Tracking Kenya’s Development Budget

I woke up early last Monday morning to interview Philip Thigo of the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool for the Technology for Transparency Network. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun asking someone questions.

I woke up early last Monday morning to interview Philip Thigo of the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool for the Technology for Transparency Network. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun asking someone questions.

If you listen to the podcast, you’ll hear faint sounds of Nairobi in the background: horns honking, people walking around. As Philip chatted candidly with me about the successes and struggles of encouraging greater transparency in Kenya’s national budget, I imagined him in his office, the door propped open, curtains blowing in the breeze.

Can you tell that living in New York has made me a bit desperate for sunshine and perhaps a return trip to Kampala?

Anyway, the noise makes for an interview that sounds less than studio-produced, but it also makes me happy. The sounds of life in east Africa, Philip’s laughter and his enthusiasm for his work all combined to create an awesome interview experience, and I highly recommend that you read the full case study and listen to the podcast.

Interview with Sudan Vote Monitor

On Friday I spoke with Fareed Zein, who heads the Ushahidi-based project Sudan Vote Monitor. The project lets citizens report problems with access, illegal campaigning, voter harassment and other aspects of the election.

Sudan’s first multiparty elections in over two decades began yesterday (New York Times, Al Jazeera) despite the fact that the majority of opposition parties are boycotting the entire process.

The election — already marred by a lack of actual ballots, long waits at polling places and mix-ups in the symbols printed on the ballots (many voters are illiterate, and symbols are used to represent different parties and candidates) — is widely seen as a prelude to the upcoming referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan.

On Friday I spoke with Fareed Zein, who heads the Ushahidi-based project Sudan Vote Monitor. The project lets citizens report problems with access, illegal campaigning, voter harassment and other aspects of the election. So far the site has received over 100 reports in both English and Arabic (volunteers at Meedan are helping with translation). Zein, who was busy working to get an SMS short code set up and doing some last-minute testing, spoke a little bit about his hopes for the impact of Sudan Vote Monitor:

I would say even if the election doesn’t take place we’ve already made history, and that’s not to say that that’s where we’ll stop, but this is a groundbreaking undertaking. We’ve already done a big service to just introduce the concept, introduce the possibility.

Other groups have specific activist motivations. They have a different tack. Ours is just getting access to information because the Sudanese people as well as the rest of the world have not had that in previous events. Others will take that to the next level and try to apply pressure for change.

You can read the whole interview and listen to the podcast of our chat at the Technology for Transparency Network.

Mobile Money: Developing Countries

I’m spending today at the Macroeconomics of Mobile Money conference at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI). I’ve been eagerly awaiting the final session on mobile money for developing countries, which Raul Katz is moderating.

Liveblogging. Please excuse misrepresentation, misinterpretation, typos and general stupidity.

Katz kicks things off by admitting that “we’ve been dancing around the issue of developing countries” for much of the day. He hopes this panel will give us a chance to dig in to the implications of mobile technologies for economic growth in the developing world.

Mobile Money and Economic Development

Dan Jensen of iWorld Services has been in the business since 1974. iWorld deploys Internet-based, open source platforms, products and services in the developing world, focusing largely on Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and targeting small businesses and low-income/rural areas. Their goal is to foster social entrepreneurship in these countries. iWorld works largely with migrant workers and their families — people who don’t have credit cards, computers or wireless devices.

Jensen notes that much of international voice traffic is transitioning from cell phones to VoIP. They hope to begin developing “virtual callshops” and “small business incubators in a box” to support both small businesses and microfinance organizations.

The Use of Mobile Phones for the Unbanked in Saharan Africa

Judith O’Neill has experience in mobile banking on both the business and legal sides. Mobile banking in sub-Saharan Africa started around 2002, but the hype is happening now. The Kenyan government has pledged to increase the percentage of its population with access to formal finance from 27% to 65% within the decade, and all “MTN countries” are pushing for mobile banking to varying degrees.

The players on this scene include mobile operators, banks, products, human ATMs and consumers. O’Neill is particularly interested in the role of human ATMs, which range from individuals in rural villages to various grocery or department stores in larger cities.

She notes that M-Pesa offers completely anonymous SIM cards, which people like for privacy reasons, but which also open up the system to use by terrorists and other criminals. She mentions that this is something that “will be sorted out eventually.”

(Note: SIM card registration was heavily debated in Kenya after the 2007 elections, when text messages were used to incite violence. In July 2009 President Kibaki ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication to begin registering mobile subscribers within 6 months. Some argue that, in addition to possibly increasing costs, this poses a threat to opposition member and human rights activists within the country.)

MTN or Safaricom are the major mobile operators (there’s some debate over which is the largest). Safaricom rolled out M-Pesa in Kenya, where they have 80% of the mobile market. MTN is attempting to introduce mobile banking to all the countries in which it operates, but development has been slower than expected.

O’Niell believes Mobux has a great plan, but they’re not getting funding because they’re based on a private equity model. Other mobile operators (AfriCel, Zaim, SierraTel) are too fragmented and don’t support their own employees enough to be successful in the mobile banking sector at this point.

Formal banks often have requirements (minimum account balances, etc.) that the very poor can’t meet. South African banks require a minimum account balance of 20-30 rand ($2.70-$4) per month, while mobile banks only require 5 rand ($0.69). Many available channels for remittances are also expensive, taking 3 to 55 percent (55 percent!) of the transaction amount.

Based on historical data about “major change adoption,” O’Neill believes mobile banking should reach a 50% market adoption by 2015.

Development Implications of Mobile Money

Richard Field, who has consulted for the World Bank, the UN and ASEAN, is filling in for a speaker from the World Bank who couldn’t make it.

Field starts by asking what problem, exactly, needs to be solved? Is it extreme poverty? Can we solve this through mobile cash? Is the problem that money is available but too costly to move? Is it the problem of how to expand markets? Is it more government control? Less government control?

Field’s presentation is largely a serious of questions, but he raises some incredibly important issues. A sample:

  • New availability of credit poses some potential risks: the overextension of loans might lead to inflation or erode the strength of the national bank. Most mobile banking products don’t have reserve requirements in the way formal financial institutions do.
  • Another consideration: who issues these loans? Some people believe only banks should have this power, while others believe these services can be provided by microfinance institutions and even organizations like PayPal as well.
  • What kind of safety net is in place?
  • Are payment systems controlled locally or internationally?
  • What about fraud, identity theft, corruption?
  • What’s the effect on society if banking is happening so much more quickly?
  • What kind of additional resources do funders need to support?
  • What about the need for public education?

Lots of things to think about.

gays and gorillas

I finally got a chance to catch up on Google Reader today. Some things you should see:

  • Friend a Gorilla
    For one dollar a year, you can friend a gorilla through the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
    “Anyone can be a friend of a gorilla or follow specific gorillas living the forest on Facebook or Twitter for a minimum donation of $1. You will get updates on your gorilla friend(s), including photos, videos, and GPS coordinates, all of which are gathered by actual trackers that visit the gorillas daily.”
  • Ethiopia 2010: Here Comes Africa’s Festival of Electoral Fraud
    An overview of recent elections in Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, looking forward to Ethiopia.
    “The glimmer of hope shimmering in the Ghanaian experiment proves that multiparty democracy can be successfully instituted in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, without bloodshed. Failure to do so may once again force Africans to prudently heed Victor Hugo’s admonition: ‘When dictatorship is fact, revolution becomes a right.’ If it gets to that point, it’s going to be a quagmire too difficult to get out of this time.”
  • The 10,000 Hour Initiative
    Jon Gos at Appfrica is starting a program to support young programmers, bloggers and new media enthusiasts.
    “Instead of creating institutions from scratch that require enormous resources and high overhead (rent, security, staff etc) the 10,000 Hour Initiative would identify talented individuals and create co-working and co-learning spaces (dubbed 10K Spaces) for them at existing institutions and businesses. The program would allow youth to interact with other peers as well as trained professionals who could tutor and mentor them, helping them to improve their skills, while exposing them to new technologies, ideas and fields they may not have been aware of.”
  • GV Uganda: Bloggers discuss anti-gay bill
    A new bill, currently tabled in the Uganda parliament, will increase penalties for homosexuality and add penalties for spreading information about homosexuality. Terrifying and sad. Haute Haiku covers bloggers’ reactions for Global Voices.
    “Anengiyefa sees that Uganda has just seen hypocrisy of MPs who have unified and are ready to pass a law victimizing homosexuality in the name of morality: this beats the purpose why the system is so anxious to criminalize consensual sex amongst two adults of the same gender and omitting important issues like ethnic violence, tribalism, AIDS, child rape etc.”

Calestous Juma on how Seacom will change everything

In addition to censorship in China and Twitter in Tehran, I spent a decent part of this summer writing about Internet infrastructure in Africa. The summer had plenty of stories: damage to the SAT-3 cable in western Africa caused major Internet blackouts in Nigeria, Niger, Togo and Benin, a situation that hopefully won’t happen again now that Nigeria’s new GLO-1 cable has arrived.

But the biggest story of all was Seacom: a new cable connecting eastern Africa to the global undersea cable system. For years eastern Africa has been the only part of the continent without access to this system. Seacom’s arrival will bring faster, cheaper broadband Internet to a number of countries that have long relied on expensive satellite connections.

While I haven’t personally experienced the joys of Seacom yet (though here’s hoping I’ll be back in Uganda at some point before the end of the year), friends tell me it’s mindblowing. The 27th Comrade writes:

Something big—quite big—and fast—very, very fast—is happening here.

As excited as the blogren and I are about Seacom, Harvard professor Calestous Juma is even more thrilled. Professor Juma is one of the world’s leading experts on how science and technology can contribute to sustainable development, and here’s what he has to say about Seacom:

The launching of Seacom’s fiber optic cable in July was the single most important infrastructure investment in eastern Africa since the construction of the Uganda Railway, then dubbed “The Lunatic Express.”

The single most important infrastructure investment since the construction of the Uganda Railway. For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Lunatic Express, its construction began in the 19th century.

Professor Juma will be at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Tuesday afternoon to discuss broadband and Internet policy in East Africa. I’ve been debating how many of my limbs I would be willing to give to be able to see his talk in person, but unfortunately you can’t buy time or a train ticket with bodily extremities these days. I’ll settle for watching the webcast.