Mobile apps tackle climate change in Africa [Interview Jon Gosier]

Today we had a chance to catch up with Jon Gosier, the founder of Appfrica and HiveColab in Kampala, Uganda. This time we wanted to talk a new project coming online Apps4Africa.

Can you tell us about Apps4Africa?

Apps4Africa was the product of the brainstorming of Elana Berkowitz and Joshua Goldstein in early 2010, they wanted to hold a contest that found a way to leverage technology and engage regional innovators. Josh had worked with Appfrica in 2008 and 2009 and made the suggestion that Appfrica get involved. A group called SodNet (InfoNet) in Kenya was also a key player in making the 2010 Civic Challenge happen.

For 2011 we (Appfrica) leapt at the chance of being involved again, and we had a lot of lessons learned from the previous year to build upon. The Apps4Africa: Climate Challenge builds on the success of the 2010 Apps4Africa: Civic Challenge in which civil society challenged program developers to find innovative technological solutions to everyday problems on issues ranging from transparency and governance to health and education. The 2011 competition begins in Western and Central Africa in October, with Eastern and Southern Africa to follow shortly thereafter.

What are some of the highlights from last year’s competition?

There were many outstanding entrants last year, but the launch and subsequent success of iCow was the height for me. Su Kahumbu and her team developed an easy to use, easy to deploy, simple solution that solves a real problem for farmers. So for me it made the whole thing worth while to see them find so much success.

Another highlight was the brainstorming sessions we held last year. We wanted to make sure that people were aware that the contest was going on, and we wanted to try to help them identify solvable problems that were really affecting society. I think this helped to generate ideas and encourage participation.

How is this year different?

Well the first year was called the Civic Challenge because it focused on problems that affected society and engaged leaders who had influence in that area. This year we’re focusing on climate change because it’s timely with COP17 coming up, but also because it’s an area that’s often overlooked. International leaders often decide upon policies with out consulting the people they affect. In a democracy, one can assume that the people have spoken by electing the leaders who make decisions for them. However, in places like emerging countries where democracy is young or stressed, that assumption seems out of place.

This is an opportunity to promote not just the problems people are having, but the potential solutions.

Why the focus on Climate Change?

As discussed, we want to make sure no one can say that there aren’t efforts being made by Africans to address their own problems, to offer opportunities to help them gain attention, and to reward them for their efforts.

Why the focus on mobile apps?

There’s actually no singular focus on mobile apps. Any software application can be entered as long as it attempts to solve a problem related to climate change. This is because technologists often focus on solving problems that appeal to other technologists. So while we want to reward local innovators, we want them to perhaps rethink where they are applying there skills.

Can you give us some examples of apps that are making a difference in this space?

I can’t really because I’m sure a number of the ideas I have will be submitted by participants. But I can say that it isn’t about technical sophistication, it’s about attempting to get people to change their behavior. If you know more about how you are affecting your environment, or how your environment is being affected by others, you can leverrage that as an opportunity to try to change the things that need to be changed.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for more climate change related apps coming into the space?

I generally don’t think a lot of the local public are even aware that climate change is an issue. To them, they see the rainy seasons lasting longer, or they see more droughts, or migrations being disrupted. They may not know the cause, but they see the changes. We want to make sure they have access to tools to make up their own minds about what the causes are and what can be done about it.

Can you talk about the countries being targeted and the environmental issues being targeted?

Apps4Africa is open to 75% of the continent. We wanted to 100% but the resources we have available would have been spread too thin.

Current residents of Africa should enter the appropriate region for their country (East Africa, West Africa/Central, Southern Africa). If you are unsure where your country falls here is a list: West/Central Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone East Africa: Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda Southern Africa: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Any non-residents can sign up as Mentors, join the team of a resident or just submit ideas. Oh, and for the record we started in West Africa specifically because I got a few emails last year from West Africans who felt all the cool stuff happens in East Africa. So thanks for those emails, guys!

What do you hope to achieve with the competition?

My personal mission for Apps4Africa is in the title. Rewarding and encouraging African technologists who want to do what they can to improve their societies.

What role can VC4Africa play in this process?

All the entries as well as the winners will be posted on the website soon. I’d encourage anyone (especially investors) who shares our vision for encouraging this type of innovation to reach out to the teams directly to find out how best to support them.

Great stuff Jon. We look forward to following the competitions progress and to supporting the entrepreneurs as they work to scale their ideas!