#17 sharing
Anton Scholz

African Reinventions

When it comes to creating and using open source software, Africa is a hub of innovation. The applications designed are free and benefit the community. Does this development hint at the renaissance on the continent of the philosophy of Ubuntu, a sense of a universal bond that connects humanity?

FrontlineSMS software allows users to receive and send masses of text messages. The system involves a laptop linked to a mobile phone, a quantum leap for the effectiveness of African NGOs. In Zimbabwe, FronlineSMS is being used to spread health information about AIDS, in Rwanda by farmers to market their products, and in Nigeria to monitor the elections. All without internet access, thanks to a system developed by African NGO Kiwanja (Swahili for connection).

Coordinating health care, protecting civilians from armed conflict and bountiful harvests from impending storms - these are all examples of crowdsourcing being used to solve problems on the ground by the people involved. It is creating a space for a sense of community and self-empowerment to blossom in regions often marked by conflict, poverty and control by external forces.

The new transparency, networking, and assumption of responsibility by a community contribute to a dynamic that extends well beyond the actual goal.

The sharing economy is the idea behind open source and crowdsourcing. The involvement and knowledge of the crowd helps create an innovative commons of information and knowledge. Crowdsourcing describes the amassing, the public gathering of information that is then verified by the group. The new transparency, networking, and assumption of responsibility by a community contribute to a dynamic that extends well beyond the actual goal. It is a dynamic familiar from many African villages, where the individual works for the collective and the collective for the individual.

This inspired Linux to name its open source operating system Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Bantu word, a language spoken in Southern Africa that roughly means humanity, neighbourly love, and public spirit. It is often also translated as: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Ubuntu also refers to a universal bond that ties all of humanity together. As one developer noted: “Together we have the opportunity to bring real technological freedom to every part of the world. It is a bold vision, but our greatest strength in Ubuntu is our community and together we can do this.”

Anyone can use, code and copy the operating system for free, as it is in the public domain. Through unhindered access, the software translates the values of Ubuntu for the technology age. The basic software concept is not the only element rooted in African culture either. The user community on the continent is growing rapidly, and a South African is Ubuntu's primary sponsor.

Many have bemoaned what they viewed as the loss of the ethical concept of Ubuntu in Africa. When the pan-African movement dwindled in the 1970s and the Cold War ended in the 1990s, the continent's fragmentation and the deep divides within nations became quite tangible and visible. The Organisation for African Unity, the precursor to the Africa Union, was also unsuccessful in bringing people closer together. High urbanisation has also played a role in destroying a sense of community. By the 2000s at the very latest, when the South African tourism industry began touting their deeply divided country as the birthplace of Ubuntu, the concept had become no more than a tag line for many. Humanity, neighbourly love and a sense of community were not qualities the world associated with Africa. There was little evidence of a bond that united humanity either. In many places though, this human sense of connection was maintained by smaller groups, and it can still be felt today in rural areas in particular. It has begun to spread again in recent years, and its progress has been hastened by new technologies and media.

From an optimistic standpoint, open sourcing offers Africans an opportunity to take responsibility for creating a better future.

Open source gives Africans an active role in shaping their globalised future. It is about holistic progress, moving forward together well beyond the village community. The bond of community and neighbourly love is being recreated in larger structures. Ubuntu is becoming a link for a global community to which increasing numbers of Africans feel they belong, a community being shaped and formed in no small measure by Africans. From an optimistic standpoint, open sourcing offers Africans an opportunity to take responsibility for creating a better future.

There is little reliable data on the expansion of crowdsourcing in Africa, though it is clear that some initiatives have grown exponentially. The Ushahidi (Swahili for witness) open source platform is an example of the snowball effect innovation made in Africa can have. During the 2008 elections, a group of Kenyan bloggers discussed how they could counter the wave of ethnic violence moving through their homeland. They used the Ushahidi platform to identify and visualise quickly changing hot spots, giving Nigerians a way to better protect themselves from the violence. Ushahidi has since been used over 12,000 times in different contexts, such as coordinating rescue efforts after catastrophes like the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami in Japan. The bottom-up mechanism of information sharing is proving to be much more effective than monopolised information channels.

Critics have expressed doubt about the sustainability and structural development impulse of these approaches, however, especially since open source generally generates no income for those involved. The truth probably falls somewhere in the middle between the exalted expectations and serious scepticism, as it so often does. The positive effects of the sharing economy should not close our eyes to the fact that the traditional economy in Africa is still in dire need of further development. Projects like Kiwanja and Ushahidi can only emerge because their initiators can afford to put in a great deal of unpaid work, at least at the outset. Today developers can apply for project money from development funds to support their work. But this requires a high level of education and an international network. So commons-based peer production depends on a certain baseline capital or education, something a large percentage of Africans simply do not have. Which makes it even more surprising that such non-commercial products are emerging from Africa in such numbers.

The will to work on driving social development without remuneration shows how present the Ubuntu philosophy is in the minds of those in positions of privilege.

The will to work on driving social development without remuneration shows how present the Ubuntu philosophy is in the minds of those in positions of privilege. So this exceptional level of commoning in Africa seems less a renaissance of Ubuntu and more an expression of a widespread philosophy of life. Open sourcing is ultimately an opportunity to practice Ubuntu in a larger network and thus at a meta-level. It frees this way of life from the small, immediate environment, linking not only neighbourhoods, but also entire societies in their desire to achieve peace and development. It won't solve the continent's problems, but crowdsourcing is still a form of self-empowerment that can drive development. I am what I am because of who we all are – this understanding transferred to state and government structures could pave the way for a broad and responsible civil society that might release heretofore unexpected development potential.

Photo: “Addis Ababa Literacy App Hackathon” by Beyond Access
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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