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Young, Connected, and Free (to Protest)

Tech is driving activism in Africa

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On the 17th of December, 2010, a week before Christmas, a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire.

26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi had been selling fruits from a cart since he was a teen.

But corrupt market inspectors kept tormenting him.

They'd take his fruits - claiming he didn’t have a license to sell - then ask for bribes to give them back.

On that day in December, Mohammed went to the governor's office to beg for his goods back.

When no one listened, he snapped and lit himself up outside.

The shocking scene drew a crowd that started protesting.

Then a video of the protests went viral on Facebook.

The protesting crowd grew, not just in Tunisia but across North Africa and the Middle East.

And this sparked the Arab Spring.

Activists used Facebook and Twitter to plan massive protests.

And it forced the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt to resign.

But, it was also the birth of a new type of protester in Africa: young, brave, and armed - with smartphones.

Two weeks ago, (more than a decade later), Kenya showed us how powerful this combo can be.

Why Kenyans occupied parliament

Every year the Kenyan government puts together a budget to run the country and pay back its debt.

And to fund it, they propose new taxes.

The new taxes get bundled into a finance bill that goes through parliament

Normally, the process stays off the public radar.

Experts talk about the bill on TV - while taking comments from the few people who understand it.

But this year was different.

The bill, with the IMF's fingerprints all over it, got people fired up.

Kenya owes the IMF a lot of money, and they’ve been pushing the government to raise taxes to pay up.

But this time, Kenyans were not having it.

Everyone cared and stood up, including young people and the informal sector.

Online, they shot down the new taxes that would make everyday items like bread more expensive.

And that rage spilled onto the streets.

Young people planned and pulled off peaceful protests on a huge scale, using just smartphones and the internet.

Thousands showed up, carrying signs, marching, and chanting to bring down the finance bill.

In two days, the protests spread nationwide.

Then last Tuesday, protesters stormed parliament in a chaotic event that cost lives.

The next day, the president gave in, rejecting the bill and sending it back to parliament.

The Kenyan protests, dubbed “Reject Finance Bill 2024”, show us how tech is giving Africa a new playbook for activism.

And to give you a clear picture, here are three ways tech stood out:

1. An X-led revolt

In 2020, one study showed that Kenyans were Africa’s second-most active ‘tweeters’.

They’ve lived up to this reputation.

Since the Finance Bill 2024 became public, Kenyans on X have been all over it.

Experts, including the CEO of one of Kenya’s largest banks, went on X to share what could happen if the bill was passed.

Thanks to these fiery posts on X, #rejectfinancebill2024 trended worldwide for days.

Then these posts turned into live audio conversations, thanks to spaces on X.

On Saturday, the 22nd of June, Kenyans tuned into one space for nearly seven hours.

It began with demands to release an influencer who was abducted after the protests.

But soon, it turned into a heated debate on the bill.

Even top government officials and the president joined to listen.

When it ended, more than 1.2 million people had tuned in - making it the largest Kenyan X space ever.

2. Kenyan tech bros came through

Until a month ago, Kenyan ‘tech bros’ weren’t known for activism.

But they stepped up when it mattered.

Kelvin Ndemo, a software developer for Twiga Foods, built the finance bill GPT.

It’s a tool that works like ChatGPT; it takes questions on the finance bill and spits out text-based responses.

Kelvin trained the GPT with raw content from the bill and a few articles online

And its responses are plain, simple, and to the point - teaching users what's going on.

3. Raising funds for protests

In 2012, Kyai Mullei built M-Changa to make fundraising quick, easy, and clear.

His big family often raised money for weddings, funerals, and school fees, but transparency was a problem.

Only the person managing the collection knew how funds came in and were spent.

Everyone else was left in the dark until the fundraising ended with a final update, with no clue about who contributed how much.

With M-Changa, everyone can see how much money has been raised, and what the money is for.

Last week, M-Changa helped Kenyans mobilise funds for different things:

  • Printing branded posters and t-shirts

  • Covering medical bills for the injured

  • And helping grieving families bury their loved ones.

For medical bills alone, Kenyans raised over $155,000 (Ksh. 20 million) in less than a week.

But there are risks

It's great that being online allows people to speak out.

But African governments are notorious for how they deal with public dissent.

During the Arab Spring, Egypt blocked Facebook and Twitter to knock off protests.

When that failed, they cut off the internet for five days, which made people angrier and escalated the protests.

And it’s a pattern:

  • In 2021, Nigeria banned Twitter for seven months after they deleted some tweets by President Muhammadu Buhari

  • Last year, Senegal banned TikTok because they said it spread "hateful and dangerous messages" after they arrested the opposition leader

  • Then last Tuesday, Kenya's internet went out for hours after protesters occupied parliament. Safaricom, the main internet provider, said it was due to an undersea cable cut. But was it really?

So, there's a risk that the government could start making rules against internet and social platforms because they see their influence.

But when it comes down to it, there's also a personal danger.

People live so much of their lives online now.

We use social media to connect, share knowledge, and even make a living.

And we have online tools to speak up, be heard, and even protest against unfair laws.

But, it also means leaving a digital trail that can make you a target for speaking out.

In Kenya, influencers are being tracked down and taken from their homes, suspected of organising the protests.

Now, the same online voice that made them powerful has put a target on their backs.

And we’re wondering: How far can it go?

Tech is changing activism in Africa.

People can come together online and organise powerful protests in real life.

But the risk it brings to internet rules and people’s well-being is real too.

Do you think digital activism is making an impact in Africa?

Hit reply and let us know.

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