Uganda – Tech for Social Change

Uganda’s tech for social change space is still in its infancy, though rapidly NGOs are beginning to recognise the potential of technology to contribute towards their outcomes.  It is a challenging environment for entrepreneurs and those working in the governance space, predominantly due to governance issues, lack of access to capital and business support.  Nonetheless, there is a small but growing tech community, which is enthusiastic and intelligent, so with ample support, there is capacity for it to thrive and expand.

On a recent trip, I was fortunate enough to get a taste of the wide range of organisations who are using technology in innovative ways in order to tackle social challenges.

Fruits of Thought are a small local NGO who are running a mapping project which hosts mapping day trainings at Universities, for youth and for NGOs and this has resulted in local communities mapping their vicinity and relevant services such as water points, clinics and pit latrines (toilets).  They focus on empowering people with tools and knowledge and then letting communities identifying relevant uses.

They’ve also built a site called Easysites.ug (stripped out the easy content of Drupal) which enables small enterprises in Uganda to build their own websites and they have provided training to youth who now use the site to build websites for small businesses and generate an income for themselves.

I was fortunate to meet the Text2Change team.  They’re an international NGO which has been operating in Uganda for almost 5 years and is involved in projects across the continent.  They’ve built a highly adaptable SMS and IVR platform which was initially used for health education via SMS through quizzes and educational messaging.  They’ve also deployed agriculture, social and economic development and budget tracking projects.

One project that particularly caught my interest was TRAC FM, which enables 2 way communication via SMS between community radio stations and listeners.  Radio DJs can analyse the information coming in and conduct polls in order to ascertain what’s most important to their listeners and gauge their opinions.  This helps them develop subsequent programmes, which are more responsive to their needs and interests.  They are also exploring ways to integrate it with TV shows and public debating platforms.  The Platform has been used in conjunction with shows focusing on service delivery e.g. availability of medicines, foreign aid, reporting and opinion.  They are currently piloting in Kampala and Lira.  They believe polls conducted in this way are far more objective than call ins, where 2-3 callers dominate the discussion.

Makerere University is also working on some innovative tech projects.  They are developing a wide range of applications such as:

  • Headteachers reporting on teacher and pupil attendance (used by District officials who received weekly collections via mobile), launched in 2009, currently operating in Mbale and Kiboga.  The Ministry of Education and various NGOs want to re-launch nationwide.  It requires a java enabled phone.
  • Mapping citizen reports around the election
  • ENDISA which advises farmers how to feed their cows by using the optimal feed mix for their health at the lowest price, based on what is available in their area.  The pilot resulted in an increase in milk yield.
  • A smart phone based tool to diagnose Cassava mosaic disease and some human skin diseases
  • Mobile microscopy (Microsoft funded) to diagnose malaria through a blood count (no funding to scale)
  • A transparency and accountability in the water sector project
  • Vaccine monitoring

They also have an incubator programme for promising final year students, some of whom have successfully started up businesses.  They provide internet, a computer and working space, business mentorship and software development skills.

Makerere are seeking partners who want them to develop software or evaluate ICT projects.  He believes projects where the University develops and pilots something to prove a concept and local partners implement work well.

At a more grassroots level, I met with Joseph Kaizi who set up a start-up called Thin Void in 2008.  He has several prototypes which have all enabled him to become a finalist in Microsoft Imagine Cup (in successive years).  His concepts include Brainchest,  a portal with access to curriculums, teachers comments and resources, Native Green Project which aims to sensitise people to environmental issues via SMS, E-farmer, an auctioning system where farmers can sell produce and agricultural information provided by farmers, MOBI Drugs, a USSD and SMS based drug hotline where people can select  a drug and find information in English and Luganda  and Crimex which enables the public to report security related information through Tweet, FB, SMS and web portal.  He has also developed a smartphone App for police to take photos, file cases and take thumb prints through Windows 7.5 compatible phones.  The App would also enable police to analyse citizen and police reports, be notified of crime spots in different crime categories and visualise other geospatial data.

Two of the managers of Mara Launchpad, who have been entrepreneurs since chidhood are developing a platform called e-save, which encourages users to save money for a rainy day using their mobile phones via their mobile credit or M-Pesa.

Last, but certainly not least, The Grameen Foundation in Uganda is running a fantastic App Lab where developers are trying to solve social challenges through technology.  They are working closely with Makerere using a Thought Works curricula to try and provide students with a more practical and creative approach to software development.  Last year they ran a code jam which included software and business skills, collaboration and how to sell their products.

Their aim is to bring access to finance and information to remote rural areas (‘the last mile’).  They run their well-known Community Knowledge Workers programme where trusted intermediaries become micro-entrepreneurs through ‘Business in a box’, by setting up a solar charging business and providing agricultural information to their communities.  They are also paid for data collection.  They have over 729 Community Knowledge Workerss in the field in 17 Districts, which can be monitored from head office.  All previously earned less than $1/day, speak English and are small holders themselves.

They’ve created a complex dashboard which measures the impact of their work and they’re currently working with Afris (African Soil Association) to make a tool which can recommend the soil inputs needed for different soil types, size of land, commodity types and quantity.  They’re also piloting a call centre (in 5 languages) and USSD option for agricultural extension services.  A further pilot is a Farmer Voice Radio which connects CKWs and agro specialists to a producer in a studio.  CKW can play to villagers over their smart phone and alert villagers when the show is broadcast.

They also have a mobile money incubator which aims to develop solutions which will go beyond payments and they’ve created an open innovation platform to be launched shortly.  They hope it will act as a social mobile incubator, which can crowd source and crowd fund resources, giving support to young entrepreneurs/innovators.  They also plan to run a mobile money accelerator programme.

They are exploring a ‘Kickstarter for the developing world’ for mobile projects to source funding, technical assistance, ICT4D networking and other opportunities for tech projects.

Uganda seems to be buzzing with tech activity.  In subsequent blog posts, I’ll speak more about my trip to Uganda, where I’ll be exploring other exciting projects which are using new technologies to increase transparency, enable increased citizen participation and encourage good governance.  I’ll also revisit some of our current grantees and highlight some of the inspiring ways in which tech is being used to inspire women.