Uganda celebrates its tech entrepreneurs

Three students from the Makerere University College of Computing and Information Sciences have won the Microsoft Imagine Cup Grant worth $50,000 for their project WinSenga, a smartphone app that performs ultrasounds on pregnant women and can detect problems like ectopic pregnancies and abnormal heartbeats. The winning, Team Cipher256, consists of Aaron Tushabe, Joshua Okello, and Josiah Kavuma.

The Daily Monitor reports:

Apart from the cash prize, the three will receive software, computing services, solution provider support, access to local resources, among others. Microsoft will also connect grant recipients with its network of investors, NGO partners and business partners and will work with the grant recipients to tailor individual support as needed depending on the progress each team has made so far with its project. The program is expected to reduce the maternal mortality rate, which currently stand[s] at 16 mothers a day in Uganda...

The purpose of the Imagine Cup is to bring together and support student innovators from all over the world. These days many Ugandans are choosing to focus their endeavors on mobile technology. Mobile technology is one of the fastest-growing industries in Africa, and young Ugandan techies are tapping into this potential. Telecommunications companies like Orange Uganda have held competitions to encourage the creation of mobile phone applications. Every year, Orange Uganda organizes the "Community Innovations Awards", a competition which recognizes the most impressive ideas in mobile app developments. These awards allow young developers in Uganda to create new technologies that can be used in agriculture, health, or education.

Earlier in the year, another student from Makerere University, Abdu Sekalala, gained international prominence with the success of his mobile phone applications on the Ovi Store. Wordbook, one of his nine applications, has been downloaded over 300,000 times. Wordbook is a 99-cent dictionary download that provides its user with a randomly chosen word of the day, including definitions, examples, and a selection of related words. He had participated in the Nokia East and Southern Africa competition at the College of Computing and Information Sciences (CoCIS) in 2011. He has been featured in local and international media (including FP -- I blogged about him in April).

Another group of students -- Christine Ampaire, Samuel Remo, James Muranga, Gerald Odur, and Jjingo Wasaka Kisakye -- won $10,000 for their mobile phone applications, MafutaGo. The application assists motorists in locating the nearest petrol station in their vicinity selling the cheapest fuel at the time and also related car facilities like washing bays.

29-year-old Solomon King is another young tech entrepreneur and businessman. He has founded several startups and business including animations for lead companies in Uganda. He was featured on the BBC for his company Fundibots, a robotics company that uses locally available materials to build miniature robots.

Young and upcoming Ugandan tech entrepreneurs meet at Hive Colab, an open collaborative space. It offers them the opportunity to meet with others of similar interests and to learn. It also offers mentors and helps in the start up and growth of businesses through networking. Jonathan Kalan captures the tech-hub boom in East Africa for the BBC in a photo essay. He writes that there over 50 hub labs, incubators, and accelerators across the region.

Innovative entrepreneurship is on the rise in Uganda, especially in information and communications technology. Makerere University's College of Computing and Information Sciences is working hard to raise the profiles of its students. It is important to note that the general atmosphere in supporting start-up techs is on the rise, with young tech gurus having access to facilities and international competitions. Many young people are developing applications that are relevant to the communities and address social needs. WinSenga is an example of an app that can be put to great use within the health sector in Uganda, and clearly shows that supporting entrepreneurs financially to fund innovations can lead to the greater good of the country.

While the Ugandan government is keen on supporting science and technology at universities, and claims to be prioritizing these areas, it is important to note that most of this technology development is funded by organizations. Governments throughout the region should be working hard to promote technology. But so far they don't seem to be doing much.

Jackee's twitter handle is @jackeebatanda



A specter is haunting the Balkans: the specter of corruption

Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has become one of the most important barometers of good governance around the world.  There are a lot of interesting stories buried within the latest CPI, which has just been released. One of them involves the Balkans.

This year, Albania ranks not only as the most corrupt country in the region, but also as the most corrupt in Europe (excluding former Soviet republics like Moldova or Ukraine). Tirana managed to fall eighteen places in the index in a single year. It plunged from 95th in 2011 to 113th in 2012.

Albania's sister nation Kosovo, the youngest kid in the block, faired pretty miserably, too. Pristina did manage to improve a bit, rising from 112th in 2011 to 105th place in 2012, but that still leaves it as the second worst in the region. Other countries in the Balkans saw also their corruption perception rankings deteriorate, with Montenegro at 75 and Macedonia at 74.

Yet there was a bit of intriguing good news, too. Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia all moved up a few places. The so-called "bad boys" of the European Union also saw an improvement. Bulgaria rose from 86th to 74th place, while Romania went from 75th to 66th.

Everyone knows the CPI isn't a precise tool. It captures how businesspeople and experts perceive corruption in the public sector. It doesn't measure the level of corruption per se.

Yet in this particular case the study does seem to be capturing a larger trend. The countries that have fallen behind are conspicuous for failing to implement any specific polices to combat the problem. The country that has managed to come away with the best result, by contrast, has been tackling corruption head-on.

Croatia has earned the highest ranking among the Balkan countries for good reason. Its law-enforcement agencies and courts have an impressive track record over the past two years when it comes to prosecuting high-level corruption cases.

Even more importantly, Zagreb's ruling elite has shown the political will to extend the fight against corruption to the highest echelons of power.  The conviction of former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (pictured above in court) on bribe-taking charges is one prime example.

Sanader was once the most powerful man in Croatia. He helped to transform his Christian Democratic Union Party (HDZ) from a relatively unsophisticated group of nationalists into an organization that firmly supported Croatian integration in to the European Union. But Sanader's tenure was dogged by questions about his conspicuously lavish lifestyle.

Sanader's indictment has made Croatia something of a model. Observers even minted the term "Sanaderization," which is now understood by almost everyone in the region as a synonym for the fight against sleaze. Thanks to Croatia's example, other countries now understand that they will only be able to make headway in the E.U. integration process if they force corrupt politicians to face up to their past misdeeds.

Sanader is not the only prime minister to find himself behind bars in the region. Former Romanian premier Adrian Nastase was also jailed last January for siphoning millions from state coffers in order to fund his 2004 reelection campaign. Although Romania remains one of the most corrupt states in the European Union, Nastase's conviction was a watershed. He was the highest-ranking public official successfully brought to book on corruption charges since the collapse of communism in 1989. When the police finally moved to arraign him on in his villa earlier this year, Nastase turned a gun on himself in an apparent suicide attempt.

Aside from these signs of progress, however, the European Union still faces an uphill climb in its efforts to contain corruption in the region. The most ambitious civilian crisis management mission ever launched by the Union, the E.U. Law and Order Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) has also been coming in for stiff criticism. EULEX has been accused of failing to prosecute key political figures accused of corruption and organized crime due to political interference.  A recent report by the European Court of Auditors slammed the mission as ineffective.

Their audit found that "overall progress in improving the rule of law is slow, particularly with regard to the fight against organized crime and corruption, above all in the north of Kosovo."

Albania, which brings up the rear of the Balkan countries in this year's CPI, has also seen a series of high-level corruption cases in recent years, but none of them have produced convictions. The one involving former Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta is a reminder of the challenges that the country faces. While he was in office, Meta turned up as the protagonist of a secretly filmed video published in January 2011 that shows him discussing bribes worth hundreds of thousands of euros with Dritan Prifti, the then-minister of economy.

The case against Meta collapsed one year later after the Supreme Court dismissed the poor-quality video as a fake (even though American and British experts testified to its authenticity). The scandal took a Hollywood-grade twist when the American IT expert hired by prosecutors to verify the authenticity of the first recording then found another video in Prifti's computer. In the second one Prifti is seen dividing up €70,000 ($90,700) with one of his deputies.

Both Meta and Prifti have been cleared of all charges and both deny any wrongdoing. As one local prosecutor once told me, to convict a politician of that caliber, two key ingredients are needed: a smoking gun and political will. Unfortunately, as Meta's and Prifti's cases both show, the smoking gun alone is not enough.

Photo by HRVOJE POLAN/AFP/Getty Images