

The Role of Social Tech Hubs

He's had a pleasant experience of visiting RLabs in Cape Town in 2016. RLabs were founded in 2008 with the sole aim of giving hope to the young people who are sucked up in drugs, crime and despair. The divide fuelled by the apartheid history in South Africa, dearth of skills, and continued economic suppression of the black community in the rainbow country were largely the premise for RLabs to be established.  The restoration centre, which now has five labs all over South Africa, heralded an innovative system of remunerating any young person, for showing up at the centre. Yes, whoever showed up!

While firmly entrenched in restoring hope, the labs had a model of bringing struggling young people together, and equipping them with skills that they would in the near term find invaluable such as accounting, computer maintenance, and videography among others. In turn, they would form collective and meaningful relationships and consequently lead paths different to what was previously making them desolate.

The system creatively named Latos is a log system where points are realised for every lesson attended. In turn, the points can be redeemed for a meal, a cuppa, and also voucher cards to make purchases at local and nearby retail shops and supermarkets.

Moving away from the business-y and profit driven incubation and innovation hubs in Uganda at that time,  Felix and others travelled to learn how they could implement such a system for a similar social initiative in Uganda.

Soon enough they found Plan International was in advanced stages of starting a similar model of empowering young people and giving them a chance of believing in their dreams however impossible they seemed.

In 2015, SmartUP Kalerwe commenced activities in a suburb north of the capital, Kampala. The SmartUP initiative deeply explores the problems facing the youth between 17 to 26 years and attempts to tailor a comprehensive program they believe would solve most of their problems. In Uganda, according to Felix's research , there was severe unemployment and underemployment due to lack of bankable skills. Through building on latent talent spotted among the youth, SmartUP fosters growth in sports, computer maintenance, secretarial work development, photography, videography among others.

While these skills may seem random to a highly polemic society, they could potentially lend a second chance to someone without skills and hope to lead a meaningful life. And the role of such initiatives is to help the young people become invested in seeking solutions for challenges which are systemic to their communities.  

At the moment, the hub is in advanced stages of spreading across to five other districts in the country mostly concentrated in the northern part of the country namely Gulu, Lira, Alebtong. Also, the second national SmartUP lab is in advanced stages of opening in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

The Demand for Local Content

Local content is content which is relevant to a community’s needs and as such may be defined by location, culture, language, religion, ethnicity or area of interest.

Concomitant to the demand in local content, social entrepreneurs and distinguished organisations doing social tech work are filling this void. It has been said that Africa’s education system for example is trapped in the gripes of a colonial education system which should have been antiquated and safely stored as a relic of the past. Yet we continue to see continued complacency. And this is not only with education, but thematically distributed; in health and entrepreneurship among others.

Local content has arguably been a major buzzword of social tech in sub Saharan Africa. To suggest its dearth, or lack of sufficiency, ignores fundamental and structural challenges to social tech.

Challenges of Social Tech Initiatives

The ravages of hunger:
While young people are the pillars of the social tech movement if I may call it so, young people are arguably one of the greatest weaknesses too. Most of them forge a path in social tech entrepreneurship because it seems like the easy way out, or at least promises to be. Indeed, especially due to the fact that it often is the easier route of lining up for grants and other forms of equity-free impact investment. The ravages of hunger are quenched without regard staying true to the course of social entrepreneurship. 

Commitment from young people:
Skin in the game is an adage to signify how much perseverance a social entrepreneur ought to have. Many of the young people are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine which dies upon first incidence of oxygen exhaustion.

Over reliance on expats:
Significant initiatives supported by large international funds and organisations hire expats to do everything from preliminary research studies right to conceptualisation and development at the expense of local and much affordable expertise. Besides, expats have had to learn almost entirely everything about the uncharted areas they are sent to hence increasing not only product/service development cycles but also bleeding other resources which would otherwise have been significant.

Long term commitment to social tech projects:
Commitment to social tech projects is uncertain because of reasons only privy to mostly the supporting organisations. For example UNICEF’s Digital Drum project was discontinued. Closely related was Teacher-in-a-box, a project which never saw the light of day, among many others. This is not only party to large organisations but also to individuals since some projects may not kick off as expected.

Software ate social tech hardware:
It is true. In fact, to borrow a pithy anecdote from Marc Andreessen’s proclamation that software ate hardware, in this case; software ate social tech hardware. This is so because most of the prototypical social tech solutions require some form of equipment and hardware especially in education, agriculture, health and sanitation. However, innovating through hardware constantly is expensive and success henceforth is not guaranteed. This has in turn increased social tech innovation through development of software, and apps, which may not have immediate impact, but are favoured since it is the more affordable channel.

The future of social tech is backed by data

Developing products for sub Saharan Africa can be a challenge given the demands of problems at hand coupled with the severe lack of constituent data.

UNICEF’s Pulse Lab in Kampala one of the three, others being in Jakarta and New York— was started to collect and analyse meagre and hard-to-find data to drive policy decisions, resource allocation, mentor data experts, among others.

"This is a move in the right direction to making data driven social investments (that will endure)." Felix says.

On recounting his experience, it feels like he's just dropped a soliloquy. Trancelike, only because of his zest to inspire and empower.
 
 

The view from campus: Dr. Sam Takavarasha, Jr. on social tech in Zimbabwe

The view from campus: Dr. Sam Takavarasha, Jr. on social tech in Zimbabwe

@csik Harare, Zimbabwe

 

All these people who have hubs... they basically just have a room.
— Dr. Sam Takavarasha

A key aspect of nearly any innovation ecosystem is an academic component. This is typically hosted in or around a research institution like a university or lab, especially as these types of organizations can focus on more experimentation and more public knowledge generation and training than a company or NGO can afford. I stopped in the University of Zimbabwe Department of Computer Science to touch base with prominent scholar Dr. Sam Takavarasha, Jr. Sam focuses in information systems, and had a lot to say about how the ecosystem in Zimbabwe could be strengthened.

One advantage of being in academia is that it structures space for critical reflection. Indeed, the 20th Century sociologist Thomas Merton boiled the scientific method down to a few critical points, one of which is "organized skepticism." Dr. Takavarasha demonstrated this with clear focus on what was going wrong in the Zimbabwe milieu, even though he cited several positive and hopeful areas. I'll focus on the critiques, then briefly touch on the positives. In my next several blog posts I'll interview others in Zim with a different set of interests and concerns.

CompSci@UZimbabwe

CompSci@UZimbabwe

One of the key critiques from Takavararsha was that it is very difficult to produce local technologies for local needs. Several factors are key blockages. Interestingly, local businesses do not seem to be particularly interested in sourcing local techs. Local business, according to the scholar, are not interested in things that are made locally, in part because they know how difficult it is to develop things in Zimbabwe. If a mobile payment system is developed in country, with all the fiscal and political challenges, then why wasn't it developed elsewhere first? Prof. Takavarasha's acquaintances with businesses always choose software developed in India or elsewhere for these reasons. (This is essentially the opposite prejudice from what I've seen in my home country, the USA.)

Research takes money, and this led to the second point the professor made about challenges to local innovation. He argued that many funders focus on only what they already know, looking for more of the same. For foreign funders, this can mean bringing expectations from their locale. This creates pressure to satisfy the explicit or implicit expectations of the funder. "Sometimes I worry that the software industry in Africa is just stuck in eternal mimicry. Which I don't think works." For Dr. Takavarasha, imitation fails in two ways. First, imitation is a losing game if you're slow to it. Inundated with examples of successful apps from other parts of the world, CS students often reproduce local versions (AliBaba, Uber) that fail to gain traction. "It works technically, but the guys are doing it 10 years too late."

The second reason that imitation fails is that you can imitate the product, but not necessarily the user. "Because really when you are diffusing and transferring technologies, you are also diffusing different cultural practices, because the technologies are not value neutral or ideologically neutral. And the people who write software tend to be the people who do not appreciate the social side of technology." I should say that, as an American who has mixed with some of the top computer scientists in USA Universities, this observation was as thrilling as it was unexpected.

Few in the US tech sector take time to understand the cultural and ideological values associated with their work. They think -- and much of the world follows suit -- that their technology is "the" technology, neutral and advanced. But indeed these technologies are as much cultural productions as are super hero movies and fast food franchises. Importing the technology means, as Dr. Takavarasha says, simultaneously importing the underlying values of the culture that made it. This may not be optimal for the importer, and it may cause the technology transfer to fail.

Indeed, a technology -- or the means to launch one -- that is perfectly appropriate for a place like Silicon Valley may be ludicrously maladapted for another like rural Germany. From my perspective in Europe, for instance, it is clear that many of the top tech projects of the last few years (think AirBnB or Uber) export what early Internet theorists dubbed the "California Ideology," a playful mix of libertarianism and adolescent disruption. In the context of the USA, these projects look like cutting-edge technologies, but when put against European labor laws or privacy values, their ideology becomes visible. This is the kind of disconnect made so clear in the "first world problems" memes.

To be clear, Dr. Takavarasha's point about cultural and ideological mismatch isn't just about devices or services; it's about how to make them as well. Dr. Takavarasha sees some of the same dangers of mimicry in the fact that everyone is trying to create tech hubs and accelerators right now. Indeed, the perceived need for these spaces often runs ahead of the surrounding infrastructure or internal resources to make them work. "All these people who have hubs... they basically just have a room."

One place where Dr. Takavarasha sees potential -- and indeed this was confirmed by everyone I spoke to in Zim -- is in new and necessary forms of information sharing. During the worst period of political and economic deterioration in the 2000s, nearly all of the non-state journalism organizations in Zim had their licenses revoked. WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter, popular throughout sub-Saharan Africa, have special significance here, as they have become a way to communicate things that would be difficult or dangerous to do in media or in public speech. Takavarasha sees many new and interesting uses of these platforms, and the possibility for others.

Dr. Sam Takavarasha, Jr. in his office at the U. Z.

Dr. Sam Takavarasha, Jr. in his office at the U. Z.

The other major potential that Dr. Takavarasha pointed to stems from the spectre that loomed over Zimbabwe during my time there, which was the government's introduction of the "bond note." To understand the palpable anxiety about this introduction that blanketed the country, you have to understand that in 2008, Zim had one of the most extreme and famous cases of hyperinflation in world history. There were people whose job was literally to carry massive bags of cash for shoppers. When I was there a lunch took a shoebox full of cash, and a nice dinner a large pillowcase or two would have been necessary. Zim actually issued a 100 trillion dollar note, shortly before switching to the US dollar. Using the US dollar pulled the country back from the brink, but by last year a shortage of US dollars has meant that Zimbabweans are forming massive queues at banks -- even sleeping outside them the night before -- in order to withdraw currency.  Finally the Minister of Finance led the government to create the new bond note, which to date is trading at its official 1:1 rate with the US dollar. But for many Zimbabweans, the other shoe will eventually drop. 

Takavarasha identified a continuity between the growth of alternative payment systems like EcoCash (and mPesa) and cryptocurrencies like BitCoin. He sees these systems as potentially continuing to provide value to citizens even if the economy suffers. 

Finally, I asked Takavarasha to speculate how he would stimulate social tech in Zimbabwe. Not surprisingly, he suggested an alternate model that would take advantage of Zimbabwe's still excellent universities. As he sees it, students and innovators in Zim have great ideas, and there's no lack of great prototypes developed both in the universities and in the hubs. But without the industry and funding required to take them to the product state, they die on the vine. Takavarasha would love to see a software house affiliated with the U. Z. that could take some of those projects and finish them according to best practices, while at the same time professionalizing their creators. I'm sold.

Social tech ecosystems in Ethiopia

Social tech ecosystems in Ethiopia

@eliseleclerc Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

While African Union presidential candidates were testing out their first primary-style election debates in Addis Abeba in December, I was trawling the streets of the Ethiopian capital in search of a good picture of any technology-related sign. In a country with one of the lowest mobile penetration (48.3%) and internet penetration (4.2%) in the world this wasn’t an easy task, so I settled for the only mobile telecom sign I could find after hours of walking around.

Ethiopia is one of the last countries where the state still controls all telecommunications and many in the social tech sector say that it is stifling innovation. Indeed, all Ethiopian mobile numbers are owned by the government, who regularly send SMS messages to its 50million subscribers. With the recent state of emergency they were also able to switch off all social networks and mobile internet connections at once.

In that context my field research on Ethiopia’s social tech ecosystems proved challenging but fascinating nonetheless: as one young social tech entrepreneur put it ‘there are so many barriers to social tech in Ethiopia that those who venture into it have to be extremely motivated and passionate about innovation, a crucial element to their future success’.

And luckily for those entrepreneurs there are some support mechanisms in the three or four innovation/social entrepreneurship hubs such as Reach for Change Ethiopia, IceAddis or Xhub, funded by external agencies, venture capitalists and angel investors, who provide seed funding and support.

But as their strong motivation gets them through the hub’s door, resilience turns out to be the next key factor to their sustainability: once their product is built it can take them a year on average to register as a company, with no specific legal structures or tax incentives to encourage a small social enterprise.

I met with Jeccdo Director Mulugeta Gebru, who explained how they are working with partners in the UK to create an innovation hub as a social enterprise for research andin Bahir Dar. I also met with Save the Children Chief of party Olaf Erz, who is working on skilling up young people towards employment, including through tech hubs and ICT training.

They invariably said that the business model for a social tech innovation is crucial to its success, often relying on a combination of customer paying and advertisement income rather than grants beyond seed funding; this can be very challenging in a country with extremely low wages and very low internet penetration.

I spoke with Ahadootec Directors Eskinder and Amanuel and one of the issues they are facing besides the sustainability of their social tech innovations is finding a trained workforce. Many social tech innovations are driven by Ethiopians from the Diaspora and they are finding it difficult to recruit home-grown graduates for their ventures. As a result they have taken it upon themselves to re-design the whole ICT-related academic system to make students more employable and market-ready when they graduate in ICT-related subjects. They are working with the British Council for this, andhowever ambitious this seems, only in a country where University is as centralized as in Ethiopia can this be possible, and this is where centralization can also bring opportunities that would be undreamed of in more liberal states.

And as Eskinder will readily admit, the government’s investment in internet and mobile connections over the last few years has made an incredible difference in helping innovation through a much improved internet bandwidth and telecom infrastructure.

One of the arguments of the government for not privatizing telecoms just yet (despite growing pressure from both its population and international partners to do so) is fairness by ensuring telecom penetration in rural areas where private companies are not interested in investing, as can be the case in countries where telecoms are privatised. I’m told it’s also a way for the government to put money into its coffers, but with telecommunications kept at an extremely low price, Ethiopians of all levels of society seem to be able to use their phones quite liberally, preferring phone calls to SMS messaging for instance.

Indeed the ease with which people constantly make phone calls struck me as I started making my way to various meetings in Addis Ababa: no taxi driver ever knew where I was going (no one uses street names but landmarks instead), and the only way for them to take me to my destination was for them to call the people I was meeting and get directions from them.

This turned out to be quite problematic in many instances when the taxi driver had to call several times after getting lost.

That’s why when Markos from Iceaddis told me about Karta, a scalable digital mapping solution to address the lack of street names, I got very excited.

As stated on their website, ‘Karta uses the local administrative structures (subcity, district and house number) instead of street names to pin point locations. Karta helps emergency, security, medical, delivery services get to location easier and faster’. They use the Google maps crowd-sourcing approach for individuals to literally put themselves on the map, and with a population of almost 100 million Ethiopians, Karta has the potential to scale very rapidly.

This might sound very simple and maybe not that innovative to many, but as I realised several times a day when my taxi driver was looking for my next meeting destination, it has the potential to make a huge difference to people in Ethiopia.

That’s why when we ask social tech stakeholders to nominate peers for our study on ‘Social tech ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa[EL1] ’ we are careful to insist that we don’t mean high tech innovations but any application of technology that leads to a defined and measurable positive social outcome.

In Ethiopia a crowd-sourced individual version of Google maps might be just the thing, and with a dynamic emerging social tech sector in the capital, the second largest population in Africa and a government intent on reaching 103 million mobile and 56 million internet subscribers by 2020 this could change dramatically with less bureaucracy and more market-ready graduates.