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London’s Africa Gathering Explores Using Technology to Advance the Continent by Karen Merkel and Mazi Editors

In London, people are talking about Africa. And technology. While this may not seem unusual to some, bringing technophiles together with African development specialists is creating something of a buzz. Named Africa Gathering, this relaxed, non-industry confab of people who care about Africa and how technology might help move the continent forward, has gathered some steam. 

In April 2009, Africa Gathering brought together in London technophiles, thinkers, innovators and anyone else interested to talk about sustainable change in development, technology, social networking, health, education and good governance in Africa. Many were not Africans but all had ideas and opinions.
There was no public funding, no fine food or glossy conference packs and exhibitions, only exciting, worthwhile presentations. Resources from conference fees paid for some participants to fly from Africa to the United Kingdom. Conference attendees were people with values compatible to those of the CFSC Consortium. Many of the organisations at the Gathering were not-for-profits and/or social enterprises, and all of them with connections to Africa.

Before the London gathering in April 2009, organiser Ed Scotcher, shared his vision of the event—with a preference for openness and collective endeavour:

We have nearly 200 people attending of whom 18 or so will be involved in the day directly, giving presentations, running seminars or taking part in the panel discussion. Many of the speakers run successful organisations that are using technology to help improve the lives of others.  Some of the projects make innovative use of old technology, others are using brand new technology. However, the really interesting part will be hearing from imaginative thinkers and entrepreneurs who are passionate about developing and implementing sustainable ideas that bring affordable change for good where it’s needed--to those that need it the most.

Unlike many technology conferences, Africa Gathering isn’t about technology for technology’s sake. All of our contributors, and many of the guests, are people who have extensive knowledge of Africa and technology and really understand the power of combining the two. They understand that a good invention with no market, that no one wants, is flawed by design no matter who it is aimed to help. These are people who understand a problem and have invested their own time, effort and skill in clever ideas, products and causes.

Karen Merkel, a CFSC Consortium consultant, attended the April 2009 Africa Gathering in London and offers these observations:

The Gathering was great. It was full of new ideas and had a wonderful informal, non-competitive feeling. It was a solid ‘show and tell’ where lots of good questions where discussed. We had presentations across an enormous spectrum from the wonderful, digitally driven, ColaLife campaign to a session on land and ocean rights/ International Law/ownership of bandwidth.

Participants were open, positive, enthusiastic and energetic. Ed Scotcher clearly has a big impact on people he meets as so many people were there because of him. He also has a really good sense of what matters, and had prioritised attention and resources where it was needed. So we didn’t have food or swanky conference packs etc. but we did have amazing presentations, and from Africa too, and also all the audiovisual kit worked which was wonderful! 

In addition to Ed Scotcher, other presenters included:

  • Mark Simpkins - Geekyoto Global Briefings
  • Tim Unwin - ICT4D collective and UNESCO ICT4D Chair
  • David Hollow - ICT4D Collective / RHUL
  • Ken Banks - / FrontlineSMS
  • Nigel Waller - &A
  • Sian Townsend - Google
  • Niall Winters and Kevin Walker - London Knowledge Lab
  • Alex Petroff - Working Villages International
  • Simon Berry -

Below is an example of work presented at the gathering:

Let's Talk to Coca Cola About Saving Children's Lives

ColaLife is a campaign to persuade Coca-Cola to open up its distribution channels in developing countries in order to save children’s lives by carrying much needed “social products” such as oral rehydration salts and high-dose vitamin A tablets. ColaLife is not an organisation; it is an independent and purely voluntary movement backed by thousands of supporters on its Facebook group page. It was launched by Simon Berry, who had the idea while working on a British Aid programme in 1988.

Berry wrote, “Our idea is that Coca Cola use its distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to distribute ‘social products’ such as oral rehydration salts to the people who need them desperately. This could be done by incorporating an ‘aidpod’ into Coca-Cola crates.”

Since floating the idea on his blog in May 2008, Berry has managed to create a huge community around the campaign, through a Facebook group and appearances on BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme. He is now in discussions with Coca-Cola and is looking to engage with an international NGO to move the project forward.

An hour or so after the presentation to Africa Gathering, Coca-Cola confirmed its commitment to trials on the BBC’s iPM programme on Radio 4.

ColaLife is worth looking at as a model of successful communication for social change; it is an inspirational way to use the web and social networking and it has been successful. There are excellent lessons to learn from the campaign’s success. Simon Berry is accessible, humble and passionate about his cause, that is, curbing child mortality in Tanzania.

The next Africa Gatherings will be in London, October 9-10, 2009, and in Nairobi, Kenya, December 21-22, 2009. See Useful Links for more detail on Africa Gathering events and descriptions of several projects that are simpatico with CFSC approaches.

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