Field Stories

Behind the Lens: meet the winners of the 4th eLearning Africa photo competition

The eLearning Africa Photo Competition 2013 attracted a flurry of exciting entries. Vying for the three jury prizes of a tablet, a digital camera and a smartphone, photographers from all over the Continent sent in their own photo-stories of “Tradition and Innovation”. This year, we even introduced a small innovation of our own: the “public vote” category, carrying the prize of a digital camera, in which visitors to our website could vote for their favourite photograph. After thousands of votes had been cast, and after long deliberation by the jury, four photographers were eventually selected as the prize-winners: Jonathan Kalan, Vera Obiakor, Heike Winschiers-Theophilus and Uche Uwadinachi. The eLearning Africa News Service invited them to tell us more about themselves, their photographs, and the stories behind them.

Interviews by Alasdair MacKinnon

Jonathan Kalan (1st jury winner)

Connecting Mogadishu

Jonathan Kalan, from Nairobi, Kenya, is the photographer behind this 1st-prize winning photograph, showing a Somali girl working at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu, a local centre that helps vulnerable women from all over Somalia. Jonathan, 25, originally hails from Weston, Connecticut, and is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara with a degree in global studies and technology management. He has been photographing since the end of high school, though he only took his first professional steps over the last year – working as a photojournalist and covering technology and innovation in Africa for the BBC’s “A Matter of Life and Tech” column, amongst other things. A photo of his, illustrating a story on Kenya, has made the front page of the New York Times – an event he describes as “the highlight of my life”.

When photographing, Jonathan is interested in “capturing the unpredictability of life, documenting the human condition – positive, negative, beautiful, tragic.” His prize-winning Connecting Mogadishu shows both sides of this coin. It bears witness to the relative stability that the Somali capital has achieved after 22 years of war, and the more peaceful environment that has developed there, in which Internet cafes can open, and young people can get online. “The power this will have… will be incredible,” says Kalan – who suggests that ICT could be the way for Somalis to engage in worldwide affairs. “In Somalia, storytelling and communicating is deeply rooted in the culture. Somalis LOVE to talk. Will improved ICT infrastructure help put their conversations into a global platform?”

The road to reconstruction is going to be a long one for the East African state and its citizens. Somali women, like the one Jonathan Kalan caught on film taking part in a typing programme at the Elman Centre, “face tremendous problems and barriers… By opening ICT access to more women there is certainly an opportunity for them to be more educated, empowered, and in control of their futures.”


Vera portrait

Under the tree we work

Vera Ada Obiakor, 42, (left) is a teacher of further maths and ICT co-ordinator at the Government Secondary School in Kubwa, a semi-rural community in Abuja, Nigeria. The state-subsidised school only has 3 working computer systems, shared between 2,000 students, and its electricity connection is erratic at best. Vera noticed “that a large number of the students are not computer literate, and it had been psychologically affecting them when they went out to meet their fellow students in the educational field.” She therefore decided, despite the obstacles, to start a school ICT club: “If l can make a change for a few people, these people can make a change for others.”

The students in her photo, winner of the 2nd jury prize, had been inspired by her to get online in order to revise for their final exams, which they took last year. Pooling their money, they hired a laptop and a generator and borrowed an Internet modem from their teacher – meeting at weekends to study under the tree, where the generator could be properly ventilated and they could shelter from the sun. Vera, who has been taking pictures as a hobby for six years now, has always liked to document her students’ endeavours: “The enthusiasm on these children’s faces is what pushes me to take pictures of them at work.”


When she entered this photograph to the eLearning Africa Photo Competition, Vera “was interested in telling the story of how children from non-technologically developed schools can rise to challenge their fellow students from western countries”. The students she captured here certainly have: one is studying computer science, another mass communication, one has a scholarship to study ICT/Computer Engineering in Ukraine, while a fourth is on part-time study and gives computer training to students in the ICT club. One of the things Vera teaches in the club is photography and photo editing – though a lack of technology has proved to be a challenge. We’re therefore especially glad to be able to present her with this particular prize: a digital camera!

Vera’s full story can be read here.


heike portrait

A beautiful fusion of technology with Herero traditions

3rd jury prize went to Heike Winschiers-Theophilus, 45, (right) a professor in Software Engineering at the Polytechnic of Namibia, specialising in human/computer interaction and community-based co-design. It was during a research and development project that she met the Herero woman she depicts here wearing the traditional costume that is still very common in parts of Namibia.
The project involved the development of a “3D graphic android application for indigenous knowledge holders to digitally reconstruct their own surroundings to contextualize their recordings of traditions”, and the testing of its transferability to other communities in Namibia – including the resettlement farmers in Witvlei, Omaheke, where this picture was taken.

Heike Winschiers (3rd jury winner)

In this traditional, agricultural setting, Heike was “especially fascinated by the women’s fast uptake of the usage [of the tablet-based system]”, and by the potential for a spin-off application, merging “international ecological models with traditional practices, displayed as a 3D graphics simulation to support decision making in husbandry management.”

Heike says she takes photos to “capture an aesthetic moment”: her photo, by combining traditional costume with modern technology, can be seen as symbolic of the fusion of tradition and innovation that eLearning is bringing about in African farming practices. She has great hopes that this fusion will bring about more positive changes: “Tradition – or as I would call it, local or indigenous knowledge – is actually the basis for any innovation. Looking at many practices today in rural areas, like food preservation and herbal treatments, many more innovations could be derived if traditions and indigenous knowledge were more appreciated, and recognised to be a dynamic knowledge system representing local world views.”



Uche Uwadinachi (Public votes winner)Girl makes online enquiry on products in a street shop

Uche Uwadinachi (below) has won the public vote for his photograph of Omobolanle Anofi, a young tutorial student of his from Ajegunle, a slum commmunity in Lagos, Nigeria. Uche, a self-trained photographer who is also active as a writer, continuity-man and performance poet of worldwide acclaim, has become interested in the use of low-quality cameras, exploring “the reality of bringing poetry alive in uncommon still pictures”. Unable to afford training or expensive equipment, he says, “I learnt to use my eye, to see anything I want to, anyway I want to and anywhere I want to see it.”

Omobolanle Anofi, the subject of the photograph, is a 9-year old girl, who alongside her older sisters helps her mother run a street shop. Uche describes her as an “intelligent girl, determined in learning… [who] takes pleasure in her after-school-computer classes.” Ever since learning to operate the iPad, she has been much better able to assist her mother: accessing products, prices and other vital information online, and removing some of the “common barriers of delay, fatigue, stagnancy, non-profiting and stressful methods of commerce” that are often obstacles for small businesses in Nigeria.

Uche portraitThe district of Ajegunle which Uche and Omobolanle call home is situated right in the heart of Lagos. Characterised by “poor informational opportunities and abject economical lacks,” Ajegunle, according to Uche, has frequently been “misunderstood as a poverty-ridden area that has exploded into an arena of crimes and backwardness.” With this photo, Uche hopes to show a different side to his area: as a place where “much as you have poorly funded schools, you also have individuals making a collective effort that can positively affect their communities… This is why you have far more numbers of cybercafes and business centres in Ajegunle than other much [more] ‘buoyant’ areas. ICT has helped very young kids and aged parents to advance their Internet skills and so far improved the literacy level and consciousness of the people of that community.”

We hope that Uche, the winner of a digital camera, will be able to fulfil “his dream of making an outstanding remark in social documentary photography and photo journalism” – that is, if he has not already done so!

The entire gallery of entries can still be viewed here. To ensure you are among the first to find out about the launch of next year’s competition, sign up to the eLearning Africa newsletter


  1. Great story Uche. I should visit Ajegunle soon.

  2. Amazing photos – loving the clash of traditional culture with advanced technology, makes for some interesting moments


  3. C.F.TADEO

    IT should not be seen as a brilliant catch-all solution for Somalia. There are many social and economic problems, IT only helps the solving of some of them.

  4. Jason Tingatinga

    So good to read so many thought-provoking stories about what’s going on all over Africa. It seems that innovations are occurring everywhere – despite war in Somalia, poverty in Lagos and poor infrastructure in Abuja.

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