#DIYAFRICA: Empowering women traders in East Africa

In conversation with Sylvia Munai, junior project manager at Sauti East Africa, an organisation based in Kenya that provides women-led businesses with market-related information to help them make better business decisions.

Can you just tell us more about your organisation and the work that you do?

Sauti East Africa is a social impact organisation that is focused on understanding the different organisations out there and is more oriented towards the community and improving their lives. Sauti is quite unique as we deal with traders. In East Africa, the majority of small skill traders are women, about 70% of the women who do small-scale trading, especially across borders such as moving goods from Kenya to Uganda, Kenya to Tanzania, are women trading in the East Africa region. The women trade in small commodities, largely agricultural commodities, and they move along the borders. 

The platform was created because we realised when women trade from country to country they are not aware of the documentation they need because when you’re moving goods from one country to another, no matter how small the goods are, you need documentation such as that which proves the food has been checked by plant health directorates. The Sauti platform simplifies the information for women to be able to understand it easier because this information can get quite complicated, especially at the national level. We simplify the information as much as possible for the women to have an easier understanding of what the content entails. 

We also use a mobile application to disseminate information, Sauti uses mobile phones to disseminate information to the women traders. The mobile platform uses USSD and SMS technology. We largely started with USSD as a mass technology, it is an interface where women can get the tailored information they’re looking for. For example, if a woman is trading in maize and wants to know how much it is in a specific region they can easily go to our platform and dial a code, which is the USSD code. Once the code is dialled, the user is able to see the market prices of maize in the different towns within that country. Sauti is in Kenya, Tanzania Uganda, Rwanda and each country has specific USSD codes unique to them. 

Sauti is freely available and can be accessed by dialling *716# in Kenya; *801*35# in Rwanda; *284*111# in Uganda; *149*46*1# in Tanzania, and +254 20 389 3576 on WhatsApp.

How does Sauti use technology and data-solutions to help women-led businesses?

Mobile technologies are the main technologies we use to create social impact and we have a WhatsApp platform. We also have a dashboard, where we collect data for every woman who uses our platform and we are able to capture their user behaviour and what their interests are. On our platform, we have various types of information, we have information ranging from market prices, exchange rates, health, legal aid, agriculture, and information on Covid-19. We are able to see how women are using our platforms and we are able to see what is more important to them in terms of the information that they’re searching for.

What are some of the challenges that Sauti faces?

The biggest challenge when working with the women is that some of them, especially in the rural areas, have low literacy levels. Even if these women have access to information on our platform, they are still unable to read. We have been trying to find ways we can help them and one of the strategies we are trying to incorporate is to have more youth. By educating the youth, they can then go to their parents, their aunties and teach them more because youth tend to take up technology quite fast and they have a sharp understanding. The biggest challenge has been low literacy levels, for example, there will be a woman who wants to understand and know better but she’s unable to read. So we’re just trying to figure out how to help these women to help learn and be more inclusive.

In September we will be hosting a forum Civic Tech Innovation Forum and the theme will be DIY Africa. What does DIY Africa mean to you?

Now that women have access to platforms such as the USSD they are able to educate themselves, learn and make better business decisions. When you stop being ignorant, because I think sometimes we are ignorant of the things that are available to us and we miss out on opportunities.

It’s up to us to be proactive and try to learn as much as possible and see areas where we can take advantage of and be better traders and farmers from the information that is there. We don’t have to wait for outside help. We really have everything in Africa that we need to be better. So I think it’s up to individuals to just take initiative, which may not be so easy. Just be proactive and find these channels because they’re available to us at whatever level you are at and find ways you can advance yourself or plant yourself in communities that have the same goals and visions as you.

Register and Join us at #DIYAfrica this September, Come and engage with other African innovators

Bridging the gender digital divide in Uganda

In conversation with Peace Oliver Amuge, executive director from the Women of Uganda Network, an organisation that aims to address the inequality between men and women with regards to access to the internet and the use of technology.

Can you tell me about the Women of Uganda Network and the work that you do?

Women of Uganda Network is an NGO that was initiated in May 2000 so we are 20 years old now. Women of Uganda Network is an organisation that envisions a society where women and girls are able to use ICT for gender equality and for sustainable development. 

We promote the use of ICT by women and women-led organisations. We do a lot of digital literacy research to make sure that we have gender-disaggregated data and our research focuses on women’s access to internet use of technology. Our research has been focused on gender and ICT. We also do a lot of policy advocacy, We advocate for gender-responsive ICT policies in Uganda. Our work is informed by the research we do and as well as research from other entities, civil society organisations and government. 

We use this kind of research to inform our advocacy work and produce policy brief papers, create collaborations among civil society organisations and have dialogues with policymakers. We also do a number of projects and initiatives to empower women economically and socially. We work with women in rural areas and urban areas. We also work with women farmers and we promote the use of technology amongst farmers especially in the Northern part of the country. So in all our projects, we try as much as we can to use technology, ICT, radio, phones and all those traditional tools.

Can you tell us about the technological tools your organisation uses?

It depends on what the initiative is or what the project is about. For instance, working with women farmers in the rural community, we use an app where these women can come on to sell their seeds or access information regarding their input. They can also use the app to share information about what’s happening in their field and about diseases that are affecting their crops and the app also connects them to experts. This app has been used by these communities and it was successful. 

Our work also includes digital literacy training where we teach community members how to use these apps. We also use an SMS platform and we’ve used it in a project for social accountability, where these communities are able to register on this platform and use their basic phones. Smartphones are not easily accessed by most of these communities, especially women. The basic phones are more easily accessed and so they use their phones to tell us about the issues that they have in their communities. On the platform, we also have the service leaders for these communities registered and where we are able to let the community leaders know about issues in their communities.

Do you think these tools have the potential to bridge the digital divide in Uganda?

There’s still a lot to be done because there are still so many women who do not have access to ICT.  For us to bridge this gap is not only about making these tools available but making sure that they are accessible. Then we look at the infrastructure which needs to be worked on. Some of these rural areas do not have the infrastructure and they do not have connectivity.  Affordability can ensure that these tools are available for people in these communities.  So I think having the infrastructure in place, making these tools accessible and affordable for these communities and also having policies that promote the use of technology and policies will make it easier for people to use technology. But there’s still a lot to be done if we want to close the digital divide.

You mentioned affordability and infrastructure. Is there anything that your organisation is doing to tackle these issues?

We want to have two community networks, especially in rural communities. It would really help because internet service providers might not really want to go to these places. What we have done is set up information centres in these communities where we work where people are able to come in to access the internet but we have been having conversations around how we can create community networks in these communities with these communities.

What are the challenges that your organisation faces?

The legal frameworks that we have and the gaps that we have in them is one thing. Some policies are really nice but the implementation of these policies is what we do not really see. As an organisation that advocates for gender equality, some of the policies are not gender-responsive. The third one would be the patriarchal societies, the communities are male-dominated and some people in these communities believe that women should not be using technology. So this is really a challenge for us because we’re talking about having women use ICT and about having women in decision-making positions.

What impact do you think you've had on women and girls in Uganda?

In these communities that we worked in, we have seen how perceptions have changed the community and a number of women have been really empowered to use technology, which has improved their lives. We also provided data on women’s technology use, evidence-based research and reports, we engaged with policymakers and advocated for gender-responsive policies. Since Covid, we’ve supported 25 organisations to help build their capacity and help them to use these video conferencing tools.

Peace Oliver Amuge will be speaking our upcoming CTIF21 during the Digital Rights and Civic Tech: Challenges and Opportunities Session

Register Now for the Civic Tech Innovation Forum

#DIYAFRICA: Showcase your civic tech project at #CTIF2021 & Jamfest2021

Call for Civic Techies and media innovators in Africa to showcase your innovations at a continental platform!

This year’s theme: Why “DIY Africa”?

Civic Tech Innovators:

For the showcase, we are inviting civic tech innovators who have something exciting to share with the community, this may include the following innovations: 

  1. Impact Stories – practical experiences, results and lessons learned
  2. Newbies – Starting out stories by innovators
  3. Cutting edge – new methods / tools / techniques, experimental projects, etc.
  4. DIY Africa – Examples of where people are creatively solving their own problems through data / digital innovation around Africa
  5. Ecosystem supports and enablers – Toolkits, training, services, etc. that are enabling civic tech

Media Innovators:

For the showcase, we are inviting media innovators who have new content styles and approaches, and great media and journalism innovations.  Jamfest aims to track trends in information flows and digital public space therefore the following are potential focus areas to guide applicants:

  1. Media sustainability & new business models
  2. Innovation & Innovators
  3. Tools for journalists and journalism 
  4. Audience engagement
  5. Podcasting
  6. AI/Machine learning


Deadline for exhibition proposals: 17 August 2021
Notification of acceptance: 19 August 2021
Booths should be ready by 5 September

SUBMISSION:  Please complete the form below or complete it here 

Enquiries may be emailed to melissa.zisengwe@wits.ac.za  

Terms & Conditions – Basic requirements for Exhibitors:

By applying to host an Exhibition booth, you would be committing that you will be:

  • Able to populate their booth with enough appropriate materials
  • Willing to display for 1 week, and possibly to maintain beyond
  • Availability to host/tend to the booth for the week – i.e. respond to enquiries
  • Able to provide publicity and promotion information and support to the Communications team (e.g. images, interviews, etc.)
  • Be available to present a session / participate once or twice in the scheduled daily Exhibition “Hangout hour” during Forum week
  • Respond to / take meetings with interested exhibition visitors
  • Help promote the Exhibition through your networks, including inviting visitors to your Booth

#DIYAFRICA: African anti-corruption Initiatives – Fighting the scourge, one step at a time

The effects of corruption can be seen in many spheres of life on the African continent. When corruption goes unchecked it may lead to poor quality of life and even death for those affected. Many on the continent have had to deal with the consequences of corrupt public servants who are meant to prioritise the people. We interviewed four organisations in Africa that aim to promote transparency in government and accountability in their respective countries.


“Corruption undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to human rights violations, distorts markets, undermines the quality of life and creates a breeding ground for organised crime, terrorism and other phenomena that threaten humanity,” said Saham Jacques, national coordinator of the Organisation Tchadienne Anti-Corruption (OTAC).

OTAC is an anti-corruption organisation based in Chad that aims to promote the transparency of the management of public affairs in the country. The organisation has a toll-free number that allows people to report corrupt activities, these activities are investigated, and a report is filed to the General State Inspectorate which is a state anti-corruption body.  The organisation uses infographics to create awareness of corruption. Jacques said, “corruption is a danger to the development of a country and undermines national cohesion” and that the infographics sensitise and challenge citizens by making them aware of corruption.


An organisation in Togo, Veille Citoyenne monitors public policies.  The organisation which was created in September 2019 aims to “strengthen the capacities of Togolese citizens through knowledge sharing, training and influence so that they are responsive, collaborative, representative and resilient in order to ensure transparency and hold public authorities accountable,” said Pidenam Sama, the president of Veille Citoyenne Togo. 

The organisation uses Facebook and WhatsApp, to publish information on the administrative procedures of the government. Veille Citoyenne promotes the transparency of the budgetary process of the national and local governments by using Facebook to share information on the procedures. The organisation also monitors the transparency of public contracts and delegations of public services and monitors the spending of public funds. 

“In Togo, 70% of Togolese use WhatsApp and 20% use Facebook. We created a WhatsApp platform to allow people to report on corruption and we share information of administrative procedures,” said Sama. The group has a WhatsApp, which allows people to report on corrupt activities.

Sama said that they also use Facebook and WhatsApp for information on administrative procedures in public institutions such as obtaining an identity card, driver’s license or passport. “With the knowledge of procedures and access prices, citizens will no longer be in the dark when a public official asks for a bribe, and they will be able and encouraged to denounce services where public officials try to ask them for bribes,” said Sama. 


iWatch was established in 2011 after the Tunisian revolution. The objective of the organisation is to fight corruption and promote stability and transparency in Tunisia. iWatch has established two programmes to promote transparency:

  1. Technical: to implement policies and provide support to other civil society organisations 
  2. Legal: to investigating corruption and helping whistle-blowers.

The organisation also has a website that allows people to report alleged corrupt activities. This website allows for the anonymity of users. Each case is investigated by iWatch. 

 “Whistle-blowers are not protected in Tunisia so they don’t choose to go public,” Mahdi Dahech, Accountability Program Manager at iWatch said. The organisation has successfully taken notable businessmen to court and former Tunisian prime minister, Youssef Chahed was also implicated in corruption. Dahech said that the organisation has implemented tools and strategies that hold people accountable, including a tool which holds politicians running for elections accountable by tracking the promises made by the eventually elected prime minister during the elections. iWatch also conducts training with over 300 local administrations. The objective of these trainings is to stream up access to information and social accountability. 

Sierra Leone:

“Corruption is a global issue, and in Africa, it has contributed to the underdevelopment of the continent,” said Tamba Mondeh, national coordinator for the Pay No Bribe Animators in Sierra Leone. The organisation was created in response to the rampant corruption in the country. Mondeh said people are forced to pay bribes to people in different sectors; examples include motorcar drivers who are forced to pay police officers and health care workers that require expectant mothers to pay bribes in order to receive help.

Mondeh said that the war in the country was the result of corruption, which highlights the damaging impacts of corruption. In March 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a small band of guerrilla rebels overthrew the government but even after the war ended, the impact of the war is still felt in the country, Mondeh said.

The organisation monitors service delivery, health care, police departments and any other sector in order to uproot corruption and make citizens aware of their rights. The organisation has a community accountability programme in which organisations have discussions with stakeholders from the government and ask about service delivery and any other services they provide to the community. These discussions allow  ‘Pay No Bribe Animators in Sierra Leone’ to get information which is then communicated to the public to bring public awareness about the government’s policies and responsibilities. 

The other approach implemented to ensure transparency is that of data collection in the health, education and police sectors. ‘Pay No Bribe Animators in Sierra Leone’ distributes questionnaires to community members to ask them about their experiences within these sectors and to report on corrupt activities. Mondeh says that this ensures that these policies are being implemented by the government.  The organisation has a toll-free line and a platform on WhatsApp which allows people to report on corrupt activities. 

The continuation of corruption and the lack of justice against perpetrators on the continent has influenced activists to take action. Anti-corruption initiatives in Africa are creating transparency and promoting accountability through the different programmes that they run. These intiatives envisage that they will continue to have a positive impact, by furthering reporting and investigating corruption.

#DIYAFRICA: Showcase your civic tech project at #CTIF2021 & Jamfest2021

The Civic Tech Innovation Forum will be held on September 13–17

#DIYAFRICA GHANA: Using a problem to solve a problem

Is plastic housing the solution to Ghana's sanitation and housing challenges?

In Ghana, the use of plastic cuts across various industries. Plastic has become an integral part of the buying and selling processes in the country. Plastics packaging constitutes about 26% of the total volume of all plastics used. 

Plastic remains the preferred choice by both producers and consumers due to its lightweight nature as well as its ability to store food and prevent it from contamination. Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 2.58 million metric tonnes of raw plastics are imported into the country annually, of which 73 % effectively ends up as waste, while only 19 % is re-used. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Ghanaians generate over a million tonnes of plastic waste each year. The  UNDP further stated that an estimated 2% to 5%  of the figure ends up on recycling factories. The other 95 % ends up in landfill sites, illegal dumping sites, and on the streets.  

Since most of these plastics are non-biodegradable, they become waste.  Plastic waste has thus become a big challenge for governments across the globe and Ghana is no exception. Subsequently, several initiatives and measures are being taken by governments to address the scourge of plastic waste, yet the problem persists.

The Ghanaian government contemplated banning certain kinds of plastic usage in 2015  as a means of addressing the challenges of plastic waste but this has since not been fully implemented and the plastic waste challenge continues. Many people across the globe are thinking outside the box to come up with innovations to address the problem of plastic waste.

One such individual is Ghanaian-born Nelson Boateng, the CEO of Nelplast, which uses sand with shredded plastics and red oxide to make bricks for building. Boateng hopes to lead the recycling revolution in Ghana. The 36-year-old began the initiative between 2015 and 2016 when there were threats from the government to ban plastic usage in the country. “When the government was trying to say let’s ban plastic and I learned on the news that plastic is choking gutters, causing floods, deaths and other things, I also felt very bad,” he said. “We have always felt bad when our name was mentioned as being contributors of plastic waste pollution”, he added 

Having started with the manufacturing of poly bags,  Mr Boateng said he and his colleagues did not feel happy about their contribution to plastic waste pollution. Hence, he had to quit and take a paradigm shift and venture into a more sustainable business. Boateng said he was motivated to venture into the plastic waste recycling business to preserve the environment and to help solve the country’s plastic waste problems.

The idea, he said, was to come up with a business that would be more sustainable and usable in such a way that it will not cause further pollution. Explaining the process in making the blocks, he said: “We crush, wash and semi-dry the plastic waste and mix it with the sand at the proportion of 70% of sand and 30% of plastic, and feed them into an extruder to make pastes, then feed the paste into moulds to produce paving blocks or interlocking bricks under hydraulic pressure”. 

“Using these kinds of bricks for affordable housing has great potential to help Ghana to bridge its housing deficit and at the same time rid the towns and cities of the menace of plastic waste and create more jobs,” he said. According to him, the plastic blocks can also be used as foundation bricks in waterlogging or in salty areas.

Touching on its durability, he said the combination of plastics and sand for the product made the buildings last a lifetime. “Plastic takes over 500 years to start degrading and as for sand, a thousand years”, he said while indicating that the bricks were laid without cement and therefore have the ability to expand and contract when there is a shake in the earth. “There won’t be cracks, water also doesn’t have an effect on it and it will reduce your yearly maintenance. It is very durable and lasts for a lifetime”, he added.

Currently,  there is an increasing cost of cement and other building materials in Ghana with a housing deficit of two million housing units.  Therefore, for some Ghanaians having affordable houses becomes a mere dream. But with Boateng’s plastic waste invention, making affordable housing will be a dream come true for the underprivileged and low-income earning Ghanaians.

In addition to the cost-efficiency, Boateng said the sand-plastic brick houses are also energy-efficient as the rooms cool naturally due to the hollows in the bricks to prevent heat transfer from outside into the rooms and reduce the cost of power consumption. “Most people will be wondering won’t it be too hot? No, the blocks are designed in such a way that there is a groove in between that does not allow heat to come in and also maintain the temperature of the room”, he said. With the help of this plastic brick company, Mr Nelson is creating job employment in the country and currently has employed 300 waste pickers and 63 workers.  Mr Boateng believes that with the right support and investment, Ghana could solve its housing as well as sanitation problems with his innovation.

#DIYAFRICA: Showcase your civic tech project at #CTIF2021 & Jamfest2021

The Civic Tech Innovation Forum will be held on September 13–17

#DIYAFRICA: Zimbabwe — Opening the democratic space for young Zimbabweans

In conversation with Munyaradzi Dodo, digital and programme lead at Magamba Network, which created an initiative, Open Parly which aims to create and support engagement between young Zimbabweans and the government and decision-makers.

What does #DIYAfrica mean to you?

What inspired the creation of Open Parly?

We created Open Parly ZW after we realised there was low participation in political processes by young people in 2016. We were heading towards the 2018 harmonised elections, and we were eager to find an intervention that allowed young people to participate and engage their elected officials. We held a focus group discussion in November 2016 and from the insights of that discussion participants indicated that they found current channels used by parliament boring. Most young people indicated they would never read the Hansard [record of speeches, questions and answers and procedural events in the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly and is known as Parliamentary Debates] because it felt too wordy and preferred reading the information in short bite-size chunks and on digital platforms.

Zimbabwe’s parliament also does not have parliament TV like most countries. At the same time, Zimbabwe’s biggest mobile operator was providing free access to Twitter so we decided to use Twitter as the first step to making parliament more accessible.

How does your organisation work and how do citizens engage with it or use it?

How does your organisation support young Zimbabweans? Can you provide examples or case studies of your work?

The organisation provides young citizen journalists with an opportunity to be the eyes and ears of their community. They contribute video reports, articles and analysis from the perspective of young people. Some have even started web shows/podcasts such as Tuesday Talk with Taku, a weekly show that unpacks the weekly major political events.

What impact has the organisation had in Zimbabwe?

In the absence of parliament TV in Zimbabwe, Open Parly ZW has become the largest repository of parliament data in Zimbabwe, with an online audience that is 10 times bigger than the parliament of Zimbabwe with over 10-million monthly online impressions. The project has also been replicated in Somalia (Kalfadh.com), Zambia (Open Parly ZED) and in 2021 it will expand to Nigeria. We have also expanded the project to local governments and municipalities. Currently, the project runs the Open Council project in major cities by running hyper-local news platforms — Open Council Harare, Marondera, Masvingo, Kariba and Mutare. The project has initiated various digital campaigns such as #ReconveneParly in 2020 which put pressure on elected officials to convene virtual sessions of the parliament and #WhereIsOurVaccine to demand an efficient vaccination plan. 

The challenges or limitations that the organisation has faced?

The project has faced challenges with some journalists being arrested and experiencing violence while covering stories for their communities. The ever-rising costs of data affect our target audience and limit the reach of the project to those who can afford data.

We look forward to hosting you at CTIF21, what would you like the audience to take away from you or the work you do at Open Parly?

With a simple WordPress website, social media and cellphone, you can contribute to holding government officials to account by being the eyes and ears of your community.

The Civic Tech Innovation Forum will be held on September 13–17 and for more details, click here.

#DIYAFRICA — Mozambique: Bridging the digital divide

In conversation with Dayn Amade, founder of the Community Tablet in Mozambique

Tell us more about your initiative and what inspired you to start the Community Tablet?

What are some of the challenges that you have faced?

When I started to go to communities and for community members, this was something new and people were afraid. Like, what is this? What is this coming to do to us? But we changed our approach with the community, for example before Covid, we would have nice local music and people started to see us as a friend and not their enemy. The second thing we did before we went into the community was that we worked together with a university in Mozambique, particularly the faculty of anthropology and sociology. Because in order for us to approach them in a correct way, one of the most important issues to understand is the culture and the habits of a specific community.

One of the challenges that we had, in the beginning, was that the community did not know how to use the tablets properly. Another challenge we faced was sometimes the children in the communities would try to damage the tablets and we would have to replace these tablets. It was not easy, but we managed to overcome them.

What impact do you think your organisation has had in Mozambique?

With COVID are you still able to go into the communities?

We still go to the communities, but now we have to go with the Ministry of Health team because it’s compulsory for us to follow the protocols and isolate the perimeter. The Ministry of Health checks people’s temperature and ensures that everybody has masks. Covid has affected our operations, for example before the pandemic we used to have 500 people come to the trailer but now we only have 200 people. We also produced and disseminated an informational video about Covid which explained to communities what is Covid and how to wash their hands.

What does #DIYAfrica mean to you?

There is this saying that you have to solve your problems, nobody’s going to come and solve your problems for you. So if you are not going to take the lead, you can’t just sit and wait for the answers to be given to you, you have to face the challenges and reflect. I think the major thing that I have learned in regards to ‘do it yourself’ is about self-reflection. You have to reflect, you have to know what kind of story you want to tell the world or your community and nobody’s going to do it for you.

The Civic Tech Innovation Forum will be held on September 13–17 and for more details, click here.

[Listen] New Podcasts: What does civic tech mean to you?

In this podcast series, we hear from civic tech trendsetters about their journeys and how they are using civic tech in enhancing governance and shaping their communities.

Listen to our podcasts here:

The impact of open data

In this episode, we hear from Richard Gevers, founder of Open Cities Lab, a civic technology lab focused on using open data for African urban challenges. Richard is also one of the founding Reference Group members for the Civic Tech Innovation Network. Richard shares his journey from an open data meetup which snowballed into Open Cities Lab focused on using open data in governance.

User-Centred Civic Tech with OpenUp

In this episode, we speak to JD Bothma and Adrian Kearnsbout OpenUp’s approach in implementing civic tech projects and reflect on some challenges they have faced in implementing civic tech projects in rural South Africa. They also talk about the importance of implementing user-centred civic tech projects when attempting to resolve people’s real-life challenges.

Listen to our earlier podcasts here:

A practical guide on building successful civic technology

Interview with Luke Jordan, a practitioner at MIT GOV/LAB and founder of the civic technology organization, Grassroot

Jordan founded Grassroot, a civic tech organisation that enabled communities and individuals to participate in democratic processes by organising groups, using low-end phones and discussed issues affecting these communities. He is currently at MIT GOV/LAB and is exploring and researching ways artificial intelligence and machine learning can advance democracy in developing countries, according to the MIT GOV/LAB website.

How did you get into civic tech?

I studied maths and computer science as an undergrad. I had a technical background and ended up in International Policy and working at the World Bank in governance and economic development in Asia. Then I came home to South Africa and wanted to put what I had learned to good use and I spent a lot of time just trying to understand what was happening and understand where my skills and knowledge could be helpful. I ended up partnering with a couple of friends who were senior technology developers.

Through that partnership, we ended up creating Grassroot. A lot of research showed that the capacity for collective action and civic engagement is massively important in making formal democratic systems work. In South Africa, in townships and in rural areas, it was tough to drive collective action for ordinary people who had limited resources. But people had cell phones, but the phones had very different capabilities and so after that process of just talking to a lot of people, we thought maybe we could create a simple way for people to call a community meeting on their phones that was easier and efficient, but that works on any phone and can reach thousands of people at a time. 

That led to integrating Grassroot, which was this blending of technical, governance and policy backgrounds. And then just talking to people and understanding the problems, and Grassroot evolved from there over many years. Then we started working with other large civil society organisations to think about how we’ve built a technology platform that could reach many people. One of the uses was with Amandla.mobi and other campaigning organisations to help them do campaigns across the digital divide.

What happened to Grassroot? Will the project come back at some point?

The core technology and platform of Grassroot was handed over to our partner, Amandla.mobi, for financial reasons, and they use the platform for many campaigns. 

The typical foundation funding model doesn’t work for a tech platform that is scaling to millions of users quickly and with very unpredictable, up and down sort of costs. We explored a whole range of ways to make the platform self-sustaining such as asking users for small payments and having other organisations use it for various things.

We did get up to 40 to 50% of our expenses covered by our revenue. So we were able to do quite a bit, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. We had to choose between shutting it down entirely or reducing it to the scope of just the campaign, functions and then handing it out, and we took the second route. Would it come back, possibly I think not in the same form, so part of what I’m doing at MIT is exploring new technology, and if something emerges from that, and it makes sense to build into a new idea or a project Grassroot could continue.

What are some of the key lessons you learned from running Grassroot which you would like to share with the community?

The first lesson is to build something that will help address the problems, be hesitant about what you build and civic techies need to research and understand a problem before building technology intended to address the issue

And the second lesson, good processes and work can take time and often good processes can solve things people thought were impossible. For example, when we did our project to teach over WhatsApp, how could we teach over WhatsApp? People will be too distracted.  What we found was that when we worked to evolve the structure and change how we did things, we eventually found a fit where we could successfully teach over WhatsApp, despite people being distracted and having other lives.  

In 2019 Grassroot created a training course, Teaching on WhatsApp, that aimed to build community leadership skills by teaching community leaders on WhatsApp how to organise and mobilise community meetings.

The Guide: What inspired/made you realise the community needs this kind of guide?

The guide, “Don’t Build it. A Guide for Practitioners in Civic Tech is a guide that provides practical tips for people in civic technology. 

The guide is a distillation of what I’ve learned over the years in the last few years, I would regularly get people asking me for advice on things. I would periodically hear people telling me about projects that they’d heard other people doing that we all knew would not make sense I realised that there’d been a lot of research about why building new apps frequently, is a bad idea, but it hadn’t gotten through because it’s written in quite academic papers or in a ‘researchy’ way. It was a combination of having the time to do it and having had lots of people asking me for these practical tips. 

In your practical guide on civic technology, "Don't Build it", you warn against people building their own technology. Why shouldn't people build these technologies? Everything seems tech-based, so why shouldn't someone build it, especially if it will help people/communities?

The latter part needs to be interrogated because we think technology will help a community or help people when it doesn’t work. It’s quite funny because somebody told me about how insurance companies are now saying that their technology for car monitoring will help fix potholes. And it’s like literally every three years; somebody comes up with a new pothole app, which they think will help people because they think reporting potholes to local governments will get the pothole fixed.

If you ask people what the problem is, they will tell you that the government knows about these potholes, but they don’t care enough to fix them. But you get these service delivery reporting apps just repeatedly, and similarly, get apps like talk to your local government. They are always based on the same ideas, they never interrogate the real problems, and they absorb a lot of time, money and absorb large amounts of community members’ time because of workshops. And they end up not helping anybody because they manage to arrange some press releases and a lot of media coverage.

After all, the media loves to cover tech, and they get a government press release. And so they get many people to download the app in the first week and say, look, we’ve got all these downloads, and then nobody ever uses the app again, and it dies. It happens repeatedly, and it absorbs a considerable amount of resources and time to work on more important things. 

You warn people about,' building technology for bad"? What is bad technology?

A lot of the time, funder and donor priorities can end up distorting technology. It’s not bad in the sense that it actively causes harm, that does happen, but often in the sense of you end up building and rebuilding things because you have a large staff budget that you need to justify to a donor. Or you have a donor that wants to see certain things or things that they can tweet about, even though it doesn’t serve a purpose. So instead of building an iterating technology for the real problem and making it work for the people who are using it, you end up building it for donors.

That leads to technology that nobody uses that everybody knows is a failure, but all the donors write in their reports was a success. I think to an extent,

Bad technology is the use of resources for things that don’t lead to much change in a period and in a time where the need for systemic change in the world is more than ever. So the more money that gets sunk into repeated apps that don’t serve a purpose.

Can you tell me about your research/project at MIT?

In the last few years, there’s been a lot of hype about AI [Artificial Intelligence] and machine learning. And a lot of it is excessive. Every start-up tries to say that it’s doing AI, and most of it’s just doing the linear regression model and nothing more. But beyond the hype, the capabilities that are being developed are interesting, useful, and have many possibilities.

It seems like such a big shift from USSD, SMS, WhatApp to AI. What is it that interested you about AI?

It’s still connected, for Grassroot; the idea was to take sophisticated technology and deliver it so that anybody could access it so that it could help them and make a change in the world around them. The fact that something is AI or machine learning doesn’t mean it will need a smartphone. It might be an AI machine learning model sitting at the back, helping to process text and help people understand the consequences of laws that could be delivered via WhatsApp, phone calls or other methods. It’s closer than it appears and I felt like there was a space for understanding what could be done with this technology, as somebody who understood how it worked and could code it and understands the governance problems and understands the real conditions under which technology gets used.

Interestingly, you are working on a project in AI, but you warn against people building their technology?

Yeah, well, that’s why this process is about figuring out the problem, so I’m experimenting now; this is that pre-process, about making sure you understand what the problem is and a fit between the problem and the technology. So both the governance lab and I are very open about the possible endpoint of this research. This is an exploration of what problems might be and if the technology fits. And if at the end of that, we decide not to build it, then we’re not going to make it.

Enabling access to equitable and affordable justice

Interview with Grace Gichanga, founder of Luma Law, a chatbot that provides legal information.

Luma Law is a justice chatbot that provides people with information on the law and their rights and effectively enforces those rights. The platform’s objective is to increase access to legal information that is simple, practical and user friendly. They hope to guide the user through the legal processes and procedures while saving them time and opportunity costs such as transport.

What does Civic Tech mean to you?

Civic tech is the ability to reduce inequality and exclusion by leveraging technology for good.

When we had you at our Civic Tech for Cities World Cafe last year, you had recently launched Luma Law. How has it been?

Well, the global pandemic has influenced the growth of Luma Law. Luma was supposed to launch on the 19th of March 2020, and we went live after the country went into lockdown. So we went through the motions of launching during Covid, but one of the best things about that was that everyone was at home. So, you know, when you’re launching a digital business or digital services platform, it couldn’t have been a better time to launch despite the circumstances.

What inspired you to start Luma Law?

The journey to Luma started in 2016, and at the time, I had no plans of building a digital business. I was doing workshops in various communities, just teaching people about their rights and what I realised was that people didn’t know the basics when it came to the law; they didn’t know what their rights were and how to enforce their rights. That, for me, was a big deal because I mean, this is all information that we take for granted as lawyers.

What would happen after the workshops, people would text me to ask for advice or just for the basic information because we forget that when people are going through these legal challenges, there’s so much emotion and trauma that comes with it that and not everybody wants to ask questions publicly or in a public forum so that everyone can know what’s going on in their lives. So I ended up having many people on my WhatsApp that I didn’t know, but these are the people who had attended my workshops.

I realised that the problem is not just a South African problem; access to justice is a global problem. I thought, “there must be a platform or an app for this problem, there must be a way that we can do this better, and then that’s how I just fell into the world of chatbots.” At first, I just came across basic chatbots, and the more research I did,  the more I realised that the world is at a place where automation and human capacities are working hand in hand. People are building a lot more intelligent chatbots using artificial intelligence and machine learning, and natural language processing largely so that a person can feel like they’re having a real conversation with a bot and simulate a human conversation.

Definitions: According to an article titled, Artificial Intelligence Explained in Simple Terms, artificial intelligence is using computers to do things that traditionally required human intelligence and machine learning is the application of AI. Natural language processing is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) that studies how machines understand human language.

What have been the responses from the community to Luma Law? Is it serving its purpose?

Since we launched last year, it’s been just over a year now. We’ve had around 19,000 people, who’ve interacted with the bot, asking the bot questions and receiving information from the bot, unfortunately, we’ve only been able to launch with labour law type of content. Sometimes people come on there, and they’re not able to find the responses they’re looking for, but I think from an information dissemination point of view, Luma is serving such a huge need.

The CCMA is one of the biggest institutions in our country that looks after workers’ rights, but they have closed their walk-in centres. So, where do people go when they’re looking for basic information when referring cases to the CCMA? Another example is with UIF, people could not leave their homes to go and apply, yet they still needed to apply for UIF to survive.

“We’ve been talking about 4IR [Fourth Industrial Revolution] for a while, but we haven’t prepared people for 4IR. We haven’t made their journey to accessing some of this service more seamless and enjoyable, and that’s what Luma seeks to do.”

We are serving to educate people, enable access to valuable information, treat people as people, and be mindful of the emotion that comes with being in a certain situation. Such as experiencing a legal problem and interacting with technology that’s supposed to get you started on your legal journey.

What have been your challenges or limitations that you faced in the making of your platform and since launching?

I always say challenges are an opportunity to learn. So the challenges have been a lot. I’m a non-technical founder, I’m a lawyer by profession, and I’ve entered into this world of tech. So there were challenges there in understanding the limits, I only had my imagination to go by, and that’s pretty limitless. Not being an expert in that space and the challenge of learning, expanding myself, and putting myself in uncomfortable places but being assertive enough to know that this is my season of learning. I have to be open to it.

Also, making sure that we use the right tech and just walking into rooms being a black female comes with its challenges. People underestimate you, and it’s just walking in there, dealing with people’s perceptions and mainly dealing with your imposter syndrome. The entrepreneurship journey is never an easy one, and there were many days where I’d ask myself, what did I get into? But it’s about overcoming many of your fears and assumptions that you have of your limitations. But in terms of the business, I think people don’t realise that AI and machine learning essentially is just human training and the technology to respond in the most human-like manner. And it’s just about finding the right skills of people to assist with that kind of training of the chatbot and be able to write content. Simplifying legal language ensures that everybody can understand basic legal principles.

What is the importance of a platform like Luma Law?

The world has experienced a whole shift, Covid for all its trauma that it has caused the world, but it has also forced us to look within ourselves and ask ourselves where we are at. I think the world realised that there is a big divide between the haves and have nots and the importance of technology such as Luma because it bridges that divide. It’s about building technology that is accessible to those who traditionally have been excluded from benefiting from technology.

AI is just a reflection of the person who’s built it; if people who create these technologies have traditionally excluded different races, cultures and creeds, that’s precisely the kind of technology that really should have going forward. So for platforms such as Luma, we are disseminating information that we believe is vital, we’re also creating a platform that’s more human and is inclusive. Creating a platform that is mindful of the circumstances that people find themselves in is important in building a more inclusive society, and that’s why we believe at Luma that’s the most important thing, and it’s one of our core foundational principles.

Who are your target users/who you did create this platform, and how do you engage with them?

We build Luma Law for everyone because people don’t realise how often they interact with the law.

There are so many life events where people interact with the law, and they don’t even realise it until they reach a point where something goes wrong. Luma is for everyday people, experiencing everyday life and where the law intersects with those daily experiences and possible challenges. 

We engage with our customers mainly via social media, because we believe that that’s where people are. We want to educate people because we don’t want people to find themselves at a disadvantage. After all, they didn’t understand their basic rights or didn’t know how to enforce those rights properly. It’s about interacting with you and your life in a very seamless way, the way we’re so used to waking up and the first thing you check is your social media. That’s how simple we want Luma to be; we want people to access legal information on the go, 24 hours a day, irrespective of where they are in the country. 

What do you wish you had known when you started? Or what advice would you give to a similar project starting?

Know who you’re building for, don’t build for yourself. I was lucky in that I fell into civic tech instead of starting in civic tech. I was trying to solve a problem that I had experienced from the communities that I engaged with.  And that’s the benefit that I had. I knew who I was building for, I knew the challenges that they faced, and I knew what their experiences were with the law traditionally. I knew what their experiences were when it comes to navigating your way online to find the information that is relevant to you.

How do you measure success/impact?

Measuring and impacting this space is one of the most challenging things because the metrics are intangible. So currently, we’re only able to assess whether or not a person has benefited from the information. Once they’ve been able to go through the entire bot and reach a point where they’ve read the information, we realise that human beings have very short attention spans, and no one wants to go through all the information to get the answer they need.

So that’s sort of how we are now building Luma phase two, where you have the option to go through the content on the bot, or you can come on here and ask your question, and once you’ve asked your question, Luma will ask the user for feedback, asking questions such as was the answer to your satisfaction or what do you think we could have done better? So that’s how we gauge how people are using and understanding the Luma platform. That’s another thing we’re learning from this space that there’s so much more that we can do with technology, machine learning and AI. You can gather how people are feeling just by how they write the kind of language they use and use all that analysis and all that data to build a product that is very mindful of the human experience.