Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Want to expose corruption? Empower the people? There's an app for that

By Loren Treisman, Executive of Indigo Trust
updated 6:41 AM EST, Wed December 18, 2013
Strengthening civil society can benefit everyone, argues Loren Treisman.<!-- -->
</br>Social entrepreneurs in Africa, like Nigeria's Co-Creation Hub, are developing businesses and initiatives that tackle social challenges. Strengthening civil society can benefit everyone, argues Loren Treisman.
Social entrepreneurs in Africa, like Nigeria's Co-Creation Hub, are developing businesses and initiatives that tackle social challenges.
Social tech spaces
Efiko app
  • Supporting civil society and activists can help beat poverty, says Loren Treisman
  • Social entrepreneurs creating tools to support democracy and rights
  • Online platforms are making laws, constitution widely accessible
  • A strong civil society helps hold governments to account

Editor's note: Loren Treisman is Executive of Indigo Trust, a grant-making foundation that supports technology-driven projects in Africa. She holds a PhD from Cambridge University and has expertise in international development and the use of new technologies to stimulate social change. The opinions expressed in this article are solely hers.

(CNN) -- There's a lot of talk about bringing the bottom billion out of poverty and rightly so; this should be the aim of most development initiatives.

But sometimes we have to think outside the box when devising programs to achieve this goal. By strengthening the capacity of civil society and activists, we can amplify the voices of the marginalized and ensure that outcomes improve for society as a whole.

Social tech

Loren Treisman
Loren Treisman

There's a growing number of social entrepreneurs in Africa, who are utilizing their training and education to develop businesses and initiatives that tackle social challenges. Innovation hubs, incubators and accelerators are supporting entrepreneurs across the continent and are gradually attracting investors and corporate partners.

Spaces supporting tech entrepreneurs, such as the Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria and iHub in Kenya, are at times criticized for being elitist. However, the applications springing up from them are creating jobs as well as beginning to improve the livelihoods of the poor.

iCow, an application that provides timely agricultural information to dairy farmers in Kenya via SMS has reached almost 12,000 farmers and increased their income through elevated milk yields and decreased disease outbreaks.

Expert on Africa's Internet revolution
Africa's role in the World Wide Web
Africa's severe youth unemployment

Efiko, an application that enables students in Nigeria to test their knowledge of the school curriculum and compete with friends, has been played by thousands of senior secondary school students.

Read more: 10 African tech startups you need to know

Passionate voices

Powerful leaders have always been able to amplify messages from the grassroots to effect change, just as Emmeline Pankhurst did for the Suffragettes or as Steve Biko did to help bring down apartheid in South Africa. Moreover, social media enables powerful messages to spread across the world at an incredible rate and despite low internet penetration in Africa, its impact can be dramatic.

In the Bagega community in Nigeria, lead poisoning had resulted in thousands of children suffering serious health problems. The government announced it would release around $5.3 million for remediation but months later the funds had still not reached the affected community.

Two passionate guys formed an organization called Follow the Money and amplified the voices of this forgotten community. They collected testimonies and photographic evidence from the ground and combined these with an infographic showing the government's commitments. Within 48 hours of a Twitter campaign targeting government officials and other influential leaders -- and following a campaign by groups including Human Rights Watch -- the funds were released and affected children are now receiving the urgent medical care that they deserve.

Read more: Smart cabs and social games: Africa's mobile startups

Exposing corruption

Many professionals such as lawyers, journalists, government officials and medical professionals can dramatically impact on the lives of societies' poorest. By equipping them with the right information, tools and know-how, they are better able to defend their rights, expose bad practice and improve public services. In the long term, this will contribute towards poverty reduction.

Journalists have a powerful role to play in exposing corruption, breaking stories and holding governments to account. While only around 15.6% of Africans are online, journalists are able to utilize this information to shine a light on injustices in a country.

Open Corporates, a database containing crucial information on over 60 million companies, enables journalists to expose corporate corruption more efficiently. And as more government data gets released and parliamentary monitoring sites spring up online, they are better able to scrutinize government and spur on citizens to demand improved services.

Astonishingly, across Africa the judiciary, attorneys and the public often struggle to access the laws that govern them.
Loren Treisman

Law and order

One only needs to think of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela to see the powerful role that lawyers can have in mobilizing citizens to demand social change. Yet astonishingly, across Africa the judiciary, attorneys and the public often struggle to access the laws that govern them.

The African Legal Information Institute is starting to address this by ensuring that laws are digitized and made freely available. It has been working in partnership with SEYLII in the Seychelles to take this process one step further. Realizing that judges were struggling to gain easy access to critical legal information, they're creating an e-book which will enable legal professionals to read laws on a mobile or tablet even when offline.

Read more: How African innovation can take on the world

Constitutions form the foundation of government, both empowering the institutions that govern a country and ensuring that checks and balances are in place to limit their power. They can spur a country's development and have an impact on outcomes in areas such as human rights protection, democracy and economic growth. With approximately 30 constitutions being amended and five completely replaced each year, it's crucial to get the process right. Nonetheless, constitutional drafters often have limited or no experience in the task at hand.

University College London's Constitute project has digitized the world's constitutions, tagging them in a way that makes it simple for drafters to search and compare specific provisions across countries. This is helping them to make more informed decisions and it's hoped that the tool will help drive increased public participation in the drafting process.

It is hoped that through increasing access to information, strengthening civil society, amplifying the citizen voice and supporting professionals who are providing services to society's poorest, it will result in positive change for society.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Loren Treisman.

Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Africa
updated 2:15 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has installed two talking robots to help regulate the city's hectic traffic.
updated 6:21 AM EST, Thu February 20, 2014
A South African app allows buyers to pay for goods using their phone, without having to worry about carrying cash or credit cards.
updated 10:23 AM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
A Zambian computer tablet -- known as the ZEduPad -- is trying to open up the country's information highway.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
South Africa may be the dominant force in Africa's wine economy, but other countries are making inroads in the industry.
updated 6:55 AM EST, Mon January 6, 2014
Commuters aboard an overloaded passenger train 03 February 2004, celebrate after arrival at the train station in the centre of the capital Nairobi.
A $5 billion Chinese-funded railway project in Kenya could transform transport in east Africa.
updated 7:27 PM EST, Thu December 12, 2013
African astronomers want world-class observatories to inspire young scientists and build a tech economy.
updated 5:29 AM EST, Wed November 27, 2013
A new report praises South Africa's economic transformation since apartheid. But enormous challenges remain.
updated 6:56 AM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
Landlocked Burundi is looking to compete on the international stage as one of Africa's most prestigious coffee producers and exporters.
updated 12:18 PM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
zword app zombies
From zombie spelling games to walking snails, Africa's mobile gaming industry is taking off across the continent from Uganda to South Africa.
updated 6:46 AM EST, Fri November 8, 2013
Ethiopia is turning to renewable energy technology as the East African country looks to become a powerhouse for its regional partners.
updated 9:22 AM EST, Wed November 13, 2013
Animated cartoons are helping Kenyan companies to engage with audiences and lure international investors.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
Downtown Johannesburg -- once a no-go zone riddled with crime -- is undergoing urban restoration.
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Wed October 16, 2013
Using helicopters and night-vision, crime syndicates are taking rhino poaching to a new level and conservation parks are struggling to keep up.
updated 5:27 AM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
Eko Atlantic city design concept
A lack of infrastructure has hindered Africa's development, but a series of megaprojects could change that.
Each week Marketplace Africa covers the continent's macro trends and interviews a major player from the region's business community.