SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa
2010-01-06, Issue 464
As a blogger using the web as an agent of social change, I find the growth of mobile phone use in Africa offers an opportunity to look at the innovative ways this emerging technology is being used by grassroots groups and small and micro NGOs across the continent. I was very pleased to be invited to edit this book by Fahamu as it provided a chance to explore this potential, looking at not only the positives but also the negatives in order to expose the underlying reality. SMS Uprising is significant for many reasons not least because it has been edited by an African woman activist. Often initiatives in Africa are studied by people who are quite distant from the continent or are academics who are remote from the grassroots of the subject under discussion. The book is also unique in giving an insight into how activists and social change advocates are addressing Africa’s many challenges from within, and how they are using mobile telephone technology to facilitate these changes. The examples are shared in such a way that they can be easily replicated – ‘pick this idea up and use it in your campaign!’ The intention is that the information contained within the book will lead to greater reflection about the real potential and limitations of mobile technology. The protests following the Iranian elections, the Mumbai bombings and the G20 summit in London, in which mobile phones played a central role in organising, mobilising, communicating and disseminating information across the world in real time, show the actual and potential power of citizens’ journalism in times of crisis. One single message sent by SMS to Twitter can spread throughout the world in minutes.
For a social justice activist, such research is important not only to understanding the overall technology landscape but also in providing a chance to contribute to a movement that acknowledges and tackles potential problems while interrogating its strengths. There is no doubt that mobile and internet technology is democratising social change in communities across Africa. We must, however, also recognise that technology has the capacity to concentrate power and therefore could be used to reinforce existing power relations.
The introduction of mobile phones in Africa transforms people’s ability to communicate. Unlike in the West, where there was already an existing network of communication through landlines, mobile phones in Africa provide communication where previously there was none. In 2007, it was estimated that there were 300 million mobile phone users – about 30 per cent of the continent’s population. Whilst mobile phone usage continues to grow exponentially and in some countries has reached critical mass, a more discerning reading of the figures is necessary to obtain a picture of the reality. This kind of examination helps to explain why and how mobile phones have been used for social change in some instances and countries, and not in others. For example, the figures do not reveal the number of handsets per person nor, conversely, how many people are sharing one handset. People at upper-income levels particularly, tend to have two phones on different networks and, in some cases, even three or four.
There are also some huge discrepancies between regions and countries as well as within countries – such as between rural and urban populations. The report titled ‘Mobile telephony access and usage in Africa’ shows this clearly. For example, the 2008 subscriber rates for South Africa (87.08 per cent) are around three times that of Nigeria (27.28 per cent) and Kenya (30.48 per cent). Ethiopia is only 1.45 per cent and Rwanda 6.53 per cent. What does seem to affect the diffusion of mobile phone use, as Nathan Eagle points out in Chapter 1, ‘Economics and power within the African telecommunication industry’, is whether or not the telecommunications industry is deregulated. So, for instance, in Uganda where there is much competition, prices are low, while Ethiopia, which remains highly regulated with no competition, has high calling costs.
Technology in itself does not lead to social change. For change to take place technology needs to be appropriate and rooted in local knowledge. People decide why and how a particular technology will be used and, depending on the political and socio-economic environment in which they live, adapt it accordingly. As we shall see from the case studies in this book, there are considerable local innovations and non-instrumental uses of the phone – using phones in ways not intended, that step outside their technological aspects and which attempt to bypass traditional power structures. Firoze Manji describes this process as ordinary people taking control of their destiny rather than technology driving the change:
'Social change is actually driven not by technologies but by ordinary people being able to exert an authority over their own experience and, through common actions, developing the courage to determine their own destiny.'
It is important in the context of this book to point out that the projects and innovations discussed within it do not follow a traditional development model, where technology tends to be shaped by the economic forces that created it. Instead, the social change model is driven by the forces of people’s local needs and is therefore more able to respond quickly and appropriately to specific events and political changes. This means that people at a grassroots level can think about what works for them and how can they use technology to foster social change and collective action.
What makes the mobile phone such a dynamic tool for supporting social change is its sheer range of actual and potential functionality, making it an extremely versatile technology. Erik Hersman, who authors the leading blog on high-tech mobile and web technology change in Africa (White African and the Africa Network: An Idea by Erik Hersman), coined the phrase, ‘If it works in Africa it will work anywhere’, referring to Africa’s many innovative ideas, projects and people. Activists and campaign groups have also chosen to use mobile phones – SMS and video – for mobilising, advocacy, campaigning, social networking, citizens’ journalism and crowdsourcing. Campaigns can be short or long term and planned in advance, but quite often they are spontaneously reacting to an event. For example:
- The International Center for Accelerated Development (ICAD) in Nigeria used mobile phones to bring people together for a rally during the Global AIDS Week of Action campaign, which began in April 2008. ICAD Nigeria also used SMS to mobilise supporters in the Plateau State elections in 2008 (see Chapter 4 of this book).
- In 2007 WOUGNET in Uganda used SMS as part of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women campaign. 170 messages were sent out in 13 countries across four continents (see Chapter 8).
- In Egypt, activists have used both SMS and the video cameras on their mobile phones to mobilise and expose police torture. One particularly harrowing video showed a 13-year-old boy, Mohammed Mamdouh Abdel Aziz, being tortured by the police. Using video and testimonies, activists have been able to document torture in Egypt thereby giving their claims real credibility.
However SMS or the phone in general is not always the most effective or appropriate technology as Bukeni Waruzi’s paper (see Chapter 11) on using mobiles in the DRC shows – in a crisis writing an SMS takes time. It is far quicker to make a voice call. In another example, the UmNyango project (see Chapter 6) found that women preferred to report domestic violence face to face rather using a phone.
Varying examples must be seen in the context of local infrastructures which impact on usage but at the same time lead to technological and non-technological innovations to overcome constraints. In fact, mobile phones have led to a huge growth in the informal sector with entrepreneurs who support usage such as selling airtime, selling chargers, charging, recycling and repairing phones – nothing is left to waste.
This book aims to provide an examination of the many inventive ways that activism and social change are taking place across Africa and how mobile phones have been co-opted as the primary tool to aid this process. My own research in compiling this book’s chapters leads me to consider a number of questions regarding the context of technology in Africa. For example, who is a user and who is an owner? To what extent are these projects and innovations breaking down traditional and capitalistic hierarchies? How have activists been able to use the technology to really affect change? Is access to a mobile phone and using it for social change more than just a drop in the ocean? Where people use technology to advance movement for change and to empower communities in putting forward information about human rights abuses, electoral abuses, empowering women, etc, are these changes actually sustainable? Given that women are largely responsible for development, particularly in rural areas, and how under-resourced women are, what kind of a resource does a mobile phone give them? From observing and talking to women in Nigeria, it is clear that the purchase of airtime was given a high priority but was also used with much caution. The main complaints were always the cost of airtime and poor reception. This led to people wanting to own more than one handset from different networks – another additional cost. On the other hand, as Christiana Charles-Iyoha points out in Chapter 9, the high level of poverty amongst women undermines women’s role in development and socio-economic transformation as they are excluded from owning a phone and their status often limits even the sharing of a phone within the family.
Another constraint that particularly impacts on women, due to their overwhelming poverty, is the poor electricity supply, which means that to be effective there is a need for two phones. Nonetheless, at least one report found that there was no difference in how men and women used mobile phones and in fact in some situations phones decreased the isolation of women and increased job creation for those selling airtime and other related products.
It would be unethical to write about mobile phones in general, and particularly in an African context, without mentioning the mining of coltan, which is an essential element in the production of the phones. In a report in the UK daily newspaper the Independent, Johann Hari makes a direct link between the increase in deaths and the mining of coltan in the Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), naming Anglo-America, Standard Chartered Bank, De Beers and more than 100 others involved.13 We should therefore be mindful when we read of the huge growth in mobile phone usage on the continent of the major cost in lives and human rights abuses associated with the mining of coltan.
The projects in this book are reliant on external funding and, in many cases, support from multinational service providers seeking profit. By funding mobile phone-based projects, these companies believe that users will want to add value for themselves by using the phone as a general means of communicating, thereby offsetting costs of the funding. But if pricing of airtime and handsets is too high, this may not happen or only in a limited way. Finally, we should approach the technology carefully, as there are pitfalls. For example, by ignoring traditional forms of communication and indigenous forms of organising, people, especially women, can end up being disempowered.
The contributors to this book have been chosen because they offer a comprehensive range of experiences drawn from across the continent. Every attempt has been made to include a variety of voices – activists, organisations, academics and technologists – which provides a range of perspectives in addressing the issues raised above.
Part I provides the political, economic and technological context. Contributors examine the political economy of the telecommunications industry and discuss the possibilities and constraints on future developments and how mobile phones are used. Nathan Eagle (see Chapter 1) offers an overview of the economics and politics of the African telecommunications industry. Not surprisingly, and despite the rapid decline in airtime costs, the mobile phone market in Africa reaps huge profits. China’s position in the market is considerable and in the case of Ethiopia they have taken over the whole telecoms equipment industry. One result has been high airtime costs as well as attacks on personal freedoms in the country. Eagle also discusses the privacy implications of monitoring the data produced by millions of mobile phones:
'Beyond documentation of voice and text-message communication and location estimates based on cellular towers, occasionally mobile operators have additional data about their subscribers, including demographic information, socio-economic status…'
With mobile phones being used to transfer medical data including HIV/AIDS statistics and personal drug regimes, as well as human rights activists using phones for mobilisation and communicaxv Intr oducti on tion, the implications for data privacy, especially in repressive regimes, is worrying.
Christian Kreutz in Chapter 2 analyses future trends for mobile activism and social change in Africa and identifies four potential growth areas. However, he notes that there remain many technological and infrastructural challenges. These include the plethora of low cost phones with few features, which makes internet integration very much a thing of the future. Although airtime and hardware costs have reduced over the past five years, they still remain high enough to present obstacles to the majority of Africans. Kreutz introduces a range of mobile applications and discusses the realities of implementation given the many obstacles. He concludes that technology should only be used if it is appropriate and is the best option, rather than for its own sake.
Ken Banks is the founder of FrontlineSMS, which he describes as ‘a piece of free software which turns a laptop (or desktop) computer, a mobile phone and a cable into a two-way group messaging centre’.
The focus of Banks’s Chapter 3 ‘Social mobile: empowering the many or the few?’ is the need to develop mobile applications for grassroots NGOs and thereby avoid creating yet another North/South divide. This means using a development model focused on creating tools that are available to everyone. Mobile technology solutions should be simple, appropriate and affordable, rather than top–down and capital intensive. This approach creates huge technical, economic and cultural challenges to developers, but is not impossible if one chooses to work with local communities and focus on empowering them.
A book on mobile phones and activism would not be complete without a detailed example of at least one technology tool and a description of the processes behind its ideas and development. Part I concludes with Chapter 4 by Tanya Notley and Becky Faith from the Tactical Technology Collective. Tactical Tech was formed in 2003 with the aim of bringing together the ‘innovative activities’ of human rights advocates in marginalised communities and the open source software movement. Despite being ‘philosophically aligned’ there was little interaction between the two, and the challenge for Tactical Tech was to develop appropriate, open source technology through collaboration with frontline human rights advocates. The chapter discusses the development of one particular toolkit, the Mobiles in-a-box, which is a collection of tools, tactics and guides on how mobile phone technology can be used for campaigns and advocacy. The processes described are a useful model for organisations wishing to embark on a participatory development approach towards social change and activism, with or without the application of technology.
Part II, ‘Mobile democracy: SMS case studies’, consists of practical examples of social change and mobile activism across the continent. The examples vary considerably, from SMS campaigns for a specific purpose to a more generalised use of SMS for advocacy or election monitoring, as an information tool to empower civil society, as a means of social intervention or to monitor and document crises.
In 2004 Fahamu (‘an African activist organisation working for human rights and social justice’) launched a campaign to promote the ratification of the Protocol of the Rights of Women in Africa. In 2005, they then launched another campaign in support of the Global Call to Action against Poverty. The use of SMS in both these campaigns was a strategic choice for Fahamu, who recognised the huge growth in mobile phones (52–67 million at the time of both campaigns) and the potential SMS had for mobilising social justice campaigns.
Redante Asuncion-Reed (Chapter 5) looks at, analyses and assesses both Fahamu campaigns. How we measure and define success is an important issue in any campaign and there is a tendency to focus too strictly on numerical data. Asuncion-Reed makes the point that both campaigns were measured by their consequences and were driven by achieving goals rather than by the number of people who responded through the technology. He then attempts to answer the question as to whether the campaigns achieved their stated goals of mobilising ‘public pressure’ for the ratification of the Protocol on African Women’s Rights and to bring attention to the issue of global poverty.
Violence against women takes place across the world. However, in South Africa it has been aggravated by apartheid, which created a culture of aggression and brutality. The situation is further exacerbated by local patriarchies which discriminate against women in the areas of widowhood, land rights and inheritance laws. Despite constitutional protections in the post-apartheid South Africa, violence against women continues.
'As most studies show, violence against women is a multi-linked variable connecting to, inter alia, patriarchal ‘configuration’ of our society, poverty, illiteracy and general economic exclusion of women, especially African women. Poverty and economic exclusion results in unequal gender relations between men and women which in most cases translate into vulnerability in various ways.'
The UmNyango project (see Chapter 6) sought to address the twin issues of domestic violence and land exclusions. This was done by taking an integrated approach towards providing rural women in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) with timely and relevant information on human rights as well as access to a simple but effective reporting mechanism. UmNyango project manager, Anil Naidoo, examines the potential and limitations of SMS as a tool to empower rural women in KZN. Naidoo’s contribution highlights the point that although technology might be more efficient and present more timely information, it is not necessarily the most appropriate in all situations. This is particularly pertinent to women living under patriarchal systems where they are treated as ‘perpetual minors’. In the case of the women in the UmNyango project, they preferred face-to-face communication when discussing or reporting domestic violence. Other points raised in this chapter are the prohibitive costs attached to mobile phone use and the associated sustainability of funded projects.
The continued political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe has meant that the average Zimbabwean has very limited access to information – especially independent news media. Amanda Atwood explores the ways Kubatana has used mobile activism in a variety of campaigns, including during the 2008 Zimbabwean elections (Chapter 7). Kubatana has been at the forefront of developing innovative social and technological solutions to information scarcity and advocacy in repressive political environments. For example, Kubatana’s mobile activism is informed by the exchange of ideas and by fostering two-way communication with Zimbabweans from all walks of life. Another exciting innovation she mentions is the development of the Freedom Fone. One of its features is the capability to go beyond the 160 character limit of SMS. The phone also enables communities to create their own content based on demand as it marries radio-style programming with both mobiles and landline phones. The Freedom Fone is significant not only because of this feature, but also as it is a technology developed in Africa in a country that has been in crisis for the past nine years and where most resources are extremely limited. Another important element of the Freedom Fone is that the idea and development have been led by Kubatana’s technical director, Brenda Burrell.
WOUGNET (Women of Uganda Network) was started in 2000 and is one of the oldest NGOs working with women and ICT in Africa. WOUGNET’s approach to gender and technology is driven by gender inequalities in both urban and rural women’s status as well as in access to ICT, including mobile phones. The network participated in global and African SMS campaigns to raise awareness of violence against women in 2007 and 2008 (http://tinyurl.com/8kaubh), to provide timely agricultural information and to support online discussions on women’s rights and development. Berna Ngolobe, in Chapter 8, offers a gender dimension to the use of ICT including SMS as a way of improving capacity and generally empowering women. She raises issues of patriarchy which lead to women experiencing real disadvantage in education and economic security. Both of these factors impact on women’s access to mobile phones and therefore to participating in SMS-supported advocacy and campaign projects. Nonetheless, Uganda, which is also one of the countries involved in the Village Phone Initiative (http://tinyurl.com/qqd7ks), has taken a liberalised approach to telecommunications which has also led to increased access for women. This has resulted in a plethora of mobile service providers and one of the lowest call prices on the continent, thereby reducing some of the gender barriers that exist elsewhere in Africa.
In ‘Mobile telephony: closing the gap’ (Chapter 9), Christiana Charles-Iyoha, whilst recognising the pervasiveness of mobile phones and the innovative opportunities they have created, avoids the temptation to assert that we are moving towards a ‘digitopia’ particularly where women are concerned. Her chapter addresses gender imbalances, noting that women are largely excluded from accessing mobile phone technology and therefore from engaging actively in the development and social change process. She suggests a number of ways in which these inequalities can be addressed. By examining the factors that create obstacles she presents a number of practical ways of addressing imbalances.
Within 24 hours of the outbreak of the 2008/2009 post election violence in Kenya, Kenyan blogs were posting hour-by-hour reports. On 31 December, there was a complete shutdown of the mainstream media. Erik Hersman of ‘White African’ said:
'The only way to get any up-to-date news for the past 24–48 hours has been through the blogosphere (like Kenyan Pundit, Thinkers Room, Mentalacrobatics), Skype and Kenyan-populated forums (like Mashada). The traditional media has been shut out and shut down for all intents and purposes.'
Within days, the online community and blog aggregator, Mashada, had set up an SMS and voice hotline calling for people to send in local news and opinions on what was happening. This was followed by Ory Okolloh (Kenyan Pundit) who suggested using Google Earth to create a mashup16 of where the violence was taking place and called upon ‘any techies’ out there willing to help create a map of it. This was 3 January and by 9 January a group of Kenyan bloggers had put together a mashup and created Ushahidi, a site for people to send SMS or email reports of acts of violence directly. What the Ushahidi project shows is that if you build a strong community then it is easier to come together in a time of crisis and take action.
Why was the Kenyan blogosphere able to rally in such a positive and productive way in such a short time? What can we learn from their actions that will help others deal with local crisis? These are some of the questions, Juliana Rotich and Joshua Goldstein address in ‘Digitally networked technology’ (Chapter 10).
Bukeni Waruzi’s chapter provides an overview of the use of mobile phones for monitoring and reporting abuses of children’s rights. The Kalundu Child Soldier project used members of local communities including some former child soldiers to monitor and report acts of violence such as from rape, torture and forced marriage. The project is based in the Kivu region of eastern Congo, which is the centre of the violence in the country as militias, multinationals and governments all vie for control of the rich mineral resources such as coltan. It is ironic that the main mineral required to manufacture the mobile phones being used to report human rights abuses is the very mineral which is causing the conflict in the first place.
The contributors in this book come from a variety of occupational backgrounds, a fact that is reflected in the different writing styles and approaches to the usefulness of mobile technology as a tool for social change and advocacy in Africa. While they are all aware of the need to overcome infrastructural, economic and cultural obstacles, they also have a strong desire for social change and have the vision to see what could be possible and how best to achieve this. We are facing increasing amplification of social differentiation – the rich continue to get richer and the poor, poorer. In the face of this inequality mobile phone activism in Africa, as examined in this book, emerges as a powerful force for achieving social justice.
Mobile phones as tools for social change and advocacy are at a relatively early stage of development, but that are growing at an exponential rate, and it is quite possible that within two years the whole landscape will have changed. There are, of course, many other innovative projects and ideas which could have been included if space permitted. There is also the need for more research to fill the vacuum of information that exists such as from North Africa, Egypt and other non-English speaking countries. I am quite confident that there will be an academic exploration of some of the experiences discussed in the book. SMS Uprising is offered as the beginning, and showcases positive examples of what is possible and what can inspire people to use technology to support their actions.
Compiling this book has been a learning experience for me both as an editor and in terms of understanding how mobile telephony is being used in Africa. It has also been a privilege to work with Fahamu, who have been supportive and patient throughout.
 Obtaining accurate and timely figures for Africa’s mobile telephones is not a precise task as numbers and percentage figures differ, though only marginally. At the end of 2007 there were 280.7 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, representing a penetration rate of 30.4 per cent (from approximately 50 million, or 10 per cent penetration, in 2002). This is set to reach 580 million and a penetration rate of 95 per cent by 2012. http://whiteafrican.com/2008/08/01/2007-african-mobile-phone-statistics/, accessed 15 May 2009.
 (2008) ‘African mobile subscribers surpass North America’, Textually.org, http://www.textually.org/textually/archives/2008/05/019983.htm, accessed 15 May 2009.
 Hash (2008) ‘2007 mobile phone statistics’, White African http://whiteafrican.com/2008/08/01/2007-african-mobile-phone-statistics/, accessed 15 May 2009.
 Hash (2009) ‘Mobile telephony access and usage in Africa’, White African, http://whiteafrican.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/researchictafrica-ictd2009.pdf, accessed 27 May 2009.
 Manji, F. (2008) ‘Mobile activism, mobile hype’, Gender and Media Diversity Journal, no. 4, January, pp. 125–32, http://www.genderlinks.org.za/page.php?p_id=398, accessed 14 September 2009.
 Hash (2008) ‘If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere’, White African, http://whiteafrican.com/2008/09/26/if-it-works-in-africa-it-will-work-anywhere/, accessed 15 May 2009.
 Crowdsourcing – When citizens working as a collective report on a crisis with real-time news from a particular region or on a particular situation we can call it ‘crowdsourcing in citizen journalism’.
 Tactical Tech ‘Using mobile phones to monitor local elections’, Tactical Technology Collective
 WOUGNET (2008) ‘16 Days Of Activism: SMS campaign 2008’, http://www.wougnet.org/cms/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=315&Itemid=29, accessed 15 May 2009.
 Tactical Tech ‘Exposing police torture with mobile phone video’, Tactical Technology Collective, http://www.mobiles.tacticaltech.org/Exposingpolicetorturewithmobilephonevideo, accessed 15 May 2009.
 Banks, K. (2008) ‘Build it Kenny, and they will come… Mobile telephony and the entrepreneur’, http://www.kiwanja.net/blog/2008/10/mobile-telephony-and-the-entrepreneur/, accessed 27 May 2009.
 Nthateng, M. (2008) ‘Mobiles for development or poverty’, Mobile Active, http://www.mobileactive08.org/node/954, accessed 4 June 2009.
 Hari, J. (2008) ‘How we fuel Africa’s bloodiest war’, Independent, 30 October
 Farouk, F. (2008) ‘UmNyango – a survey of the potential of the short messaging service: exteral evalutation of the Fahamu Umnyango project’.
 Hash (2007) ‘Why the internet matters in Africa’, White African, http://whiteafrican.com/2007/12/31/why-the-internet-matters-in-africa/, accessed 28 September 2009.
 Hersman, E. ‘Mashups and activism’, http://tinyurl.com/nnu2cx, accessed 23 June 2009. A mashup is a web application that takes two or more sets of data and combines them to create something of added value. The data types could be: maps (Google, Yahoo, NASA), images, video, audio, SMS data, Twitter (micro-blogging platform), personal information, indeed, almost any other type of data you can think of.
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