A New Generation of Mobile Developers: Mobile Camps in Africa

Posted by LeighJaschke on Sep 11, 2009

In a classroom in Thies in Senegal, two teachers master an educational game on their mobile phones. Ten minutes later, their pre-school group is using the game to recognize number and count to 10. Noumounthi, Tamsir, Khady Coly and Mamadou, computer science students at the University of Thies, designed and developed the game following a recent Mobile Camp in Senegal. The exitement in the classroom helps the team of students understand the power of their new skills in mobile application programming, and what it means to be a mobile entrepreneur in Africa.

Mobile camps may be building the next generation of mobile programmers by helping to develop a new field of study in African higher education. Recent camps have produced tools for social development and provided educators with new skills.

A mobile camp or bootcamp is “a crash-course session", usually spanning 2-3 days, during which "participants gain an insight on mobile computing technologies as well as acquire practical skills in the use of current platforms, frameworks and tools used for the development of mobile applications” notes Strathmore University. Recent camps have included competitions to spur development of mobile tools.

Nathan Eagle first developed the bootcamp formula in 2006, while juggling work as a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Nairobi and teaching mobile programming at universities across Africa. With a lack of qualified to teachers, the only way of teaching the material in universities across different countries was to lead very intense, 3-5 day courses about a particular subject. Eagle founded the EPROM program at MIT, that teaches mobile programming within Computer Science Departments in Sub-Saharan Africa. With funding from Nokia, he also organized separate camps that brought together computer science educators from all sub-Saharan Africa.

Strathmore University in Nairobi Kenya, and Thies University in Senegal have adopted this camp model and developed it further. Camps have taken place in Nairobi, Kenya, in June 2009, and Thies, Senegal, earlier in January. The goal of the Nairobi camps is to promote local mobile application programming. The Senegal camps are part of a project that has a more defined additional goal of strengthening the skills and experience of a network of professors across the country.


Strathmore University held its second Mobile Boot Camp this summer. The inaugural camp was held in November of 2008. The camps were spearheaded by Jessica Colaço, Research Leader at Strathmore Research and Consultancy Centre (SRCC). J2ME and Java breakout sessions were facilitated by Michael Wakahe of Shujaa Solutions Ltd and Michael Gordon, president of MIT's Africa Internet Technology Initiative (AITI).

A team of students from the MIT–AITI assisted in the lab this summer, an example of how camps are mentoring for the next generation of technology teachers and leaders. Colaço also belongs to the first class of the EPROM program that Nathan Eagle founded at MIT. Coincidence?

The theme of the most recent camp in Kenya was "Mobile Applications for Development in Africa". Mobile applications submitted for the competition launched on the last day were in the areas of m-learning, m-health and m-agriculture. 

In a recent interview, Colaço said that since the first camp, “there is definitely demand to learn mobile programming”. She also pointed out that more students are taking up mobile themes for their final year projects.” The event has grown as well. This year, participants wanted more practical sessions”, so bootcamps from now on will include at least one week of practical sessions. Moving forward, the camps will happen twice a year.

Last year, the student competition winners developed an application that makes it possible for users to view and manipulate ID3 tags on the Series 60 Nokia phones, a simple word game application enabling games on the same Nokia mobile phones, and a sales application, Strathmore reports.


Across the continent, Christelle Scharff of Pace University with Anita Wasilewska from Stony Brook University and Mamadou Bousso, Ibrahima Ndiaye and Cheikh Sarr from the University of Thies coordinated another camp at the University of Thies with the support of the National Collegiate of Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).The camp took place earlier this year, and there are now plans for annual event. Scharff is working with educators and students to extend the network of professors, students, and administrators involved with the project in Senegal. She also plans to have students from Pace collaborate with students in Senegal in order to develop applications.

Three mobile phone applications were developed by the students of the University of Thies including the educational game (Wannigame) mentioned above, and an application to manage sales and expenses for local artisans.

To date, the project has trained 22 teachers in Senegal in a training organized with Manobi. Most of the teachers did not previously identify mobile application programming as a field of study. Scharff will visit more schools and hold another teacher training for faculty in the coming months.

What happens after the camps?

MobiTechno, the team that won first prize at our Mobile Application Competition, has some dramatic updates, according to the MIT AITI blog. The team has developed their AITI project into a registered Kenyan company, copyrighted their idea, and their service is now hosted in Kenya with an SMS service provider.

In Senegal, winners of a competition held at the end of the camp received funding and technical support to deploy their applications. Scharff is in dialogue with the faculty of Dakar, St Louis and Bambey, and will explore possibilities of collaboration. There are plans to extend the project to other universities in Senegal. In order to raise awareness, the project will include a nation-wide application development competition open to all students in the country.

Behind each of these organizers, Strathmore University, and the University of Thies, is a growing network of educators and students in Senegal and Kenya who are increasing placing stock in mobile application programming for Africa. We're hoping the idea of strengthening mobile programming in higher education to create tools for social development spreads.

The EPROM program curriculum is available here, and lecture notes from the Senegal camp are available on the project wiki mentioned above. AITI program lecture materials are posted here.

Photo courtesy Jessica Colaço




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