At 11 p.m. on 2 January 2008, back from Nairobi, Kenya, an exhausted Ory Okolloh — a Johannesburg-based Kenyan lawyer in her thirties — posted the following message on her blog: “For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out. Guys looking to do something — any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?”
During the previous week, post-election violence had flared up in Kenya, leaving scores of people dead. Ms. Okolloh herself had left the country in an evacuation.
Live media broadcasts had been suspended and, among the large Kenyan diaspora around the world, many relied on bloggers like Ms. Okolloh to follow what was happening in their country.
Days after her appeal, Ms. Okolloh, along with four young bloggers from Kenya, started a website, a communication forum that allows anyone to report cases of violence through text message, e-mail or web submission, and to portray the information on an online map. In order to ensure reliability, one member of the team used government sources, aid groups’ information and press reports to verify events submitted to Ushahidi (“testimony” in Swahili). Since then, the website, which is also downloadable software, has widely been used around the world, including in relief and electoral monitoring projects.
Back in Africa, Ushahidi illustrates how young people are using new technologies to enter the political arena. According to a study by Harvard University scholars, Ushahidi has been the most comprehensive tool in gathering crisis-related information in Kenya.
Although the website was intended mainly to get the word out about a Kenyan crisis, it also functioned as a gateway for increased political participation. Using cell phones, ordinary citizens helped counter rumours and what they perceived to be official underestimations.
In an e-mail to Africa Renewal, David Hersman, one of Ushahidi’s co-founders, affirms that the “only goal was to create a simple means for ordinary Kenyans to say what was going on.” The idea, he adds, was “to democratize information in what was a very closed media at the time.”
Juliana Rotich, another Ushahidi co-founder, shares that view. Yet she notes the limited impact the platform had within Kenya at the time. No communication campaign was designed to help people learn about the platform. Those who used it were mostly people already connected to the Internet regularly. But, she reckons: “more publicity could have been bad for the project, since someone would certainly have threatened to shut us down.”
By allowing young Africans to contribute to ongoing discussions and events, new technologies provide them with unparalleled access to political debate. “In the African context, being able to voice one’s opinion freely is not that easy, especially for young people,” comments Théophile Kouamouo, who has run IvoireBlog, a lively blogging platform in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, since December 2007. Having set up Abidjan Blog-camps, a training seminar in which bloggers from around the country regularly share views and experiences, Mr. Kouamouo believes that African bloggers are walking in the steps of independent media outlets that led the battle for free speech in the early 1990s. “This is part of our efforts in building a democratic society,” he explained.
A similar site CongoBlog was launched in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by Cédric Kalonji, a young citizen journalist from Kinshasa. He too aims at providing better access to the public sphere for young Congolese.
Speaking to Africa Renewal, Ms. Okolloh of Ushahidi notes that in the digital arena “the barriers to entry are generally lower and the space more open” than with traditional media. Her colleague Mr. Hersman concurs. “Technology is one of the few ways that young Africans can bypass the inefficiencies in the system that allow the status quo to hold on,” he says. “It lowers the barriers to entry for everyone to get involved and be heard.”
The recent use of such technologies in the political field is taking place amidst revolutionary technological changes across the continent. Africa’s mobile phone industry is growing at twice the global rate, according to the International Telecommunications Union. “The mobile phone, easy to carry around, and whose infrastructure is cheaper to deploy, has led Africa’s revolution,” adds the OECD report. As major undersea cables are being laid off the east and west coasts of the continent, broadband Internet access is also expected to vastly improve, a fact that prompts some to predict an end to the “digital divide” — the gap between those who have access to ICTs and those who do not.
Africa’s political bodies are striving to catch up. In late January an African Union (AU) summit took up the theme of ICT links to development. Earlier, in 2007, the continental body adopted a science and technology plan of action and asked the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to help. Talks are being held among the OECD, UNESCO and the World Bank, while UNESCO is supporting a review of science, technology and innovation in 20 African countries. Under the AU’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), all primary and secondary schools are to become “e-schools,” with computers, software and Internet access, by 2025.
All these are welcome developments, notes Ushahidi’s Ms. Rotich. Africa, she concludes, “should invest in its brilliant minds and encourage its entrepreneurs.”