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Quiet Web revolution can change Africa

The next Bill Gates could possibly come from Africa seeing how the World Wide Web is abetting Africa’s transformation.

Whilst in the past we sought to deal with poverty by begging from other nations, today young people in Africa are using the web to fight poverty directly.

Across the continent, young people are persevering against negative perceptions of Africa and developing new applications aimed at fighting poverty at the bottom of the pyramid.

At Pivot East Conference, a mobile startup event last week, 50 applications were showcased. Kenyan startups emerged top in four out of five categories at the 2014 edition with each winning startup receiving $10,000 (Sh860,000).

Few East Africans or Kenyans know the impact of this emerging tech industry. Yet we are soon likely to see another M-Pesa or Facebook emerge from the many applications developed each year.

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Three thousand kilometres south of Nairobi in Johannesburg, this week saw a number of leading thinkers gather as The Guardian brought their popular Activate summit to Africa for the first time, with hundreds attending to hear global and African innovators speak.

Attendees reflected on 25 years of the Web and discussed the open Web’s potential to transform Africa – and the world – by combating poverty, strengthening democracy and allowing journalists to tell stories differently and engage more closely with their audiences.

But back to Nairobi. The winner in the Society category was SokoText, which offers an SMS-based pre-ordering service to small fruit and vegetable sellers.

SiM Mobile, another startup which is a supply chain mobile solution integrated with popular accounting apps, emerged winner in the Enterprise category.

The success of these startups will lead to increased efficiency and allow mama mboga (women vegetable vendors) to uplift their livelihoods while at the same time enhancing food security.

In the 50 years since Independence, there has never been an anti-poverty programme that has attempted to deal with poverty as effectively as these applications.

Yet their ability to succeed depends on what we do with the telecommunications policies and regulations. We have the key to unlock Africa’s potential through making broadband accessible to all and we should start with making the Internet a human rights issue.

I believe it is so important that the UN should include affordable broadband access as one of the sustainable development goals to be agreed on in September 2015.

Every Kenyan understands the impact of M-Pesa on the economy. We should, therefore, also understand when the World Bank says that for every 10 per cent penetration of the Internet, the economy grows by 1.4 per cent.

The Web also can strengthen Africa’s fragile democracies. Social media is giving voice to the voiceless. For the voiceless to make meaningful interventions, governments must make data freely accessible to citizens, engage with stakeholders and be accountable and responsive to their people.

To achieve this, governments must automate all services and leverage on the Web and mobile technologies to deliver services.

Perhaps the best example to date is that of Brazil’s Poupatempo (citizen’s service centres), a bureaucratic reform with most services using the Web, which led to a successful strategy to promote institutional reforms.

Today, Poupatempo stands as one of the most innovative programmes to address citizen needs. A similar concept, Huduma Centres in Kenya, must be nurtured for other African nations to adopt as a tool for responding to citizen needs.

The web has changed media in the last 25 years and discussants at The Guardian conference agreed that media, too, need reforms allowing journalists to tell stories differently and engage more closely with their audiences.

Although media’s role is largely reporting and analysing specific events, they need to do more in Africa where majority of citizens may not understand complex data from government.

Media must build the capacity to analyse data and use visual technologies to make it possible for ordinary citizens to understand complex issues that affect them.

The fear of social media’s continued disruptions of secretive governments should not form the basis of clamping down on media. Instead, strong leadership in governments should encourage greater freedoms of expression as a basis of building sustainable democracies.

The Web is only 25-years-old. Africa is barely starting its journey on the Web and already we can see dramatic progress.

With innovation, perseverance, and strong leadership, the Web’s next 25 years could see poverty reduced, democracy enhanced and Africa taking its rightful place on the global stage.

For these to happen, we have a responsibility to see that broadband is accessible and affordable to all.

The writer is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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