March 2013 - Maverick Mind

Crowdsourcing Political Ideology And The Impact Of Technology In African Politics

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Crowdsourcing is not a new concept in Digital marketing circles, it is however getting a new lease on life in the world of politics, especially in Africa.

The Kenyan based crowdsourcing platform, Ushahidi did a great job of informing the ordinary Kenyan citizen on violent hotspots after the 2007 Kenyan elections. The platform has since extended its functionality and has been used for other purposes like disaster area monitoring and information dissemination. Ushahidi originally sent notifications via SMS, but now also includes email notifications.

That’s a smart move considering that most mobile users have access to email. Kenyan politicians are also fervently using the social media mill to chart out their agenda, more so than in previous elections in 2007. You only have to search for the hash tag #kedebate2013 to see how they have employed twitter to clarify their ideology.

We have seen many instances where technology has been used to monitor elections and solicit feedback from citizens in countries like Ghana and Kenya, and few can deny the Twitter influence of the sometimes trigger happy South African and Western Cape premier, Helen Zille. African politicians have embraced Twitter in earnest, but what else are they doing?

Most interestingly there is a new breed of politicians who are not only content with being a commentator on social media platforms, but also want to use technology to influence politics and social reform. Obama did it well, email and social media played critical roles in the process of moving his political agenda throughout the 2008 campaign. Not only did he tweet up a storm, he built relationships with his constituency, donors and voters by sending email campaigns that had one underlying message, “Yes we can!”.

Obama used email to engage the younger generation of Americans. No other presidential candidate in history raised as much funds as he did, and all this was underpinned by a unified digital communications strategy. It’s political participation 2.0 style.

Now back to Africa, a very interesting case study is unravelling in South African politics. Enter Agang – and no, it’s not “a gang” – it means “to build” in Pedi, an indigenous South African language. Agang has been described by its founder and political activist Mamphela Ramphele as a political plaftform with a view to create a political party. The function of Agang at this stage is to crowdsource ideas from ordinary citizens on how to better manage the country, government and its resources.

Agang has taken to the internet to raise resources for the soon to be established political party. Ordinary citizens can donate their time or money on the Agang website.

What is of real interest in this case is not that the political platform has a site, but how they are using their website, Facebook page and Twitter to enable citizens to determine the kind of government that they want.

How effective this form of crowdsourcing will be, only time to tell. One thing has become very clear though; technology is influencing all spheres of our lives in Africa and will continue to do so in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

The Kenyan mobile revolution: Monetise or die

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Kenya has come to be known as Africa’s mobile technology innovation powerhouse. The country attained this enviable title on the back of a string of successful and widely adopted mobile innovations. M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer was the innovation that set the scene for the Kenya Mobile revolution and was the first to operate on a large scale.
Since then a lot has happened in the mobile tech space in Kenya, including the launch of m-lab. The facility was launched with the aim of encouraging mobile technology innovation in the East African country and was supported by Nokia and the Kenyan Government. Since then, we have seen the likes of M-Farm, a mobile service that enables farmers to get information about the current retail price of their products.

What is of interest to me is not just the technology and skills behind the developers in Kenya, but how they maximise the available resources to innovate and deliver localised solutions that improve people’s lives on the ground as opposed to just developing a cool iPhone app that will suffer a slow death in the maze that is the iStore. That for me, is the key difference in approach between how for instance, South African developers focus on the global picture but miss the mark in their locality.

Yet with all this international acclaim and success, Kenyan developers and tech entrepreneurs have one nagging problem they need to solve, monetisation. With all the interest and investment pouring in from companies like Nokia, Samsung , Google and other stakeholders, the need to monetise and turn development houses to viable business will only increase.

Monetisation is not a uniquely Kenyan problem nor is it just an African problem. It is a universal challenge that a lot of tech start-ups all over the world are grappling with, including the likes of Twitter. Facebook is also struggling to figure out how to generate an income stream through mobile as the world shifts towards mobile web browsing.

Building apps and feature phone technology not only takes time and resources, you need to attract skills to grow the industry and that requires capital. It is my prediction that as mobile phone manufacturers like Huawei deliver on the promise of a cheaper smart phone, we will see more developers in Kenya focusing their energy on building mobile apps that will fulfill the Kenyan imperative, technology for the people. But unless the delicate balance between ICT for development and mass monetisation of the Kenyan mobile industry is achieved, we will have to wait a while longer for the next Apple or Microsoft to emerge from East Africa and indeed the whole of Africa.