Connecting the dots

Linda Kwamboka, one of the team behind M-Farm, a text message based service supplying pricing information on agricultural produce. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Linda Kwamboka: one of Nairobi’s tech pioneers

Mobile phone use in Kenya has risen sevenfold in as many years, internet access is ever cheaper and smart handset technologies are freeing people from traditional bonds. By Mike Pflanz.

HURLINGHAM, April 30, 2011 (Daily Dispatches) – High on the muddy Kinangop escarpment, where the rain off the mountains nourishes fertile soil, a farmer with a crop of snow peas is negotiating prices with a trader up from town.

The farmer is being offered 8¢ a pound. Until recently, he’d have no way to know that down there where the buyers are, that same pound of peas would fetch him 37¢.

Today, however, he can pull his cheap Nokia from his grubby pocket, send a text message to a dedicated shortcode and, moments later, the live market price will beep back into his inbox.

His text message had bounced along mobile phone masts down the mountain, past the lake, along the edge of the valley and into a laptop on a desk in a room in a Nairobi office block, 55 miles to the east.

There it had landed into a computer database created by three young city IT graduates, all women, where it gathered up the information the farmer needed and then bounced all the way back up the mountain. All in a second.

M-Farm, this innovative text message service, is one of a raft of smart computer and mobile-phone based programs sweeping into a market only just waking up to the potential of tech, of the internet, and of clever connections forged virtually.

Nairobi has been described as a geographical space where people live markedly different lives, divided by wealth, education, income and opportunity, where intersections between classes are few and fleeting.

But new technology, driven by faster internet, cheaper mobile phones, and a better educated population, is breaking down barriers, democratizing access to information, and accelerating economic growth and development.

Leading the way are applications for mobile handsets. Cell-phone use here has risen sevenfold from 9% of the population in 2002 to 65% in 2010, according to figures from the Pew Research Center in Washington. Computer usage has risen from 12% in 2007 to 22% in 2010.

“It’s exploding, the number of people like us taking IT into completely new areas,” says Linda Kwamboka, one of the M-Farm trio, a 23-year-old university student so fresh from college she won’t even graduate until summer.

She works from the iHub (‘i’ for innovation), a high-ceilinged room walled in glass and lime-green paint on the top floor of a nondescript office block in the Nairobi suburb of Hurlingham.

Sammy Njoroge, a mobile app developer at work in Nairobi, Kenya's i-Hub, a creative space for technology incubation where fast internet speeds attract like minded professionals working on mobile, computer and sms applications. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Sammy Njoroge: “mobile phone applications are the king here”

Two dozen young women and men sat leaning into their laptops, some conferring quietly. Break-out meetings took place on the balcony. The foosball table stood waiting.

The iHub – a year old last month – calls itself an ‘incubator of ideas’. It’s an open co-working and community space, cheap to join, hooked up to superfast internet, for Nairobi’s vibrant young tech community.

M-Farm started its life here. So did M-Order, a customizable platform set up by 22-year-old Hilda Moraa for online ordering of anything from pizzas to make-up.

Sammy Njoroge, a recent intern at Google’s office in Dublin, Ireland, passes through regularly. Head of his own firm, Data Logic, he comes to thrash out software coding conundrums with like-minded peers. The list of apps conceived, gestated and born at the iHub grows daily.

“Kenya is a peculiar market,” said Njoroge, 23, who’s building capital for his dream app (in mobile health services) by offering outsourced IT support to small enterprises across the city.

“Here, mobile not PCs is king, if you can figure out how to create a break-out app for the mobile phone market here, you will definitely succeed.”

Arguably Kenya’s first and still its most successful such innovation is M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer scheme which debuted in March 2007 and has since grown to 6.5 million subscribers and 2 million daily transactions. M stands for mobile. Pesa is KiSwahili for money.

It’s astonishingly simple. You walk into a shop and give cash to a teller who loads it electronically onto your cellphone. Then you send it by text message to any other registered user in the country, who goes to their nearest outlet (they’re everywhere) and withdraws the cash over the counter there.

In a country where few people had bank accounts, and money was often moved around the country from relative to relative and business to business by bus drivers or truckers, M-Pesa was and still is a revolution.

Its beauty is its simplicity. If you can afford a mobile phone – and prices have fallen from more than $300 for a basic handset a decade ago to less than $30 now – and you can send a text message, you can use it.

Segeni Ng'ethe founder of an internet business that allows Kenyans abroad to have gifts delivered to family members at home. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Segeni Ngethe, who runs his own online business arranging gifts home from Kenyans abroad, on the balcony at the iHub

For some of the more complex developments spiraling out of places like the iHub, however, there are still barriers, especially for web-based applications.

The cost of a phone might have dropped, but even at $30 it’s still an investment of a month’s salary for the poorest in the city. Accessing the internet on your phone costs less than 10¢ for 10MB – again, low, but not free.

The main barrier, however, is language. The internet, still, is largely written in English. That’s one of Kenya’s official languages, granted. But it’s the language of the educated.

Way across the other side of Nairobi, in a suburb so full of Somalis that it’s known as little Mogadishu, a team from Google’s Kenya office has rented an internet café for the afternoon.

Two dozen young Somali speakers, students, translators, journalists, Kenyan, or from neighboring Somalia itself, are in a high-decibel debate. They are trying to work out the best way to translate into Somali the phrases we know so well from our daily internet searches.

‘Search’, itself. ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’. ‘Blog’, ‘Maps’, ‘Email’ and ‘Hyperlink’.

This is the latest of more than 20 similar such focus groups around Africa which Google has used to test its websites in the continent’s indigenous languages. The first four, Swahili in East Africa, Zulu and Afrikaans in southern Africa and Amharic in Ethiopia, went live last year.

The next tranche include tongues with fewer speakers, but still enough to justify the investment of turning Google in English into Google in Wolof, Setswana, Sesotho or Hausa.

“It’s really difficult because a lot of these concepts we understand about the internet in English, don’t exist in these new domains,” said Denis Gikunda. The Montreal University software engineering graduate, a Kenyan, heads up this bit of Google’s office in Nairobi.

“What is Search, in Zulu? What is a Firewall, and how do you translate it to Amharic? You often end up with descriptions and analogies, long phrases, which don’t really work with the interface.”

The Somalis in that internet café, in Eastleigh, struggled for a long time even to define ‘network’ in Somali.

Proffered suggestions were shot down, because they were said to translate more like a fisherman’s net, a spider’s web, or woven reeds used to tie bags to a camel’s back.

Somali language experts participate in a Google translation exercise in Nairobi as part of a group of Somali language experts, in preperation for Google's launch of a new Somali language interface as part of Google's ongoing efforts to translate it's interface into a variety of African languages. (Brendan Bannon)

Somali-language speakers test Google’s new website in their language

But once the exact phrase is agreed upon, it will be locked into the screen, and become the word, in Somali, that millions of that language’s speakers will click on when they use Google Somali once it launches.

Why go to all this trouble? People who use the internet are educated, aren’t they? They understand English, don’t they? That’s an argument that rattles Gikunda.

“That’s the problem,” he said. “The traditional approach is that in order to appreciate and benefit from what’s on the internet, I need to go to school, I need to know English, I need to understand a computer, get good at it, only then am I allowed to access the internet.

“That’s wrong. We need to make technology adapt to us, not the other way round, to bring the internet to everyone, not allow a select few to come to it.”

This is a major shift, and it’s happening at the same time as those web-enabled mobile phones have gotten cheaper, and the internet’s gotten faster, and app developers at the iHub have gotten smarter.

It’s happening at the same time as the Nairobi Wikipedia Chapter, formed only last year, is in discussions with funders to take offline versions of the internet encyclopaedia, on hard-drives, to schools around the country.

And it’s happening in an environment where people no longer distrust using their phone to move money, check their electricity bills, or read the country’s new constitution, now online alongside all Kenya’s laws, for all to see.

Together, these moves will unleash Nairobi’s, Kenya’s and Africa’s dormant presence on the web (there are only 25,010 Wikipedia pages in Swahili, compared to 3.6m in English).

And with that will come a shift in the sense of people’s individual power to find information, to learn from sources other than authorities, to explore with no-one monitoring you.

“One thing which strikes me is the way we as Kenyans, as Africans, interact with authority,” Gikunda said, warming to this theme. “There’s very little prodding, there’s very little why why why. There’s been an acceptance that this is the way things are, that they’re set. That’s crazy.”

Hilda Moraa, founder of M-Order an online salesa nd ordering platform designed for small businesses in Kenya. She works in Nairobi, Kenya's  at i-Hub, a creative space for technology incubation where fast internet speeds attract like minded professionals working on mobile, computer and sms applications. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Hilda Moraa: “We have to change our mindset”

Structures – schooling, government, employer-employee ranks, a previously timid media – have held back individual citizens from connecting across hierarchies.

Gikunda again: “Things are changing fast, it’s interesting that people are beginning to feel that they can get their guidance and new paradigms of thought not from the top down, but more or less sideways, from your Facebook friends, not your parents.”

Indeed, this has not gone unnoticed among the authorities in Nairobi, perhaps nervously eyeing the so-called ‘social network revolutions’ in North Africa.

Saturday’s Standard newspaper carried a story, headlined ‘Young guerrillas in cyberspace’, raising the alarm over “an increasing misuse of social media by young people to fan hate speech” ahead of Kenya’s next general election in 2012.

That may be the case, but it’ll be a minority. The overwhelming majority of Nairobians, a pioneer generation online via their mobile handsets, are finding nothing but benefit by being connected, to each other, to their country, to the world.

“These are people who believe in technology and growth” said Hilda Moraa, the M-Order founder from the iHub.

“But then there are people want to do things the same way as always. We want to tell people we can change and develop by allowing technology to be used as a tool.

“We have to change our mindset, we can’t do things the same way.”

That change, clearly, is gathering momentum. It won’t be stopped, despite those still extant barriers of cost, web access and language.

“You know, when I was in Ireland, there were a ton of very simple tech ideas I saw in the West that I knew I could bring here and implement and make a difference,” said Njoroge, of Data Logic.

“Pretty soon you’re going to find our ideas at the front end of mobile app development, ideas that Africa is going to create, push, and start exporting out back to the West. We’re at the sharp-end here. Watch out.”


Related: Brendan’s full-size images of Nairobi’s tech pioneers

© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011

2 Responses to “Connecting the dots”

  1. Allison says:

    It’s amazing to think we’re able to follow this blog and learn about a community in Kenya, and they’re just starting to be able to do this within their community. And it’s exciting for students to come out of college into a new industry that’s evolving there. There’s more opportunities to build an upcoming society through technology and create ways to do this. We’re still doing this in the United States, but most of our main sites or ways of doing things are already set. This community is creating them. Incredible.

  2. TYler K. says:

    Through out this project I could not help notice how strong this nation is. From the rich to the poor they are all fighting to survive no matter how they do it, they all have something in common and that is hard work. Not one of these posts have been a story about someone who’s parents gave them money (which often happens in America) but its how they worked hard at what they are good at. As you take experience this you have taken great pictures and use great words to describe the pictures so they come to life. Seeing how industrilization occuring right infront of your eyes and seeing a nation working hard to fix itself if very remarkable. Westernizing is what the world seems to be doing no matter what the status is of the country they are finding ways to become successful which leads to their survival.