Facing giants like Facebook and Twitter, African innovators say local knowledge is key to meeting needs, with platforms prioritizing indigenous languages and data rights
By Kim Harrisberg and Menna A. Farouk / Thomson Reuters Foundation, CAIRO and DURBAN, South Africa
Planning a funeral, exposing corruption or starting a business – tough tasks are now made easier by a generation of tech-savvy Africans tackling local issues beyond the reach of big tech.
It was frustration that prompted Tanzanian engineer Maxence Melo to launch an anonymous online whistleblower platform after his pleas to the media to investigate a series of dodgy megaproject contracts were met with silence.
His JamiiForums website was launched in 2006, unmasking the dark money trails of Africa’s rich and powerful, and now has over 3 million visitors a day.
It’s just one of dozens of African digital platforms that innovators say are doing what tech giants can’t: design tailor-made solutions for national needs.
“Local is king, we know what local solutions we need for our own contexts,” Melo said in a video interview from his office in Dar es Salaam.
Despite challenges such as limited internet access, funding shortfalls and intermittent electricity, African entrepreneurs are harnessing the potential of digital engagement, from online funeral services in Egypt to voicemail in Mali.
“Local innovations reduce reliance on foreign technology,” said Kathleen Ndongmo, a Cameroonian researcher and digital rights advocate, in a video interview.
“We have the local talent, and these local solutions help create jobs so that talent can stay on the mainland instead of leaving to work for tech giants,” Ndongmo said.
Egyptian entrepreneur Ahmed Gaballah never thought he would work in the death business, but the stress of helping a friend plan a funeral has him rethinking the funeral industry.
“It took us a long time to get the burial permit and we got lost on the way to the burial site. It was a frustrating experience,” said Gaballah, 40.
His funeral planning website Sokna, which means tranquility in Arabic, was launched in 2019 as a one-stop-shop that can ease some of the pressures after a death, whether it’s arranging body preparation, wrapping , transportation or placement of obituaries.
Client Noha Ibrahim, 55, said Sokna had made the aftermath of her father’s sudden death smoother and more peaceful.
“They took care of everything, from securing the burial permit, the new well-equipped van, managing transport from the hospital to the mosque and then to the cemetery,” said Ibrahim, who read information about Sokna. on Facebook.
While Sokna now has around 3,000 customers and 76 employees, Gaballah said he has seen countless digital start-ups collapse and burn, largely due to insufficient funding and poor internet connections.
“Tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have all the attributes needed to grow exponentially,” he said.
Still, Gaballah said none had his local expertise or insight.
“Most local entrepreneurs are solving problems that they have already encountered themselves,” he said.
Another driver of local innovation is language, Ndongmo said, especially on a continent with more than 2,000.
Malian developer Mamadou Sidibe witnessed the power of communication in indigenous languages when he launched his “voice social networking” service, Lenali, in 2017.
It allows users to communicate via voice notes that can be attached to images, helping informal marketers consume news and information and sell products online.
A simple tool, it has opened up new horizons for many people in Mali, helping the isolated and illiterate find a voice and providing opportunities for small businesses cut off from new markets.
“We have an oral culture and over 100 dialects,” Sidibe said. “One of the ways to be innovative is not to copy what is done in Europe or the United States – in general, we have to adapt everything to our own cultural reality.”
Less than a third of Malians can read and write, according to the World Bank.
Lenali has been downloaded 150,000 times in 118 countries, from Brazil to Sri Lanka to Russia, Sidibe said.
“We also teach literacy classes on the app. Our goal is not to keep literacy low – our goal is to make education, technology and business accessible,” Sidibe said of his ad-supported platform.
Big tech has come under fire for collecting and selling user data from the world’s main central bank umbrella group, the Bank for International Settlements, as well as campaigners against algorithmic bias and racism.
It’s an opportunity for local innovators to do things differently, said Melo, who has fought in court for more than a decade to protect data from whistleblowers, despite the government repeatedly asking JamiiForums to give them to him.
Ndongmo said the government crackdown on online resistance was his biggest fear for the future of innovation in Africa.
“You can’t innovate around repressive politics,” she said.
Melo racked up 159 legal challenges by the Tanzanian government for exposing corruption, but his refusal to back down paid off.
New leaders in Tanzania opened consultations with him to draft frameworks that would better protect freedom of expression.
Creating space for digital innovation doesn’t mean platforms shouldn’t be monitored, said Sidibe, who employs a handful of people to vet every Lenali post to root out hate speech, pornography or sexual abuse. danger.
Like JamiiForums, Lenali follows strict policies to protect users’ data rights and ensure their privacy.
“Big tech companies are interested in big data so they can do business with your data…they’re interested in profit, not truth,” Melo said.
There is nothing wrong with profiting from it, but not at the expense of users if the wave of African start-ups is to endure, thrive and take their place at the table alongside big tech, he said .
“It’s about the content you create, not what we can generate from you. It’s about the kind of information you can put on the platform to help others,” Melo said.
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