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The Myths & Realities of Africa & Technology: Erik Hersman Explains

In this 9-minute video, Erik Hersman talks about his background. His parents were linguistic missionaries in southern Sudan, giving him access to computers before many around the world, despite living in Sudan and Kenya. He continues on this theme, showing that Africa is far more nuanced, and far more technology centric than we generally hear.

Erik Hersman is a widely respected technologist, blogger and commentator who specialises in the impact and application of technology throughout Africa. He is a Senior TED Fellow, a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow, and the co-founder of Ushahidi.

The Perception of Africa

Erik talks about Africa and his realisation that Africa is a place that things ‘happen to’ – and that that perception of Africa doesn’t happen to other places. He talks about the common perceptions of Africa as a place of safaris, champion runners, poverty, war, and corruption.

“The dysfunction of Africa has become a part of business folk memory that keeps western multinationals from doing anything.” – Paul Collier

He also talks about the much more nuanced reality of Africa, and the Africa that he knows. A place where technology companies are growing and thriving, and where mobile technology in particular is massively used.

Erik covers several technologies and technology trends all based out of Africa:

  • Mixit – a mobile phone chat tool that has three times the membership that Facebook has in Africa.

  • M-Pesa – a mobile money transfer service that transferred more than $8 billion in a single year.

  • “Out of all of the users of mobile payment, one in four comes from Kenya”

  • Movirtu – a tool for saving ‘sim cards in the cloud’, so that many users can share the same mobile phone.

  • mPedigree – an SMS tool for checking whether drugs and medicine are counterfeit.


Erik was one of the founders of Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing tool for quickly gathering crisis information, used during the Japanese Tsunami, and the Haiti Earthquake. His team’s basic realisation was that during a crisis there are always people who need ‘life or death’ information, and other people who have that information. They set about creating something that would communicate those key pieces of information in under 10 minutes.

The overarching goal for Ushahidi is to be a tool “for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.”

Reverse Distribution

Erik finishes by talking about ‘reverse distribution’, and changing the trend away from “things happen to Africa” to a place where ideas and technology begin and spread to the rest of the world.

Erik writes 2 blogs:

  • White African, his personal blog, where he talks about high-tech mobile & web technology.

  • AfriGadget, where he and a team of others talk about ‘low-tech ingenuity’ and microentrepreneurs in Africa.

You can follow Erik on twitter at @whiteafrican.

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