African innovators design platforms that prioritize rights over data

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Durban, South Africa and Cairo

Planning a funeral, exposing corruption or starting a business – tough tasks are now made easier by a generation of tech-savvy Africans tackling local issues beyond the reach of Big Tech.

It was frustration that prompted Tanzanian engineer Maxence Melo to launch an anonymous online whistleblower platform after his appeals to the media to investigate a series of dodgy megaproject contracts were met with silence.

His JamiiForums website was launched in 2006, unmasking the dark money trails of Africa’s rich and powerful, and now has over 3 million visitors a day.

It’s just one of dozens of African digital platforms that innovators say are doing what tech giants can’t: tailor-made solutions for national needs.

“Local is king, we know what local solutions we need for our own contexts,” Melo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via video from his office in Dar es Salaam.

Despite challenges such as limited internet access, funding shortfalls and intermittent electricity, African entrepreneurs are harnessing the potential of digital engagement, from online funeral services in Egypt to voicemail in Mali.

“Local innovations reduce reliance on foreign technology,” said Kathleen Ndongmo, a Cameroonian researcher and digital rights advocate, in a video interview.

“We have the local talent and these local solutions help create jobs so that talent can stay on the continent instead of going to work for the tech giants.”

Digital mourning

Egyptian entrepreneur Ahmed Gaballah never thought he would work in the death business, but the stress of helping a friend plan a funeral has him rethinking the funeral industry.

“It took us a long time to get the burial permit and we got lost on the way to the burial site. It was a frustrating experience,” Mr. Gaballah told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

His funeral planning website SOKNA, which means tranquility in Arabic, was launched in 2019 as a one-stop-shop that can ease some of the pressures after a death, whether it’s arranging body preparation, wrapping , transportation or placement of obituaries.

Client Noha Ibrahim said SOKNA made the aftermath of her father’s sudden death smoother and more peaceful.

“They took care of everything from obtaining the burial permit, the new well-equipped van, managing transport from the hospital to the mosque and then to the cemetery,” said Ms Ibrahim, who read information on SOKNA on Facebook.

While SOKNA now has around 3,000 customers and 76 employees, Gaballah says he’s seen countless digital startups crumble and burn, largely due to insufficient funding and poor internet connectivity.

“Tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have all the attributes needed to grow exponentially,” he said.

But Mr. Gaballah says none have his local expertise or insight.

“Most local entrepreneurs are solving problems that they themselves have already encountered,” he added.

Oral cultures

Another driver of local innovation is language, Ndongmo said, especially on a continent with more than 2,000.

Malian developer Mamadou Sidibe witnessed the power of communication in indigenous languages ​​when he launched his “voice social networking” service, Lenali, in 2017.

It allows users to communicate via voice notes that can be attached to images, helping informal marketers consume news and information and sell products online.

A simple tool, it has opened up new horizons for many people in Mali, helping the isolated and illiterate find a voice and providing opportunities for small businesses cut off from new markets.

“We have an oral culture and more than 100 dialects,” Mr Sidibe said.

“One of the ways to be innovative is not to copy what is done in Europe or the United States – in general, we have to adapt everything to our own cultural reality.”

Less than a third of Malians can read and write, according to the World Bank. Lenali has been downloaded 150,000 times in 118 countries, from Brazil to Sri Lanka to Russia, Mr Sidibe said.

“We also teach literacy classes on the app. Our goal is not to keep literacy low – our goal is to make education, technology and business accessible,” Sidibe said of his ad-supported platform.

Data sovereignty

Big tech has come under fire for collecting and selling user data by the world’s leading central banking umbrella group against algorithmic bias and racism.

It’s an opportunity for local innovators to do things differently, said Melo, who has fought in court for more than a decade to protect whistleblower data despite the government repeatedly asked JamiiForums to deliver them.

Ms Ndongmo said her biggest fear for the future of innovation in Africa is the government crackdown on online resistance.

“You can’t innovate around repressive politics,” she said.

Mr. Melo has racked up 159 legal challenges by the Tanzanian government for exposing corruption. But his refusal to give in paid off.

New leaders in Tanzania have opened consultations with Mr. Melo to draft frameworks that will better protect freedom of expression.

Creating space for digital innovation doesn’t mean platforms shouldn’t be monitored, said Mr Sidibe, who employs a handful of people to vet every Lenali post to stamp out hate speech, pornography or danger.

Like JamiiForums, Lenali follows strict policies to protect users’ data rights and ensure their privacy.

“Big tech companies are interested in big data so they can do business with your data…they’re interested in profit, not truth,” Melo said.

Nothing wrong with profits, he said, but not at the expense of users if the surge of African startups is to endure, thrive – and take their place at the table alongside Big Tech.

“It’s about the content you create, not what we can generate from you. It’s about the kind of information you can put on the platform to help others,” Melo said. .

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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