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News || Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Souktel & Mozilla Give Youth Tools to Build Apps for Low-Cost Smartphones

What if, instead of waiting for an app to be available online, you could just build it yourself? This was the question we posed to youth in Rwanda and Cambodia last month, as we launched a first-ever partnership with Mozilla—the creators of the ‘Firefox’ browser, and now the team behind a new free, open source app-building platform called ‘WebMaker’. While these two countries are different from each other in most ways, they share a few key traits: Low-cost smartphone use is growing quickly in both places, and young people are racing to get involved in the world of apps.

Traditionally, app building has been the walled-off domain of software developers--programmers with college degrees who are experts at writing code. But with the advent of WebMaker, that reality is changing: The platform lets anyone with a basic smartphone choose from a range of ‘bricks’ (like a ‘counter’ function, or a ‘send message’ function) and mix them together on a drag-and-drop interface to create simple apps. The result? Building apps becomes an intuitive process that’s accessible to anyone who’s willing to try: It takes just a few hours to get familiar with WebMaker, even for mobile users who have no IT skills.

For youth in Africa and Asia--who have very few entry points into the tech sector--this opportunity is huge: After being told at the start of a Cambodia WebMaker workshop that in a few hours he’d be able to build his own apps, “everything was just like a dream”, wrote Piseth Lim, one of the trainees, on his Facebook page, beneath a photo he’d posted of his training certificate.

But our goal here is more than just delivering training: The ultimate aim is for youth in Rwanda, or Cambodia, or Colombia to use these new skills in order to tackle real-world problems. After learning the basics of the platform, trainees at each site were divided into groups and given roughly 24 hours to design a WebMaker app that addressed a social challenge: How to track patient visits in a rural clinic, for example, or daily sales at market stalls. The groups pitched their apps to a panel of judges, Shark Tank-style: In Rwanda, the committee included the director of the “kLab” innovation hub and tech specialists from the Rwandan Workforce Development Authority, the country’s national job-find agency.

In Cambodia, the winning app had a simple purpose with big-picture importance: Teaching kids the alphabet and basic reading skills. In a country where close to a third of women are illiterate (according to recent UNESCO stats), but where basic smartphone use is growing rapidly, this app can help close a key education gap. “Feeling blessed while spending the next 10 hours building my mobile app”, wrote Rethiya Khan, the leader of the winning group, on his Facebook page before the judging kicked off.

Looking ahead, we’re just starting to understand the true potential of simple, accessible app-building tools. Working with our local partners DAI in Cambodia and EDC in Rwanda, we’re now rolling out pilots of these first apps, supported by active Mozilla volunteers in each country. In parallel, we're coding new ‘bricks’ for the platform, to give community app builders an even bigger toolbox to work with. As these apps move from the drawing board into the real world, we’re hoping they can create genuine social impact—by giving more children a head start on reading, or by helping nurses track patient cases more effectively.

We’re also looking forward to watching the WebMaker community grow: “I’m thinking about ways to spread this technology around…as we are the first to take hands on it,” said Clement Muhirwa, one of the new Rwandan app builders, at the end of his training course. With close to 100 app builders trained this month alone--and each person sharing these skills with friends and family—we’re excited to watch thousands of new potential apps take shape.

--adapted from a Mozilla.org blog post by Souktel team members Ihab Asafrah and Nicola Cuoco