Five fast facts that seeded this blog:

Despite first impressions, this is not intended to be a sanctimonious doom and gloom blog! This is a blog about the power of using the rapidly-growing digital infrastructure of developing countries, making all this “big data” openly available and then using it to make real and sustainable improvements to the lives of real people around the world. It’s also intended to highlight how the “developing” world can teach the “developed” world about mobile innovations.

 Habitually, the 54 countries of Africa are lumped together with sweeping generalisations. For a land mass of 30.2 million km², with over 1 billion people, speaking more than 2,000 different languages, it’s helpful to be a little more specific. I’ve chosen to focus on Kenya: a country of 43 million people, 75% of whom have a mobile phone and are able to use it for tasks which many traditionally hi-tech countries have yet to implement, such as money transfers and bus fare payments!

 On reading the familiar acronym “WAG” most of us conjure up images of Posh’s pout, Colleen’s “modelling” poses and Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Tweedy’s hair extensions. Refreshingly, this is not the case everywhere. In Kenya, WAG stands for Water Action Group.

 Kenya’s 2002 Constitution gives all people the right to enough safe water and sanitation. As a result, consumers are beginning to demand better services and accountability, leading to the setting up of WAGs, made up of citizen volunteers and community leaders, to help resolve sometimes longstanding complaints regarding water provisions. To put these complaints in context:  Water storage, drought, flooding, vague water policies, corruption and lack of information transparency on access to water are some of the water-related problems that Kenyan citizens face. WASREB (The Water Services Regulatory Board in Kenya) piloted the WAGs initiatives and made two findings:

  1. There was need to scale up the initiative to cover the whole country
  2. A more efficient way of channelling complaints had to be found by exploiting electronic options

WASREB initially decided to introduce water and sanitation report cards which WAGS could distribute to individual citizens and allow them to rate the quality of the water services they were receiving. However, these report cards were time-consuming, often inaccurate and time-lagged.

          The solution?

          MajiVoice (“Water Voice”).

 MajiVoice provides a platform for two-way communications between citizens and water providers enabling citizens to submit real-time feedback on water service delivery using their mobile. This can be via SMS, an online website, or unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) – a service popular in Kenya that facilitates two-way mobile data exchange.  Citizens can now directly send complaints to the MajiVoice system. As soon as the consumer sends a complaint they get a reference number and can track the progress of the response to the complaint. The aim is to improve efficiency, accountability, responsiveness and transparency of urban water service providers in Kenya. All these ultimately lead to improved service delivery.

 MajiVoice is not Kenya’s only mobile water application. In March 2012, Kibera Community Elders, water suppliers and the Umande Trust launched M-Maji, a mobile application which helps someone locate the nearest water point in different areas in Kibera.

 You may have heard of Kibera, a slum area of 2.5 sq. Km in Nairobi, which is home to 800,000+ people. You might even have Googled Kibera (there’s now a wealth of information out there); however, three years ago, you wouldn’t have even been able to see a map of the area: just a blank space! In November 2009, local young people learned to create maps using OpenStreetMap techniques. Individuals from the growing Nairobi tech scene helped train and make connections with the larger community, and a sustainable group of map maintainers was created. It was the efforts of the Map Kibera project which enabled M-Maji to be built.

 Citizens who are searching for water initiate a USSD session with M-Maji, at which point they receive a location-relevant listing of local water vendors which have made notifications that day that they have water to sell, stating the price, location and date of last purification. Users are then given the option of re-sorting the listings by price, quality, vendor ratings, or location. If a water buyer subsequently finds out that a vendor misreported water information, the buyer can file a complaint with M-Maji via USSD. The database will keep track of complaints and alert future buyers of negative feedback via vendor ratings.

 By coordinating and centralising water data from multiple sources, MajiVoice and M-Maji are empowering citizens through sending, receiving and sharing better information. I believe this collaboration of open data, crowd-sourcing of knowledge and use of the rapidly-growing mobile infrastructure has a much more sustainable value than merely appealing for money once a humanitarian crisis (such as a cholera or typhoid outbreak) has already happened.

 I said this would not be a doom and gloom blog. Here’s an actuality demonstrating the true sustainable value-add of mobile technology: 

  • Today, a mother in the Kibera Slum in Kenya can report a non-functioning latrine in real-time to the local authorities, track her complaint and ensure this is logged in records for future improvements. In the meantime, she can use USSD on her mobile to locate the nearest safe water supply, receive accurate pricing and safety information and provide feedback for other consumers. 

*Harambee is the motto of Kenya. It is Swahili for “Let’s all pull together.”