Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Book review: SMS - mobile uprising in Africa

The request by BOND to review this book couldn’t have come at a better time. I was preparing for a trip to Nigeria to help the local Save the Children create a digital strategy for our child survival campaign. Mobile penetration in Nigeria is high. The country pioneered the use of SMS in their last elections in 2007 when they used Frontline SMS to report election violations. It is obvious that mobile should be the core of any digital strategy. But how has the technology developed recently and how is mobile now being used for social change on the continent?

“SMS uprising – Mobile activism in Africa” was exactly the book I needed to read. Opinion pieces from leaders in the use of SMS for development, from Ken Banks of Frontline SMS to Becky Faith of TacticalTech, combine examples which excite and enthuse with the harsh realities of the digital divide and the political and community contexts that have kept SMS from becoming a significant tool for mobilizing masses in taking action for change.

Yet technology is changing by the day and there is a lot of optimism about the lowering costs and accessibility of mobile phones. This will enable access to mobile internet and open up the benefits of the world wide web to more people in developing countries.

There are also examples of amazing innovation that people in Africa enjoy which we could only envy. Paying your electricity bill by SMS? Sending money to someone via text? Kenyans have been doing this for some time through M-PESA.

And then think about Kubatana in Zimbabwe. Operating in the atmosphere of total information black-out and censorship, this courageous organisation provided essential information and a space where people could voice their opinions and vent their frustration about the chaos caused by the last elections.

Following the 2007 elections in Kenya, Ushahidi – a mash-up of Google maps and SMS used as a reporting tool, enabled ordinary citizens to put violence hotspots on a map for everyone to see. This genius technology has seen wider use recently like in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.

The book also has a significant focus on the issues of women’s access to technology. While women are the main actors of development, their access to technology is often through their male head of family. Also access to technology can change their status within a family – by using mobile phones to earn small amounts of money, women can reach positions of power which then can lead to increase in violence against them.

In summary, a fantastic book which provides a window into current and future (mobile) technology in Africa and, by extension, a lot of the developing world. As it shows a plethora of SMS uses in development projects, this book is a must-read and a guaranteed inspiration for NGO professionals.

The book published by Hivos and Pambazuka press.

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