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Dakar: Mobile Innovation Lab, Faster Horses and Spring Towns

Web Foundation · April 12, 2011

In case you have missed the news, we at the Web Foundation are putting together another Mobile Innovation Lab. This time it’s in Senegal.  This is a great opportunity to make our Mobile Web Ghana initiative feel less alone in West Africa, and, at the same time, support other projects that are happening in the French-speaking countries of the region (e.g. the Web-alliance for Regreening Africa). The opportunity has been created thanks to the VOICES project, and the lab is one of the efforts that the Web Foundation is leading in this European project.
The different aspects  of the project (e.g. technical experimentation and pilots on voice technologies and web protocols; the human factors research on acceptability) will give the lab deeper expertise and capability to share knowledge with the labs’ participants.

Shops on a road side on the way from Dakar to Thies

The concept of the lab, is slightly different from the other 2 mobile innovation labs we are working on at the moment (Ghana, Kenya): Rather than creating something from scratch, we will try to have a role in extending and connecting different initiatives that are already running on the territory, and use the training on mobile business and technology – as well as the international network of passionate and expert people – as two of the key differentiators.

Having said that, much has yet to be defined.  Last week Jenny de Boer (working at TNO on this same project) and I met in Dakar and spent 10 days there, getting to know better many interesting projects currently running in Senegal in the mobile ecosystem.  We discovered that there is a lot of interest in mobile services, a lot is going on, and every time we spoke with someone, we discovered another part of the value chain, another project, another passionate developer or another meet-up that was worth exploring. This was crucial to finding the best way to add value to what’s existing already.

Among the other people, we had interesting conversation with incubators (CTIC Dakar), co-working spaces and community catalysts (JokkoLabs, BantaLabs, Mobile Senegal, Dakar Linux User Group), universities (ESMT, Thies University, UCAD), ICT associations (OPTIC, W3C Senegal).

[Dakarlug] geekdiner
photo by nd1mbee on Flickr:

Also, we discovered a variety of entrepreneurs, developers and NGOs who are rather active and passionate: Manobi, Tostan Jokko, Oudiamoura are the ones that impressed me for their approach and the passion.

Students at ESMT Dakar
Students at ESMT Dakar
Students at ESMT Dakar

We also had the chance to get together with a big number of interested and interesting people, in 4 workshops / meet-ups. The first one was at ESMT (thanks to Mr. Papa Lamine Sylla, Andre Onana and Jean-Marie Preira), where 100 students brainstormed to explore solutions to problems that they find every day (e.g. connectivity in the University, transport systems, school restaurants, administration overloads,…), and find some innovative mobile service to solve these problems (ask me about the mobile mini-reastaurants…).

Mobile Innovations meet-up in Dakar


Mobile Innovations meet-up in Dakar

Other occasions to meet mobilists of Senegal were given by the Mobile Innovations meet-up in Dakar, and in Thies, as well as a design-focused discussion hosted by JokkoLabs. In all these ‘social’ occasions, Jenny and myself shared our point of view on how design can help create more innovative mobile services. This is part of a bigger idea for a talk that I’m putting together. The work in progress title is ‘faster horses and slow elevators’. It talks about how to understand users, how to creatively approach the problems on the surface, and how to transform the big picture into a meaningful product. You can find the slides here (pdf, 4.3 MB), but it’s much more fun if you saw us presenting…

Overall, the general feeling I have – at the end of the days spent in Senegal – is like the beginning of spring season: lots of interesting things and beautiful are there, started not long ago. It reminds me of the landscape seen just outside Dakar: a plethora of towns and suburbs just started, not fully inhabited yet. What is the opposite of a ghost town? A spring town, I guess. So the Senegalese mobile scene feels like a ‘spring town’ to me.

Town springing on the outskirts of Dakar

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