Cooperation for development
14 August 2012
The spirit of sharing is at the heart of the many new technology hubs that have opened in ACP countries in recent years. In Zambia, BongoHive encourages industry professionals to work with enthusiastic beginners to develop applications for the local mobile market.
In December 2010, ICT Update reported on the official launch of two new regional technology hubs dedicated to training, supporting and inspiring new developers: iHub in Nairobi, covering East Africa, and mLab Southern Africa, based in Tshwane, South Africa. Since then, dozens of similar spaces providing guidance and facilities for enthusiastic innovators have flourished around the continent.
There had been similar groups of like-minded people meeting in cities of many ACP countries before, in computer societies, or working on open-source projects or developing internet service provider (ISP) facilities. Several of these initiatives even attracted donor funding, but few of them lasted more than a couple of years, and many did not invest the time or money in developing new talent.
Those involved in the new ‘hubs’, as they are widely known, are eager to avoid those mistakes. There is a far greater emphasis on sharing skills, equipment, space and time, and not just among the individual groups but between the various hubs around the continent. The ability to exchange ideas with people in other countries has, of course, been accelerated by the expansion of broadband internet across Africa, and the increased availability of ICT equipment. But the technology is only one part of a complex equation.
‘The driving force behind the development of tech hubs in Africa has not come about because we are suddenly all reading about Facebook and other internet successes,’ says Lukonga Lindunda co-founder of BongoHive, a technology hub based in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. ‘Instead, there has been a major change in the younger generation's mindset. We no longer want to wait for donors to come with money, or superpowers to tell us what we have to do. We want to change the world we see around us, our local environment, and solve our own problems.’
In the spring of 2011, Lindunda co-founded BongoHive. ‘When I finished my studies in South Africa,’ he says, ‘one of the challenges when I came back to Zambia was that there was nowhere I could get together with other people interested in technology. There was no place where we could meet to brainstorm ideas or share experiences, no open space with internet access or where we could work together.‘
Lindunda found a job as an ICT advisor with the Belgian development organisation, Flemish Association for Development Co-Operation and Technical Assistance (VVOB) in Zambia, which focuses on educational programmes in the country. Together with his colleague Bart Cornille, Lindunda was looking for ways to develop sustainable, locally-driven solutions to some of the challenges they encountered in their work. They had heard about the hubs in Kenya and South Africa and realised that a similar initiative could be useful in Zambia.
‘We managed to convince VVOB that it was a good idea too,’ says Lindunda, ‘and we negotiated the use of a room at the Ministry of Education, which we used to start BongoHive. Part of the deal was that some of the ideas that would be developed from the hub would be applied for use in VVOB’s educational programmes.’
While the hub does not focus exclusively on developing applications for education, Lindunda is convinced that it is an area worthy of new developers’ attention. ‘From my experience, students do not learn the necessary practical skills in universities. That’s the nature of most universities, but in Zambia it’s even worse because the university here does not have access to a stable internet connection or enough computers even for the people who are studying computer science.’
Broadband internet is readily available in Lusaka, and one of the biggest ISPs there was recently bought over by the multinational telecommunications company, Vodafone, which is now rolling out a 4G (fourth generation) WiMax network that will deliver high-speed internet to subscribers in Lusaka. The cost of a connection is still too expensive for consumers, small businesses, NGOs and many educational institutions. And prices are likely to remain high for the next few years as the ISPs recoup the costs of their investment in the new infrastructure.
The number of Zambians using the internet is rising, with many accessing slower connections on their cell phones. But these are early days and there is still a long way to go before people learn how to make the best use of it, and to develop applications to suit their specific needs.
The lack of facilities and advanced-level training in technology subjects presents a significant challenge for BongoHive and for other tech hubs in ACP countries. ‘It’s not enough to offer people a space or an opportunity for them to innovate,’ says Lindunda, ‘it is also about developing skills and getting people to think innovatively, and have the right tools to turn their ideas into actual, practical solutions.’
BongoHive, therefore, aims to support interested individuals regardless of their previous experience. The types of people using the facilities range from high school and university students to professionals already working in the ICT industry. The atmosphere is informal, brainstorming ideas is encouraged and everyone shares their experience and learns from each other.
When VVOB expanded one of its projects with 350 extra computers, Lindunda saw the opportunity to get in touch with other people interested in technology. Eight people responded, mostly graduates from the nearby Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts and Commerce. Around the same time, Lindunda had the opportunity to visit iHub in Kenya and mLab in South Africa. When he returned to Lusaka and met with the eight graduates and some other friends with more computer experience, they decided to start the hub, initially as an informal get-together.
‘The advice I got from Juliana Rotich and Erik Hersman of Ushahidi when I visited the other hubs was to just start, not to wait for funding or approval from donor agencies or government ministries. So we did,’ says Lindunda, ‘we just started. We were passionate about growing a community. For us, it was about the people, about sharing knowledge. We didn’t try to plan where we would be in a year or two, we simply decided to start meeting consistently.’
One of their first tasks was to identify the skills that people in the team had, and to match them with the people who wanted to learn those skills. The group worked together to exchange expertise, and also organised training courses on a variety of topics. These courses covered the use of programming and web applications including Ruby on Rails, Java, C Sharp and FrontlineSMS. And, in December 2011, BongoHive hosted its first training course on the development of mobile applications.
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