In Africa, There’s an App for That

September 6, 2011
Winners of Internews Innovation Grants Develop Cutting-Edge Technology Solutions in Africa

Making your Android phone behave like a mobile phone tower? There’s an app for that, in Nigeria.

Tapping into an SMS network to report human trafficking in rural areas? There’s an app for that, in Ghana.

Internews launched a “Small Innovation Grants” competition in July, designed to identify cutting-edge, high-risk but feasible technology solutions for some of the most serious problems facing isolated and vulnerable communities in Africa.  The call for proposals generated nearly 400 applications from Cameroon to Zambia, to address everything from tracking market prices to denouncing electrical shortages.

The two winners, the Nigerian Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) and the Ghanaian Enslavement Prevention Alliance of West Africa (EPAWA), will receive funds to pilot innovative projects that advance human rights goals through increased access to information. Both organizations operate in underserved communities where lack of infrastructure, security risks, and cost have meant limited communication and outreach to their beneficiaries.

CEHRD is working with The Serval Project, a South Australian organization, to create a mobile-based community news network in the Niger Delta region, where mobile service is not even available.

The project is based on the concept of a mesh network.  Software installed on an Android phone enables the phone to acts as a mobile tower; adding multiple phones acting as mobile towers creates a mesh network: a “mesh” of mobile phones acting like mobile towers.

Theoretically, anything that can be transmitted over traditional telecom systems, including SMS, voice, and data, can be transmitted over the network.  This technology, including distributing internet access through the network, is still in the experimental phase globally. However, the Serval Project has pioneered the development of open source software to create autonomous mesh-based voice and data networks among wifi-enabled mobile phones, and is ready to test the system in Nigeria.

CEHRD will be using the mesh network, combined with ongoing journalism and multimedia training on issues of human rights, transparency, and accountability, in a handful of small shanty communities in the city of Port Harcourt.  Twenty participants from these neighborhoods will use the network to provide audiovisual coverage, share information, edit news segments, and distribute information locally to almost any other mobile phone. This will be one of the first experiments using mesh technology to facilitate community-based journalism.

In Ghana, EPAWA will work with Survivors Connect, a US-based organization that empowers survivors and grassroots movements against slavery, trafficking and violence through technology. Together they will adapt the concept of an SMS-based helpline to a particularly sensitive issue: the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and children in Ghana.  EPAWA and Survivors Connect will build the SMS Helpline Network using mobile phones, a laptop, and easy‐to‐use desktop software. The network will connect professionals who can respond in a crisis and act quickly to distribute information to parents and communities.

EPAWA will train community members to report on human trafficking activity. Previously isolated communities will be connected to a network of NGOs with educational resources and victim services to help defend themselves against human trafficking.

Listen to a radio interview about the launch of the trafficking project:

Interview with Tatiana Kotlyarenko, Executive Director of EPAWA; Abdul-Razak Yakubu, EPAWA Programs Officer; and Anahi Ayala Iacucci of Internews, Choice FM, August 30, 2011
Choice FM: Interview with Enslavement Prevention Alliance - West Africa by Internews

The results of both pilots will be shared broadly, to support future projects that meet the communication needs of community-based journalists and activists throughout Africa, especially where access to communications is low or prohibitively expensive.

The pilots are supported by the Internews Center for Innovation and Learning, launched in 2011 to harness the potential of digital technologies and innovative approaches to better meet the information needs of communities around the world. The Center serves as a hub to inform and engage others in the fields of media, information technology and development.