Lunchtime Talk: Into Africa
Studio resident Tim Kindberg returned from his trip to Africa on 3rd April and this talk is his first attempt to unravel his experience and what he learnt. Tim spent his time in the African cities of Accra and Nairobi.
This trip began as a personal venture, Tim wanted to find partners to get involved in projects and through following his contacts (which led him to Accra and Nairobi) he was offered a job with the British Council for three days at the iHub in Nairobi.
Facts and discoveries
Tim talked us through his collection of photographs and gave his observations on what things are like in the parts of Africa he visited.
Accra, the capital of Ghana is a peaceful place, history reveals its succession of colonisation and centre of slave trade, which is still very much a visible artefact of the city.
There are no street maps in Accra, road names are not in people’s minds, to navigate you have to use landmarks, like the national theatre for example
There is quite a lot of digital activity in Accra most of which happens with mobile phones. Tim was delighted to see songs at church being exchanged via Bluetooth, and mobile top-up are being sold all over the place. There is a huge infiltration of mobile phones, everyone has at least one, possibly two mobile phones.
Despite a lack of computers, Google are very apparent in Accra, Facebook and Twitter are well established and Foursquare is used.
In Nairobi, in some respects, there is a lot more infrastructure than Accra. There are street names, there is an A-Z, you can buy chainstore coffee and foreign food. A large part of the population are ex-pats and there are lots of international organisations there. On the other hand, there is a great deal of poverty, there is evidence of corruption, and frequent power and water cuts.
This is tech savvy and entrepreneurial society on the whole. Like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, it is much more focussed on mobile than PC technology. Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world, 50-80% mobile penetration but less than 10% PC penetration. In Kenya 63% of the population have at least one mobile phone but 3.6% have computer.
The mobile penetration is greater than the banking penetration throughout Africa, in particular in rural Kenya. There is however a proportional amount of people across the continent who require the ability to send money from different places. Without bank accounts and online banking how is this possible? The solution is M-Pesa. M-Pesa is an application built into the sim card.
What actually happens is money is sent and received via a text, Tim uses the example of paying a taxi driver by asking him what his phone number is! When money is transferred, a message is sent back to head quarters, which sends a text that notifies the phones application that money has been transferred. There are no savings using this method, just the moving around of cash flow. This can work with any phone, as it is built into the sim card. To top up your phone you have to go to an M-Pesa outlet, which is operated by an assistant using a mobile phone. Once the money goes into the system it stays in the system.
There are some interesting organisations reaching out to a broad demographic:
Mediae produces popular soap operas with educational messages, include mobile numbers to text, which send out print that relates to the particular theme of the programme.
Award winning Shujaaz.fm is an example of African content for African people, this website aims to reach the urban youth of Kenya and is entirely written in Sheng, which is Kenya’s youth slang and has been designed to inspire and motivate millions of young Kenyans to take action to improve their lives and engage with urgent practical issues that shape their future.
GoDown Arts a centre for performing arts. A diploma in creative entrepreneurship has been set up here by Goldsmith’s university.
Safaricom has a performing arts centre.
The iHub, workshops and other activities oriented towards the Kenyan tech community. Culture Shift, the British council’s creative hack event, took place at the iHub with Tim’s involvement. This involved teams developing a business proposition. Teams were built from different practices, including creatives, technical people and business people to work in collaboration to develop a business. They then faced a panel where their propositions were evaluated and the successful team were awarded a grant.
Tim proposes how would you build out an African superstructure despite an unreliable infrastructure and without creating a dependence on western corporation contact?
Information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) comes from the understanding that something needs developing and this generally refers to the development of staples of life: health, education and agriculture, there are very rarely any initiatives about culture, which in Tim’s opinion is very important for any societies well being. He proposed what about Digital Media for development and then he thought why D? What about Digital Media for Africa? There is a huge amount of creativity in Africa, it just needs to be unlocked in a digital way. Digital work is easily distributed which would give the work somewhere to go. From here interactivity could be added in order to create more touch points. There is a lot of lightweight digital work done in the western world that does not involve complicated programming.
Unfinished buildings are not an uncommon sight in Africa. There are lots of instances where buildings had started to be built and then funding ran out therefore work ceased. Tim started thinking about things you can build or put on top of already existing infrastructure. The idea of superstructure was born, of culturally appropriated ways to transcend incomplete infrastructure. For example cell towers are an ideal thing to plant on top of even the ropiest of infrastructures. This is also bound up with the question of how to democratise access to the digital economy in Africa: in a world with phones but no PC’s how can you make it possible for people to easily make and distribute digital creations?
Tim’s next goal is to find a specific point of engagement in order to explore ways to progress and aggregate the digital economy in Africa. This could take many forms; it could be a workshop, it could be helping to establish a content distribution network. How can we have a mobile creative workstation, for instance? These are all questions and broad ideas that Tim hopes to begin to address in the near future.