Wed, Sep 25, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Grassroot revolution in West Africa led by ‘factivists,’ NGOs and innovators

Ghana is said to be one of the ‘lions’ of sub-Saharan Africa with the discovery of offshore oil, but the excitement is in the creation of a civil society demanding openness and democracy

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer, Accra

Over the course of a few days in Ghana we have met a lot of these people, heroically trying to piece together data that might hold governments and corporations to account, to follow in detail the millions that come in from mining concessions and donor organizations and to discover exactly where the money goes. Some are representatives of organizations such as Revenue Watch, who have been at this for a long time. Some are individuals such as Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, a professor at the University of Accra,who sees progress in the fact that this year the ruling party asked for his analysis and data in advance.

Some, like Imani, are smart think tanks, and some are old-fashioned muck-raking journalists. If the transparency revolution has a Che Guevara figure in Ghana it is Anas, an undercover reporter who keeps his identity a close-guarded secret as he works to expose corruption in business and public service. He is one of the few contemporary journalists whose legend and exploits are retold by local rappers. In a recent interview he described his anti-corruption mission as a war.

“Corruption must be engaged in direct and full-frontal attack,” he said. “Institutions in Africa and other developing countries are not well developed... It’s a challenge. However, we are all on board developing this country — or, better, this continent.”

If Anas is the military wing of this engagement then its most effective secret weapon is technology. After the visit to the hospital, the ONE delegation pitches up at a “tech hub” called Meltwater. A privately funded incubator of digital start-ups, the Silicon Valley of Accra, which offers 20 places a year for budding tech entrepreneurs from more than 1,000 applicants. Gathered together at the institute for the afternoon are many of the young tech entrepreneurs who are already transforming the country’s digital economy, developing platforms that understand the local market.

As one delegate says, “we are not going to see the next Twitter or Facebook come from here, but we are going to see African versions of those things.”

The exciting part for factivists is that a lot of these apps and ideas serve to connect and inform and provide smart services in a myriad number of ways, empowering those not used to being able to control elements of their lives. Bright Simons, for example, is the founder of Pedigree, an app that allows patients to verify the authenticity of drugs, invaluable in countries where there might be 20 generic options, allowing a “smart regulatory system” and saving lives through the reduction in circulation of fake and substandard medicines.

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