On Monday this week, the Social Good Summit (SGS) came to Africa for the first time. The big one was held in Nairobi at the Godown Arts Centre theatre.
The SGS is an annual gig that focuses on how new technologies and media can save the world.
It is streamed live to millions of social media citizens all over the world, and is linked to several parallel events in New York, Beijing and such strange places.
So, naturally, there were many sharply dressed clever women at the Godown, and a whole bunch of shabby, but cool and smart men in the house.
Just a Band, that Kenyan house and funk group that produced the viral video, Makmende, were among the speakers.
They got a big applause. One of the members, Bill ‘Blinky’ Sellanga appeared on their panel wearing a funny hat. Okwi Okoh of Kweli Media Network did his thing with a leather beret.
You get the drift. Now at the end, with the drinks flowing, I got into conversation with a bunch of cynical techies. They were disgruntled with the direction of digital innovation in Kenya.
One of them said Kenya had become world famous for two innovations: Ushahidi, crowdsourcing crisis platform, was “born out of violence [2008 post-election violence]”, he said.
The second, Safaricom’s M-Pesa, the mobile phone-based money transfer service, “was born out of poverty” (the fact that the majority of Kenyans were too poor and “unbankable” in the eyes of the mainstream banks).
He suggested that Kenya needs to come up with a big innovation born out of happiness or normalcy — like Twitter, which was started to allow folks to post 140 characters talking about how their day was going, their pets, and other gossipy titbits.
Later it grew into something bigger. Kenya is not alone. The current issue of The EastAfrican newspaper has a feature of top 20 (they are actually 21) young East African innovators to watch.
The mobile apps they have created are diverse, but the list has its fair share of those born out of difficulty.
Uganda’s Christine Ampaire, for example, is one of the creators of the hugely popular Mafuta Go, an app that helps users find the nearest petrol station with the cheapest prices and tells them how to get there.
Ampaire inspiration, you might say, was born out of fuel shortages and extortionate high fuel prices. It seems then that we need poverty, violence, and dictatorship to drive creativity.
Adversity, it seems, has a mysterious way of producing great things. When Russia and Eastern Europe were Communist dictatorships, they produced wonderful poetry, literature, and theatre.
African literature was at its best in the dying days of colonialism and in the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, when we had military tyrannies and one-party dictatorships.
Kenya’s Prof Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, became famous fighting some very rough and despicable characters — illegal loggers and destroyers of the environment.
The Internet and the free tools it offers enable us to respond in new ways to crises and suffering. In the past, only a collective response to oppression, for example, was safe and had a chance of success. Today, the technology enables individual responses.
It also makes possible a response to problems in remote places that used to be off the radar. Recently INTERNEWS invited me to serve on a panel to draw a shortlist of 10 finalists for their Crowdsourced Journalism Awards, the first in Africa.
There were over five-dozen entries from all over the continent, most of them very good. I saw the same pattern; an app to catch and shame late teachers, to help women reduce the risk of being raped; one to alert motorists of potholes, fallen trees and such dangers; and another to warn neighbourhoods whenever robbers struck.
A lot of our innovations are balms to pain because more people today have the means to cry out. Just a Band spoke of how they went to YouTube after the TV stations in Nairobi rejected their music videos as being “un-Kenyan”. There, they found fame.
Seems that we live in an age where it pays to scratch the itch. If East Africans keep at it, something earth-shattering might come out of it one of these days.