Home Africans Teach High Schoolers to Change Communities with Social Media

Africans Teach High Schoolers to Change Communities with Social Media

In 2006, I created a project with a friend who had taught in Botswana. Called “Blogswana,” the project was designed to teach students at the University of Botswana how to employ social media to tell their own stories. It was very popular – with Africans. All the funding sources, public and private, however, seemed to believe the same thing: Why fund tech when everyone knows Africans need industrial baby formula and fly whisks? Why teach social media when no one in the “Dark Continent” knows how to use a computer?

Well, the entire continent of Africa begs to differ with that cartoonish picture. Having covered African technology extensively here, and having been invited to speak at the continent’s largest digital technology conference, I wanted to find out what Africans themselves were doing in terms of utilizing the social web to short circuit the abiding desire of the West to draft Brad Pitt and Bono as the voices of Africa. I found the Kuyu Project.


I became aware of the Kenya-based Kuyu Project through one of my Twitter follows, Rassina Hassan, who works with the group. She introduced me to the Kuyu’s Founder and Executive Director, Simeon Oriko.

Kuyu’s focus is teaching high school students in Africa how to use social media to affect change in their communities. As they say in their mission statement:

“We deeply believe that by offering an open platform and teaching digital techniques we are fueling the dreams and aspirations of these young minds which might one day lead to the innovations and technologically driven solutions that will change Africa and the world.”

One of their initiatives is StorySpaces, “a mobile and web based social media application aimed at enabling different communities to interact and participate in global conversations online.” Their hope in building it is to allow users to transform their online conversations “into offline tangible actions that make an impact in the local community.”

They’re currently in the process of setting up a StorySpace for citizen journalists and hacktivists in Uganda “to respond to the escalating protests about food and fuel price increases in the country” and raising funds through IndieGoGo, a crowdsourcing funding tool.

I interviewed Oriko, a senior at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton, via email about the project, its goals and the utility of the social web in an African context.

The ReadWriteWeb Interview: Simeon Oriko

“Africa is ripe for a transformational technological youth quake that extends beyond social media and mobile technology as revolution tools towards encompassing all other aspects of our lives.”

When did you start The Kuyu Project?

I started The Kuyu Project in June 2010 after conducting a series of digital literacy camps in various high schools around the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton as the chairperson of the local computer science students association. The camps were mostly built around training the kids on how to use web based tools such as Google, Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha for their education. As the camps grew bigger and became more popular, we increased the training and materials to include personal objectives and social change. The camps were primarily targeted at senior high school students.

What inspired its creation?

The inspiration came from the impact I saw in the youth I was teaching at the digital literacy camps. One girl in particular was inspired to use Google and later social networks on her mobile phone to seek out information to achieve her dream of becoming a pilot. For her and a number of other kids, they quickly learned the value of technology and using it as advantage to seek out new opportunities for effecting change in their communities as well as achieving their personal objectives.

Reflecting on this, it became clear to me that we could create a dynamic framework for scaling a youth initiative based on the learning value of technology to address the unique social, cultural and economic challenges that face our continent. I decided to use the interesting new realities the social web and mobile technology presented in Africa as the foundation to build our grassroots youth technology development project.

How important is digital literacy to the future of Africa’s youth, its economy, etc?

Digital literacy helps create mind share, intellectual capital and capacity, as well as innovative solutions which will empower and include African youth in fully participating in the 21st century. It is also critical to the growth of knowledge societies and ecosystems in the rapidly changing technological landscape of Africa. Africans are already next generation web users accessing social networks and the mobile web through their phones. This remarkable social mobile revolution across the continent is creating explosive new opportunities ranging from politics, governance, entrepreneurship, commerce, banking, media and moving towards disrupting all other industries. We’re seeing some of the adaptive issues that occur when youth aren’t adequately prepared to enter a workforce, motivated to vote or start their own ventures which largely depend on their digital literacy and participatory skills. As evidenced in recent world changing events in Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the continent, Africa is ripe for a transformational technological youth quake that extends beyond social media and mobile technology as revolution tools towards encompassing all other aspects of our lives.

How will your project help?

Primarily, the Kuyu project will create a digital literacy framework to build on:

a. Greater visibility and multimedia opportunities for African youth who are under-represented and marginalized in their societies to share their unique stories and join the global conversation

b. Upgrading the digital and creative skills of African youth to include mobile and cloud computing technology

c. Mind share and dynamic participation in various situations concerning the current seismic social, economic and political changes occurring all over Africa

d. Intellectual capital, creativity and the capacity for technology transfer skills among peers

e. Scaling informative and tested solutions as a direct result of facilitating knowledge sharing, collaborative and collective problem solving

f. Critical mass of stronger connected communities with a pool of champions growing solidly behind relevant causes and firmly dedicated towards advancing them.

g. Accumulation of valuable resource base from tapping into the virtual and physical cognitive wealth of actively contributing communities sharing and applying ideas

h. Viral network of talented African technologists and developers spreading digital literacy and innovation in an open crowd sourced platform

What other projects using, or about, digital tech, in Kenya, and in Africa in general, do you find interesting?

I’m biased toward mobile and social change projects. The ones I find interesting in this field include Voices of Africa, (specifically Haki Zetu and SPARC which is a solar powered Internet kiosk aimed at helping rural communities get digital connectivity as well as creating local economies) and Revoda, a social election monitoring tool.

What does the future hold for Kenya, and Africa in general?

I believe Africa’s future greatly relies on technological advances and brain-gain currently driven by social media and mobile technology with increasingly-connected African youth and diaspora recreating and re-imagining its immense potential by deviating from existing story lines to establish a new powerful vision of change across the continent. Social technologies such as the one we’re building at StorySpaces are radically changing the narrative and fueling the dreams and aspirations of young minds which might lead to the innovations and technologically driven solutions that will change and benefit Africa and the world.

Can you describe how you conduct your digital literacy campaigns and the scope of your digital literacy camps?

Our digital literacy campaign consists of conducting digital camps for our trainees to acquire relevant digital skills particularly in the areas of citizen media, hacktivism, youth empowerment, government transparency and accountability. Trainees will be specifically taught to share their acquired skills and join our Youth Mentorship Program designed to increase their teaching output to peers. This will ensure a wider reach for our project to gain and build a viral grassroots movement of digitally savvy youth starting in Kenya and scaling to the rest of their population in Africa.

To date we have trained high school students in the following schools in Kenya:

Kapsabet Boys High School
Kapsabet Girls High School
Mwiruti Secondary School
St. Joseph’s Chepterit Girls Secondary School
Chemundu High School
Terige Boys High School
Baraton Adventist Secondary School

The training camps at these schools have been conducted in partnership with the Baraton Information Technology Students Association, BITSA. This organization includes all the Information Science and Computing students at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton.

We plan to expand our digital literacy camps to Uganda and Ghana in the next half of 2011 with a target goal of reaching out to another 2500 students.

How does StorySpaces work and where are you on the project?

StorySpaces was recently demoed at the Media 140 conference in Barcelona.

StorySpaces is envisioned as an open platform web and mobile based social network where youth can share stories and quickly see the important news and stories in their social network. StorySpaces is based on the idea that users relate better to experiences and identify with actions and want to participate rather than just consume information. This provides them with raw material as a foundation for transforming digital conversations into practical offline actions. In the social web it offers an alternative from the limits of Facebook and Twitter in documenting full length stories.

StorySpaces will hold a collection of multi-media story snippets composed of relevant topical themes that are easy to set up; youth, aspiring journalists, and other users can add a post (story) without having to set up a blog or worrying about those things that set barriers to entry of stories in other words, promoting transparency, security and ease-of-access.

StorySpaces can be used for all types of web and mobile blogging from modern storytelling and traditional storytelling techniques to citizen journalism. One of the ways we plan to use it for The Kuyu Project is to give youth a place to connect with others who are seeking to effect positive social change to find peers, mentors tapping into a resource base to guide them in their paths.

We are working on creating StorySpaces not only as a Web application but also for a variety of mobile handsets including iOS and Android. In addition SMS/MMS capabilities will be a part of the design. The mobile app will allow citizens to subscribe to news feeds from trusted sources and to search for news stories by keyword and download those stories. Some of the underlying problems with the current solutions is that while many are using blogging to take active roles in providing news about local communities, many see setting up a blog as too complicated. Additionally, social networking tools like Facebook have their own culture and meaning to youth, but are not specifically designed to encourage promoting stories of social good. While other tools such as Twitter offer microblogging, but not the opportunity for extended stories, StorySpaces is designed to give youth a place to connect with others who are seeking to effect positive social change and to find mentors to guide them in their paths.

How did you put your team together?

The team met on Twitter actually. I was connected with Deb Elzie (@debelzie) and she had a strong interest in the implementation of The Kuyu Project. When I shared with my vision with her and my desire to create a mobile and web application, she thought I should meet Victor Miclovich (@vicmiclovich) a talented programmer based in Uganda. We had a 7 hour Skype session one weekend and our core team was formed with Rassina Hassan (@rassina) joining us later. We are building a pan-African virtual startup with global ties and our team of 20+ smart volunteers continues to grow. The idea for StorySpaces was formed through collaboration. A majority of the team is based in Uganda and Kenya with a number of others in West Africa – Emeka Okoye (@EmekaOkoye) in Nigeria , Alfred Rowe (@Nukturnal) in Ghana – and in the United States. We all meet via Twitter or through our regular Skype group sessions and it has been a great experience so far, the entire team is very committed to seeing the project launch successfully.

What is your background?

My background in tech began as a child and picked up with the advent of mobile and social technologies. My interest in these fields led me to an early conceptualization of Mobile Cloud Computing and interest in ICT4D. I’ve since focused efforts on creating a mobile cloud computing platform and digital literacy initiatives.

I also have a strong attachment to the African tech industry. I’ve previously been a Microsoft Student Partner and also partnered with under sea fibre-optic organization, SEACOM on a number of projects.

I believe Africa’s future greatly relies on technological advances and brain-gain currently driven by social media and mobile technology with increasingly-connected African youth and diaspora recreating and re-imagining its immense potential by deviating from existing story lines to establish a new powerful vision of change across the continent.

I’m currently involved in the “Digital Natives With a Cause?” program which is a joint program by the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, and Dutch development organization, HIVOS. My contribution to the program involves participation in a number of workshops that culminate in a book documenting the role of youth and technology in social transformation processes.

I’m also a member of the iHub, a tech incubator and innovation hub. In the coming months, I’ll be interning with m:Lab, a consortia of four organizations that aims to facilitate demand-driven innovation by regional entrepreneurs, ensuring that breakthrough low-cost, high-value mobile solutions can be developed and scaled-up into sustainable businesses that address social needs.

Although Simeon and his crew are creative and motivated individuals, it hardly takes away from their uniqueness to point out that such young people are far from impossible to find in Africa. In fact, Africa, with its adventurous spirit and entrepreneurism, especially as regards the mobile web, is one of the most exciting areas of the world when it comes to new technology.

There are doubtless places on the continent that need help with food and clearly too many places that need health assistance, professionals and teaching, but there are also many places and tons of people like the Kuyu crew, people who are working hands-on to move their people and countries forward. They do not “deserve your help” as much as they should inspire your admiration.

Keep a weather eye on Tech Africa. These days, if you blink, you’re liable to miss something cool.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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