Youthful innovation at Apps4Africa
“Innovation works well for large companies, but it’s not so easy for a sole trader to gain recognition,” says Eric Mutta, a software designer whose latest app won him recognition in the Apps4Africa Climate Challenge. But it’s through youthful innovation that Africa will find long-term solutions to long-standing problems.
By Prue Goredema
Rural farming communities and those whose livelihoods are directly impacted by the vagaries of climate change can benefit greatly from better use of ICTs in alleviating poverty and finding ways to farm sustainably. Not leaving the innovation to outsiders, developers and entrepreneurs across the Continent have been working on mobile and computer-based systems which tackle climate change in creative ways. This creativity was rewarded by the US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs in the Apps4Africa Climate Challenge. January 14th, 2012 saw the announcement of the East Africa winners of the competition at a colourful ceremony in Masindi, Uganda.
First place went to ‘The Grainy Bunch’ by 29 year old Eric Mutta of Tanzania for an application that has wide implications for nationwide food and economic security. It is a grain supply management system that monitors the purchase, storage, distribution and consumption of grain across the whole country. Mutta took up programming thirteen years ago and has steadily worked on ever more ambitious projects: from an sms-based mobile dating service which, at its peak in 2010 had 10 000 members, to his prize-winning Grainy Bunch. “I’ve learnt that innovation works well for large companies, but it’s not so easy for a sole trader.” In the past, I had to spend a lot of time convincing people and explaining the significance of my apps. As they say: ‘a prophet receives no honour in his own home’, but my defiance has paid off.” With the US$15 000 prize money, he plans to hire a programmer and continue to develop apps that will solve problems in society. “I have to figure out how to turn $15 000 into $15 billion in fifteen years,” he chuckles.
The second place in the East Africa competition went to Kenya for the Mkulima Calculator which looks at climate and locality data to help farmers decide which crops to plant and when. The app focuses on the country’s most commonly grown crops: beans, maize, potatoes, rice, and wheat using national data published by the FAO. The climate data are from Nairobi Meteorological Centre’s records from 1940 to 2008.
In an interview with eLearning Africa, Jonathan Gosier, the Director of Product for SwiftRiver at Ushahidi and founder of AppAfrica said that he was impressed with the standard of entries received in the competition. “We still have two months of the competition left for people in the Southern Africa region, but we had over two hundred applications in the West/Central and East Africa segments of the competition.” And it seems that those throwing their hats in the ring were not pretenders. “The standard was really high!” says Gosier. “About half the applications were more than just ideas; they were actually apps that entrants had developed, but we also accepted ideas.”
This was the case with the third prize, which was awarded to Agro Universe of Uganda. The mobile and web-based application serves as a marketplace for crops by linking communities in need with those who have the required produce. The team of ten has not yet developed the app, but with the $3000 prize money, it will be easier to turn the idea into reality.
The drive for home-grown solutions
It is important for climate change solutions and mitigation strategies to be formulated by Africans. Gosier explains, “Every country in the world has to figure out the best way to move forward during times of change and stress. African countries are no different: They have a voice in their future. These solutions need to come from Africans because the proposed solutions need to consider the long-term impact on society as well as the short term gains. They also need to be sustainable, and unfortunately many of the solutions offered by foreign NGOs tend to be short term solutions in that they lack the element of sustainability that would give them long term impact.”
Picking the winners
Deciding which ICTs showed promise was no easy feat for the judging panel. Gosier explains that the committee was made up of technical experts, climate experts, social entrepreneurs and eco-activists from all over the world. The criteria which the judges sought in selecting the winners included the potential to scale the project beyond the country where it was developed, focusing on the theme of climate change and adaptation, and the impact that the application developer sought to achieve. The winning apps embody these ideals whilst simultaneously showcasing how young African developers are championing ICTs in creating sustainable solutions to today’s environmental challenges.