Back in mid-2006, I invited Nathan Eagle to an O’Reilly event. He wrote back:
Thanks for the invite – but I’ll be in Kenya preparing a mobile phone programming curriculum during the fall… Students who take these courses will be enabled to design custom mobile phone applications for the unique needs of African people. While traditional desktop computers (PCs) have not seen the penetration in Africa that they have had in the developed world, the adoption of mobile phones has been remarkably rapid and widespread, reaching even the poorest African communities. In Kenya, only 200,000 households have electricity, which has not seemed to have deterred the 5+ million Kenyan mobile phone subscribers. Having an infrastructure of devices that have the computational horsepower of the PCs from a decade ago while not being dependent on a steady supply of electricity makes exclusively teaching Western PC-centric computer programming in African universities increasingly misplaced. At such a critical point in the evolution of computing technology, Africa’s adoption and innovative use of custom mobile phone applications confirms the need to equip African computer science students with the skills to develop mobile phone applications specifically for African users. And Africa’s adaptation of mobile phone technology shows the value of inexpensive, mobile computing for a people representative of an increasing majority of the 1.4 billion mobile phone users today.
Despite all the attention given to the OLPC, I think Nathan may well be on a faster track to bridging the African digital divide. He sent me another mail a couple of months ago noting that his program, EPROM or “Entrepreneurial Program for Research on Mobiles now has its web site up, and has made great progress:
EPROM’s first academic year has been extremely eventful. We have
successfully developed a mobile phone programming curriculum and
taught hundreds of Kenyan and Ethiopian computer science students
Python, Java, and SMS-based mobile application development. These
classes have lead to dozens of projects concerning the development of
mobile phone applications specifically for the African market. Several
of these projects have gathered international media attention, while
others are being formed into start-up ventures based in Nairobi, Addis
Ababa, and beyond. Throughout the remainder of this year we will be
focusing on supporting these research projects, training faculty to
continue teaching the curriculum, and introducing the initiative to
other neighboring countries in East Africa – still the fastest growing
mobile phone market in the world.