Apps4 Africa: State Department Driving Collaboration through Competition

In July 2009, President Obama addressed Ghana’s parliament, saying, “Africa’s future is up to Africans.”  That future, in part, will depend on developing infrastructure, building the capacity of civil society and educational institutions, stamping out corruption, and ensuring access to capital for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). These are all complex challenges that will require complex solutions. However, it is increasingly clear that technology, entrepreneurship and innovation will be part of the solution. On a continent where there is 25 percent electricity penetration but 37 percent mobile penetration, connection technologies are lowering the cost and increasing the effectiveness of everything from election monitoring to securing a loan to organizing civic action.   

More and more, Africans are behind some of the most effective digital tools for driving social change and economic inclusion. Ushahidi, a Kenyan crisis response platform, was used by the U.S. government and the United Nations for emergency response purposes in Haiti; and M-Pesa, Kenya’s mobile money platform, is among the most successful in the world. There are now physical spaces where new ideas live, in the form of tech incubators and co-working spaces, including the Hive Colab in Uganda, the iHub in Kenya, and Limbe Labs in Cameroon with similar spaces set to open in the near future.

Building on the momentum of the President’s Summit on Entrepreneurship and on Secretary Clinton’s call for American support of “Civil Society 2.0,” the State Department has launched Apps4Africa in collaboration with an amazing group of local partners – Appfrica Labs, SODNET and iHub. Apps4Africa, part of Secretary Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft Initiative, is a regional competition for the best digital tools built by local developers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania to improve the lives of people in their communities. While small doses of fame and fortune will be awarded to the most creative and useful apps, the most prized outcome of Apps4Africa will be a connected ecosystem of local talent, civil society organizations, and mentors from around the world.

This is how it works: Citizens, civil society organizations, and the public can submit ideas for problems that can be solved through the use of digital technology. For example, the following two ideas were recently introduced by local NGOs in Uganda and Kenya:

  • Vote Duplication Prevention: Governments in East Africa are working to publish voter registration databases. One idea generated was to develop an app that allows election commissions and authorized election observers to keep a real time tally, geo-located by constituency, of who has voted, to ensure that the final tabulation does not exceed the number of votes actually submitted. Such tools could be layered on existing mobile applications to report voter intimidation and fraud.
  • Mobile Math Tests: Assessing the quality of primary school education in rural environments by under-resourced NGOs working on education is a tremendous challenge. Perhaps a well-designed app could provide these NGOs with the ability to assess primary school math education through a set of 5 questions received and answered through mobile phones.

Promising ideas like these can be submitted in a variety of ways, including the www.apps4africa.org website, via Twitter (tweet to @Apps4Africa), and via SMS text message if you are in Kenya. Citizens around the world can then participate by voting good ideas to the top of the site, where technologists can build apps to solve the top challenges.

The competition is open to developers from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.  However, the technology-savvy from around the world can serve as online mentors for local programmers. So far, mentors from Silicon Valley to India have signed up – including experts in human computer interactions, PhD students, CEOs and mobile programmers.

A key part of the Apps4Africa model is that it does not just encourage collaboration online. Apps4Africa has sponsored a number of offline events that bring together developers and civil society leaders – who might not otherwise use the online platforms -- to share challenges and collaboratively brainstorm solutions.  These events – which have already been held in Nairobi, Kampala and Kigali – bring together educators, doctors, coders, technology entrepreneurs, health workers and community members.

The goal of Apps4Africa is much more than the creation of new and useful tools. We want to strengthen local communities already doing this work and spotlight regional innovators making it happen.

This shoestring-budget effort has been successful thus far because of the commitment of the local leadership — iHub, Appfrica and SODNET -- and enthusiasm of the communities they work with. We look forward to the outcomes of Apps4Africa, a competition that celebrates the idea that the energy, optimism and technical acumen of Africans can help change the way we solve big social problems, amplify the voice of marginalized communities, and lower the barriers to participating in public life.

Elana Berkowitz is an Innovation Advisor in Secretary Clinton’s Office at the State Department.

 

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