Like Water for Internet: Ory Okolloh Talks Tech in Africa

Like Water for Internet: Ory Okolloh Talks Tech in Africa

Ory Okolloh, Google's Policy Manager for Africa, tells how Africa needs technology to be as ubiquitous as water.

Published April 15, 2013

Ory Okolloh believes in the power of the people.

Last week, ahead of her trip to Washington, D.C., to speak to the World Bank about Africa’s private sector, the 35-year-old Policy Manager for Google Africa took to her Twitter account and asked her followers, “What should I tell them?”

The responses came in fast and varied from rants about corruption in multinational corporations to comments about infrastructure and energy. For the most part, Okolloh didn’t engage the responses, but she did re-tweet them for all to read and she made sure to add the World Bank’s twitter account to the dispatches so that the behemoth institution could also see what Africa’s tweeting populace had to say.

Since starting her blog and, later, two tech companies; one that helped Kenyans keep an eye on politicians and another that used crowdsourcing to track post-election violence, Okolloh has used all of her energy to help communities around her.

In an interview, Okolloh told that although she is highly educated, technology was the hidden gatekeeper to her success.

“Technology influenced me in that it gave me an opportunity to have a voice as a woman,” she said. “I think it’s because the barriers to entry tend to be a bit lower. There is some element of meritocracy in technology and it’s more really about what you put out there.”

The popularity of Okolloh’s blog, Kenyan Pundit, helped establish her as a political authority in the blogosphere, but she says its initial success is mostly because her readers thought she was a man.

“This was before avatars were popular and for a lot of time people thought I was man. People thought I wrote in a very ‘masculine’ way.”

Since then, Okolloh has stepped from behind the curtain of blogging and into a new role of helping shape Google’s presence on the African continent. Her work helps Africans get more relevant and culture specific content online and she helps governments craft regulations that allow technology to thrive and expand. Okolloh says that for technology to truly be useful to people in African countries, tech in Africa will need to become as widespread and second-nature as it is in the U.S.

“I’d like to see technology to move beyond the hype and be considered part of infrastructure … the way you see access to water,” she said. “I would like it to move away from apps and mobile money. So that everyone has their TV and their Wi-Fi, and it’s just ubiquitous. I think that’s where we should be headed."

The specific area of technology on the African continent that she says is ripe for innovation and new development is online payments. Although some countries have PayPal and similar, local versions like Kenya’s PesaPal, Okolloh says that one singular company has yet to dominate Africa’s burgeoning market for online payment.

“Ultimately, without payments, you can’t do a host of things online, like book travel and make payments. So, whoever manages to crack that for the continent would be golden.”



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(Photo: Brian Harkin/Getty Images)

Written by Naeesa Aziz


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