Out of Africa: Ingenuity from a Nairobi social network

Nairobi, one of Africa's most dynamic cities, hosted an unusual conference last Saturday -- an unlikely gathering of Afro-geeks: programmers, systems builders, youthful techie dreamers, and mobile-phone enthusiasts. Nairobi is home to Africa's most celebrated mobile company, Safaricom -- and millions of mobile-phone users. That alone creates a giant East African test-bed for all sorts of experiments in new applications.

These experiments have to come from somewhere -- and that's mainly Europe and the U.S. But more than half of Nairobi's residents are under the age of 25, and increasingly the techie slice of these youth is getting swept up in the fervor around mobile technology. One eruption is Barcamp Nairobi, which is really a social movement organized around technical themes.

Last Saturday these themes were well explored in all-day conference attended by about 300 people -- a number that far exceeded organizer expectations. Nairobi is the most cosmopolitan African city outside of South Africa, so some of the people in attendance hailed from Europe, the U.S. and Asia. But the majority were Kenyans, and they were eager to brainstorm. Like youth everywhere, they want a piece of the action -- and the quickest way to get into the action is to create applications for mobile phones.

But the appeal to this unusual African gathering was not commercial. The call went out to bloggers, designers and codewriters, an overlapping trio of pursuits that often are carried out by real characters. Last Saturday, in Nairobi, dozens of them got a chance to show their stuff.

Barcamp is a work in progress, a social network that may be laying the foundation for an explosion of unanticipated ingenuity. Like much of what is promising in sub-Saharan Africa, the youthful geek community faces many problems, most notably the specter of brain drain. Good jobs are scarce so people do look elsewhere, out of Africa, for work. But community can often trump capitalism, and some of these Nairobi techies may find that often spirit means more than money.

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