It smells like coffee in here, *at least for now*

The issue of Internet regulation is bittersweet
for me.
Why are calls to regulate the Internet growing
loud these days? The first people to drink
coffee did so under no one’s regulations. But
when coffee started spreading across the
breadth and length of the world, an endless
list of players ranging from researchers, traders,
capitalists and industrialists jumped in to
regulate coffee. Before we know it, demonstrators
are up in arms against the police at
the WTO meetings over coffee grievances. No
wonder why our grandmas are saying today’s
coffee no longer taste and smell the same as
the ones produced earlier.
In the same vein, if the current discourse on internet
regulation is not handled systematically,
then a couple of years into the future we will
have a case of netizens complaining about the
net ‘losing its flavour’. I find it funny to imagine
that decades later, we might have digital
activists standing alongside coffee growers
and consumers at the WTO, demanding the
return of their original flavours for drinking –
and surfing!
The Internet is still young, less than 20 years
old. In many African countries, it is less than
a decade old. Zimbabwe is currently emerging
from a decade-long economic meltdown
the highlight of which was a world record inflation
rate of 13.5 billion percent. Infrastructure
development or rehabilitation of the telecom
sector as well as providing web technology
training and services to consumers supersedes
the need to regulate or take control
over users’ activities online.
If the US congress had thrown Mark Elliot
Zuckerberg an internet red book, I don’t think
he could have come up with Facebook (and
the same applies to other web app developers).
Governments in developing countries
should leave students and youths to experiment
with their ideas without much regulation.
We want our African university and college
campuses to produce Afro-centric solutions
and platforms for furthering development in
our continent. For that to happen, the current
criticism of Internet regulation needs to persist.
If changes are to be made, then it must
only be deregulation of already existing rules
that are stifling internet development.
Internet regulation can be visualized in capitalist
democracies, where dissent is possible
– in case government tightens the strings too
much – and also receives institutionalized support.
In oppressive African states, the idea of
internet regulation will be used as an excuse
by dictators to abuse, suppress and victimize
people – bloggers, political commentaries,
critics, media and citizen journalists and activists.
Isn’t it time to let the Internet graduate, from
maybe its adolescent stage to adulthood?
Haven’t we listened to the other voices shouting
“Let the Internet self-regulate”? As soon as
this Internet baby made its first birth cry across
several African nations, we are in a hurry to
strangle its voice. Do we ever think of ‘regulating’
a baby? Do we ‘govern’ a child, or guide
it, is the tough question that both the government
and citizens need to discuss.

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ForgetMeNot Africa offers free SMS service to Econet numbers

No sooner had we posted the article (and our thoughts) on Free SMS Zimbabwe yesterday than we got pointed to a free SMS service by ForgetMeNot Africa (FMNA). The service is called Dasuba. It’s still in Beta for now but it’s available to anyone with access to the web. Just go to www.dasuba.com to give it a try. Currently though, you can only send messages to the Econet mobile network.

The concept is somewhat similar to the eTXT service FMNA already has on the Econet network. In fact, it probably runs on the same core system. It is completely free sending text messages to mobile phones; it’s the recipient of the SMS who, when they reply, they are charged their regular local SMS fee by the mobile operator (7 cents Zimbabwe’s case).

Like eTXT, registration is quick and painless. Adding SMS contacts is also very straightforward and has some checks to restrict SMS spam. So, we loved it. It’s one of those services you can easily dedicate a web browser tab to, so you can have all day free SMS access to your contacts.

First Barcamp

James Mlambo

History was made on 03 August 2011 at the beautifully Harare sports club when Zimbabwe first ever barcamp was held. To add icing on the cake, a startup challenge where entrepreneurs with innovative web and mobile products showcased their stuff in a challenge bankrolled to the tune of $25000 by Zimbabwe Online (ZOL).

It was clearly evident at the barcamp that Zimbabwe indeed has got lots of talent. Anyone who thought Zimbabwe techies are sleeping  on their laurels has been proven wrong. At the start of the barcamp speaker after speaker spoke flowery about how Kenya has become the ICT hub in Africa. However as the barcamp reached fever peak one speaker  politely derided participants to stop talking about Kenya and instead speak on what we as Zimbabweans can do to emerge as another ICT hub. Soon after, the startup challenge started. Patrons at the Keg and Maiden bar at first mistook us as some visiting Google geeks brainstorming just because participants in the startup challenge were full of energy as they proffered Zimbabwean solutions to Zimbabweans problems. It was a marvel to watch youths and young adults make their pitches. Every participant in the challenge sprung a surprise. Participants had interesting products ranging from sms telephone directory to virtually desktops, low cost rural broadband to 3D modeling softwares.

One aspect that marveled me was the presence of Zimbabweans who once lived in the diaspora. The physical presence of former diasporas added sparkle to the barcamp. What is currently happening in Zimbabwe is a phase which has already elapsed in some countries in America, Europe and Asia and so the former diasporians really added immense significance and impetus to the barcamp. In addition former diasporia  voice is required to some issues that will soon emerge in the country such as identity theft, hacking, internet governance, M4D etc.  One diasporians spoke at length on how to make money online. This is one issue that daunts many Zimbabweans in the country. He gave many interesting exhaustive examples of Zimbabweans in the diaspora making big buck online. Any resident Zimbabwean with internet access who heard or could have heard this former diasporian speak might stop wasting bandwidth using facebook and do other stuff online to make money.

I just pray that such initiatives as the barcamp continue. It was really a perfect start for the country to become an ICT hub in the region. A big thank you to both the organizers and sponsors. You really mean ACTION. Barcamp + Startup challenge really showed that the organizers really mean business. The first barcamp was not reduced to a mere talkshop.

Reading Culture and blogs

Blogging is one example of a web 2.0 tool being touted as a new technology that can be used to effect social change. However people in Zimbabwe trying to use this technology to bring about social change face a number of challenges in attempting to utilize blogs to mobilize people for a cause.
A close examination of some Zimbabwean blogs showed me that very few people are taking time to visit blogs. This is evidenced by the paucity or sheer absence of lively comments. In addition some few bloggers I contacted admitted that they are not receiving so much hits on their blogs.
A director of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair once said ‘Zimbabweans don’t have a reading culture’. This Director came to this conclusion after a paltry number of visitors attended the book fair. In fact the few visitors that attended the book fair where for business purposes.
Whilst another incredible body of evidence that suggest there is no reading culture in Zimbabwe is found in the countries libraries and bookstores. At some libraries I once visited very few people take time to read books on literary work such as novels. The situation is the same in the countries bookstores as there is a visible absence of books on liberal arts. This is because very few people are interested in such kinds of books.
I am not saying that Zimbabweans don’t read. Zimbabweans do read, but they mostly read school or college textbooks so that they pass their courses. In fact Zimbabwe has the largest literacy rate in Africa. But after completing school many people don’t read much. Statistics’ on this matter are not available but its an undeniable fact that very few people go to the bookstore to buy a book, Very few people read stories to their children. Very few people who have completed their studies go to the library,
This lack of interest in reading liberal works in the ‘paper world’ has persisted to the digital sphere. This is why a few web users visits blogs. On the other hand bloggers have become weary as evidenced by blogs that go for months without being updated.
So people working to use blogging in Zimbabwe as a means to effect social change are faced with a myriad two pronged task. First to cultivate a reading culture and secondly, to mobilize people using such platforms on their cause.

Is ICT accelerating extinction of our local languages

Our local languages are facing extinction in Zimbabwe. Our educational, political, ICT policies have promoted English to a high status. In academia if one fails English that person cannot proceed with his studies until he passes English. Even if one fails English but passes all other subjects including his native language subject, a student cannot proceed to a higher level.
Now as internet technologies spread English language is emerging as the hegemony online. There is no meaningful material online written in our major local languages. Our local languages are now only evoked to make jokes and satirical writings on facebook . Whilst I can type close to fifty words per minute in English I can hardly type 15 words in Shona or in any of our local languages. Because of the strict regard for English in the country I make every effort to try to understand how to speak, read or write it. This means sacrificing my vernacular language to do everything to learn English as without it I cannot proceed further. Today I tried reading my nephew vernacular setbook but I abandoned the book after realizing that after thirty minutes non stop reading I was still on page seven. What makes my vernacular language hard to read or write but simple to speak? Its easier for me to write a blog post in English than in my local language. I can read close to hundred English webpages per day but cannot read more than fifteen pages of information written in my vernacular language in a day. What are the reasons?
About two years ago Google started offering some of its search services in three of Zimbabwe popular languages namely Shona, Ndebele and Chichewa. However I must admit that I do not access Google in my native language even if it if offered by Google. My first switch to Google in Shona (patois) only lasted five minute.