Social Technology Through The Eyes Of Uganda's Felix Mwebe

Felix Mwebe passionately swears by the mantra: give me a platform. He succinctly seems to suggest that all he's ever needed is to be given just access to the big stage. With that he promises to perform feats of magic never seen before.

His mantra is perhaps analogous to giving a hacker unencumbered access to a zero-day (for the uninitiated, a zero-day is system exploit that is not yet discovered by the system architects. Many last inordinate lengths). Having access to a zero-day is more like giving them power to do whatever they deem important, at least as long as the loopholes exist.

But certainly, when the loopholes in the systems are patched, then the hacker would have to wait for another hand out, another zero-day. Another day.

With the benefit of context, many young people in sub Saharan Africa are basically hacking through the challenges which continue to pillage the cog of service delivery. The passion, purpose and the unwavering resolve to develop meaningful solutions to some of their communities’ biting problems and challenges radiate in the air. Just the way it is supposed to be. But without doubt, addressing these problems especially through the use of technology for social good has met significant bottlenecks, even while not foregoing the immense successes birthed thereof.

Felix Mwebe is the founder and managing director of Projectic Group of Companies. A fledgling design agency in Kampala, Uganda. At face value, his company looks like a struggling lone wolf inundated by the imposing superiority of the sub Saharan mara, but on the contrary, there is so much more than meets the eye. Projectic does a bevy of things; from branding and design, to research, and a division he calls Think tank and innovation – the social tech division of the conglomerate for lack of a better word.

We had the pleasure of having a chat with Felix Mwebe especially about his journey and experience developing tools for social tech innovation in Uganda, given his vast and previous experience with UNICEF Uganda.

On Joining UNICEF Uganda And Discovering His Star

It was one bright afternoon in 2010, during his undergraduate studies in Telecommunications engineering at Kyambogo University where he serendipitously bumped into Seth Harry, a man working for UNICEF Uganda. As luck, and deliberate efforts, would have it, Felix kicked off a friendship that got him invited to the UNICEF’s innovation lab in Mbuya, a suburb out of Kampala city.

Just an invitation, like being given a platform, saw him getting offered an internship/volunteering opportunity with the ambitious innovation lab of the time. At his time in UNICEF Uganda, he mainly worked with extending support to the development of the Digital Drum/Rugged ICT kiosk project targeted at the youth centres. The major objective was to extend solar-powered and maintenance free knowledge-sharing computers to millions of young people who lived and still live in rural areas notoriously known for lack of basic amenities such as clean water and electricity, and lately the internet.

But not limited to only the digital drum project, he also participated, among others, in the development and maintenance of the WASH project aimed at improving water sanitation in the country where access to safe and piped water remains a preserve of just about half of the population.

The Role Of Young People In Finding Solutions To Local Problems

“The future is now, but we aren’t any better from yesterday.”

Well, to a large extent Uganda and sub Saharan Africa at large have made significant leaps in development of public civic infrastructure, trade positions, health, education, etc. But with these improvements, the continent continues to significantly lag behind the developed world.

Behind the scene are explosions in population all over sub Saharan Africa. This puts the average age of Africans at 18 years, compared to say 44 years for Japan. Yet what we continue to see are high dependence burdens and searing pressures on scarce resources.

"Nonetheless, sub Saharan Africa continues to have hope in its young people as is evident in the initiatives taken to forge life especially where the governing authorities have fallen short." He adds, "The hunger to improve the status quo has undeniably been noticed by some players in the private sector I have worked with. Although I am quite sure there are many others betting against the winds of institutional shortfalls."

The Role Of Social Tech Hubs

He's had a pleasant experience of visiting RLabs in Cape Town in 2016. RLabs were founded in 2008 with the sole aim of giving hope to the young people who are sucked up in drugs, crime and despair. The divide fuelled by the apartheid history in South Africa, dearth of skills, and continued economic suppression of the black community in the rainbow country were largely the premise for RLabs to be established. The restoration centre, which now has five labs all over South Africa, heralded an innovative system of remunerating any young person, for showing up at the centre. Yes, whoever showed up!

While firmly entrenched in restoring hope, the labs had a model of bringing struggling young people together, and equipping them with skills that they would in the near term find invaluable such as accounting, computer maintenance, and videography among others. In turn, they would form collective and meaningful relationships and consequently lead paths different to what was previously making them desolate.

The system creatively named Latos is a log system where points are realised for every lesson attended. In turn, the points can be redeemed for a meal, a cuppa, and also voucher cards to make purchases at local and nearby retail shops and supermarkets.

Moving away from the business-y and profit driven incubation and innovation hubs in Uganda at that time, Felix and others travelled to learn how they could implement such a system for a similar social initiative in Uganda.

Soon enough they found Plan International was in advanced stages of starting a similar model of empowering young people and giving them a chance of believing in their dreams however impossible they seemed.

In 2015, SmartUP Kalerwe commenced activities in a suburb north of the capital, Kampala. The SmartUP initiative deeply explores the problems facing the youth between 17 to 26 years and attempts to tailor a comprehensive program they believe would solve most of their problems. In Uganda, according to Felix's research , there was severe unemployment and underemployment due to lack of bankable skills. Through building on latent talent spotted among the youth, SmartUP fosters growth in sports, computer maintenance, secretarial work development, photography, videography among others.

While these skills may seem random to a highly polemic society, they could potentially lend a second chance to someone without skills and hope to lead a meaningful life. And the role of such initiatives is to help the young people become invested in seeking solutions for challenges which are systemic to their communities.

At the moment, the hub is in advanced stages of spreading across to five other districts in the country mostly concentrated in the northern part of the country namely Gulu, Lira, Alebtong. Also, the second national SmartUP lab is in advanced stages of opening in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

The Demand For Local Content

Local content is content which is relevant to a community’s needs and as such may be defined by location, culture, language, religion, ethnicity or area of interest.

Concomitant to the demand in local content, social entrepreneurs and distinguished organisations doing social tech work are filling this void. It has been said that Africa’s education system for example is trapped in the gripes of a colonial education system which should have been antiquated and safely stored as a relic of the past. Yet we continue to see continued complacency. And this is not only with education, but thematically distributed; in health and entrepreneurship among others.

Local content has arguably been a major buzzword of social tech in sub Saharan Africa. To suggest its dearth, or lack of sufficiency, ignores fundamental and structural challenges to social tech.

Challenges Of Social Tech Initiatives

The ravages of hunger:
While young people are the pillars of the social tech movement if I may call it so, young people are arguably one of the greatest weaknesses too. Most of them forge a path in social tech entrepreneurship because it seems like the easy way out, or at least promises to be. Indeed, especially due to the fact that it often is the easier route of lining up for grants and other forms of equity-free impact investment. The ravages of hunger are quenched without regard staying true to the course of social entrepreneurship.

Commitment from young people:
Skin in the game is an adage to signify how much perseverance a social entrepreneur ought to have. Many of the young people are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine which dies upon first incidence of oxygen exhaustion.

Over reliance on expats:
Significant initiatives supported by large international funds and organisations hire expats to do everything from preliminary research studies right to conceptualisation and development at the expense of local and much affordable expertise. Besides, expats have had to learn almost entirely everything about the uncharted areas they are sent to hence increasing not only product/service development cycles but also bleeding other resources which would otherwise have been significant.

Long term commitment to social tech projects:
Commitment to social tech projects is uncertain because of reasons only privy to mostly the supporting organisations. For example UNICEF’s Digital Drum project was discontinued. Closely related was Teacher-in-a-box, a project which never saw the light of day, among many others. This is not only party to large organisations but also to individuals since some projects may not kick off as expected.

Software ate social tech hardware:
It is true. In fact, to borrow a pithy anecdote from Marc Andreessen’s proclamation that software ate hardware, in this case; software ate social tech hardware. This is so because most of the prototypical social tech solutions require some form of equipment and hardware especially in education, agriculture, health and sanitation. However, innovating through hardware constantly is expensive and success henceforth is not guaranteed. This has in turn increased social tech innovation through development of software, and apps, which may not have immediate impact, but are favoured since it is the more affordable channel.

The Future Of Social Tech Backed By Data

Developing products for sub Saharan Africa can be a challenge given the demands of problems at hand coupled with the severe lack of constituent data.

UNICEF’s Pulse Lab in Kampala —one of the three, others being in Jakarta and New York— was started to collect and analyse meagre and hard-to-find data to drive policy decisions, resource allocation, mentor data experts, among others.

"This is a move in the right direction to making data driven social investments (that will endure)." Felix says.

On recounting his experience, it feels like he's just dropped a soliloquy. Trancelike, only because of his zest to inspire and empower.

Cover Image: Felix Mwebe, to the right, at UNICEF Innovation Lab, Kampala.

This article is republished with permission from Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute, conducting a study of social tech ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa, commissioned by three UK foundations: Comic Relief, Nominettrust and Indigo Trust.

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