#15 responsibility
Lundquist Neubauer

With a Smartphone Through Africa

Africa's start-up scene is driven by innovators in the field of digital media and IT. Some of them met in the Ampion Venture Bus.

Some cultural pessimists say technology marks the end of all social contact. We do not talk to our friends anymore; we just stare at our phones. We are not interested in others anymore; we lose ourselves inside the endless reaches of the World Wide Web. We do not educate ourselves anymore; we simply sit and let the television wash over us.

Kenyan James Odede sees it somewhat differently: “Digital media has brought information closer to people. This is important because it means information consumers are also information producers, and gives people the power to choose what sort of information they would like to see or share.” He is the co-founder of MobiDawa, an app that provides patients with digital medical information. The idea behind it was not developed in an office, but over the course of a seven-day bus ride across East Africa – together with likeminded people from all over the world and the assistance of experienced mentors.

“We believe that technology, media networks and international cooperation could be the key to creating sustainable change in Africa.” (Fabian Guhl, Ampion)

Each year young would-be entrepreneurs pack up their laptops and smartphones and set off in search of IT solutions to solve one of the African continent’s numerous problems. Then they present their projects to potential investors. “We believe that technology, media networks and international cooperation could be the key to creating sustainable change in Africa”, Fabian Guhl explains. Guhl founded the Ampion NGO, and has organised these (ad)venture busses since 2013. Just like the start-ups created by the process, Ampion also depends on mutual exchange across national borders and on digital networks.

Communication is changing – just like it always has

Criticism of the media is a popular pastime today. But placing this phenomenon in a theoretical and historical context reveals an interesting development: No matter when a new media has emerged, there have always been skeptics who immediately spring into action. Plato famously denounced the written word. First letterpress printing, then newspapers were condemned, especially by clerics, because they challenged the monopoly on education and information enjoyed by the church to that point.

The social changes wrought by new media are profound and often represent shifts in behaviour.

And today’s mass media have repeatedly come under fire from critics, such as from the popular Frankfurt School around Horkheimer and Adorno. Shaped by the shadow of National Socialism, they described the mass media as an overpowering, centrally controlled system primarily aimed at entertainment that would result in the stultification of mankind. This thesis is still accepted today, and the critique generally goes beyond just the medium itself. The social changes wrought by new media are profound and often represent shifts in behaviour. A study was recently published that associated tapping the screen of a smartphone with changes in the human brain. Another study has shown that our constant access to information via Google, Wikipedia and others is diminishing our memory capacity. Scientific conclusions – including some that have ultimately proven completely false – have always been employed by cultural skeptics as an instrument for drawing attention to the dangers of new media.

Recognising that critiquing media is as old as the history of humankind itself brings us one step closer to the understanding that medial changes might not be bad per se. After all, we did survive the invention of the printing press, the cinema, the radio and the television. Overall we are not dumber than we were before. And even if the smartphone is our daily companion and changing the way we interact, how we talk with one another, this does not automatically mean communication is worse today. It is simply different, becoming more complex. We can take it even one step further: Perhaps new media could help solve essential problems locally, regionally and even globally.

Social media?

Classical media – if the name even truly applies – function according to the sender-receiver model. On one end the newspaper that disseminates the news, on the other the recipient who reads it. In between there are a whole host of factors that determine which news stories are picked up, and how they are processed and understood. Journalists and newspapers serve as the gatekeeper. They evaluate how newsworthy an event is. Is it happening close by? Does it involve conflict or have shock value? Is it somehow relevant to readers? The greater the number of news factors that apply is, the more likely an event is to make its way into the newspaper, or onto television or a website.

In principle, everyone is just a mouse click away from becoming a sender of information and news, whether via Facebook, Twitter or their own blog.

Social media have already changed the traditional media system today: Runs of printed papers are dropping. Journalists compete with bloggers. Twitter is faster than any news agency. And the Arab Spring effectively demonstrated the influence social media can have on processes of social change. Digital media are also having an effect on traditional media. Once passive readers are now active and provide journalists with direct feedback. They interact with other readers and exchange comments. In principle, everyone is just a mouse click away from becoming a sender of information and news, whether via Facebook, Twitter or their own blog.

The question of the task and role of “the” media is very complex. Especially for social media, there is the justified hope that they could change the way we interact for the better and also be used to promote global responsibility. This in no way means that certain developments should not be critically assessed, which may, in fact, be an essential part of the process. Access to information is a good example. It is unevenly distributed both inside societies and globally: This “digital gap” means that number of computers per person in Africa is many times smaller than in Europe.

“I don't believe in boundaries anymore”

Structurally digital media are boundless. Websites can be called up across national borders. The same applies to Twitter and Facebook. It is no wonder, then, that information spreads quickly today and exerts influence wherever it strikes a chord. This has obvious positive and negative effects – as the recent escalation of the conflict around the Mohammed caricatures showed. Communication has become global.

“Thanks to new media, we were able to get very interesting feedback from all over the world.” (Seida Gharsallah, E-Maji)

“I don't believe in boundaries anymore. I can truly say that limits only appear in our minds”, notes Seida Gharsallah, also an Ampion Venture Bus participant. She won investors over with the idea of “E-Maji”, a device that measures water quality in real time, making it a significant breakthrough for both local communities and industry. Clean drinking water is still one of Africa’s major challenges. Gharsallah describes the process from the idea to the final product: “Thanks to new media, we were able to get very interesting feedback from all over the world.” Like those of her fellow participants, her network extends beyond national borders. As a medium of communication, the internet plays an important role for almost everyone.

The ideas of most Ampion Venture Bus participants focus on the mobile phone as a medium. According to a recent Deloitte study, the number of smartphones in Africa will double to 350 million by the year 2017. Today more than 650 million people own a simple mobile telephone. In some countries, more people have access to a phone than to clean water or electricity. This popularity is based on very practical factors: The mobile all-around talents can bridge temporary black outs and the structural weaknesses of the African telephone network. Africa is also a world leader in mobile payment systems. For entrepreneurs, the benefits of looking for solutions that employ this medium are twofold: It is an exceptional future market, and can reach a relatively large number of people.

"Africa needs courageous entrepreneurs who believe in the power of technology and want to create change.” (Fabian Guhl, Ampion)

Development through technology

Ampion has underwritten a total of more than 30 start-ups. They all have one thing in common: the use of new technologies and media to solve a wide range of problems on the African continent. Additional start-ups are scheduled for this year. “This year, we again want to encourage a lot of people to get involved and put their ideas into practice. Africa needs courageous entrepreneurs who believe in the power of technology and want to create change,” Fabian Guhl from Ampion believes.

New media are not a panacea. But they help bring people with shared ideas and visions together – almost regardless of what part of the earth they inhabit. The smartphone boom in Africa clearly shows how much innovation is needed in this area to provide more widespread access. People who recognize the possibilities of new technologies and make them useful to others are taking responsibility for themselves and their fellow human beings. This is a real opportunity for international cooperation.

Photo: Ampion

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