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SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa

| Posted by Sergio De Simone Follow 14 Followers on Jul 07, 2015. Estimated reading time: 12 minutes |

Africa is quickly becoming a mobile-connected continent: mobile phones are often the only technology available, especially in places where it is hard to find power lines, fixed-line telecom infrastructure, or personal computers. This technological explosion is changing people’s lives in several ways to an even greater extent than in developed countries and opening up a wealth of new opportunities.

This series will focus on several African projects that are leveraging existing mobile technology to have a significant impact on people's lives, from education to banking, from health to conflict outburst handling, and more. Articles in this series will not only cover the available technological ground of those projects but also try and explain their impact on African society.

This InfoQ article is part of the series “Mobile-First In Africa”. You can subscribe to receive notifications via RSS.

 

SMS Uprising is a collection of essays that provides practical examples of how mobile technology is providing new ways for activists in Africa to organise and strive for social change.

SMS Uprising’s contributors come from different fields, such as activism, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), academia, and technology, and represent multiple viewpoints on the issues that the book addresses. One of the main goals of the book is describing “recipes” for social activism that can be reproduced elsewhere on the continent.

The first part of the book describes the political, economic, and technological context, and more interestingly the challenges that arise in that context. One of the things we learn in this first chapter, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that “despite the rapid decline in airtime costs, the mobile phone market in Africa reaps huge profits”, which go to benefit the African telecommunications industry. The different business models that the mobile industry pursues in each African country – monopolistic in Kenya, or open to competition like in Uganda – have huge implications in terms of the possibilities of using mobile technologies for grassroots campaigns, and has sometimes made it possible to carry out attacks on personal freedom. Ethiopia, for example the book claims, shuts down texting at the first sign of unrest. A similar cause for concern comes from the growing use of mobile phones to transfer sensitive medical, geolocation, and political data, which brings up worries related to data privacy in repressive regimes.

The second chapter provides an analysis of future trends for mobile activism and social change, and also identifies many technological and infrastructural challenges, such as the widespread availability of low-cost phones that lack the minimum requirements for internet integration. Furthermore, growing airtime and hardware costs often cut off a large part of the populace from using mobile technology. All of this somehow suggests that leveraging mobile technology for social campaigns may not always be the ideal solution. This notwithstanding, this chapter tries to convey a positive message about the opportunities for extended participation and democratic monitoring that mobile technology brings.

The third chapter deals with the challenge of not creating “another North/South divide” by using technology that is not universally available. In this regard, a choice should be made in favour of mobile technology that is “simple, appropriate and affordable”. This has implications for developers since it would rule out capital intensive initiatives, which would tend to create a social gap, and suggests going in the direction of empowering local communities and local innovation.

Chapter 4 presents the first concrete example of a technology toolkit and the process of its inception and development: ‘Mobiles-in-a-box’, “a collection of tools, tactics, how-to guides and case studies designed to help advocacy and activist organisations use mobile technology in their work”. The Mobiles-in-a-box toolkit was created in 2008 by Tactical Technology Collective, a project started “in 2003 with the aim of bringing together the ‘innovative activities’ of human rights advocates in marginalised communities and the open source software movement”. In the years since, Mobiles-in-a-box has evolved and been subsumed into the ‘Security-in-a-box’ toolkit, which describes tools and practices to foster digital security for activists and human rights defenders. The toolkit includes tactics to protect devices from malware, to encrypt sensitive information, to connect anonymously to the internet etc. The Collective has also authored other toolkits focusing on online privacy, women’s rights, and many more.

The second part of the book deals with “case studies”, i.e. practical examples of social activism campaigns across the African continent that leverage mobile technology. The key technological component here, as is implied by the book’s title, is the use of SMS for a wide range of purposes all concerned with the extension or enforcement of democratic principles and participation.

Chapter 5 analyses two campaigns organised in 2004 and 2005 by Fahamu, an activist organisation that supports the movement for social justice. These campaigns had the specific objective of assessing whether the use of social media can make activists more effective. One of the two was aimed at promoting the ratification of the Protocol of the Rights of Women in Africa; the other sought to extend support to the Global Call to Action against Poverty. Although Fahamu had strategically opted for using SMS in view of “the huge growth in mobile phones (52–67 million at the time of both campaigns)”, results were pretty modest as to the number of petition signatures that were collected through SMS. But, “it would not be correct to judge the campaigns’ success only by the number of people who responded, rather by the campaigns’ consequences and whether or not they achieved their stated goals of mobilising public pressure”. In this sense both campaigns had success and the protocols were finally ratified. The use of SMS had a big impact in terms of publicity and the attention from mainstream media that both campaigns received. In the years since Fahamu’s first campaign, SMS campaigns “have been growing in sophistication”, and have been undertaken by “large NGOs with substantial budgets” such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, Greenpeace, etc. This has led to the creation of companies “which handle the implementation, evaluation, and technical aspects of SMS campaigning and which cater to the NGO market”. So SMS campaigns have proved to be another tool that an organisation can choose to advance its cause, but evaluating their effectiveness “is still a big challenge for activists” that should be addressed by future research.

Chapter 6 focuses on UmNyango, another Fahamu campaign, which addressed domestic violence and women’s land exclusion, two issues that are strictly linked since, in many parts of the world there are traditions and cultural norms that “put women in a place of dependence on their husbands, brothers, or fathers for their livelihood and shelter. Should there be an illness, domestic violence, or death in the family, women would be left landless”. . This project aimed to extend human rights awareness among rural women in KwaZulu Natal (South Africa) and also provide a reporting mechanism. The chapter describes in detail how the project was implemented and its impact. More interestingly, it also analyses both the potential and limitations of SMS use. In spite of its efficiency, indeed, technology could not really help in this project. In fact, often women preferred face-to-face communication when discussing domestic violence, and improving the issue of women’s access to land would have required a more systemic approach, in which traditional authorities responsible for land allocation and dispute resolution might have been sensitised “to respond in a more equitable fashion in regards to the needs of women”. This chapter’s conclusion is that “there is no substitute for human social and political organising, and technical tools are just that – tools”.

Chapter 7 describes a few projects organised by Kubatana, a Zimbabwean NGO whose motto is “if you’re not outraged, then you have not been paying attention”. Kubatana aims to counter the scarcity of information in repressive political environments. One project particularly worthy of mention is the development of the Freedom Fone, a two-way audio communication system that aims to do away with SMS’ 160 character limit and provide an information-on-demand distribution service. The Freedom Fone can be used, for example by radio stations or media organisations to “gather audio voice messages and SMS’s from radio listeners and enable journalists/citizen reporters to file audio reports from the field”. Additionally, the Freedom Fone provides SMS and Polls, which make it suitable to be used at NGOs to “use the poll functionality to conduct research”. The system is in use at a number of organisations, including community-based radio stations and NGOs, mostly in Africa and Asia. Freedom Fone’s significance stems also from the fact that its technology has been developed in Africa, under conditions of resource scarcity. It has been developed as open source and is currently based on Ubuntu 14.04.

Chapter 8 provides a gender-oriented analysis of access to Information and Communication Technology in Uganda. It is no surprise that patriarchy gives women a disadvantaged role in regards to both education and economic security and that this has a negative impact on women’s access to mobile phones and women’s participation in SMS-supported campaigns. On the other hand, Uganda has put into practice liberal telecommunication policies that have multiplied the number of mobile service providers and thus benefited Uganda with one of the lowest call prices on the continent. This has in turn contributed to making it easier for women to access mobile technology, especially in comparison to other countries in Africa.

Chapter 9 analyses the gap that exists within the African population as to access to mobile technology. Three factors are identified to explain how this mobile divide takes place: poverty, cultural biases, and the predominance of urban connectivity vs. rural connectivity. The first two factors have particularly strong effects for women, since women as a group “account for about 70% of people living in poverty” and many cultures impose restrictions on women’s freedom to go to places such as public access points, or restrain their ability to use their husbands’ phones. This has the combined effect of largely excluding women from mobile phone use and consequently from taking part in mobile-powered campaigns. The chapter ends by identifying a few ways to address those inequalities, such as creating pay-phone call centres exclusively for women and putting in place “gendered capacitating” projects such as a call centre “where disadvantaged woman who have never or touched a phone will learn about the technology and its numerous benefits”.

Chapter 10 describes how Kenyan society organised to respond to the 2008/2009 post election violence in their country in a way that led to the creation of Ushahidi, a web site where people could report outbreaks of violence, either by email or SMS and that will be covered in more detail by another article in this series. After the Kenyan 2008 elections violence broke out in the country, leading to the shutting down, on December 31, of the mainstream media. The blogosphere, Skype, and other Kenyan web forums such as Mashada became the only way to get up-to-date news. Within a few days, Mashada had set up an SMS and voice hotline to which people could send the information they had available about what was happening. The next step was a call by blogger Ory Okolloh (Kenyan Pundit) for any technologically-minded people to create a Google mashup of where the violence was taking place.

The local tech community responded to that call and in less than a week Ushahidi was born. Beyond the importance of the concrete effort that brought about the creation of Ushahidi, Chapter 10 tries to go into the reasons that made it possible for the Kenyan blogosphere to drive their efforts into “such a positive and productive” outcome in such a short time, and suggests that the key factor is the existence of a strong local community able to “come together in time of crisis and take action”.

Finally, chapter 11 analyses how mobile phones have been used for monitoring and reporting cases of child abuse in Congo. Congo’s Kivu region has been, since 2004, the scene of many cases of rape, torture, and forced marriage while militias, multinationals and governments fought to take control of Congos’s rich mineral resources. These include gold and coltan, the latter a key component for the electronics industry, including the mobile phone industry. The Kalundu Child Soldier project leveraged the collaboration of members of local communities and former child soldiers to monitor and report acts of violence against children. After a short break in the violence in 2014, at the beginning of 2015 there has been a resurgence of military operations. The chapter concludes with the potential that mobile technology can have in such cases, although it is not entirely clear to what extent the drop in reported cases was a positive effect of the enhanced screening allowed by mobile phone reporting.

Overall, this book is testament to how the growth of mobile phone use in Africa has offered an opportunity for grassroots groups and NGOs across the continent to use this emerging technology to address a broad range of social issues. The book, edited by Sokari Ekine, is available from Pambazuka Press.

About the Author

Sergio de Simone is an iOS Independent Developer and Consultant. Sergio has been working as a software engineer for over fifteen years across a range of different projects and companies, including such different work environments as Siemens, HP, and small startups. Currently, his focus is on development for mobile platforms and related technologies.He tries to be a successful iOS independent developer and he is always on the look for challenging and new endeavours as a consultant. In his spare time he is waiting for his twins to grow up a bit so he can teach them some programming. You can find a few pointers about him on his contact page.

 

Africa is quickly becoming a mobile-connected continent: mobile phones are often the only technology available, especially in places where it is hard to find power lines, fixed-line telecom infrastructure, or personal computers. This technological explosion is changing people’s lives in several ways to an even greater extent than in developed countries and opening up a wealth of new opportunities.

This series will focus on several African projects that are leveraging existing mobile technology to have a significant impact on people's lives, from education to banking, from health to conflict outburst handling, and more. Articles in this series will not only cover the available technological ground of those projects but also try and explain their impact on African society.

This InfoQ article is part of the series “Mobile-First In Africa”. You can subscribe to receive notifications via RSS.

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