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How East Africa is becoming a hotbed of tech

Concordia researcher Matthew Harsh investigates the culture of innovation taking hold in Uganda and Kenya
March 11, 2014
By Laurence Miall

When one thinks of the world’s technology centres, California’s Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas — even Montreal and Toronto — come to mind.

But what about East Africa?

Matthew Harsh, an assistant professor at Concordia’s Centre for Engineering in Society, points to the area as one of the world’s emerging hotbeds of technology. He notes, for instance, that tech giant IBM recently opened a research lab — one of only 12 it operates — in Nairobi, Kenya.

“My colleagues and I are studying how countries transition from primarily absorbing and adopting technologies to actually producing them,” says Harsh. “There are so many positive stories coming out of Africa in the area of technology.”

Harsh is part of a team looking specifically at Kenya and Uganda — countries where, in his words, “there are unique innovation cultures.”

He and his co-researchers, Jameson Wetmore and Gregg Zachary from Arizona State University, last year obtained funding from the United States National Science Foundation to undertake a project investigating the factors driving the development of computing research capacity in the region.

Concordia researcher Matthew Harsh: “There are so many positive stories coming out of Africa in the area of technology.” | Photo courtesy of Matthew Harsh

Through surveys of computer science researchers and students and in-depth interviews with policy-makers, funders, entrepreneurs and other important players, along with the strategic use of video, their aim is to find out what technologies succeed or fail, and why — as well as how they affect people’s daily lives in the region.

Transformative technologies

What are some of the notable technologies emerging from East Africa? Harsh points to a collection of innovative apps.

M-Pesa, for instance, a mobile money-transfer program, facilitates micro-financing and payments. As a result, it offers economic empowerment to people who may not have previously had bank accounts.

Thanks to the app, with only a mobile phone, small businesses can deposit money or accept it in exchange for goods and services.

Election-monitoring software at iHub, an innovation incubator in Nairobi, Kenya. | Photo by Cody Valdes, Creative Commons, BY-NC-SA 2.0

“When it comes to mobile money, Kenya has been way ahead of North America and Europe,” says Harsh.

Another popular app, Ushahidi, is a piece of open-source software designed for information collection, visualization and mapping. The app was used to build a website that, with input from Kenyan voters, tracked incidents of fraud, violence and other troubling irregularities.

Harsh says versions of the application have been used in other countries, including Haiti, where it was employed to monitor relief efforts following the earthquake of January 2010.

Kenyan developers, meanwhile, have created mapping and traffic apps that rival Google Maps. In modern African cities, traffic congestion is so problematic and the pace of development and infrastructure change so great that many locally built mapping solutions can serve the population more effectively than the Californian search giant’s application.

With so much happening, Harsh will continue to investigate the impact of technology and its role in social and economic innovation in Kenya and Uganda. He expects to follow up on his initial research presentation — which he delivered in Cape Town, South Africa, last year — with more exhaustive findings and publications.

“History tells us that local technological capacity is critical for developments that improve people’s lives,” he says. “I’m thrilled that my research will help us understand how African computer science can drive transformative innovation.”

Global Engineering Week takes place from Monday, March 10, to Friday, March 14. Matthew Harsh will speak during Lunch and Learn: Technology, International Development and Entrepreneurship on Tuesday, March 11, from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Room H-762 of the Henry F. Hall (H) Building (1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd W.) on the Sir George Williams Campus.

Learn more about Global Engineering Week at Concordia.


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