Building a SMS Based and Server-less Volunteer Conversation App for Civil Societies in Uganda

Many civil societies in Uganda have volunteers across the country. The volunteers are integrated into local communities and, among other activities, act as disaster reporters. Disasters include floods, landslides, disease outbreaks, hailstorms, accidents, and others. The current solution for disaster reports includes a web formula and a lot of communication between different levels of management hierarchy.

In many cases, existing web formulas cannot be used by the volunteers directly because of missing access to smartphones and/or the internet. Days can pass until information travels from volunteers to their regional manager and gets passed on to the head-quarter’s management. Even worse, communication is not only slow but information is sometimes lost. Therefore, faster and more direct communication would enable headquarters to act faster and more precisely on disasters.


My colleague Marlon Alagoda and myself Philipp Moser kicked-off the project in March 2020 together with Paul Spiesberger and Christoph Wimmer from the INSO, TU Vienna who established the connection to one of the local civil societies. This collaboration is a direct result of’s engagement with the Austrian Red Cross and their engagement within the Skybird Programme. Our goal was to enable our new partner to act faster and more precisely on disasters.

To achieve this, we built an Android app that acts as a chatbot with an SMS interface. Volunteers are able to file disaster reports via SMS and managers can aggregate, filter, and view disaster reports. Furthermore, volunteers do not need an internet connection. Only the smartphone that hosts the app, must be connected to the internet. If a volunteer wants to start a conversation with the Volunteer Conversation App in order to file a report, he or she just sends an SMS to the smartphone. The content of the message could be: “Hi, my name is John and I want to report a flood.” Afterwards follow-up questions are sent to the volunteer until the report is fully collected.

All volunteers have the phone number of the smartphone that hosts the application. They can file a report by sending an SMS to that one phone. The smartphone transfers the input from the SMS to Dialogflow and gets the follow up questions from the same service, which are then sent back to the volunteer. All data is stored locally on the smartphone and can be exported to Google Drive. Everyone who has access to the Google Drive folder can access the data. Branch managers could also have access to the data and use their own tools to process it.  However, “live” alerts can only be seen on the smartphone itself.

Left: Phone of volunteer reporting; Right: the report in the application.

This idea is not new and many other SMS/text based services such as U-Report are already out there. Nevertheless, for us the biggest advantage of our solution is that there are no custom servers required to run our text based chat bot in comparison with other solutions (e.g. U-Report). Our goal is that anyone who wants to run a text based SMS chat bot to collect data from a group of people will just have to download our application to start the service and we are currently working on this vision.

Please feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions, if you are working in the same direction, see an opportunity for collaboration or/and know similar projects we could team up with. The application is not yet publicly available, but we develop our application as an open source project. We encourage you to check out the code base, file bugs/requests and contribute to the project.

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Building a SMS Based and Server-less Volunteer Conversation App for Civil Societies in Uganda
was published on 11.02.2021 by Paul Spiesberger. It files under east africa, Europe
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The Skybird Programme: Innovation and partnerships in WASH for improved living conditions in East Africa

Over the last year we established a partnership with the Austrian Red Cross to team up in one of their current projects called Skybird funded by the Austrian Development Agency. The Austrian Red Cross together with its partners embarked on a 5-years regional WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) capacity strengthening programme in East Africa. It is the overall aim of The Skybird Programme to contribute to improved living conditions – including health, environment and livelihood – in East Africa through increased innovation, strengthened capacities and partnerships of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) movement in WASH and related fields to enable more gender sensitive and effective WASH service delivery.

The Skybird Logo

Geographic program priorities: The Skybird Programme targets the East African region, with specific focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Somalia and Uganda:

Map of the geographic programme priorities

Technical WASH knowledge was provided by representatives of the national WASH teams as well as through Austrian Red Cross WASH advisor Magdalena Bäuerl. Another key activity in the project is the implementation of micro-projects awarded to WASH priority branches of Ethiopia and Uganda Red Cross Society as well as other selected Red Cross National Societies in East Africa to foster innovation and collaboration. Although primarily WASH focused, the micro-projects will also explore the following related topics:

  1. Gender, diversity and inclusion
  2. Food security, nutrition and livelihood
  3. Digitalisation
  4. Cash Transfer Programs (CTP) and marked-based interventions
  5. Urban WASH
  6. Climate change and green energy
  7. Community engagement and accountability

Two workshops in Uganda and Ethiopia were implemented between the 11th and 20th February 2020. They invited national and international specialists for each of the related topics. We,, represented by myself (Paul) were covering the digitalisation part. The specialists had the task to bring in new aspects and ideas into the Red Cross to break their patterns and think a bit outside of the box. The two workshops were split into two phases and Red Cross members from all over the country gathered in their respective capital city to participate in the workshop.

Workshop in Ethiopia (by @chriskloyber)

Phase 1

Phase 1 was focusing on defining problems in the regions where the Red Cross is active. It was quite interesting to hear Red Cross workers describe first hand problems people in Uganda and Ethiopia face, since they work on the front lines every day. The problems range from

  • Food shortage & nutrition
  • Lack of income, inefficient agricultural techniques & tools
  • Unreliable weather conditions, floods & climate crises
  • School dropouts – especially young women caused by a lack of sanitary pads
  • HIV/Aids infections
  • Deforestation
  • Illiteracy
  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Lack of toilets/latrines
  • Minor citizen rights
  • Gender inequality
  • High crime rates & rape
  • Soil infertility
  • Lack of fresh drinking water
  • Single mothers with no support
  • Alcohol & drug abuse
  • Informal settlements with no legal validity
  • Domestic violence on a daily basis.

Christian Kloyber then guided the participants through a Process of Design Thinking. Each local Red Cross branch chose one of their most pressing problems and started to generate ideas on how to tackle them. Tools as negative thinking or brain-writing pool were introduced to the participates and many ideas were generated. This was also the moment where the specialists stepped in. We were moving from table to table to bring in our expertise. I tried to spice up the ideas with ICT4D approaches and proposed technologies to support their cause and ideas. This was quite challenging, since many of them rarely thought of using ICTs as a tool in their daily work. Some already got in touch with application such as Kobo or mobile money, but never thought of going beyond. I talked with them about data can empower communities and how for instance Ushahidi is visualizing citizen activism, how iWalkFreely is fighting against woman harassment, weather forecasts via SMS can change the way farmers work and how Farmerline is supporting them via mobile technologies. How health workers use decision trees on mobile phones to pre-diagnose diseases, how voice based mobile phone games can educate the illiterate and how mobile saving groups / micro financing apps can empower women to be more independent. Over the first 2 days we developed first ideas on how to tackle their problems.

The working groups from the different regions in Uganda focused on the following aspects:

  • IGANGA: improve hygiene and sanitation through mobilizing communities through sensitization and setting-up sanitation facilities.
  • MOROTO: manage waste through community engagement in green energy and setting-up waste management centre.
  • KAMPALA SOUTH: Capacity building for entrepreneurs through waste management through collecting waste for recycling and reselling as well as starting gulper businesses and using a phone app to sell products.
  • LIRA: communal farming and family farming through mechanization of agriculture, collectively purchasing modern tools, involving the entire household to increase production and promoting digitalization to ease access for market information as well as promoting family incentives to motivate them and encourage trading in farming unions.
  • NTUNGAMO: equipping single mothers with the right knowledge to be assertive through sensitization campaigns about dangers of female pregnancy and the importance of keeping girls in schools as well as empowering single mother.
Red Cross participants in Kampala with their trainers

Working groups from Ethiopia ended the first 2 days with the following set of ideas:

  • SOUTH OMO: introduce alternative source of energy, easily accessible, avoid deforestation (forest is source of energy and income); provide alternative forms of energy including solar and stoves or Wonderbags; ecotourism; diversifying income generating activities e.g. bee keeping, poultry.
  • ADDIS: focus area are non-official settlements of refugees. Different type of payment system for post or pre-paid using mobile system to afford water, engage the private sector to be attracted to the area and provide information on the location of the service provider; use of mobile money; pipeline extension.
  • BENISHANGUL: feedback mechanism and information for the public regarding (water) services. The community needs to be able to access information and file complaints; Show why something is still broken – show where the spare part currently is e.g. DHL tracking and causal change; advocacy for the water user committee so that they start working.
  • BAHIR DAR: market area with a lack of hygiene facilities – combine a latrine with some source of income e.g. coffee shop so that the latrine can afford income; use of biogas; also add shower services; linked to next level of disposal treatment;
  • WEST ARSI: introduce and promote energy saving stoves and biogas, promote gender equity. Provide agricultural inputs, establish and maintain water infrastructure.
Red Cross participants, specialists and their trainers in Addis Abeba

Phase 2

The last two days were headed by Michaela Pichler. Since more than 12 years Michaela is developing, writing and implementing international project with the Austrian Red Cross. She shared her profound knowledge and experience with the participants over a 2 days workshop in a very joyful and fun manner. She took the results/ideas from the first 2 days and guided the participant to order them in a structured way.

We started to frame our overall goal and went back to the problem statements. What is the thing we are working on and what is the overall goal each group has? After our overall goal was set, we moved on to define our specific objective(s) – so how are we contributing with our idea to the overall goal? We described our expected results and which activities are necessary to achieve these results to contribute to a specific objective and the overall goal. This structured path gave the participants good tools to plan, describe, evaluate and reflect on their ideas. On the last day we discussed logframes and how indicators help to determine what progress has been made towards achieving the objectives in the logframe.

All the training on creative thinking and on the development of a proper project application had a deeper purpose than just an improved future project application writing. The actual goal was to prepare the participants for Phase3 in the Skypbird project where they will have to apply the tools they learned in Phase 1 & 2.

Phase 3

We are currently in March 2020 and therefore in the middle of Phase 3. Red Cross members in East Africa are now starting to compete against each other in a competition for the best micro-project ideas. They will have to find problems in their area of action, find creative solutions and then write them down in form of a project application. Phase 1 & 2 prepared them with the tools they need to do so. The competition will happen within the Red Cross only. Over the next couple of weeks the Skybird organizers in collaboration with their specialists will review the project proposals and choose the best applications. The winners will get a budget to pilot their ideas and implement their project. I am very exited about the ideas coming in and we are looking forward to review and continue working with the Austrian Red Cross in Eastern Africa.

Icons, logos and picture credits: Austrian Red Cross

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The Skybird Programme: Innovation and partnerships in WASH for improved living conditions in East Africa
was published on 12.03.2020 by Paul Spiesberger. It files under east africa
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Much more than an app developers camp…

Ohrid is located on the shore of a big lake with crystal clear water in the south west of Macedonia. It bears a diverse ecological system and is millions of years old. The UNESCO accepted Lake Ohrid as Natural World Heritage Site. Tiny fish tickle your body when you keep still for a while. It is a holiday paradise and i wonder why i’ve never heard of it before.

There we met last weekend to choose the 3 winning projects of an international app development project called mYouth 2.0 which provides space for youth that is already in the field of new technologies in order to develop further their potentials and ideas.

4 participants from Asia, 4 from Africa and 4 from Europe pitched in front of a 12 member expert jury.
The jury chose one winner of each continent.
The 3 winners are invited to the European Youth Award festival in Graz in November 2018.


photo (c) Mladiinfo

It took me several days to write this recap. Why? Cause it was such a valuable experience that i didn’t want to cut it down to a few words. Nor would some pictures show what really fascinated me about this event. I’ll give it a shot…

We spent 5 days together. More than 30 people from 3 different continents: East African Region (Kenya and Tanzania), West African Region (Senegal and Ghana), North Asian Region (Vietnam and Hong Kong) and South Asian Region (Singapore and Philippines) as well as the European Region that involves Poland, Germany, Austria, Macedonia and Romania  – I thought of justing naming a few exemplary countries but it is so impressive if you make yourself aware of this diversity. Just being in the middle of this vibrant community was already worth travelling to Ohrid. I felt an excitement that i experience seldomly these days. A feeling that there is a vibrant and positive world beneath frightening news and fascist governments. That there are people who are actually making a change by helping their local communities and therefore bringing valuable ideas to the global society.

And the contestants do exactly that. Some of them experienced hard times in their young lifes and decided to protect people in the future from those experiences. Some of them observe problems in their communites and decide to do something about it. Some have a smart idea and want to develop it further. They get creative and use mobile technologies to help for example pupils who want to learn more about the world but simply don’t have learning material. Or to make dental service affordable for people who can’t rely on a health care system. Or to give an effective tool to people who want to make music but have no idea where to start – Spoiler: Those are the winners 😉

Jurying and choosing those 3 winning projects was tough. Many of the presentations where very convincing, several of the pitches where brillant, all of the projects are worth to be supported. It took us hours to discuss and decide. Sometimes i ask myself if competitions like this one are just wrong when all of them deserve to win. But then again it is a big boost for your motivation if you strive towards a goal.

The competion itself tough was just one aspect of the whole event. We coached the contestants and their projects and we learned a lot from them as well. So it was in fact a win-win situation. And we had time to spare. Some of the most interesting and deepest conversations emerge while you have lunch together or enjoy the sunset on a hill in Ohrid.

There would be so much more to say about the event, about technological aspects, about how important a proper design process is for an app project and so on but i think i already implied what was most important for me:
People from different cultures, of various ages, with different backgrounds came together in a peaceful, respectful and joyful way. We worked together, supported each other and simply had fun. It was organised by a careful and dedicated team (thanks so much Mladiinfo!). Jumping into this intercultural experience was one of the best things i did recently.

To be fair: It was an almost perfect setting and it is not easy to organise such intercultural events. But i think you can scale it down to your daily life as well. Even short contacts between persons with different cultural backgrounds can be interesting and authentic if you kick yourself in the butt and step our of your comfort zone. Give it a try! You won’t be disappointed. And it doen’t matter if you speak the same language or not.

Much more than an app developers camp…
was published on 30.09.2018 by Georg Steinfelder. It files under east africa, east asia, eastern and central europe, Europe, global, middle east and north africa, south asia
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Consequences of Mobile ICT4D Constraints

A Research Study on Information and Communication Technologies for Development: Mobile Phones & Empowerment

The past two years I worked on my Master’s Thesis which was part of our ICT4DMZ project in Mozambique. I had the pleasure to work with local students and develop an Android application with them. FindUEM is an application which helps students to find PIOs (Point of Interest) at their campus, you can download it from the Play Store. During my stay I conducted my research on if this Android application is usable by the students. Not in terms of usability, but rather if they have access to the technology. So I conducted a survey regarding students’ mobile hardware and on how they use their phones. Back then, only one third was capable of using the Android application regarding hardware and Internet connectivity. So I started to develop a concept of a SMS based FindUEM, which grants access to everyone in possession of a mobile phone. During my research SMSSync was published, which does similar a things and underlines the importance of my research. Out of 451 students, only one did not have a mobile phone. This shows once again the exceptional potential of mobile hardware in the field of ICT4D. My work got recently published as a book and you can buy it here. If you want to know me about this topic, then do not hesitate to drop me a mail or comment below.

The abstract

This book analyses and challenges the fast and dynamic movement of new mobile technologies, particularly in developing countries like Mozambique. The work places itself in the research field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development. The focus lies in the context of mobile technologies in developing countries and on how people can access information on these devices properly. An Android prototype application designed to navigate people around the campus was developed in a lecture with Mozambican students at the Maputo Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. A survey carried out as part of the research indicated that the Android application is not accessible to certain students due to a lack of technology and connectivity. Therefore, an alternative SMS based interface is introduced to meet the criteria of Human Computer Interaction for Development and Universal Design. The new solution uses already existing and cheap infrastructure, focuses on low-end hardware, works along with future-proof alternatives and does, in comparison with the Android application, not exclude potential users.


Book Cover - Consequences of Mobile ICT4D Constraints – a Case Study of Mozambique

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Consequences of Mobile ICT4D Constraints
was published on 25.03.2017 by Paul Spiesberger. It files under east africa, sub saharan africa
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Using ICTs in schools with no electricity

interacting with a whiteboard (in front of a blackboard) in Senegal

One persistent criticism that I hear of educational technology projects in many places — and especially in Africa — is that ‘there are too many pilot projects’. ‘What we really need’, or so the lament usually continues, ‘are things thatscale‘. While I don’t necessarily agree that more pilot projects are not useful — to the contrary, I have in the past explored why we need more (not fewer) ICT4D pilot projects in education — few would argue that we shouldn’t be focused on finding ‘solutions’ that ‘scale’.
One challenge that many groups find when trying to scale educational technology projects is that they often begin by working with relatively well-resourced schools in or near urban areas, seeking to establish proof-of-concept that something specific works (e.g. a technology, an approach to teacher training) before taking on the greater challenges of working in, for example, rural schools that are off-the-grid and which have few (if any) qualified teachers. It should perhaps not be so surprising that what works in the first set of schools may not work quite so well in the second set.
There are other groups who choose to start with the most difficult environments first, figuring that (1) that is where the need is greatest; and (2) if a model or approach works there, it might have a better chance of working (most) everywhere.
I am regularly contacted by groups who seek to work in such environments, but only rarely hear back from them with reports about what they are actually learning about working successfully in such environments (I do unfortunately hear a lot about failure), and how they are changing their approach or model as a result. One organization I have heard back from recently in this regard was Cybersmart Africa, a group I had initially learned about because of its innovative use of nylon sheets, PVC pipe, and a modified Nintendo Wii remote to assemble low cost interactive whiteboards for use in schools in Senegal. Cybersmart Africa works exclusively in schools with classrooms with very poor physical infrastructure (including those with no or very limited electricity). “If this is the reality for 80% of schools in Sub-Saharan Africa, and we need to scale ICT use for education, why base what you are doing on what 10-20% of the privileged have?” asks Cybersmart Africa founder Jim Teicher.
(Another example of an approach designed to work in very difficult environments is so-called interactive radio instruction; this has been shown to scale well in many places, but, for a variety of reasons, has often proved to be difficult to sustain. One Mouse Per Child, which has also been profiled on the World Bank EduTech blog previously, is another.)
Many of the Western NGOs and firms with whom I speak who are interested in ‘working in a developing country’ start with a very high level or high concept approach, figuring essentially that, if the strategy is largely correct, the details will follow. (Indigenous groups and international NGOs with long experience ‘on the ground’ usually know better, of course.) Such groups can become frustrated when they discover that it is often an accumulation of ‘small details’ that ensure their particular approach or model does not work. It is better to walk than curse the road, or so the saying goes in Wolof, one of the languages used in Senegal, and this is an approach that the Cybersmart team seems to be following. When speaking recently with Teicher, one of the most encouraging things I found was that he first wanted to share information not about grand theories about what *might* work, but rather about a lot of the ‘little things’ they have been learning about what *doesn’t* work, and about how iterating (and iterating, and iterating!) has been key to their ability to learn and make changes to their approach to methodically improve what they are doing. Things like:
  • If you are off-the-grid and need to use batteries, don’t used lead car batteries, which can cause big problems if/when they tip over, even if they are commonly available. Use sealed AGM batteries instead.
  • Let’s be honest: In most cases, there are too few computers in a school for too manystudents, and it is difficult to integrate their use into normal instruction.  Don’t make things more difficult by segregating computers into their own special rooms (e.g. computer labs). Instead, take the technology to the teachers and students where they are currently teaching and learning — in the classroom itself — and use tools like projectors and interactive whiteboards that impact as many students as possible at one time.  (While you’re at it, be prepared to spend more on teacher training and support than on the technology itself.)
  • Given a choice (and there is a choice more often that you might think!), always search for local products (or, barring that, products that can be assembled locally) instead of immediately looking to import goods from abroad — this can be key to keeping costs down and keeping your supply chain as local as possible. This approach applies as much to the PVC material that they use for the portable ‘interactive whiteboards’ that they have assembled as to lesson plans, which are developed locally.
Sounds simple, you might say, to which I would say: you are exactly right.
moving a low-cost portable interactive whiteboard -- over rocks and sand -- between classrooms
Now, it is not my place or intention to do so here to ‘endorse’ the work of any particular organization (I’ll note parenthetically that World Bank has not supported this particular project in the past — although USAID has).
Rather, it is to highlight an approach which begins by working in the most challenging environments and not simply taking a model that worked successfully in Paris or Pretoria and assuming that, with some small modifications here and there, it will work everywhere. That’s common sense, you might say, and I would certainly agree. But, if the parade of groups who (seek to) pass through our offices here at the World Bank demo’ing their wares are any indication, and the many stalled projects I visit around the world are in any way representative, too often ‘common sense solutions’ are discarded in favor of what’s ‘new and exciting’. While funding what’s new and exciting may be fashionable for donors (should I be surprised that every other project proposal I seem to come across these days seems to include the use of mobile phones in some way?), in the end that it is usually the most practical solutions that find traction with teachers and students over time.
More information (short videos):
  • Here’s a short promotional video from Cybersmart Africa showing off its work. (A hint: watch it first with the sound off to focus on what classrooms in participating pilot schools actually look like)
  • Here are some interviews with school leaders (don’t turn the sound down on this one!) and a short explanation of how text messages (SMS) are being used in conjunction with low cost interactive whiteboards to support teachers.
  • Cybersmart has also posted 17 student-made videos, put together as a result of a special ‘digital storytelling’ initiative it sponsored. The idea here was first to gain the confidence and support of parents and community leaders by extend traditional storytelling customs into the digital realm, before moving on to other things. The result: 17 portraits of contemporary village life in Senegal.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post (“interacting with a whiteboard (in front of a blackboard) in Senegal”) comes courtesy of Cybersmart Africa.  The second image (“moving a low-cost interactive whiteboard — over rocks and sand — between classrooms”) is taken from a screen capture of the ‘Snapshot – Cybersmart Africa’ video on YouTube.  Both are used with permission of the rights holder.

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Using ICTs in schools with no electricity
was published on 17.11.2011 by Worlali Senyo. It files under east africa, global, sub saharan africa
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Zanzicode Incubator Course to be started beginning of 2011 is happy to announce that we are about to start a second course within our Zanzicode project. The Incubator Course – a joint venture of with Chembe Ventures – will run in parallel to our initial initiative, which we will refer to as Basic Course from now on.

The aim of the program is to provide talented young would-be entrepreneurs with the
tools they need to launch and maintain their own web ventures.

Here is the Incubator Course description as stated on the Zanzicode website:

The 12 month Incubator Course measures up to the entrepreneurial spirit of graduates of the Basic Course. Strong programming skills and the goal to set up an own real world online business are prerequisites for this course.
Students are guided through the process of realizing a business, from the idea to the running software and the working micro enterprise. We also stick to Open Source Software, but we optionally switch to Java and Google technologies as industrial standards. After the course the students will be owners of their own business. The course hosts 4 students.

Having conversations with our graduates and students, we got excellent feedback about their progress within the web development community in Zanzibar. The most rewarding statements for us are that graduates are working in the software industry and are keen to move on with their skills. They are searching for ways to educate themselves further. So the idea of an advanced course came up. We proposed approaches and got the commitment from possible future students.

After the experiences we gained so far, we agreed that the students should work on one big ongoing project during the course. The discussion with Sean Murphy (We got to know him at Africa Gathering April 2009 in London) led to the resolution that the best idea would be that students should not only develop plain software solutions, but also business models around the software and then eventually – at the end of the course – become business owners and run their venture. Sean offered to substantially fund this course through the company he is running, Chembe Ventures, which is specialized in seed funding and organizing tech events for African IT startups.

So after successfully acquiring complementary funding, the budget is set and the agreement with Chembe Ventures is signed. We are hereby going to the public and are very happy to announce this.

We are open for applications for this course via office (AT) and are happy to send out detailed informations upon request. Applicants should not hesitate to call Salum Rashid (Zanzicode Lecturer) on his Zantel line: +255 777 755443 to get the details in Swahili.

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Zanzicode Incubator Course to be started beginning of 2011
was published on 03.11.2010 by Florian Sturm. It files under east africa
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“Images FOR Africa” hits 10.000 pieces

We are proud to announce that our flickr group Images FOR Africa reached 10.000 pieces some days ago. From the Images FOR Africa description:

We want to collect ‘Images of Africa’ that are ‘free to use’ according to a Creative Commons License: Social documentary, structures, public transport, village life, poverty, nature, wildlife … everything!

There is no special purpose other than spreading/providing Africa related, CC licensed photos in media:

so they can be used free of charge by e.g.:
– Africa related NGOs/NPOS to do proper media-work,
– local business initiatives for their web presence,
– upcoming journalists,
– …

We took this round lot of 10.000 and created a flickr gallery where we curate the best picks from the group. Based on this beautiful sample we are looking forward to print some shots and try to organize an exhibition.

Click on the image to get to the gallery:

Just a short remark on the group: A lot of people add their images ‘blind’ and don’t license the images as “creative commons” before they post to the group. We assume that these flickr users at least read the group rules but don’t know about creative commons and want to support the cause anyway.

If you want to use the picture for some purpose, just write the user who shot it. Describe what you will use it for and reference to the group rules. If the user is not ok with it, we will have to remove the picture from our group pool. Just send a message to our flickr account in that case.

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“Images FOR Africa” hits 10.000 pieces
was published on 21.02.2010 by Florian Sturm. It files under east africa, middle east and north africa, sub saharan africa
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ZIFF Zanzibar International Film Festival 2009

ZIFF is the Zanzibar International Film Festival, and was (almost) in full swing when I arrived here. It is a magnificently (dis)organised event which brings film makers, entrepreneurs, NGOs and chancers from all over East Africa and beyond. Martin (of whom more later), as well as running an NGO which brings sustainable technology to local people, made a film about the growing use of mobile phone technology in Africa. It is well worth watching (will publish the web version sometime). More below. It is an acknowledged fact that in Africa, the mobile phone has leaprfrogged land-line phone technology; almost all people here have a mobile – a SIM card costs £0.50, and calls are cheap. More of this later.

We spent several convivial evenings at ZIFF, which is held in the old fort, a double-chambered structure, open to the air. One chamber has a sort of amphitheatre, where the films are shown; the other is an open area with a stage at which concerts took place into the small hours. There is a well-stocked bar in each. Entry was a problem (”residents” get charged £0.50, foreigners £5 or £10).

The first evening passed pleasantly enough – we finally joined up with a group of Belgian film makers who, like many others here, are involved in the general East African cultural scene, which seems to be thriving. Subsequent evenings were quieter, but we were constantly bumping into Martin’s endless contacts, some local, some European – one who came to Uganda/Kenya/Mozambique 5 years ago, and forgot to leave. All manage to make a living, sometimes precarious, but I’m slowly (quite rapidly, actually) realising that you do not need a lot in the way of material goods. It helps, and I know that I am leaving (I hope not for ever) in a few weeks, so a slightly disingenuous thought.

Apart from a few “big” movies, most of the them were sparsely attended. There was an endless cycle of films about AIDS, mostly well-meaning, but I wonder if they ever reach their target audience. Another cycle with harrowing stories of young women in traditional societies, mainly Moslem, who had a relationship, got pregnant, were abandoned and then had to face the most appalling consequences. (While predominantly Sunni Moslem, Zanzibar does not go in for that sort of thing.) One charming film from Cameroun about a couple of friends who compete for a girl (a beautifully choreographed picture of village life); the father wants to marry the girl off to a corrupt politician; she finally succumbs for the good of her family. Her erstwhile fiancée, meanwhile, is in jail after being stitched up by the politician. In the final scene, reminscent of The Graduate (Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft – remember?), the boy is released from jail by an honest policemen and, reconciled with his friend, they race up to the church just as the bride is about to say “I do”. They charge into the church, the girl runs off with her boy, after they have barred the door of the church with a giant pole through the door handles.

The last evening was a gala event, and we went down with the Zanzibits students, who were in a mood of ebullient effervescence. It is hard to exaggerate this; they were absoultely fizzng with good humour. They had made a short film in their class – a series of folk tales and fables, engagingly animated and making liberal use of local children. Another upload for sometime. Finally, Madame Karoume (the mother of the current president of Zanzibar; his father was the first president after indepence, so she is a double first lady) made an endless speech, in Swahili but, like the actor reading the telephone book, never boring. The guest of honour was Danny Glover (Colour Purple), who had previously been driven through the streets in a convoy of Unicef jeeps with blaring sirens. He was rather the worse for wear (or, as they say, tired and emotional but without the emotion), and made a rather uninspiring speech. Then the winning film was shown (an excellent, if violent, film about modern South Africa) and, true to form, everybody (or at least the bigwigs and a sizeable proportion of the audience) left as it started and migrated to the bars and music for more networking.

As a sort of postscript, there was an extra day on Sunday at which Martin’s film – Hello Africal – a cinema verité film about mobile phone usage in Zanzibar was screened to the normal sparse audience. This will also be posted in due course. The streets are now much quieter, and the nightly street market (inter alia, excellent Zanzibarian Pizza, which is not a pizza at all, for £0.75) has migrated to Africa House, which I have not yet visited.

Dan Hamm, our member on site wrote this wonderful review of ZIFF 2009 here:

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ZIFF Zanzibar International Film Festival 2009
was published on 30.07.2009 by Martin Konzett. It files under east africa
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Thoughts from M4Change Nairobi

In reflecting on M4Change Nairobi, it occurred to me that ideas largely cluster around other ideas. It was difficult to decide whether this is because ideas emerge as responses to felt needs or because a dominant idea creates a sort of tunnel of vision, sucking other ideas into itself. I would say it was a little bit of both.

Whatever the case, the dominant topic at M4Change in Nairobi convened by Strathmore University and, headlined by two talented and energetic young ladies, Jessica Colaco and Juliana Rotich and held at Strathmore University on 27th June, 2009 was that of Mobile money transmissions, with Safaricom’s MPesa clearly at the back of everyone’s mind.

That said, it was not surprising that the first session was on the topic of Mobile banking. It’s clear mobile money has significantly impacted society and commerce in Kenya. Landing into the country, you encounter its effect almost immediately. If you ask your Taxi driver, he’ll likely tell you he is willing to receive his payment via the dominant mobile money transfer system, MPesa. 

If you penetrate Kenyan society you will find other innovative, original uses.  There was a report of how investment clubs, known locally as Chamas, a very popular savings unit in the country, use MPesa to collate and save their funds. This is done either done on a dedicated phone or on the Treasurer’s phone. The officials spread risk and share joint responsibility for the funds thus collated by each keeping one digit of the account’s pin number so that they can only access the funds together.

Koome from Clean Air Action shared how the organisation has used MPesa as a cheap, convenient and timely way to disburse money to farmers in the Mt Kenya region to incentivise farmers to plant trees.

Other examples of use mobile payments abound including but not limited to paying bills, paying rent, paying casual workers and paying school fees. The critical question of the Mobile Banking session at M4Change Nairobi and indeed of the day therefore became, “where do we go from here? What’s the next thing for mobile money beyond facilitating remittances?

The techies and developers in the house expressed a strong interest in seeing the MPESA API (Application Programming Interface) ‘set free’ to enable them develop new and innovative uses for mobile money. Per one of the participants who also attended the Mobile Banking Conference held in Nairobi earlier, MPesa is owned by Vodafone so that is where the decision to release the API would be made. (Aside: In thinking about this I came to the conclusion that this is a plus rather than a minus. Especially if reports are true that international development funds were invested in MPesa’s for initial development, it should make the service more susceptible to lobbying to be more open and accessible.)

There were a couple of side discussions of note: should (independent) developers for the mobile platform develop services targeted at specific uses and users or develop services and give them to users who will find uses for them according to their needs? And, should companies be driven by a desire to deliver specific benefits to the end user or simply by a direct profit motive that then yields the benefit? The back and forth on this was not so much conclusive as thought-provoking.

The challenges that came to the fore included the lack of interoperability between Kenya’s existing mobile money services. On the surface this makes sense on account of the services having been initially designed not so much as profit centres but as a “retention factor”, to significantly increase switching costs for users. As long as they ably serve this purpose especially for the dominant market player, Safaricom, there is little impetus on the part of the mobile operator to allow transfer across networks. As I see it, this would typically be an area where relative newcomers into the fray (Zap versus Safaricom for example) would have an opportunity to lead in being reactionary and providing cross-network transfer capability. I imagine however that in this case, both technical and security considerations would necessitate proactive participation of both parties. (Is this a space that the CCK is justified in occupying as arbiter?)

The response of banks to MPesa was also a subject of interest. It took a while, methinks, to understand what impact the entry of mobile money solutions into the financial services space meant. When at last they did, they initially responded somewhat defensively, with calls to the Central Bank of Kenya to regulate (code for rein in) MPesa. Now however, they’ve made significant progress and are proactively involved in introducing their own mobile money remittance platforms such as Hello Money by Barclays, or working in tandem with MPesa such as Consolidated Bank which it was reported enables transfers between its accounts and MPesa.

Along a like theme, the highlight of the afternoon was a presentation about a mobile payment solution from Rwanda. The service, Smsmedia, enables Rwandese to purchase prepaid electricity via scratchcard and pay for its use via text message. What was particularly interesting to me about the Smsmedia presentation by Jeff Gasana who flew in from Kigali just to participate in M4Change Nairobi (Now that’s dedication!) was that when efforts to collaborate with the dominant local mobile operator to facilitate the payments they envisaged failed, they went ahead and created their own solution, a scratchcard system which cost a little more the customers but still delivered the value that they needed, both for the consumer and for the principal utility partner, the Electrogaz company. Now that they have the critical mass on their database, organisations that want to deliver messages to their network of customers are subsidising the cost of the service. Currently, they sell 40% of Electrogaz’s prepaid electricity. A simple, effective sustainable solution which has deservedly won numerous awards. The possibilities for scaling ‘across’ their experience with scratchcard payments seem endless. Smsmedia is definitely a company whose genesis it would be interesting to follow. Look it up at Kudos to Gasana and team.

On a slightly different but no less interesting note, the afternoon discussion ended with a lively discussion about good vs ‘bad’ uses of technology sparked by a presentation about Bluetooth stumbling, a viral way to bypass normal mobile phone transmission channels to transmit messages using a knock-on effect centred on a mobile phone’s unique IMEI number as identification.

Good things are happening in Nairobi, for certain, looking forward to more!

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Thoughts from M4Change Nairobi
was published on 06.07.2009 by Wambura Kimunyu. It files under east africa, sub saharan africa
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Paper: Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa

This is the summary of the paper “Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa” by Giacomo Zanello and Paul Maassen

It deals with ICT in support to citizen agency which includes to involve & inform communities and interact with and influence authorities

The paper focuses on what is already happening and where the potentials lie – how can active citizens interact with society & authorities with the use of ICT tools

The geographical area covered is Eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)

The research is based on an open questionnaire by Hivos

Key questions:

  • Which conditions enable citizen agency in developing countries?
  • How can ICT support citizen agency in order to influence the authorities?
  • Based on technological projections, how will ICT support the efficiency and effectiveness of citizen agency in 5 years time?



Civil society: seen as essential actor for promoting democracy in developing countries

Citizen agency: broader definition of civil society including NGOs, labour & student unions, …

The main reason why new ICT can help citizen agency

  • Bi- (or multi-) directional tools
  • Real time

The two main uses of ICT

  • Information and monitoring of authorities
  • Organize citizen actions

Examples for information and monitoring

  • Ushahidi: crowd-sourcing information on incidents and violence
  • Bunge SMS: tool to report to members of the parliament about the actions of the local government
  • Behind the mask: communication initiative for LGBTI activists
  • Global Voices Online: participatory news platform for developing countries
  • volunteer run project to keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament
  • East African platform for debates on various issues

Examples for organization

  • provides groups working in international development with email lists and webspace
  • Tactical Tech: international NGO providing human rights advocates with consultancy, tools, trainings & toolkits to increase the impact of their campaigns
  • FrontlineSMS: free software to turn a mobile with a modem into a communications hub
  • Nabuur: links online volunteers with local communities

Generally there is a big and vibrant civil society in East Africa and ICTs have huge potentials to assist these initiatives to reach their aim

It is no longer a question of technology – as technology is already there – but imagination, adaptability and time

The key is not complex devices, but usable and easy to understand technology – therefore it is important to focus on grass roots development instead of importing solutions

The prerequisites for a spread of ICTs in the next 5 years are

  • Energy – there is a need for alternative sources of energy such as solar power
  • Connectivity – the forecast in this study predicts a rise to about 70% coverage in Eastern Africa
  • Literacy – easy to use systems, voice command and local languages in applications can overcome the current problems
  • Income – new devices will cost less and be therefore better affordable

Another vital prerequisite is the need to find out about the desired use of ICTs for East African citizens – technology has to address the needs of the people

Therefore an interdisciplinary approach including anthropology would be useful

As seen above, for democracy and transparency ICTs have large potentials – including citizen journalism or election watch

The challenges of ICT in the near future are twofold

  • Networking between people with similar goals and for sharing experiences on a national or even global level
  • Give voice for global leaders and visionaries to give them visibility and connectivity


The original article Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa

I think the article is a good overview over the issues of civil society initiatives in East Africa in particular and the conclusions and predictions of it can even be extended to a larger geographical area.

It is once again underlined that real innovation always comes from bottom-up and ICT can release huge potentials when meeting the needs of the people.

I also definitely support the call for more interdisciplinary research on the ground to find out the real needs of the people – combined with collaborating with grass roots initiatives and empowering people by giving them possibilities to access to the world and connect with like-minded people.

I feel like the international research scene has given up the top-down approach already a while ago – but still there are way too many projects out there preaching not fitting imported solutions to citizens in developing countries and driving them into dependence of Western assistance.

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Paper: Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa
was published on 17.06.2009 by Florian Sturm. It files under east africa
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