Oct 14 2009

Technologies for a farming community in Africa

Last week at the KM4Dev conference in Brussels, I struck up a conversation with Joseph Sikeku, who talked about community leadership and technology stewardship in a radically different setting: a radio station in Tanzania.  Sikeku’s project uses an interesting mix of technologies:

  • 5,000 Watt FADECO radio station
  • Small blue “sensor” or integrated circuit audio recorder
  • Mobile phones

Of course the key to making all of this work is the network of people around his project in terms of friends and collaborators, farmers who participate via recorded interviews or mobile phones.  (A lot of stories about innovation in Africa were floating around my head from the special report on telecoms in emerging markets in the September 24th 2009  issue of The Economist: Mobile marvels).  One thing that was striking about Sikeku’s project is that it’s sustainable because it’s so local, so passion-driven, and has a long time horizon.  Not that external help wouldn’t make a difference, but it’s important that his project that’s not donor-controlled.  Its beginning and end is not timed by an external donor.  Here’s a 7 minute interview:

Sikeku’s story got me to thinking about the polarities that we discuss in Chapter 5 of Digital Habitats:

  • Radio broadcasts are a remarkable technology for bringing people together across great distances.  It’s so prevalent as to be unremarkable.
  • But radio is a very group-oriented tool, so tools like an audio recorder or a mobile phone pull the community’s configuration toward the individual end of the polarity.
  • An audio recorder supports the asynchronous side and the mobile phones (either as audio devices or for text messages) support the synchronous.

It seemed to me that the technologies that Sikeku mentioned all balance each other nicely when you consider that we developed these polarities studying communities that are quite different from his. That’s one of the exciting things about this project: finding out whether the ideas we’ve developed apply (or can be extended to) very different settings.  And the final question: will these ideas be useful?

I captured the interview on a little Flip camera, since I’ve been exploring video and social reporting for the last several months.  I used the interview the very next day in a “huddle session” about technologies and local development, gathering a small group around my laptop to look at the video, without editing or uploading it anywhere (there wasn’t really enough reliable bandwidth to upload a video file at the conference).  The huddle conversation had been difficult because of all the different meanings and instances of “technology,” of “local,” and of “development.”  But having one instance to focus on helped the conversation get much more concrete and much more productive.  A conference on the role of media in the agricultural and rural development that’s running right now suggests just how much is going on out there in this area, so the benefits of being able to focus on Sikeku’s specific case make sense.

The next day we had an open space session on business models for learning communities.  Sikeku participated in the discussion, which tied some of the issues from his experience to other examples where donor funding for a community had turned out to be quite problematic.  At the end of that, Sikeku remarked to me, “As a result of these conversations, I don’t feel so isolated.”  That was very gratifying.

(Cross-posted to our Digital Habitats blog at http://technologyforcommunities.com.)

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