These networks of geeks – IT experts (1) who are building, sharing, instructing and innovating – aim to pollinise the Continent with digital know-how (3) without necessarily needing to wait for funding from initiatives of governments and international organisations.
By Philippe Royer
The African continent is in constant effervescence when it comes to digital development and innovative projects. Of course, there is a significant amount of groundwork required to fill in the gaps, build the Continent’s capacities and achieve the millennium development goals, particularly when it comes to education, infrastructure development and transferring technological knowledge.
One area in which Africa has excelled more, or perhaps differently to other continents, is that of social media. Faced with pressing social issues and following the success of “open” initiatives, Africa has seen the value of social media and the new collaborative practices facilitated by Web 2.0 and the rapid development of mobile apps. Also notable here is the influence of an engaged, transcultural and multilingual diaspora which disposes of advanced technological skills and is very active in the Global Village’s IT businesses (such as Coders4Africa (3)), as well as the increasing understanding of the multipolar geopolitical position of African countries (see the cultural experience of the Akirachix team in Kenya, for example). (4)
Not late; indeed quite the opposite.
Barcamps in Africa – sources of collaborative and innovative projects, emerging hubs and Living Labs
Since 2007 – roughly at the same time as on other continents – “barcamps” (“Beyond All Recognition Camps”) have been regularly organised. So far they have taken place in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, Benin, Tunisia, Mali and South Africa, to name but a few, and their frequency is increasing.
A barcamp is not your average conference: in principle, it is organised and run by an open and informal community, rather than by an institution or a company. The agenda is not set in advance: every speech is proposed, planned and coordinated on a wiki or other online tool. Each member of the community can contribute their ideas, and commits to actively participating in the event. The aim is primarily to share projects and, where possible, to create something together – whether this be a set of specifications, a better project, opportunities for partnerships, financial capacity, or coding – as well as essentially serving as a convivial exchange based on the principle of “no spectators”, “all participants”. (5)
The themes are becoming increasingly diversified, as are the formats of such encounters. As such, there are examples of barcamps dedicated to ICT, to health, to eCommerce as well as many dedicated to innovative uses of social media. (6) (7)
In the longterm, barcamps are helping to create a number of collaborative projects (such as Jokkolabs) (8) and clearing the path for other methods of discussion, technological competitions (Kidcodecamp/Akirachic in Kenya) (4) and living labs (such as the co-creation hub in Nigeria) (9). If the cost of organising a barcamp proves high, then communities often turn to crowdfunding for support. Large digital companies, mobile operators and social networks as well as foundations and international development institutions are increasingly supporting such efforts, as these prove excellent opportunities to observe the development of new projects and recruitment opportunities. (10)
Locations for innovation and digital pollinisation
Geek hubs are becoming increasingly prevalent on the Continent, particularly along its perimeters, where ICT infrastructure is in the midst of development. Spin-offs of university technical centres or eCommunities, often initiated by independent agents, serve as meeting places where stakeholders innovate and train, and facilitate the development of digital ecosystems. Such environments are used by geeks, creatives, academics, researchers, inventors, investors, public innovation development agencies, large ICT companies, trainers and teachers, who enjoy the space provided for creation and communication.
BongoHive (11), based in Lusaka in Zambia, aims to provide a platform for the eTech community to come together, share experiences, train, network and hold hackathons. With the aid of crowdsourcing, BongoHive has created a remarkable initiative for the geolocalisation of different hubs on the Continent, which reflects the dynamism of African geeks. This enables us to identify and contact 91 hubs of all categories, 73 ICT hubs, 63 business incubators, 13 university labs and 18 hacklabs. (12)
Part of Africa’s diaspora, these geeks are involved in providing ICT training to the youth in their countries. Comprising of five trained programmers who primarily work together in the USA for leaders in the digital field, their aim is to build the capacity of African software developers and ensure the Continent’s digital future. Following many years of informal efforts, they created an association and site called Coders4Africa. Their goal is to train 1000 programmers by 2016, enabling Africa to create its own IT ecosystem. They are in the process of recruiting and selecting young people in Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Kenya. For the moment, Coders4Africa is only operating using its own funds, but their efforts to seek financial support appear encouraging, and partnerships with Oracle and Microsoft look promising. This group’s ethos is not to wait for resources to become available, but to actively utilise their abilities and networks to help achieve their training goal.
Akirachix – Nairobi’s girl geeks on the front line (4)
At Nairobi’s iHub, a nursery for initiatives and innovations that radiate throughout much of Africa, Akirachix is a group of Kenyan geeks who are demonstrating that technology is not the sole province of men. Their initiative seeks to create a federation of female developers and digital professionals centred on a business hub, ICT projects and mobile apps. Akirachix already counts over 200 members within a sector which is 85% male. They are taking a proactive approach to redress this balance, for example by organising 1 and 2 week-long programming camps (Akirachix Kids Code Camp) where 13-year-olds can learn how to create their own website and improve their digital skills.
In conclusion, open knowledge exchange initiatives and training significantly enhance the development of digital capacity in Africa, whether these digital ecosystems are physical or virtual. This article merely mentions a few examples; browse through the different sites and hubs we have suggested to find an abundance of information and opportunities for cooperation and see the intersection of possibilities and potential in Africa.