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?