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Africa is the New Black

If I were to highlight one [more] theme that emerged at Foo Camp 2007 (having already noted the themes of passion, privilege, scalability and desirability as well as attention, inattention, appreciation and depreciation), it would be that Africa is the new black, i.e., an area of increasingly popular, perhaps even fashionable, interest. There were three sessions during the weekend explicitly devoted to Africa, and another that is extremely relevant to a continent on which electrical power cannot be taken for granted:

I attended all of these, continuing an inexplicable and nearly inexorable pull I feel toward this area (Rumi's exortation to "let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love" resonates with me ever more strongly ... though I guess I'm not following the silent part so well).

I have never been to Africa, I don't know many people who have even visited there, and the research I do is not any more relevant to Africa than to any other region (in fact, potentially much less so, given the cost consciousness that understandably pervades the region). Still, I have an increasingly strong feeling that there is great potential to do Good - and to do [good] business (not that I would want to suggest there is any necessary contradiction in claiming business is good) - in that region, and that somehow my current position (at Nokia Research Center Palo Alto) may put me in a position to help catalyze efforts in that direction.

Martin Benjamin presented the Kamusi Project (slides), which is building a bilingual dictionary for English and Swahili (a language spoken by 100 million people), which thus far has 70 million entries, 10 million page hits and 600,000 unique visitors per year (though only 10,000 from Africa). Martin emphasized the importance of this project by noting a number of important factors:

  • Language is the key to knowledge – for reading the news, doing your homework, browsing the web
  • Knowledge is the key to prosperity – for getting a job, selling a product, buying a company…
  • Very few Africans can access information technology resources in a language with which they are comfortable
  • IT mastery is a path to prosperity: it works in India (for those who speak English), it works for you (i.e., the fluent English attendees of Foo Camp). How do we make it work in Africa?

When asked about adopting the Wikipedia model, Martin replied that Wikipedia works because it is a police state -  thousands of people watching everyone else - and that Swahili speakers are not online with sufficient numbers, frequencies and durations in order to police each other.


Toward the end of the hour a second session was started (this was, technically, a joint session), with Colin Bulthaup showing and telling about the Pull-Cord Generator (PCG) he and his colleagues at Potenco have developed to enable people to use human power to generate electricity to power other objects. Colin noted that 2 billion people worldwide have no power (a disproportionate number of whom live in Africa, where 90% of the population has reliable cellular coverage, but only 10% has reliable electricity coverage), and many of these powerless people use kerosene for lighting - which is inefficient, ineffective, expensive and leads to health problems. He then demonstrated his generator, which, after one minute of pulling on the rip cord, generates enough power for the following:

  • 25 minutes of mobile phone use
  • 60 minutes of indoor lighting (LED)
  • 230 minutes of iPod Shuffle play
  • 45 minutes of Nintendo DS play

His session topic was entitled "Human Power" but by the end, I was thinking more in terms of "Human Empowerment".

Scott Hanselman and Evan (Rabble) Henshaw-Plath led a discussion on mobile phones in Africa, a highly participatory session in which many people shared insights and experiences with both problems and [mobile] solutions. Among the solutions mentioned that are or may be applicable to the problems faced in Africa are:

  • Google's Voice Local Search (GOOG411)
  • A web service which accepts queries for words (and phrases?) via SMS, and receive a callback with the wikipedia entry for that word / phrase (which could then be held up to a microphone so that the entry could be heard by an entire class)
  • Mobile4Good (M4G), a Vodafone social franchise project for delivering health, employment and community information via SMS (deployed in Kenya)
  • MSRIndia SMS Toolkit, an SMS service that runs on a [Windows] PC
  • An open source Mobile Toolkit in a box (under development) to be shipped out to NGOs all over Africa
  • Engineers Without Borders, linking engineers with problems in disadvantaged communities
  • Digital Freedom Exposition, showcasing free and open source software in the developing world
  • Voices in Your Hand, [including?] a Philips-sponsored project in Brazil

I also heard about some Nokia anthropologist studying SMS use in Africa, that a quick search suggests is Jan Chipchase's recent report on Shared Phone Practices [clearly, I have some "local" (institutional) homework to do, regarding Nokia's efforts in Africa].

Last, but certainly not least, of the presentations was Joel Selanikio's session on IT and Public Health in Africa and other developing regions, highlighting the information deficit problems that pervade such regions, and severely diminish the prospects for providing effective health care awareness. Noting that only epidemiologists have, at most, 10% of the data that they need to identify and develop solutions for health problems, and 90% of this data is on paper (converting to digital form can take 1-2 years), Joel talked about a tool, EpiSurveyor, that enables a mobile device to be used in the collection of critical health data, which now provides a monthly flow of information from outlying clinics in Kenya. Joel also mentioned that he was working with someone at Nokia (more homework for me).

These three sessions, coupled with numerous informal discussions with other Foo Campers, suggests that the time is ripe for tapping into some of the sociotechnical energy in Silicon Valley (and multi-national companies with a presence there) to develop a more concerted effort to aid the developing world. I've started to formulate a scheme for some kind of two-day symposium this fall that would combine sessions on problems faced by Africa (by those who know them first-hand) with potential technology-enabled solutions to those problems (by those who know the technologies first-hand). I haven't gotten very far in the planning yet, but the spirit is strong ... even if the mind can't quite explain it (yet).

Meanwhile, I welcome any additional input about people, projects and/or organizations that are related to any of this.

[Update: thanks to some early feedback, I now realize that I omitted a few additional items of related work that I already know of; and, perhaps more importantly, didn't really provide much substance for my choice of a rather provocative title. I'll try to address these below.]

Last fall, one of my former colleagues, Charlie Perkins, now a Research Fellow at Nokia Siemens Networks, gave an internal presentation on some of his experiences during a recent tour of Africa, emphasizing a variety of opportunities offered through potential collaborations with local organizations there such as the Meraka Institute

Nathan Eagle, an MIT Research Scientist who is also Visiting Professor at University of Nairobi and Adjunct Professor at GSTIT in Ethiopia, visited our lab a few months ago, and gave an inspiring talk on his work in Kenya on the EPROM (Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles) program, which is promoting and supporting the development of applications, research and educational courses based on mobile phones for (and by) people in developing countries.

Gary Marsden, a Professor of Computer Science from the University of Cape Town, gave a CHI 2007 Social Impact Award talk, which I missed, but he was kind enough to visit our lab the day after the conference and share some of his insights into experiences with and opportunities for applying HCI techniques to develop contextually useful mobile applications and services that benefit people in the developing world (he also visited Google, after which they uploaded a video of his talk on "Mobile HCI in Africa"). In his blog post about CHI 2007, Gary mentioned a CHI workshop on User Centered Design and International Development and noted that "Developing World Interaction Design is now on the global radar"  ... so I'm not the only one talking about the trend.

Returning to the trend[iness] of Africa as a focus area for sociotechnically inclined people and organizations in the so-called developed world, I used the phrase "the new black" to signal - perhaps somewhat provocatively - its fashionability. However, simply being fashionable does not necessarily mean that it is superficial or shallow, nor that it will be short-lived. I believe the problems in Africa are deep, and even though I may be a bit behind the fashion curve in recognizing these problems, I hope the growing awareness (by me and others) will be matched by a commitment to solve those problems that is sustainable over the long-term.

[Update, 2007-07-15: BoingBoing posted an excerpt from an op-ed article in today's Washington Post entitled "Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa", by Uzodinma Iweala, the Nigerian author of "Beasts of No Nation", in which he comments on the negative reactions he and other Africans often feel toward celebrities - and others - rallying to the cause (cause celebre) of 'saving' Africa, ending with the following plea:

I hope people will realize Africa doesn't want to be saved. Africa wants the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with other members of the global community, we ourselves are capable of unprecedented growth.]

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