African Youth, Technology and the Diaspora: An Interview with TMS Ruge

Apr 16, 2012 at 11:09 pm Leave a comment

This post originally appeared on the Building Markets (formerly Peace Dividend Trust) blog on October 19, 2011.

TMS Ruge was born in Masindi, Uganda and grew up in Uganda, Kenya and the United States. Capitalizing on his understanding of different cultures and markets, Ruge has become a successful global social entrepreneur and respected thought leader in social media, technology, and development in Africa. In 2007, he cofounded Project Diaspora, an online platform for mobilizing, engaging and motivating members of Africa Diaspora to engage in matters important to the continent’s development. A technology enthusiast, Ruge writes and speaks extensively on Africa’s current renaissance driven by technology, youth and the Diaspora.

We were lucky enough to run into TMS at a recent event and successfully convinced him to do an interview with PDT. Here, he talks about why he sees promise in African youth and how, coupled with technology and the Diaspora, they will change the future of Africa.

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PDT: This is Morgan from Peace Dividend Trust. I’m here with TMS Ruge or Teddy Ruge, who is the co-founder of Project Diaspora, founder of Villages in Action, host of the Digital Continent Podcast and most recently the consultant for the World Bank’s Connect4Climate campaign. And that list doesn’t even begin to cover everything that you do, which is pretty impressive. So first of all, thank you for speaking with me, I know you’re pretty busy.

TMS: Not a problem. My pleasure to be on with you, Morgan.

PDT: You describe yourself as most interested in social media, mobile technologies and youth movements. But I just want to kind of rewind a bit and go way back and understand how you first became interested in these topics. You were born in Uganda, raised in Kenya and then went to University in Texas. Could you give a brief overview of how you ended up in Texas, how you chose to study Communication Design and how your experiences growing up in Africa influenced your interest in technology, social media, etc?

TMS: That’s a very long question.

PDT: I know. Bullet points.

Photo: TMS Ruge

TMS: Well, you covered most of it. I grew up in Uganda and then spent two years in Kenya before moving to Texas. My dad was in Texas already so more or less, it was just moving with family. I did my lower-grade education and then I moved up to University at the University of North Texas. I guess that’s where the background for communication kind of started. I majored in Communication Design. I did some advertising for a while before I really started getting into the blogging scene right around 2007. This was I think before Facebook became really, really big.

And I guess I kind of grew up with that whole social media thing, because at the time I was really just blogging about Diaspora, the African Diaspora, investigating what members of the Diaspora were doing on the continent. I really wasn’t interested in having a career in advertising as it were. I was passionate about the continent. I knew that’s where my future was, that’s where I wanted to participate. Through the blogging and attending of conferences and speaking engagements and those kinds of things, it evolved as Twitter came about right around 2008. I picked that up actually at a conference in South Africa in 2008. You kind of join in because it’s the new tool to use to engage and propagate the messages that you are learning at these conferences.

And it’s kind of grown from there to really be a way for me and Project Diaspora, as well as other organizations, to be able to discover their peers. Social media has been really great for discovery of other members of the Diaspora and collaboration with them over projects that have to do with the continent. Some members of the Diaspora I haven’t even met yet. And that’s the beauty of it. Without social media I probably would have never met them, or actually heard about their projects or discussed their projects or debated issues that were pertinent to the continent. So it’s increasing our participation with the continent, our connection with the continent, our connection with family, friends and colleagues on the continent for those of us who don’t have an opportunity to travel. And it’s tightening that bond for those that don’t travel quite as often to the continent.

PDT: And is that the goal that you see for Project Diaspora?

TMS: Well, Project Diaspora is evolving. It really started out as a way to engage in the conversation outside of anything else that was available at the time, to really talk about what members of the Diaspora were doing. But we’re in the midst of transitioning that to something else. Can’t really talk about it. Maybe we’ll have another show, and I can tell you about what’s cooking behind the scenes.

Through that connection and having the Web site, we’ve launched several projects: Women of KirekaUMPG, the farmers organization in Uganda, also launched out of that. Villages in Action was very heavily social media driven at its birth last year and the collaborations that happened on the Web site. It’s been the birth of so many projects, which now is leading the organization into a very particular direction, which hopefully early next year we’ll be revealing. Social media is going to be a tool that we utilize for a lot of our activities.

PDT: Can you talk a little bit about your latest project with Connect4Climate. What is it? And why did you choose to get involved?

TMS: Connect4Climate is a campaign, a competition and a community of people that care about climate change. Its main focus is mobilizing members of the African youth to be engaged in this conversation on climate change on the continent. In early December, COP17 is happening in Durban, South Africa, and we really want to brand this as Africa’s COP. So that it’s not really a meeting of just head’s of state discussing issues and regulations and agreements over climate change. We want to include members of African youth – 500 million under the age of 30 – that’s a huge number. And we all know that climate change really effects those that are the poorest. The future of the African continent is really in the hands of this young population. We have to activate them to be part of the conversation, and this is why Connect4Climate exists.

The competition part of it is we’re looking for people to engage using social media to take photos and video and to share them, about what climate change means in their particular local. In the growing community on Facebook – we’re 21,000 now – that’s where the global conversation happens. That’s where they share their stories with each other as well as the global community, so we’re not necessarily completely limiting just to the continent, but we’re opening up a platform for them to engage with other people, as well as with themselves and to connect in one particular area.

Photo: Julius Mwelu/Mwelu Foundation

So we’ll be sharing resources from different organizations and resources on climate change because a particular component of it is really to educate about what is climate change, as well as to give them some tools and for them to engage with each other and share what solutions that they’re doing locally, whether it’s community groups or on an individual level. Everyone has a say because climate change does affect everybody.

I joined it because it was really a no-brainer. It was a project that was running on the continent, it married the three things that I think are really pertinent to Africa’s future: technology, youth and the diaspora. So that nexus is where all the activity is happening, and I got really fortunate to be able to join the Connect4Climate team.

And it’s very early, so it’s really exciting about what the future is going to bring and what kind of message we can take collectively to Durban and beyond. We want to make sure that this is a resource for young people on the continent that they can continue to come back to, should they want to launch their own – whether it’s green projects, whether they want to become environmentalists, or they want to learn more about climate change – we want to make sure that this is the place that they can rely on for the next few years.

PDT: Are there stories that you’ve seen on the Facebook page from youth in Africa that really impress you?

TMS: Yeah, we actually got a story from Cote d’Ivoire. It was a story and pictures where they documented several youth who got together and were cleaning up a beach. We saw the pictures of before, the beach was – you couldn’t even see the sand because there was so much trash. Some of it was drifting out into the sea. And I saw an entire community of members of that area who got together and bagged the trash and cleaned the entire area. And they shared that on the Facebook wall. A lot of people really engaged and congratulated them on their efforts to take care of their community, so that’s good to see and hopefully has a knock-on effect and other members of the community can actually also do that.

We’re also seeing other members of the continent who are really looking at conservation as a way to be engaged and who are also collaborating with each other to have a more constructive dialogue with members of the government over the environment and environmental policy.

So it’s looking like it’s an opportunity for us to have engaged individuals, who are looking to start a structured program where they can actually participate in the decision-making, as opposed to just being violent and not really having a strategy but just taking to the streets. We’re really sharing non-violent ways to be engaged and be educated and to have dialogue with those in power to make policies that are systemically viable, as well protect the future of the youth.

PDT: And what do you see as the biggest hurdle for youth who are trying to collaborate in this way?

TMS: Probably the biggest hurdle is that we might talk about ICT4D all we want because it’s the sexy new tool for communication, but we also have to remember that the penetration isn’t really there yet. We’re only between ten and 12 percent penetration for Internet on the continent. And when you’re talking about a continent of a billion people, that’s really not a whole lot of reach, even with mobile phone penetration at greater than 500 million subscriptions on the continent, it’s still not very much reach to those people where climate change is going to effect the most.

How do we get to the villages? For someone who lives in a remote area, for example, by a lake, how do we provide them with climate change information to say that that receding shoreline that you’ve seen over the last ten years, that’s an effect of climate change? In your community what is it that you’re doing? Those landslides that are happening in your area because it’s hilly, these are the reasons that’s happening: if you’re cutting down the trees,  for charcoal and energy. That’s what’s called climate change. You’re part of the solution as well as part of the problem.

The sharing of that information, that bridge, that digital bridge, is not complete. The last mile is not there yet. So we need to think about other ways and how in Africa’s context, what does social media technology look like?  We can’t forget the radio because a lot of people converge on the radio in the evenings to get all of their information and the combination of mobile phones and a radio, that provides a kind of virtual Internet bridge where they can gain information. So how do we use that platform to get that information out there as well, as well as to solicit solutions from them? What is it that you’re doing in your community to mitigate climate change?

So the reach isn’t really there yet, if you are just purely talking about traditional social media. But for Connect4Climate, we’re looking at utilizing all of the tools available to us, and in the longer-term to make sure that everyone has access to this information.

PDT: Was there a particular moment when you realized the potential of African youth?

TMS: There have been many moments that highlight the potential of African youth. One of the very remote ones, I think it was two years ago. I was in Kenya on vacation, and I was going out to the mountainside to a vacation spot, and we had to use these Borda-bordas, motorcycle taxis, to get there because the taxis couldn’t reach the place because it was too high. I grabbed this one motorcycle taxi driver and it really just blew my mind. I had to get off the motorcycle to actually document and video his motorcycle. He had figured out how to put a remote controlled radio on his motorcycle, so he figured out how to load mp3s into a flash card and then connected that to speakers and then figured out how to connect a remote to that radio so as he was riding he could just click a remote and it was able to change it. This was a kid who didn’t speak a lick of English, but he was playing around with this and was able to make it work. That kind of local ingenuity gives me promise that there’s something happening here with the marriage of technology and youth.

Photo: JARED NYATAYA

Another example, during the World Cup – and this was close to home – my family members, my younger brothers and little cousins, wanted my mom to buy them a radio, and she kept refusing and kept refusing, and then they decided to take matters into their own hands. They went around and dug through trash bins and were able to find various parts from various radios that were discarded and completely rebuilt their own radio from the ground up, including a power source, an antennae and a tuner. They were able to listen to the World Cup without spending a single cent. So necessity definitely can breed innovation, and they certainly showed it. So I was really blown away at their ability to be able to figure that out and to build something from nothing.

So that’s definitely an indicator that there is that ingenuity, and it is happening on the continent, and the access to information that the Internet and connectivity will bring over the next five to ten years is going to fuel a lot of innovation and a lot of growth in this area.

PDT: Wow that’s impressive. I have a final question for you regarding the Villages in Action project that you put together. First, is it taking place again this coming year? And what was your takeaway from last year?

TMS: To answer your last question first, yes, it will be happening again. We’re re-launching that on January 14th. We had to move it back a few months because of Durban and COP17 activities with Connect4Climate. January 14 we’ll be converging on that very same village that has no electricity or running water, dropping a few mega bites of broadband and then broadcasting another conference from that village. We’ll be revealing what we’ve put together kind of as a way to make this a viable platform that anyone can install in any village, so that all members of the community can also get the microphone and be able to tell their own stories about what is happening in their community. How they are rebuilding their own community, using their own tools. And we’ll be sharing that on Jan. 14.

Children from the village featured in Villages in Action. Photo: TMS Ruge

In terms of what our takeaway was for the first Villages in Action, I think the importance of the first Villages in Action was in a way to engage members of that last mile. The first one was in response to the MDGs discussions, the ten year anniversary, as well as the checkpoint looking forward to the finish line five years from now when the results of the Millennium Development Goals will be revealed.

What I really wanted to do with Villages in Action was to give the microphone to those in the last mile, those poor that were the subjects of conversations at the various UN talks, the Clinton Global Initiatives, the TED talks;everybody was talking about the poor, the poor, the poor, and we were represented as numbers and figures, but no one reached out to those on the ground to say, what is it that you’re doing about the MDGs and how are you part of the solution, not necessarily are you waiting on the solutions? And one of the findings that we had at the first Villages in Action was to realize that nobody in that community knew what the MDGs were. And this is after ten years of this effort so we had to figure out where was the failing in terms of communicating that to the people that were affected.

The other thing that we learned is how really interconnected the community already was and they knew this. They know the importance of education in the village and how that contributes to community health, and how community health contributes to economic development, and how economic development contributes to the improvement of their daily lives. So we had a component called Business in the Village, and we looked at that entire ecosystem of what it meant to be engaged in economic activity and how that trickled down to their way of life. How were their children were able to attend school? How did that contribute to their family health, and how did one family unit’s health contributed to the health of the entire village?

Photo: TMS Ruge

So everybody already knew this, and everybody was busy at the daily activity of just trying to improve their lives. They knew how. Nobody was sitting around waiting for someone to come rescue them or an NGO or governmental organization to come in and provide these services. Certainly there are some services that they couldn’t provide themselves and needed assistance to get those done and needed to engage local government to complete those, but for the most part I was impressed by the fact that everybody knew what needed to be done and were busy and were not necessarily sitting around. As all the development organizations out here portray it, they’re poor, really destitute and needing our help. But really when you look at, we’re busy, working on making our lives better.

And the term poor is very relative. If you can eat three times a day and provide for your kids to go to school are you really poor just because you don’t have a massive house or a credit card? We enjoyed that conversation and really giving the microphone back to the people. The cool thing that we were able to do was connect through social media, that community village with the rest of the world so the rest of the world was able to ask questions about how the villagers were conducting their daily lives, and the villagers were able to answer directly. That’s a conversation that never really happens. So social media and connectivity and those tools will just increase that conversation in the coming future.

Photo: TMS Ruge

PDT: Great. Those are all the questions I have for you, is there anything else you want to add?

TMS: No I think I’ve babbled on long enough. So I appreciate the opportunity to come on and talk about Connect4Climate, Villages in Action and all these activities that are going on.

PDT: Yes it’s fascinating.

TMS: Thanks a lot.

PDT: Yes, thank you.

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Entry filed under: Africa, Economic Development, Environment. Tags: , , , , , .

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