Africa through my grandparent’s eyes

Back in what I believe were most likely the 1960’s and 70’s – perhaps a little earlier – my grandparents from my mothers side embarked on what at the time would have been an epic world journey. My grandfather retired quite early after a successful corporate career working for an oil company of all things, and the two of them grasped the opportunity to see some of the world. I remember, as a child, reading their letters and postcards. I was always particularly captivated by this place called Ceylon, a name now long consigned to the history books. It’s been called Sri Lanka since 1972.

What made my grandparents travels so intriguing, though, wasn’t the letters or postcards, or the various souvenirs which they brought back with them, or the safari brochures. Most fascinating was the cine film. Believe it or not, my grandfather somehow got hold of a cine camera, and they took it with them on many of their trips. About ten years or so ago, we transferred one of the family films onto VHS. There are the usual shots of us, as kids, playing on the beach, my brother pushing me into the sea, one of my sisters screaming. But then, right at the end, for about 15 seconds or so, there’s a totally random clip of an African village. To say it is fascinating is a total understatement. Where was it filmed? When? Who were the people in it? Sadly, these questions may never be answered.

After my grandfather passed away in the early 1990’s – he was preceded by my grandmother – all of the films went into storage in an uncle’s loft, somewhere in deepest darkest England. Shortly after that he emigrated to New Zealand, and the films were forgotten. Forgotten by everyone except for me, it seems.

Once or twice in recent years I’ve tried to find out if the films are still around. I’d almost given up all hope, but my mother emailed her brother again recently and it turns out the films are still sitting in that loft. In June, once I’m back from Stanford, I hope to meet up with my uncle, and hope to get a chance to transfer some of those films onto DVD. I know my grandparents spent quite a lot of time in Africa – Kenya and Uganda for sure, most likely Nigeria, too. And I think Egypt.

Seeing these places through my grandparent’s eyes, 40-odd years after they were there, is going to be incredible. And one thing is for sure – there won’t be a mobile phone in sight…

Shedding light on the charging challenge

(Since this post went up a number of people have been in touch asking where they can get this solar charger. I’m talking with the manufacturer and will post details as soon as I have them).

Barely a week after blogging about the challenges of charging mobiles in developing countries (see February 5th post), I had the chance to meet Clemens Betzel, President of G24 Innovations, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. G24i develop a range of solar charging solutions, some of which are geared towards developing countries, and mobile phone users in particular. I left our meeting with a portable solar charging pack for the ZTE mobile which I recently bought in Uganda, and here it is down my local village green at the weekend (yes, we do occasionally get sunshine in England).

In some rural areas, where the lack of reliable mains power might be the difference between making it worth owning a mobile or not, a small solar panel such as this could be a deal clincher. Of course, solar energy has been touted as a solution for charging mobile devices for years now, but what’s interesting about this is the cost. Suddenly, it actually seems possible. And by possible, what I really mean is affordable.

Here’s the breakdown. My basic, no-frills ZTE phone comes in at around $22 new, putting most rival entry level handsets in the shade. And the solar panel to charge it? Add another $20. So, suddenly, for about $42 we have a works-out-of-the- box rural mobile solution. (Just one short year ago the handset alone would have come in at around that). What’s more, the owner of the solar charger could earn a little extra income running a small charging business on the side. Maybe one day these panels will come as standard in Village Phone programs around the world, if they’re not already.

I couldn’t help but leave the meeting with thoughts of grassroots NGOs running solar powered FrontlineSMS hubs off OLPC‘s or $200+ Acer EEEPC laptop computers.

Now that really would be empowering.

And the winners are…

Most of my ideas come on trains and buses. nGOmobile was no exception. The 1645 Kings Cross to Cambridge train was responsible this time around, after I’d spent the day getting ‘processed’ by the American Embassy in London. It only seems like yesterday that we launched the competition, and yet here we are, five months and over seventy entries later, with the four winners.

It’s been a fascinating exercise. We have projects from Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Azerbaijan looking to work with local communities to promote the protection and sustainable use of environmental resources; another planning to launch an SMS-based service for rural communities allowing them to ask a range of water-based questions on topics such as sanitation, hygiene, water harvesting, and water technologies; one seeking to help rural Central American and Mexican communities solve problems of deforestation, poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and the marginalisation of women; and another seeking to help grassroots and politically excluded people understand their human and legal rights, and to engage them further in the political process.

nGOmobile is a text message-based competition aimed exclusively and unashamedly at grassroots non-profit organisations working for positive social and environmental change throughout the developing world. Non-profits were asked to send in proposals on how they sought to use mobile technology, with the top entries getting laptops, modems, phones, software and cash to enable them to implement the work.

It was tough turning down so many other amazing and worthy entries, and the hope among all the Judges is that we can scale this further and provide further prizes and opportunities when we re-run the competition in the coming months. Mobile World Congress has been a great platform to announce and profile the winners, and there is widespread interest in what nGOmobile is trying to achieve. For a project which only took five weeks and $20 to set up – I couldn’t get anyone to donate the URL – it’s a great example how it needn’t take months and cost thousands of dollars to get a project up and running. Rapid prototyping is a strong theme in all my work.

Last night I introduced the four winners to each other, and they’ve already started sharing their stories and experiences via email. In the next couple of weeks we will profile these projects in more detail on the competition website, and begin to plan ahead. It’s very early days, but the potential positive social and environmental impact of nGOmobile is there for all to see…

Scary Spice

While most of the delegates here at Mobile World Congress have been busy fighting over next-generation GPS-enabled phones, playing with Nokia’s latest N-series or scrambling to get their hands on an Android-powered device, I went out in search of something a little more spicy.

During one of my recent trips to Uganda, I bought a ZTE handset from a street vendor. It was pretty basic, as you would expect for a phone which costs a little over $20 new. As much as possible had been stripped out to make it this price competitive – no browser, no data capability and no Java, and a monochrome LCD display with a bulk-standard orange backlight. But it worked, had good battery life and had four of the key functions demanded of a phone in this kind of market – a phone book and an alarm, and the ability to make and receive calls, and send and receive SMS. I thought this was about as basic as it could get – after all, what else could you possibly strip out to make it even cheaper?

Well, this week in Barcelona I may have found the answer. And the answer is, apparently, the screen. Spice Mobile have launched what they are calling “The People’s Phone” in India, and plan to roll it out in Europe by the summer. And it has no screen. At $20 (ironically, around the same price as my ZTE) it’s billed as a device which promotes “the power of the spoken word” and is designed for illiterate or visually impaired users. It boasts voice response technology, long battery life, a braille language keypad and a universal charger.

Could this be the future of “handsets for the masses” in developing countries?

kiwanja at Mobile World Congress 2008

This week I’m making my first appearance at the Mobile World Congress event – formerly 3GSM – in Barcelona, thanks to support from the GSM Association itself and the MacArthur Foundation, who are funding me through my FrontlineSMS project. Although predominantly a commercial event (in other words, crowded out by the big, and aspiring-to-be-big players in the global mobile industry), there’s increasing interest in the use of mobiles in the non-profit sector, particularly in developing countries, and this is reflected in kiwanja’s invitation to present at the Society on the Move track on Day Two. There’s also the Global Mobile Awards with its own ‘Bridging the Digital Divide‘ category, which I was honoured to help judge this year. These are exciting times, and it’s great to be part of a growing movement and to have the opportunity to fly the grassroots NGO flag at leading industry events such as this.

It’s going to be a fascinating week. This is my schedule so far:

Monday February 11th
Attending the VIP screening of Mobile Planet. Produced by the GSMA and TelecomTV, Mobile Planet is the first film to bring to life the extraordinary social and economic impact of mobile communications across many diverse countries of the world. I’ll also be meeting with the producers of the film, and hope to explore opportunities to help TelecomTV expand its reach further to cover more of the grassroots NGO use of mobiles in the developing world. I hope to get hold of a DVD of the film, so if you’re interested in seeing it get in touch

Tuesday February 12th
Discussing the application of mobile phones in the NGO sector, the many uses of FrontlineSMS around the world and the global response to the nGOmobile competition at the Society on the Move track, which focuses on the social and economic impact of mobile technology. Mike Short, who will be moderating the session, is Chairman of the Mobile Data Association and VP of Technology at UK carrier O2. He also happens to be a judge on kiwanja’s nGOmobile competition, the winners of which are being announced on the eve of the event. Talking of competitions, later in the evening I’ll be attending the Global Mobile Awards ceremony, along with many of the other judges, at the National Palace in Barcelona. Hosted by UK comedian Graham Norton, it promises to be an ‘interesting’ evening (keep it clean, Graham!)

Wednesday February 13th
Attending an invitation-only working lunch to hear about the work of the GSMA Development Fund and the Vodafone Group Foundation (VGF), which both seek to promote the use of mobile technology for social and economic development. kiwanja’s early work on wildlive! and t4cd were both funded by the VGF, as was the 2004 study on the application of mobile technology in international conservation and development

Thursday February 14th
So far a free day, during which I hope to get the chance to tread the conference floor and connect with companies and organisations interested in emerging markets and/or kiwanja’s work (for either commercial or philanthropic gain), and to grab as many free USB sticks, rucksacks and mobile phone holders that I can get my hands on

Anyone who’s around and wants to meet, feel free to fire me an email with a contact number, and I’ll get back to you.

Early morning. Bushbuckridge. September 2003

Women begin their long wait for water…

I use this photograph a lot, particularly during my “Keeping it Relevant” talks. It was taken back in 2003 during one of several research trips to South Africa and Mozambique for the Vodafone t4cd project proposal, and the “Mobile Phones: An Appropriate Tool for Conservation and Development?” report, which I co-authored with good friend and colleague Richard Burge. Looking back, 2003 seems remarkably early to be attempting something like that, and it was indeed challenging at a time when mobile phones were only just beginning to show their potential. We even discussed an idea for mobile payments, although this didn’t get into the final document. If only I’d had the time and resources to explore that one…

I wanted to use this image on the front cover of that report, but was voted down in favour of a more ‘traditional’ photo. Most people just never got what a picture of women queuing for water had to do with appropriate technology.

The charging challenge and the entrepreneur

In “Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation in Nigeria” (a book which I blogged about last year), Christiana Charles-Iyoha sheds some fascinating light on the barriers to mobile ownership among Nigerian market traders. Erratic power supply, and difficulty charging, came top with a staggering 87%.

Users in many African countries – and not just those in rural areas – face similar problems. In Uganda, this “charging challenge” is being met head-on by a growing band of local entrepreneurs and business people.

Rural users are able to charge their phones from a car battery (top image), charged up by a local entrepreneur when power is available, or charged in a nearby town with better supply and transported back. In urban areas, where grid power is generally more reliable, kiosks (bottom image) dotted around local markets provide charging services to passing customers.

The spread of mobile technology in developing countries has opened up income-generating opportunities on a massive scale. But what is most interesting is how local entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this growth using their own skills and ingenuity. According to the Uganda Communications Commission, the telecoms sector there provides direct employment to a little over 6,000 people. Indirect employment – which includes mobile charging entrepreneurs, airtime vendors, accessories sales-people and mobile repair shops – comes to a staggering 350,000.

Classic grassroots, bottom-up business development, and not a hand-out in sight.

(These, and other images of mobiles in use in developing countries, can be found in the Mobile Gallery. For further examples of African ingenuity at work, visit