SMS from Nairobi

I am here in Nairobi at one of the most interesting gatherings I have attended in a long time. Fahamu have brought together some 40 African social justice and civil society activists to discuss and share ideas around the use of mobile phones as a tool for activism and advocacy. The workshop is being held in conjunction with Tactical Tech who will be holding their “techie” workshop on Thursday Friday and Saturday to develop a tool kit specially suited to an African environment — a broad term that will inevitably have to be customised by users from across the continent to accommodate, political, economic, social and cultural differences.

The main focus on day 1 (yesterday) was to take a broad look at the technology and how it is being used in Africa today, the challenges faced by existing and future users and the solutions.

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We have had presentations from Ken Banks who developed the Frontline sms Software used recently to monitor the Nigerian elections. Dorothy Okello of WOUGNET (women of Uganda) gave a presentation on the use of mobile phones in a rural agricultural project in Uganda along with radio broadcasts. Everlyne Nairesiae — GROOTS Kenya’s presentation centred on community based organisations of women in Kenya using the technology in three specific areas: women and property, women leadership and government, resource livelihood. Mobile phones were used for communication between provincial administrators, para legals based in the community and rural women.

The main challenges were : the cost of handsets, the sim card, tariffs, literacy, languages, network jamming (Ethiopia), limits in characters (160), numbers of people sharing handsets, electricity supplies, record keeping, dependency on other media eg radio & newspapers, privacy, limited government policies eg in Ethiopia blocking sms, lack of knowledge of who is using what, replicability , where is the expertise if you want it, learning how to use technology, security issues (encryption technologies), not understanding how sms works (where are the cross points, vulnerabilities), harmonising as Africa not homogeneous (different cultural values), different structures needed and different challenges exist between countries.

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The issue of how to deal with the ownership of technology and technological expertise was also discussed. All the technologists where white and tended to be white males. Why are African technologists not involved in development technology? And technology in general. These questions remain to be answered but definitely something that crops up repeatedly in any discussion on technology in Africa whether mobile phones or the internet.

Other questions raised were:

How useful or reliable is technology as an instrument of social activism
How is mobile technology shaping the democratic momentum in Nigeria and Africa
How useful is technology in the socio-economic empowerment of ordinary citizens

The most important and most exciting aspect of these workshops is the opportunity to meet and network with so many African social justice activists. It was a long day — more tomorrow and the final day on Wednesday.

Photos on Flickr

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