ICTs are transformi​ng Africa


I have insisted on this column from the outset that there are many good-news stories about Kenya that simply go untold by default in the commercial private media both here and abroad.

Indeed, we have reiterated this hugely im­portant point like a mantra. I have argued times without number that journalism focused on development but which remains interesting, informative, entertaining and thought-provoking, is eminently feasible, both in Kenya and abroad.

The message must be percolating to other newsrooms, both in Kenya and abroad, for unprecedented good writing and analyses on Kenyan and other African affairs (for instance the birth of South Sudan) are beginning to crop up in the unlikeliest places.

This suddenly good press includes the Financial Times of London’s news feature of a few weeks ago entitled “Kenya’s ‘Silicon Savannah’ to challenge India on IT”, published on June 6. And now here comes news magazine Time’s July 11 story on the impacts of information communications technologies in Kenya headlined “Kenya’s Silicon Success” and flagged on the cover where the main story is “Mexico’s Tragedy: Why its Drug Violence is America’s Problem Too”.

Very few personalities, events, trends and phenomena ever make it to the cover of the truly global newsmagazine, but there are only 52 issues a year and few are chosen. Thus, in order to feature on the cover of Time, even as a merely flag-pointed item, a person or event has to be really outstand­ing.

In fact, a Kenyan personality has only featured once on a Time magazine cover and it wasn’t Founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta or Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai. It wasn’t even after Independence. It was March 7, 1960, and the man was Thomas Joseph Mboya, then aged only 30 but already a nationalist and trade unionist of international repute and an icon of the then dawning era of Independence.

The far-sighted Mboya, who was slain only nine years after making the cover of Time, would have loved the Age of the In­ternet and ICTs. He would have been 81 this year.

Not since that momentous cover story 51 years ago has Time devoted a cover to a Kenyan subject or more than the four pag­es accorded “The Silicon Savannah” story. There have occasionally been Kenyan paid-for advertiser’s announcement sections in Time promoting the nation brand over the years and running to as many as 10 pages a time, but never another story of the inspiration, gravitas, excitement and positive buzz of the ICTs story.

First, Time borrows from Katrina Mason of the Financial Times the “Silicon Savannah” appellation, and then its writer, Alex Perry, emulates her breathless excitement in roll­ing out a good-news story about positive developments in Kenya and Africa general­ly. Going from the observation “…much of Africa is a giant, dark infrastructural void, as anyone who has flown over the continent at night can attest”, Perry rises almost to poetic heights when he waxes lyrical about Kenya’s world pioneering of mobile money in the following terms:

“Africa’s influence on global technology is most marked in mobile banking: with its M-Pesa service (M for mobile, Pesa meaning money in Swahili), Kenyan operator Safaricom became the first-ever telecom company to create a mass mobile-banking service, setting industry standards now being copied from California to Kabul”.

Perry notes elsewhere in his feature that the story he is retailing is not merely of how technology is changing Africa but of how Africans are themselves changing technolo­gy right back, using the mobile phone platform and other ICTs. He tells of such other world-class innovations from elsewhere in Africa as South Africa’s MXit, which uses SMS to send e-mail and run social networking sites and of mPedigree in Ghana and Sproxil in Nigeria, which use barcodes to verify whether medicines are genuine or fake.

Perry’s most eye-opening (nay, eye-popping!) disclosure concerns the entirely made-in-Kenya Ushahidi (Testimony) web­site, a crisis data-mapping platform created by just a few Nairobi computer code writers at the height of the post-election violence (PEV) of 2007-08. Ushahidi started out as a civil society crisis rapid-response platform where data on reports on PEV unrest were sent in by members of the public from di­verse locations across the country via SMS, e-mail and social media.

The most amazing thing is that Ushahidi has gone worldwide since the tragic politi­cal happenings in Kenya in early 2008. Ms Julianna Rotich, a co-founder of Ushahidi, tells Time’s Perry that “by May of this year, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had been used 14,000 times in 128countries to map everything from last year’s earthquake in Haiti to this year’s Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring”.

This is the height of development jour­nalism, teasing out the good news stories about truly innovative uses of ICTs that are almost entirely dependent on uninterrupted electricity flow in the least electrified continent in the world.

Africa’s own news media are in such in­competent and tabloid disarray when it comes to ferreting out positive develop­mental stories that most East Africans have probably never heard of the benefits of mPedigree or Sproxil and most West Afri­cans have never heard of the empowerment of M-Pesa and both groups know little or nothing of Ushahidi.

Perry does not miss a beat. He accurately observes that in the first week of July 2011, the Government of Kenya became the first in Africa, and one of the first in the world, to go completely data-open with the launch of the Government Data Portal last week. Millions of pages of Kenya Government files, some of them previously classified, are now available online in an initiative which Perry describes as one of President Kibaki’s “legacy projects”.

The writer is the Information Secretary of the Republic of Kenya. email:emutua @information.go.ke

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