Technology is an enabler. It enables people to come together, exchange ideas and shape the future. It has modernised our world and offered a platform for growth – socially, environmentally, economically and creatively. With this in mind, it’s hard not to get excited about Africa’s burgeoning tech scene, and the nine European hackers who recently kicked off a tech-based exchange between the continents.
AfricaHackTrip is a group of developers and designers from Europe who wanted to explore the emerging African tech hubs, connect with its associated wave of talent, and share information with their African peers. They took a personal approach to establish lasting networks by planning a five-week trip through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Africa was chosen because the continent's tech scene is flourishing: the mobile network surged between 2004 and 2007, and it's growth was soon followed by underwater fibre optic cables that provided fast, reliable and affordable internet.
The team of hackers returned at the beginning of November and their trip is keenly and cleanly documented in pictures, videos, and a blog. Gregor Martynus, developer and initiator of AfricaHackTrip, was kind enough to offer more information on the '5 Weeks / 4 Countries / 9 Hackers' trip, as well as an insight into the upcoming EuroHackTrip.
What led you to start AfricaHackTrip?
I’d read an article on BBC written by Erik Hersman in autumn 2012 and it fascinated me. I’ve worked with developers and designers with remote teams for a long time now, and I realised I’d never worked with someone from an African country - either for business or open source work. Then there was also this map of Hubs in Africa and I wondered: where are all these people working in these hubs? Why don’t we hear from them?
I tweeted the article and suggested – rather meant as a joke – that we should go and see for ourselves. I got four or five responses from friends that they were in, and the AfricaHackTrip was born.
How did the various African communities react to your project?
It was different from city to city but there was usually a lot of confusion at first. It took a long time to make people understand that we’re not backed by any corporation or non-profit organisation, and that we’re not a charity trip of any kind.
It was a private journey of developers and designers coming from Europe to meet the their colleagues in Africa. Once that was understood there was an overwhelming appreciation for what we did; for our interest in the people and their projects; what they are struggling with; and what their plans are. We weren’t trying to sell anything, teach our product, or find lucrative investment opportunities. It took a while to break the ice, but once we did it was really great.
What role do you think technology can play for an ecological and social change, and has your perception of this changed since returning to Europe?
Compared to other industries, I think IT technology can play a significant role in all aspects of the respective societies simply because it requires very little infrastructure. Once there is decent Internet and access to computers, there are very little costs when it comes to solving local problems or improving an existing system with IT. The governments of the countries we visited understood that and put ICT high on their priority list.
We tried not to come with any expectations but, in theory, the local developers in East Africa have access to the same knowledge as we do. They can train themselves in the same skills as we did. We learned all these skills with content freely available on the Internet, not in school. That is true - but the truth is also that the young creatives simply don’t have as much free time available as we do. The circumstances are harder: they often have to support their family who expect them to earn money for them because they had invested in their education.
Another factor is the comparably slow and expensive Internet. As a developer, when you face a problem with a programming language you google it. But if the internet is down or each page request takes minutes, you simply cannot make the same progress as you could do with fast internet. However, given the development of the past few years, I’m positive that the environment will continue to improve at a fast pace. The IT industries will thrive.
What was your biggest discovery about Africa’s tech scene?
Personally, it was the incredible support and smart policies from the Rwandan Government. I’ve never heard of a comparable support from any other country in the world. The amount of support offered by initiatives from the private sector is great. Women in tech (as in the entire society) also get a lot of support, and smart policies do the rest.
An example of this is mobile payment has not been accepted in Rwanda because of the lack of one dominant player, like Safaricom is in Kenya. There are three big players with their own solutions, all of which are incompatible to each other. But now the government ruled that all telecommunication providers have to comply to open standards. That means users can switch between providers and keep their money, as well as transfer across providers. Without any big investment, Rwanda has become a great market for mobile payment.
You visited some of the fastest growing countries for ICT. What sustainable initiatives were you seeing come out of this growth, if any?
Good question. Right now, the most important initiatives are the ones that create and improve the infrastructure - like continuing to bring fast internet from the sea cables to the inner country. Rwanda is building a 4G network across the country. Once the infrastructure is good enough, growth will come by itself. I predict a bright future because of the lack of legacy, the lack of competing industries, and the opportunity to compete on a global market with very little barriers on one side and very little costs on the other.
What will you do with all the knowledge you’ve gained from the AfricaHackTrip and EuroHackTrip?
We will collaborate when it comes to details. For example, one lesson was that the AfricaHackTrip went “too fast.” One week per location, including a 2-day event didn’t provide enough free time to build deeper relationships, or start working on projects and so on. I hope to be able to participate on the EuroHackTrip myself.
Can you tell us about the other projects you’re working on?
I’m a freelance software designer and developer. I enjoy to translating complex problems and opportunities into simple to-use-solutions. Lately I focus on an open source framework/architecture call Hoodie that aims to radically lower the barrier of creating full stack web applications. You can find out more about this here.
TIMES Pieces is a monthly editorial series on RESET.org where we speak with people who are employing TIMES principles (Telecommunications, IT, Mobile, E-Commerce, Service Provider) for social and environmental good. Read more in the series: TIMES Pieces