Africa’s tech movement gets political

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As Africa’s technology ecosystem continues to emerge, so too are discussions of its impact on the continent’s politics.

A sub-Saharan African IT boom is running parallel to several years of significant growth and investment in the region’s economies. There are now roughly 200 African innovation hubs, 3,500 new tech-related ventures, and $1bn in venture capital that have all fed into a movement of tech-oriented entrepreneurs in the continent’s key economies.

South Africa’s long-established IT sector is making investments across the continent, Kenya’s Silicon Savannah has improved east Africa’s broadband capacity, and Lagos’ Macaulay Road is a hotbed for Nigerian incubators and startup activity.

Africa’s tech scene and improving ICT infrastructure are producing greater digital connectivity, novel innovation, and a new IT business constituency. In turn, these are altering the continent’s political landscape.

Kenya at the forefront

Crowdsourcing app Ushahidi is a seminal case for how homegrown tech is shaping political space. In late 2007 Kenya’s inconclusive presidential election led to a political standoff and sporadic violence throughout the country.

Four technologists – Juliana Rotich, Erik Hersman, Ory Okolloh, and programmer David Kobia – quickly developed the Ushahidi app. The name means “witness” in Swahili. The goal was to digitally, and publicly track, incidents of political violence. Much of the data was aggregated from citizen texts and emails.

Ushahidi was heavily used by Kenyan authorities and humanitarian groups during the 2007-2008 election crisis. The app is partially credited for a reduction in the conflict, which eventually led to a power sharing agreement and resolution to the impasse between candidates Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.

“We created Ushahidi to create a voice for people who did not have a voice, and to make sense of information in a faster way, which is good for elections,” says Erik Hersman, one of Ushahidi’s creators.

Mr Hersman, along with his Ushahidi cohorts, went on to build the app into a global software company while founding Nairobi’s iHub innovation space in 2010. iHub has grown to have thousands of members, and is seen as a nexus for the region’s tech scene.

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