As Kenya prepares for national elections next week, two words in particular are dominating news headlines: “Youth” and “mobiles”. With 75% of Kenyans under the age of 30, the vote’s outcome will likely depend on the country’s young men and women. And with 71% of citizens using cell phones, mobiles will play a key role in news and information sharing ahead of Election Day.
Earlier this year, in a suburb of Nairobi, local youth leaders got a head start in this area: Through SMS, they participated in a series of live polls and votes to elect a board of directors, choose a name for themselves — the Kamukunji Network — and determine how a new-and-improved "umbrella organization" for regional youth movements would be organized.
Souktel provided the SMS polling platform, while the event itself was hosted by staff of the Kenya Transition Initiative (KTI), a USAID-supported project which aims to strengthen communities and civil society groups. Staff at KTI had already been using the platform to create text-message surveys and send out community news alerts — so when a new project came up, they wanted to stick with software they could trust.
"It proved to be highly successful," says Neil Larmour, a Technical and Management Specialist for KTI. "The SMS platform was an interesting way for youth to participate in a transparent voting mechanism — all of the results were made available to them immediately — and it made perfect sense to use this technology because about 75% of mobile users in Kenya are between ages 15 and 25."
Leila Dal Santo, Souktel's Project Manager for the initiative, agrees: “Mobile use is booming among youth in Kenya,” she offers. “And many young people use large scale services like M-PESA to transfer money via cell phone. What we did in this instance, though, is create very customized, targeted polling platforms that youth can run by themselves in smaller groups. These platforms can be replicated across the country hundreds of times over—but the main idea is to encourage young people to participate actively in local decision-making. We believe this is a great way to get youth excited about the upcoming elections, and ensure that they have the tools to share their views in a safe, productive way”.
Kenya’s last elections, in 2007, gave rise to Ushahidi—a crowd-sourced reporting platform that has since been used in hundreds of settings, from the Haiti earthquake to the ongoing Gaza conflict. This time around, web and mobile tech are poised to play an even bigger role—and the youth leaders who take part in KTI’s programs will be ready to lead the charge.