By Lauren Woodman
Having just wrapped up a week in Nairobi with the ICT4D Conference, my head is spinning in the very best of ways. After four days of plenaries, breakouts and great networking, I am sure many of us are still sorting through the great ideas and replicable projects that we saw in Nairobi.
All of us that attend ICT4D believe technology can have a meaningful impact on the communities we serve. We share the idea that powerful tools – from software to sensors – can accelerate progress and empower millions to address the challenges that face our world. Leveraging technology well is challenging, especially in resource-poor environments or under-funded nonprofits, but last week’s conference helped us see the tools that hold promise, identify scalable projects, and find partners that we can learn from.
Something for everyone
This year was no exception: There was something for everyone. A sampling of the hundred-plus sessions included John Garrity’s presentation on the ‘Internet of Things,’ which opened our eyes to the use of sensors, beyond well-proven environmental or conservation efforts and into health and sanitation projects. Gautam Shah taught us about the ‘internet of elephants,’ highlighting how we can take wildlife conservation knowledge and leverage it in a “gamified” interface to bring greater awareness and support for the protection of these magnificent creatures.
Microsoft showed us innovative technologies bringing fast, reliable, low-cost Internet to communities not far from Nairobi to support education, conservation and local entrepreneurship. And for those moving beyond high-level discussions on gender to learn what works in increasing digital literacy for women and girls at different age levels, a session with several experienced practitioners provided concrete, replicable practices that can be incorporated into a wide range of efforts.
Imagining what is possible
This year’s conference also included a number of special events and exhibits that further enriched the week.
The Executive Session, held for a smaller group of senior-level decision-makers, challenged participants to reimagine what the sector could accomplish if we were not constrained by the traditional limitations we all face. What if we could create a new effort with enough funding to be a catalyst for change, but not enough to do all of the necessary work? What kind of partnerships would we strike?
Or, what if we could take greater risks, knowing our supporters and donors would stand behind us even if some ideas failed? And after which private sector companies might we model ourselves if we were beginning anew? While fanciful, the broad-ranging discussion forced participants to consider how we might apply some of these ideas to our existing organizations and structures.
Kibera visit a high point of the week
A trip to the Kibera slum on Friday was another highlight for those able to attend. The largest urban slum in Africa, Kibera is infamous for extreme poverty and overcrowding. But as we started the tour, hosted by the Human Needs Project and Kibera Town Center, we were encouraged to look for signs of resilience and hope.
Indeed, Kibera has a robust economy of vendors selling everything from produce to shoes. We met Grandson, an entrepreneurial DJ running a tiny recording studio called Level Up, and heard the unique and fantastic music coming out of Kibera. And then there was the Kibera Town Center, a thriving community center built in 2014 with a high-tech, ecologically sustainable water-treatment facility that provides clean water for on-site laundry, toilets and showers. The center also has café serving cappuccino and great food.
During the day, we heard about the promising computer skills training program conducted in partnership with Sama School, and received a detailed presentation of Map Kibera, a citizen-based mapping project that has helped residents document the key features of their community and improve overall management. We also visited a Kibera-based IT training company called Tunapanda and saw the 3-D printers they are using as part of an ICT innovation program. Students learn human-centered design principles and focus on researching and developing practical solutions for local residents and businesses.
Hard work paid off
This event only happens because of the hard work of the organizing committee, who put in countless hours trying to find the right mix of sessions, plenaries and extracurricular events, and the generosity of our sponsors and exhibitors, whose support is critical. On-site staff was up early and late, making sure every detail was attended to so we could make the most of the week. It was a herculean effort with a remarkable outcome, and I, and many others, had a great week as a result. All of us at NetHope send a sincere “thank you” to all of those that made the week so rewarding.
Of course, the active participation of our attendees made the event that much better. Just as the week held a little something for everyone, each of us contributed to the conference in some small way – by meeting a new colleague, sharing your knowledge or asking an insightful question. Our gratitude to you, as well, for enriching our time in Nairobi.
I hope my head stops spinning before next year’s event!