Tag: technology

What are teens getting up to online in Africa’s innovation hub?

“In boarding school there were a group of girls who were from Nairobi and they were hip and cool, they were computer literate … They would open email accounts for us and show us how to go about the internet and so on, that is how I learnt how to use the internet … log into Facebook and even text our boyfriends back home.” – Female, 15-17, Kitui, Kenya

I remember the first time I heard about Facebook – it was early in 2007 while I was attending university. My sister was on an exchange abroad and encouraged me to join. By the end of that same year I had connected with all my university friends and even some old friends from school.

Fast forward six years, and the first memories of using the world’s most popular social media site come back to me when I was presented with the findings of A (Private) Public Space, a study about the use of the Internet and social media among adolescents in Kenya. Based primarily on focus group discussions conducted in three locations in the country, one of our main motivations for undertaking this particular study was to understand the how and why of what Kenyan children and youth are doing online.

Scholars watch the film Madagascar in the computer lab at Mwelu Foundation in Mathare slum, Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Supplied)
Scholars watch the film Madagascar in the computer lab at Mwelu Foundation in Mathare slum, Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Unicef Kenya/2013/Huxta)

The title of the study comes from a sentiment expressed by the majority of participants – that social media and their mobile phones give them the opportunity to construct their own private worlds, to explore their identities free from the interference of family members, to strengthen existing social connections and to establish new ones.

“On the internet you are more confident than face to face. There are some things you can say there that you fear saying face to face.” – Male, 15-17, Kisii

While the findings are not nationally representative – a limitation of the methodology – the study provides a fascinating look into the habits and uses of the Internet and social media by young people in the country. While less than one-third of Kenyans have access to the Internet, the proliferation of affordable Internet-enabled mobile phones and flexible pre-paid schemes is helping to shift this rapidly. Kenya also has one the largest Facebook and Twitter user bases on the continent and the popularity of social media was clearly expressed by the study participants.

It is also not uncommon to hear of Kenya being referred to as the Silicon Valley of Africa, yet in spite of the country’s status as an ICT innovation hub, the study found that overall digital media was not fully integrated into the participants’ learning environments and education. While some shared examples of using the Internet and their mobile phones to research topics for school, many felt that their parents and caregivers mostly saw the Internet as a distraction from schoolwork and learning.

Risks of online use
In addition to looking at habits and uses, the study also sought to understand how risks associated with online use – including cyber-bullying, suggestive self-exposure, exposure to harmful content, scams, and grooming for sexual exploitation – were perceived by young people, to give us insight that can inform future interventions and awareness-raising campaigns on child online safety.

“This guy I befriended on Facebook, he started telling me to send him photos of myself without clothes on, I told him I can’t, he insisted and I refused, he then started [verbally] abusing me and I called him a few names too, he could not stop and I shared with my older cousin who blocked him for me.” – Female, 15-17, Nairobi South B

The discussions on topics related to online safety revealed that many of the participants appeared to have only an abstract awareness of risk. Many were aware but ultimately did not believe that a dangerous encounter could befall them, or they felt they were employing the right preventative measures, or that being connected ultimately outweighed the risk of online harassment or unpleasant experiences. Knowledge of or interest in changing privacy settings was low, although most reported knowing how to block unwanted interactions.

A teenager texts a friend on a mobile phone at Cura Rotary Home, an orphanage for children who've lost their parents to Aids, in Cura village, 20km from central Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Supplied)
A teenager texts a friend on a mobile phone at Cura Rotary Home, an orphanage for children who’ve lost their parents to Aids, in Cura village, 20km from central Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Unicef Kenya/2013/Huxta)

For me the clear take-away from the discussions on risk and safety with Kenyan teens is that in order to be successful, any awareness-raising and educational efforts need to take into account all these complexities.

Approaches based on fear-mongering or preaching are unlikely to be effective. This is not to suggest that children and youth should not be taught about the potential risks of immersion in the digital world. However outreach messaging should balance issues of safety with the developmental and learning opportunities afforded by the Internet, and promote positive online interaction through the concept of digital citizenship.

There is a real opportunity here to empower peer support groups and youth organisations to take the lead on this, while at the same time working with parents, teachers and child protection services to strengthen their ability to provide support, and working with policy makers to improve relevant policies and legal environments. By doing this, we can start to create environments where opportunities are maximised and risk is minimised – and children and youth in middle-income and developing countries have the right base from which to emerge as leaders in the global information and communication technology sector.

You can download the full report here.

Kate Pawelczyk is the project manager of Voices of Youth Citizens – a UNICEF initiative that seeks to understand how young people in middle-income and developing countries are using digital media to inform awareness-raising, interventions and policy advocacy. Kate is South African and currently based in New York City. Any questions about the study in Kenya or the Voices of Youth Citizens initiative can be directed to her via email.

Kenya: A smartphone that’s a sight for sore eyes

Simon Kamau (26) has been in almost constant pain since he was a playful three-year-old and accidentally pierced his eye with a sharp object, but smartphone technology now offers hope.

His family live in an impoverished part of rural Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley region and could not afford the 80km journey to the nearest specialist hospital, leaving the young Kamau blind in one eye ever since.

Today, 23 years later, Kamau has a chance to better his quality of life thanks to a team of doctors from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine armed with an innovative, low cost, smartphone solution.

“Kenya was a natural test location,” the project’s team leader, Dr Andrew Bastawrous, told AFP. “For a country with a population of more than 40 million, there are only 86 qualified eye doctors, 43 of whom are operating in the capital Nairobi.”

The equipment used in the study, which has been running for five years and is now in its final stages, is a smartphone with an add-on lens that scans the retina, plus an application to record the data.

A technician scans the eye of Mary Wambui at her home with a smartphone application as she takes part in an ophthalmological study and examination. (Pic: AFP)
A technician scans the eye of Mary Wambui with a smartphone application as she takes part in an ophthalmological study and examination. (Pic: AFP)

The technology is deceptively simple to use and relatively cheap: each ‘Eye-Phone’, as Bastawrous likes to call his invention, costs a few hundred euros, compared to a professional ophthalmoscope that costs tens of thousands of euros and weighs in at around 130kg.

Bastawrous said he hopes the ‘Nakuru Eye Disease Cohort Study’, which has done the rounds of 5 000 Kenyan patients, will one day revolutionise access to eye treatment for millions of low-income Africans who are suffering from eye disease and blindness.

With 80% of the cases of blindness considered curable or preventable, the potential impact is huge.

Data from each patient is uploaded to a team of specialists, who can come up with a diagnosis and advise on follow-up treatment. The results are also compared to tests taken with professional equipment to check the smartphone is a viable alternative.

Bastawrous says his ‘Eye-Phone’ has proved its worth, and can easily and accurately diagnose ailments including glaucoma, cataracts, myopia and long-sightedness.

Treatments range from prescription glasses and eye drops to complex surgery that is conducted once every two weeks at a hospital in Nakuru, the nearest big town. So far, up to 200 of the 5 000 people involved in the study have had surgery to correct various eye ailments.

Men have their eyes tested  by technicians from the 'Nakuru Eye Disease Cohort Study'. (Pic: AFP)
Men have their eyes tested by technicians from the ‘Nakuru Eye Disease Cohort Study’. (Pic: AFP)

Kamau is among those expecting to receive surgery on his blind eye. While doctors say he is unlikely to recover his full vision because the injury was so long ago, they can at least stop the pain and swelling caused by the additional strain on his functioning eye.

“I can hardly do manual work around the farm. Once the sun shines, my eyes water and I feel a lot of pain,” said Kamau, who lives on a small farm with six family members.

Neighbour Mary Wambui (50) has had eye problems for 36 years but gave up on finding treatment because existing medical care was far too expensive. Instead, she settled for home remedies like placing a cold wet cloth over her eyes when the pain became unbearable.

“I was treated at the Kijabe Mission hospital but the follow-up visits became too expensive. I had to pay bus fares and then queue in the waiting room for the whole day, and then go back home without seeing a doctor,” she recalled.

She said Bastawrous’ project, in which the tests were carried out at her home, was a welcome relief.

“I do not like the feel of hospitals. Their process is long, laborious and costly but with this phone, I got to know of my diagnosis with just a click,” she said.

Bastawrous says the success of the smartphone meant it could soon be replicated in other poor areas of Kenya. He said the arid Turkana area, one of Kenya’s poorest regions, was next on the list.

Irene Wairimu for AFP


10 talented Africans, 10 inspiring stories

In October this year, over 1300 young future leaders from 190 countries will gather in Johannesburg to share their vision and ideas on leadership and development. They’ll be attending the fourth annual One Young World Summit from 2-5 October, where they’ll be given a platform to engage with respected global leaders on everything from governance to health to sustainable development.

Unlike any other event, the One Young World Summit gives delegates the kind of media platform ordinarily afforded only to those who lead countries and corporations. Delegates speak alongside respected global figures selected for their work and insight into matters affecting the whole world, and the youth in particular.  The Mail & Guardian‘s Trevor Ncube will be chairing a session on African media and what Africans think of their journalists. To share your views, complete this short survey.

As part of its commitment to developing young leaders, the M&G is sponsoring two young Africans to attend the One Young World summit. Last month we called for applications from Africans who have strong leadership skills, are invested in global issues and have a  passion for volunteering to apply for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We received hundreds of responses from young people doing inspiring and exciting things in the fields of technology and development on the continent. Of these, we’ve shortlisted the 10 candidates below and will choose two of them as One Young World delegates. Over the next two weeks, they’ll be blogging about how they’re using digital technology to improve Africans’ daily lives. From digitising Ghanaian doctors’ prescription pads to empowering women farmers in Malawi through SMS campaigns, these are stories you don’t want to miss.

Meet the 10 candidates:

Oscar Ekponimo (27), Nigeria

Oscar Ekponimo




Oscar is passionate about technology and social change. He has used his skills in digital technology to raise funds for Crystal Mbaguno who required life saving surgery in India for a benign brain tumour.  His digital media campaign helped raised part of the 2.5 million Nira for her operation, and she is currently in recovery. Oscar is involved in another project to combat hunger and food wastage in conjunction with retail distributors. This project connects the retailer, the poor, and charities that supply food to them.

Joel Macharia (26), Kenya

Joel Macharia






Joel is the founder of pesatalk.com, an online consumer finance publication that’s aimed at simplifying the world of finance for ordinary Kenyans. He’s also behind Sagana Farms, an agribusiness start-up that helps small-scale farmers get the best returns for their produce by linking them with retailers in urban areas. Joel is a volunteer lecturer in a program aimed at equipping underprivileged students with entrepreneurship and technology skills. He has been involved with TEDx in Nairobi, and spoke at TEDx Kangemi, Kibera and Silanga.

Chikondi Chabvuta (25), Malawi

Chikondi Chabvuta





Chikondi is passionate about empowering women farmers and educating young women. She uses digital technology – webcasts –  to put young girls in her community in touch with inspiring role models in Malawi and across the world. Chikondi also empowers female farmers by teaching them literacy and numeracy via their cellphones.  She promotes the use of SMS marketing among women farmers, which makes them more knowledgeable about market prices and enables them to sell their produce at minimum cost.

Adib Ayay (19), Morocco

Adib Ayay








Having grown up between the olive fields in a small town in Morocco, Adib has a passion for agriculture and business. At 17, he founded Fair Farming, a student-run organisation that seeks to help farmers boost their revenue using mobile technology. This project has enabled 300 hundred farmers to benefit from higher incomes and better provide for their families.

His team is working on a new project called TelFarm, which will have a larger impact and benefit millions of farmers across the world. Aimed at small-scale farmers who lack financial services and extensive agriculture information, TelFarm is a suite of mobile-based SMS and voice tools that will allow farmers to significantly increase their income through access to transparent market prices, best farming practices, mobile payments and and micro-insurance.

Gregory Rockson (22), Ghana

Gregory Rockson







Gregory is passionate about access to healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa. The young Ghanaian founded mPharma, a system which digitises the traditional prescription notepad and transforms it into an interactive prescription writing tool. This way, physicians can send mobile prescription scripts to their patients and record and report adverse drug reactions in real time. Gregory has successfully partnered with the Zambian health ministry to deploy mPharma in the country’s health facilities.

Tawanda Kembo (26), Zimbabwe

Tawanda Kembo






Tawanda is interested in finding innovative ways to meet social needs. He explore existing methods to see if he can remake or modify them to serve today’s society. He founded ipaidabribe.org.zw,  an online platform for users to blow the whistle on corrupt activity in Zimbabwe. He also founded Virtual Bank Africa www.virtualbank.co.zw, which provides basic financial services to people who otherwise would not be able to afford them. Tawanda is also committed to volunteering activities and job creation.

Mooketsi Bennedict Tekere (27), Botswana

Mooketsi Benedict Tekere

Mooketsi is passionate about social entrepreneurship, improved medical tourism for healthcare and education in Africa. He founded Digital Computer Labs, an initiative to set up state-of-the-art computer labs across all of Botswana for students to use. He is also invested in empowering women through education. He founded the first digital lab for young female students to come together and discuss ICTs and has given female students from the University of Botswana internships in his company. Mooketsi also hosts technology workshops and tutors students.

Achu Coretta Penn (27), Cameroon

Achu Coretta Penn






Achu is a youth activist and is passionate about advocating education for young girls. She is a founding member of Impact Creators, a youth-led apolitical NGO that promotes the education and professional development of Cameroonian youth. She is part of a project called “Using Mobile Reporting to Improve Rural and Urban Youth Programming”. It makes use of basic technology on mobile phones to collect data more easily and make youth programming more effective. This ongoing initiative has been welcomed by the international community, and Achu presented on it at the 12th ICT4D conference in Atlanta last year.

Divine Puplamu (23), Ghana

Divine Puplampu







Divine believes that technology can be the solution to everyday problems. He co-founded a technology start-up company called Zottech, which provides  technological products and solutions to Ghanaian businesses and organisations. He also volunteers his time as a producer and co-host of Computer Link, the only IT show on radio in Ghana. Divine served as a Google Ambassador at university and hosted workshops and training sessions for technological products. He volunteers with various initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the youth through the use of technology.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu (30), Zimbabwe





Tinashe believes that the voice of Zimbabwean youth matters and that they ought to proactively participate in the political and social discourse as it affects their lives daily . He is the founder of YoungNation, an online portal that harvests conversations to build young people into better citizens. YoungNation runs an interactive digital hub located in downtown Harare that provides access to information and applications for communication, commerce, entertainment and education. It is the first such initiative in Zimbabwe targeted at young people aged between 18 and 35. The project offers networking opportunities and hosts workshops and training. It is an ideal location to support and grow future entrepreneurs.


Facebook courting, Mogadishu-style

A tall figure in a black hijab and face veil strides confidently towards 20-year-old Ahmed Noor’s computer terminal. Only her dark brown eyes and eyelashes, thick with mascara, are visible.

On reaching Noor, she lifts her hijab to reveal manicured nails and gold rings on her fingers. In her hand she’s holding a folded white piece of paper. With a wink she passes it to Noor and walks off into the busy street outside.

Noor unfolds the paper. There’s a Facebook profile link and an email address written on it. It’s now up to him to take the next step.

This is post civil-war courting, Mogadishu-style.

In the conservative Muslim society, social networking is a popular and easy way through which Somalis can interact with members of the opposite sex.

Slow internet speeds – fibre optic cables are yet to reach us – and expensive internet café rates of up to 60 US cents per hour do not deter Somalis from staying connected. Internet penetration in the country is only at about 2% but it’s growing, especially among the youth. Currently there are more than 130 000 Facebook users in Somalia and more than half of them are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Despite the hardline al-Shabab group no longer controlling the Somali capital and imposing its own version of Sharia law, many women still wear the face veil. The only place their faces are visible is on their Facebook profiles. Even then, they’re a step ahead in concealing their real identity thanks to photo-editing software.

“Many girls come to us to have their photos altered. We exchange, for example, the head of an actress with theirs so the picture has their face on an actress’s body,” says Sharif Hussein (24) who runs Satellite Photo Studio. It’s conveniently located next to an internet café.

“They usually tell me they want me to photoshop their pictures so they can send it to potential boyfriends or husbands on Facebook.”

Some university students and working professionals prefer studio shoots instead of what Hussein calls a ‘virtual body part swap’. They stop at the Mogadishu Beauty Salon a short drive away to have their hair and make-up done professionally before arriving at his studio.

Saida Ahmed, a colourful woman in both appearance and personality, runs the popular beauty salon. She’s wearing a bright orange dress, her hair is dyed orange with henna and her ear lobes stretch under the weight of gold earrings.

“Some girls come here black and want to look white, so I make sure they leave the salon white. I’m here to help other sisters succeed with their Facebook missions,” she tells me while applying cream on a client’s face.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)

But Somali guys aren’t impressed with the visual tricks girls are employing on Facebook. “They look like Iman [the Somali supermodel] on their Facebook profile and they sound like Farxiya Fiska a [popular female singer] on the phone, but in reality they are neither,” complains Noor.

Back at the internet café where I’m hanging out with him and his friends, all the females are wearing face veils. One of them, Amina (19), is chatting on Facebook and showing off her two Chinese-made smart phones to friends over a webcam.

I ask her about Somali women’s preference for digitally enhanced photos and she retorts that Somali men shouldn’t complain.

“Men in Mogadishu tell lies to your face, we at least tell it behind a screen. They have two, three, four wives and still tell you they are single,” she says, breaking into high-pitched laughter.

Her friend Shamsa calls me over to her terminal and shows me her Facebook friends list. Most of the men on it look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than typical Somalis.

“Guys do the same thing that we do! And worse,” Shamsa points out, clicking through the men’s photos. “They all look like wrestlers. You will not find a skinny Somali man on Facebook. They don’t look like Mo Farah.”

Hussein concurs with Shamsa and admits to helping many men doctor their photos. “Plenty of them come to my studio too. They usually ask me to swap their torsos with those of bodybuilders.”

With these tricks up their sleeves, courting on Facebook can be entertaining and exciting but religious leaders in Mogadishu aren’t happy about it. Sheikh Abdi Haji, a religious studies lecturer at Mogadishu University and imam of Zobe Mosque is vocal in his opposition to youngsters searching for life partners on the social network.

“There is a guy who wanted to marry a lady he met on Facebook. He paid the dowry only to find out on the wedding night she is a cripple. She didn’t tell him before they got married, nor did the pictures on her Facebook show she is a cripple.” Youth should stay away from Facebook, Sheikh Abdi says, because it’s full of “hypocrites”.

Noor, Amina and Shamsa wouldn’t reveal whether flirting on Facebook has paid off for them. They, like other young Somalis, are ever wary of the “religious police” and prefer to keep their relationships quiet to avoid trouble. There’s no way they’ll give up Facebook, though.

Noor takes out the piece of paper that the mysterious young woman had handed to him earlier. He’s going to take the next step. And, he tells me quietly, he’s come up with a solution to avoid being duped by Somali ‘supermodels’.

“I don’t go for girls with very pretty profile photos. They’re photoshopped. If she’s average-looking with spots on her face, I talk to her.”

Hamza Mohamed is an independent Britishi-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter

Nigeria’s creative dotcom entrepreneurs

In Nigeria, internet shopping is not all that it might seem. Take Sheffy Bello-Osagie’s recent purchase of a hair product. Instead of punching in her card details online, she emailed the seller for account details. Then she went to the bank to deposit the amount in cash.

“The only thing I buy online in Nigeria is airline tickets, and that’s because the walk-in option isn’t exactly appealing,” said Bello-Osagie, referring to the chaotic queues that are inescapable for most people in Nigeria.

Forecast to become the world’s fourth most populous nation by 2050, the country has a growing middle class and a thriving consumer sector. But parallel online growth has been stifled by deeply rooted fears about online scams.

Rolling Stone magazine won’t allow Nigerian addresses to access its site, and Apple won’t allow Nigerian-issued credit cards to buy its products online – for fear of being scammed. PayPal, the world’s biggest online payment processor, refuses to operate in Nigeria.

So Nigerian dotcom entrepreneurs have to be creative. Sim Shagaya, who hopes his company, Konga.com, will become Africa’s answer to Amazon, has an unusual solution: once orders are placed online, he sends out an employee on a motorbike or tuk-tuk to collect the payment from the waiting buyers.

(Screenshot of Konga.com)

One of his collectors, Peter Nelson, said: “I have to explain to all our first-time buyers that we are not one of those fraudulent online companies who are going to disappear tomorrow.”

After several visits, many shoppers were prepared to swap cash payments for his portable card swipe machine, Nelson said. Only a minority entered their card details directly on to the site.

Another entrepreneur, Tayo Oviosu, is trying to build Nigeria’s version of PayPal, MyPaga. “We can sit around or we can do something about it. If other companies won’t come to Nigeria, it’s an opportunity for local businesses,” he said.

(Screenshot of MyPaga.com)

Years of soaring economic growth has failed to translate into jobs for a bulging youth population, providing a steady supply of scammers who see it as a legitimate job.

In a downtown Lagos neighbourhood, John, a Yahoo-Yahoo boy – so-called because of many scammers’ earlier preference for using Yahoo! emails – lounges outside between bouts of frenzied fraud work at internet cafes.

Shy and softly spoken, John spends his days trawling Facebook to scrape together his undergraduate fees. He finds an online “date”, then dupes her into giving him money.

But he says an average of two snares a month brings in scant reward compared with the earnings of those who work with a network of international partners, typically based in the US or Malaysia.

“They have nice cars, fine clothes, women. For me, this is just a way to survive,” he said.

As Konga.com’s motorbike riders sweep through overcrowded Lagos, they might notice a curious graffito scrawled on thousands of houses: “Beware of 419 [advance fee frauds]! This house is NOT for sale!” It is a warning against charlatan agents who “sell” temporarily vacant houses to multiple prospective buyers.

Monica Mark for the Guardian.