Adam DavidiContent Producer
How the Web is Amplifying Citizens' Voices: Q&A with Ory Okolloh
Ahead of the Activate Johannesburg Summit 2014, Ory Okolloh, director of investments, Omidyar Network Africa, spoke to us about how technology is changing the spread of information in Africa and helping to amplify citizens' voices.
Could you briefly tell us about your role at Omidyar Network?
I currently lead Omidyar Network's government transparency work in Africa. My role primarily involves investing in innovative organisations that use technology and media platforms to provide access to information and to increase government responsiveness and citizen participation. Recent investments include Africa Check, Livity South Africa and the Africa News Innovation Challenge. I also spend time making connections between organisations and individuals in the burgeoning civic tech space in Africa and helping others think about how they can best leverage technology in their advocacy work.
How is technology changing the spread of information in Africa – not only from central authorities to the people but also peer-to-peer?
It is enabling information to spread much faster, in real-time; the rapid adoption of new tools is also quite interesting to watch. A year or two ago, BBM [BlackBerry Messenger] was king, now it is WhatsApp. Tools that drive social engagement are particularly interesting to track. In response, those central authorities that want to prevent this are increasingly having to be a lot more repressive in order to do so such as Ethiopia.
You co-founded Mzalendo, a pioneering civic website that tracks the performance of Kenya's parliament and its parliamentarians. How did the government feel about this and has its stance changed?
The government was initially dismissive towards the website as the internet penetration rate at the time (2006) was low and they didn't think it would impact their perceptions among voters. Over time, as web penetration has grown and as the voting demographic gets younger, they are paying a lot more attention. For instance, they are very quick to send corrections or protest if they feel their contributions in parliament are not being reflected on Mzalendo. We are also seeing greater interest from the local media in partnering with the Mzalendo team to report on the performance of parliament.
What impact is the internet having on citizen journalism and activism in Africa?
I think the internet is having an impact in very diverse ways anchored around amplifying voice, from enabling what I like to refer to as micro-activism. For instance when Kenyan citizens recently expressed displeasure with a presidential appointment on his Facebook page forcing his team to take the Facebook post down and scramble to find ways to explain away the phenomenon; to #bringbackourgirls, which started out of Nigerians' frustration with an unresponsive government on the crisis around the kidnapped girls from Chibok, and has gone on to become a global galvanising force. You are also seeing citizens take to the internet to tell their own stories, whether through images (Instagram), and in collaboration with media (Daily Maverick and Mail & Guardian Africa).
How big a challenge is access to internet-connected devices in Africa – and do you see the situation changing soon?
It is still a big challenge but is changing rapidly as smartphone and tablet prices come down and used phones begin to enter the secondary market, the sweet spot as far as pricing appears to be at about $50. Just this month in South Africa sales of smartphones topped feature phones for the first time, and I suspect Kenya is not far-behind. One bigger challenge is electricity, most smartphones have crappy battery-life and that becomes a bigger issue than affordability as power/electricity infrastructure has yet to catch up with the needs in most African countries.
Finally, what is your message to the people attending the Guardian's Activate Johannesburg Summit?
Be prepared to connect, learn, challenge yourself and others – and to be inspired.