The image the world has of South Sudan is one of war, but the youth of the world’s youngest country are determined to create a different reality.
In the capital Juba and other towns, a growing number of young people are overcoming the effects of years of conflict that cost their parents and grandparents their future. They have chosen media they are comfortable in: technology and innovation.
Tech hubs and online initiatives have sprung up to tackle the everyday problems young people and their families face. They are targeting a range of issues from the environmental crisis, providing alternative modes of fuel delivery to their villages, mitigating fake news and misinformation, to opening up the digital world to girls by teaching them vital skills.
In God’s premises
Koneta Hub, which describes itself as “a youth-led organisation that is focused on providing community-led solutions to the socioeconomic issues affecting our society,” provides free training to youth. Unusually, its offices are located in the compound of a church, whose congregation make up the bulk of its clients. Koneta focuses mostly on health, education and peacebuilding.
The force behind Koneta is the executive director, Denaya Dennis, the 33-year-old ICT specialist who has always been passionate about technology. His ideas and projects focus on building the capacity of young people. He offers free courses to high school graduates, university students and jobless youth facing hard economic times.
“Our programme mostly targets youth, but we have realised that there is a huge gap. The coronavirus-induced lockdown meant that our church was closed and people could not connect through in-person meetings. They did not have the necessary skills to connect online and listen to sermons, like other churches in different parts of the world,” Denaya said.
People lost their jobs and many others lacked the resources to invest in digital equipment and be connected to the world.
Koneta started by training church leaders on how to use digital tools. They gained skills in engaging online, and even started hosting meetings virtually using Zoom and other platforms.
“We also have trainings specifically for women. We know they need the skills and we have special packages for them, like digital storytelling using photography. We started with 15 young women.
Now we have different interest groups, each receiving different packages to enable them to build their capacities,” the director added.
The initiative has a stem project that encourages students preparing to join university to become developers and study science courses. There are activities in health and programmes that specialise in producing energy-saving stoves. Students also learn to recycle waste and make briquettes to mitigate the impact of climate change, thus improving people’s health and the environment as well.
“There is a lot of waste here,” Denaya said, “so we can make use of it to make briquettes, which serve as a substitute for charcoal. This saves the trees that would have been cut down to make the charcoal. We produce briquettes from recycled materials and use them in energy-saving stoves, which we also make.
You can cook using a briquette and not think about charcoal and burning trees.
We also know that smoke from wood fire is not good for our health.” Koneta has partnered with Afri-Labs, a network of innovators and hubs in Africa that focuses on capacity building for innovation hubs. Denaya’s initiative is one of the beneficiaries of the activities that Afri-Labs focuses on in South Sudan.
Denaya also works with peers from the East African region to sell electronic goods and other items online. It has also created a healthy competition with other East African tech hubs, which has led to the development of solutions unique to South Sudan’s conditions.
The mobile platform has drawn innovative hands working on such solutions. The country’s first mobile money platform was launched last year. Online taxi-hailing application Shilu-Ana, literally meaning “take me,” is one of the new ventures.
Still, youth who acquire tech skills at places like Koneta find opportunities limited, and many often end up working for non-governmental organisations, and not in technology.
“South Sudan started at a very high speed 10 years ago. We had a lot of money and, even though the economy was good, almost everyone was reluctant. Then things happened,” Denaya lamented.
War, fake news and fact-checking
In South Sudan, like in most of Africa, most social media users live in urban areas. The multiple wars and conflicts the country has suffered have spawned a lot of fake news. Several online platforms have sprung up with the aim of countering the false information.
211Check is one such platform. The fact-checking project started in 2019 and its growth picked up with the outbreak of Covid-19. It strives to verify information about South Sudan on various social media platforms. It has become popular with youth interested in building a career in that field and has received many online applications for the courses it offers.
211Check verifies information using reliable sources and official government statements. The platform trains bloggers, journalists, media activists and community workers to better their capacity and raise their awareness about the danger of fake news and misinformation.
Emmanuel Bida Thomas, managing editor, says the platform has trained almost 1,000 youth from different fields.
The journalist says that as conflicts and wars die down, the digital space is growing. Many hubs are trying to engage the youth and influence them to build a life for themselves by harnessing the possibilities offered by new technology.
Currently, South Sudan is trying to digitise many of its services. It is aiming to catch up with regional partners in instituting digital tax payments, and several other projects around government services are planned.
Ironically, war might be fuelling digital growth. Many people in war zones who were cut off because of the fighting are now more motivated to embrace digital tools and are joining social media to reconnect with a world from which they had been cut.
The number of internet users in South Sudan is low, with some estimates putting it at 900,000 as at January 2021, in a country of 11 million people. Young innovators see that to mean there is a lot of room for growth and space for new offerings.
Nelson Kwaje, 30, is the chairman of #defyhatenow South Sudan. The platform describes itself as an initiative that “works on providing community-based and data-driven solutions to the problem of hate speech, disinformation and misinformation”.
Kwaje is also one of the founders of Scenius Hub, a youth tech innovation hub based in Juba.
“I am passionate about youth, transformation and technology. I have been in this technology stuff for the past seven years in Kenya, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and here in South Sudan. Mostly, I have been involved in setting up the ecosystem here, founding the internet governance forum, and I am a member of the international society,” he said.
Battling cyber criminals
The #defyhatenow umbrella has a community of poets, musicians, artists, and other talents who gather at the centre to practise their trades. Many people come to record podcasts, music and vlogs. Recording and making videos are the most common activities young people engage in at the hub, and reflect an interesting and important form of expression.
Kwaje, who also teaches tech classes, is the founder of the South Sudan Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which has been credited for shaping ICT development in the country.
Cyber criminals have also forced a creative response. Safety Comm is a cybersecurity platform that helps people recover their hacked accounts. It is the go-to place for victims of digital crimes such as impersonation.
Ariik Robert, the man behind Safety Comm, had always wanted to work in cyber safety and help people. He looks up to Kwaje and considers him his mentor. He recalls that he and Kwaje brainstormed on the idea that later gave birth to the cybersecurity firm. It is now a success and has helped many people to recover their hacked social media accounts.
“Security is paramount. We make sure we give people tips on cyber hygiene and our services guide them to improve their understanding of cyber safety,” Ariik explained.
He added that the biggest danger to social media users is impersonation and identity theft, saying numerous people have fallen victim.
The cybersecurity programme on Safety Comm is in partnership with the National Communication Authority and international partners, who are also trying to increase internet speeds to give it a wider outreach.
In its 10 years of their country’s independence, South Sudan’s women have been fighting to hold their own in building capacity in the digital space.
Girls are struggling to overcome traditional norms and bad cultural practices that work against them. They are discovering a world that has the potential to change the narrative in their communities and show that girls can transform the world through digital know-how.
Yine Yanke and her colleagues at Go- Girls ICT Initiative had been working in the digital sector for six years for the community and girls in particular, when their work came to the attention of a public university.
The University of Juba requested that girls from the College of Computer Science & Information Technology get together with those the organisation was mentoring to celebrate the International Girls in ICT Day in 2015. The university and secondary school students got to learn more about the importance of ICT.
“Because of the very low number of girls studying these courses, poor participation in classroom activities, and poor performance, we felt the need to change this narrative. This led to the birth of GoGirls ICT Initiative in 2015. Together with other women in the fields of computer science, information systems, hacktivism, and peacebuilding, we created the not-for-profit initiative,” Yine explained.
The initiative aimed to engage, educate, and empower girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, with an integration of the arts. The girls assumed the mantle of drivers of problem solving, as they confronted the challenges facing their communities. The 10 female members GoGirls provide schoolgirls with the requisite knowledge in the digital space.
“Our activities cut across all levels of education, technology, and gender. That alone has given us an upper hand in pitching our different approaches to solving challenges in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) from a gender perspective to both the public and private sectors,” Yine said.
In recognition of the work the team was doing, the co-founder was this year appointed a member of the board of the National Communication Authority in South Sudan. To its founders, this is an acknowledgment that GoGirls’ various activities have had a national impact.
The initiative continues to advocate the inclusion of girls and women in tech as a catalyst for economic development.
Most tech hubs and initiatives face common challenges. Top on the list is lack of sponsorship and financial resources to set up programmes. Those that survive the initial stages find it difficult to grow.
Another problem is getting skilled manpower to manage the initiatives.
Most startups have difficulty sourcing the right talent and cannot compete with established private sector entities and international NGOs, which snap up tech workers and can afford them.
However, looking at the tech field in South Sudan, it is clear that the new initiatives have not allowed these problems to keep them down.
Additional reporting by Diing Magot