"Technology can boost efficiency"
Following your nomination by the German-African Business Association, you will be awarded the German Africa Prize this coming autumn. Congratulations!
Thank you. The nomination was a complete surprise and it means a lot to me that I was chosen for this prize. It’s very prestigious and I feel very honoured. It also honours the people that I’ve worked with over the years. Most companies are not successful because of the work of just one individual. It honours all of the organisations that I have been involved with and the ones that I am involved with now. And it honours Kenya as an African country that’s really trying to push forward to a future where we have more opportunities for young people. I feel privileged and honoured on many levels. As a Kenyan, as an African, and as a woman in technology. I always thought of myself as a bit of a nerd; I wasn’t very cool in high school, sitting in the library all the time. This prize also honours the nerds and I am very grateful for that.
In 2007, you co-founded the open-source platform Ushahidi with the goal of revolutionising the worldwide flow of information. What does this mean in concrete terms?
The word “Ushahidi” means “witness” or “testimony” in Swahili. Our idea was to enable people to inform each other about what’s going on in their countries. It’s a technology platform with open- source software that allows for information to be gathered from SMS, email, the web and even social media, putting it all together into a map so that you can see what’s going on where, almost in real time. But that’s just one of the platforms. Ushahidi itself is an organisation for innovation. It creates various open-source tools like the one I just mentioned. Ushahidi as a company was important in setting the foundation for innovation in Kenya by spinning out iHub.
What influence does Ushahidi have on current events like elections, for example?
About ten years ago, the voice of people on the ground was not necessarily included when making decisions. That’s because, on the whole, the flow of information is unilateral and top-down. Ushahidi includes everyone in the information flow. There’s a lot of people with mobile phones and, given a channel for them to express themselves, they can share what’s going on, what they’re going through and what’s happening in or around elections or in times of crisis. One of the most interesting uses of the Ushahidi platform was around the elections held in Nigeria. There is a website called reclaimnaija.net, and non-governmental institutions and civic organisations used the platform and conducted some really fantastic civic education. People knew when they went to a polling station if the polling station was not open on time, or if there was something wrong with the materials being handed out there. In essence, users could give a heads-up to the authorities that something was going wrong, and that they would need the intervention of these authorities to sort it out. Ushahidi was used in similar ways in Zambia, Panama and countless other countries that use the platform. Nevertheless, technology is not the only thing that makes elections work. You need institutions and organisations that leverage and use this technology so as to create a flow of information and encourage people to feel that the process is indeed responsive to their needs.
You just mentioned Panama – can Ushahidi be used outside the African continent?
It’s a global platform that’s being used all over the world. It started out in Kenya and is now used in over 150 countries. We made it open source, so it’s accessible. We were obsessed with the reach and with localisation. We used translation tools to make sure Ushahidi was available not only in English; today, it’s available in 38 languages.
In addition to Ushahidi, you also co-founded BRCK Inc. What does BRCK do?
When we started out, we were developing a way to stay online with resilience because we were very dependent on the Internet. We had lots of power cuts in Kenya in around 2012, but things have improved greatly since then. Today, we not only create resilient routers for challenging environments, we’re also developing education kits for providing content to schools in tough-to-reach areas. Most recently, we started working on providing Wi-Fi hotspots all around Africa. Since February 2019, BRCK has been the largest public wireless LAN provider in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In your opinion, what does IT have to do with sustainable development? And how can Kenya and other African countries use modern technologies to make economic progress?
We’re still on this journey. As I mentioned, technology alone is not the key to making progress. It requires people and organisations that use technology in a way that benefits society. If we look at sustainability in terms of economic wellbeing and growth, it’s important to think about the role that technology can play to make things more efficient. The engine of most economies is small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In Germany, a lot of the growth in the economy is driven by SMEs. This is an important lesson for Kenya and other African countries.
M-Pesa and many other African tech inventions have come from Kenya. What has made Kenya the hotspot of the African IT scene?
Kenya has a lot of people with strong entrepreneurial drive. People here are very hardworking and innovative. We have a culture of entrepreneurship. We value innovation and try to create a productive environment. In addition, we’re always networked with the rest of the world. A lot of the innovations like M-Pesa took place about ten years ago, which is no coincidence; around the same time, fibre-optic cables were installed in Kenya, which made a huge difference.
In Germany, the IT scene is still largely dominated by men. How did you get to be an IT pioneer?
When I was growing up here in Kenya, I went to a high school that had a computer science lab, the first of its kind in the country. It was so encouraging because I was 12 or 13 years old and I didn’t have access to a computer at home, but I was able to use a computer at school. It’s really encouraging that most schools today are part of the government’s digital literacy program, which promotes the uptake of technology early on. It’s also encouraging to see a company like Safaricom, which has a program on women in technology. For women in technology to thrive, it’s important to create social environments that are inclusive.
After graduating high school, you studied computer science in the United States. You worked in a UN expert commission, are a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts and Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Where do you consider your home?
Definitely Kenya. I live in Nairobi, and am working on start-up number four right now. We’re creating a platform to help SMEs, and I am very eager to talk about this to investors when I come to Berlin this autumn.
Juliana Rotich is a Kenyan technology entrepreneur and board member of both start-ups and mature companies. She co-founded Ushahidi, which develops web tools for crowd- sourcing crisis information, and BRCK, a hardware company, and sits on the board of Kenya Vision 2030, the Lemelson Foundation and other organisations. She has a degree in information technology from the University of Missouri, and was the head of the East Africa Country Cluster for the German chemical company BASF till the end of 2018. In 2011, Rotich was named Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year in Africa by the World Economic Forum.
Since 1993, the German Africa Prize has honoured outstanding personalities who are committed to promoting democracy, peace, human rights, art and culture, the social market economy and social concerns on the African continent. The winners are selected by an independent jury. The prize is intended to reflect a nuanced image of Africa and to stimulate further discussion with the continent and its people.
Interview in the aw-magazine 2019/3