Digital technology for development

Twitter cards

What’s the challenge?

Africa has become a hub for innovation and digital communications. What technologies are out there and are they improving access to education and infrastructure?

Panel discussion

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 10 May 2011 to discuss the issue.

Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC
Rory Cellan-Jones has been a reporter for the BBC for more than two decades, covering business and technology stories for much of that time. He has been watching the technology scene like a hawk for the last 15 years. From the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s to the rise of Google and Facebook, from the Psion organiser to the iPad, he’s covered all the big gadget and business stories, and interviewed just about everyone who’s played a part in the story of the web. Dot.Rory, his previous blog, was named among the Top 100 blogs by the Sunday Times. He aims to look at the impact of the internet and digital technology on our lives and businesses. Rory has been described as “the non-geek’s geek”, and freely admits that he came late to technology – but he aims to explain its significance to anyone with an interest in the subject.

His on-screen career began as reporter for Wales Today in Cardiff, from where he moved to London as a reporter on Breakfast Time. He quickly transferred to business coverage, working across the BBC’s output from the Money Programme to Newsnight, from the Today programme to the Ten O Clock News. The stories he has covered range from Black Wednesday and the Maxwell trial to the dot com bubble and the rise of Google to the growth of the internet in Africa.

BBC: Connected Africa series. In 2000 he was briefly the BBC’s Internet Correspondent before returning to his post as Business and Industry Correspondent after the dot com bubble burst. At the beginning of 2007 he was appointed Technology Correspondent with a brief to expand the BBC’s coverage of the impact of the internet on business and society. He now covers technology for television, radio and the BBC website. He also blogs regularly on “dot rory”, the BBC’s popular technology blog, named recently as one of the Sunday Times Top 100 blogs, and is a prolific Twitterer – you can follow him at And whenever there is a new gadget or useful website to try, Rory is likely to be experimenting with ways of using the new tools in his journalism. In 2011, he presented a major series for Radio 4, The Secret History of Social Networking. He is also the author of “Dot Bomb”, a critically acclaimed account of Britain’s dot com bubble.



One Laptop Per Child

Professor Nicholas Negroponte, Founder and Chairman
Nicholas Negroponte is an internet pioneer, author, and man of grand visions including One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) a non-profit organisation to bring low-cost computing and education to the poorest regions of the world.

A graduate of MIT, Negroponte was a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design, and has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1966. Conceived in 1980, the Media Laboratory opened its doors in 1985. He is also author of the 1995 best seller, Being Digital, which has been translated into more than 40 languages. In the private sector, Nicholas Negroponte serves on the board of directors for Motorola, Inc. and as general partner in a venture capital firm specializing in digital technologies for information and entertainment. He has provided start-up funds for more than 40 companies, including Wired magazine. Twitter @OLPC @nnegroponte




Erik Hersman, Co-Founder of Ushahidi, Afrigadget and iHub – Nairobi’s innovation hub

Erik Hersman is a key member of the African blog revolution including AfriGadget and WhiteAfrican. As a builder of Ushahidi, he helps expand the power of everyday people to share vital news via text. Erik Hersman is an international technology influencer with a keen eye on the impact of web and mobile technology innovation across Africa. Raised in Sudan and Kenya, Erik brings unique energy and insight to the world of technology and innovation – bridging the gap between Africa and Silicon Valley. He has a B.S. in Business Management from Florida State University. As part of the Ushahidi strategy he has been building the iHub (Nairobi’s innovation hub) since early 2010, a place that has grown to 3000+ Kenyan developers, designers, and entrepreneurs with connections in the corporate, academic and investor sectors.

An avid blogger, Erik writes two influential blogs: WhiteAfrican, where he writes about technology on the African continent, and AfriGadget, a group blog that celebrates African ingenuity. He is frequently a speaker at meetings and conferences dealing with technology in Africa, mapping, blogging and web application development, including; TED, PopTech, DEMO, Picnic, SXSW, Where 2.0 and Web 2.0. He is a TED Senior Fellow, a PopTech Faculty Fellow, sits on the Safaricom Innovation Board and is a founding organizer of Maker Faire Africa.

Erik grew up in Kenya and Sudan and is, as he puts it, “one of those guys who’s much more ‘at home’ in Africa.” From his home in the US, During the Kenyan post-election crisis of 2007-2008, Hersman helped create the website Ushahidi, a place to report incidents of violence via the web and texts. The original Ushahidi tool was written in two days; later that year, it won the NetSquared Mashup Challenge (and a nice check to help further development). Now the Ushahidi team’s next project is to build the Ushahidi Engine, a free and open-source tool for crowdsourcing information and seeing communities online. Twitter @whiteafrican @ushahidi





Herman Chinery-Hesse, Founder and Chairman, theSOFTtribe, Ghana
The BBC has described Herman as Africa’s “Bill Gates”. Herman believes that: “If Africa misses the current global IT boat, there may never again be an opportunity for rapid wealth creation on the continent.” Herman is a software engineer by profession. 19 years ago he co-founded theSOFTtribe, one of the leading software houses in West Africa. theSOFTtribe has won a number of awards, including the prestigious Millennium Excellence Awards for IT in 2005 (also nominated in 2000). The company has been featured on BBC, CNN and the IEEE Magazine (of the United States) amongst others.

The BBC has described Herman as Africa’s “Bill Gates”. Herman believes that: “If Africa misses the current global IT boat, there may never again be an opportunity for rapid wealth creation on the continent.” He holds a number of directorships and is an Assessor of the Commercial Court, Ghana. He has won a number of personal awards including Outstanding Ghanaian Professional from the GPA Awards (UK), as well as the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Texas State Alumni Association and Texas State University-San Marcos (USA)—the first and currently only African recipient of the award.

Herman has also been a resource person and visiting speaker at the Wharton Business School, Harvard Business Schools, Cambridge University, the University of Ghana, and the TEDGlobal Conference in Arusha, Tanzania, amongst others. Herman believes: “Technology is the only way for Africa to get rich. We don’t have proper infrastructure and we can’t compete in manufacturing. But if you put me behind a PC and tell me to write software for a Chinese customer, then I can compete brain for brain with anyone trying to do the same thing in the US.” theSOFTtribe employs around 70 people and has a client base of more than 250 organisations, including major multinationals such as the Ford Foundation, Nestlé, and Unilever; it is also a Microsoft development partner in the region.




Professor Tim Unwin, Professor of Geography and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D
From 2001-2004 Tim led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo initiative based in the Department for International Development, creating partnerships to deliver ICT-based educational initiatives in Africa. Tim is also Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. In 2007-2008 he was Director and then Senior Advisor to the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education programme with UNESCO. From 2001-2004 he led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo initiative based in the Department for International Development, creating partnerships to deliver ICT-based educational initiatives in Africa.

Since returning to Royal Holloway, University of London, he has created an ICT4D Collective, which undertakes research, teaching and consultancy in the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development.

“It is important to bring together the private sector, civil society, governments and international donors – a range of different pertners to actually create solutions that will be in the interests of the poorest people” Professor Tim Unwin

“If only all digital devices were actually designed with emphasis on accessability then perhaps we might find ways in which technology is being used to reach the poorest and most disadvantaged at the moment in Africa.”   Professor Tim Unwin

“It is not just economic development, but social development which can be transforming to people’s lives.” Professor Tim Unwin



Ken Banks, Technologist, anthropologist Tech Awards Laureate 2009
National Geographic 2010 Emerging Explorer, Founder of and FrontlineSMS, Ken Banks, Founder of and FrontlineSMS. Ken Banks has over 26 years experience working in the IT industry and was named one of the Emerging Explorers of 2010 by National Geographic. Recently, his research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations.

Ken graduated from Sussex University with honours in Social Anthropology with Development Studies, and was awarded a Stanford University Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship in 2006, and named a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008. In 2009 he was named a Laureate of the Tech Awards, an international awards program which honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. He was also named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in May 2010. Ken’s work was initially supported by the MacArthur Foundation, and he is the current recipient of grants from the Open Society Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, HIVOS, the Omidyar Network and the Hewlett Foundation.

“If I was in Nairobi in Kenya, I could leave the building and pay for a cab with my mobile. I couldn’t do that in London” Ken Banks

“Many people now in Africa, their first experience of the internet will be through thei mobile phone, not a computer.” Ken Banks



The wind-up radio

Trevor Baylis OBE, Inventor of the wind-up radio
Trevor Baylis’ varied career has seen him swimming for Great Britain, a stunt man and a circus performer in Berlin, before eventually focusing on his gift for inventing. In 1985 Trevor invented and developed a range of products for the disabled called Orange Aids.

In 1991, after watching a programme on the spread of HIV-AIDs in Africa, Trevor Baylis set about developing the world’s first wind-up radio.His first working prototype ran for 14 minutes and in 1994 was featured on BBC Tomorrow’s World TV programme. Following this foreign investors came on board and he Trevor formed a company called Baylis Generators, later BayGen and then Freeplay. The Freeplay radio was awarded the BBC Design Award for Best Product Design in 1996, the year that Trevor travelled to South Africa to meet the then President, Nelson Mandela. He was awarded the OBE in 1997.

In May 1998 Trevor went on a tour of African states, lecturing for the British Council, in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Today Baylis Brands produces a range of products using wind-up technology, most recently the Eco Media player, deemed by Stephen Fry ‘better than the iPod’. Baylis Brands also helps inventors to protect and patent their ideas and inventions and get them to market using their network of industrial contacts.

“The most effective way to get information to people in Africa was through radio, but a lot of Africa doesn’t have electricity and batteries are too expensive” Trevor Baylis

“I went to a village in Botswana to present them with a radio, when I turned on this little radio it suddenly became a theatre in a stange was, it was awesome” Trevor Baylis

“Wind-up technology is so extensive. The wind-up torch came off the back of the radio, and wind-up chargers for mobile phones. Wind-up computers will soon come about”

Trevor Baylis



Lord Paul Boateng, Former High Commissioner to South Africa
Lord Paul Boateng is a British Labour Party politician, who was the Member of Parliament for Brent South from 1987 to 2005, becoming the UK’s first black Cabinet Minister in May 2002, when he was appointed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Following his departure from the House of Commons, he served as the British High Commissioner to South Africa from March 2005 to May 2009. He was introduced as a member of the House of Lords on 1 July 2010.

“ICT is beginning to make a difference. But it’s about making sure, always, that ICT develops in ways that are culturally appropriate.” Lord Paul Boateng

“Africa and Africans are, through necessity, adapting and developing new technology, in inventive and intuitive ways” Lord Paul Boateng

“It’s not just about catching up, but about being there for the next leap forward” Lord Paul Boateng



ForgetMeNot Africa
ForgetMeNot Africa’s platform aims to bridge the digital divide for Africans by providing internet messaging on even the most basic mobile phone. An eTXT is a message which can be sent and received seamlessly as an SMS, an email, chat or Facebook message on any carriers network via SMS. No need for downloads to the phone, internet, PC access or a change in user behaviour.



Further reading

Africa’s information revolution: rhetoric and reality, Geographical magazine, 17 April 2015

ICT and development, Chris Foster for ‘Ask the experts’,