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Kenyan Juliana Rotich receives German Africa Prize

Daniel Pelz
October 24, 2019

She is an IT pioneer, entrepreneur, women's rights activist: In Berlin, Kenyan Juliana Rotich was honored by German Chancellor Angela Merkel with this year's German Africa Prize.

Verleihung Deutscher Afrika-Preis 2019
Image: Deutsche Afrika-Stiftung/S. Wasserhäuptl

For Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was a pleasant reunion. During the German G20 Presidency in 2017, she had noticed a dedicated Kenyan on a panel discussion: Juliana Rotich. Now, two years later, the Chancellor was able to present Rotich with this year's Africa Prize. The Kenyan was an inspiration for countless people in Africa, the Chancellor said. "She showed what and how much you can move with good ideas and determination: economically, socially and beyond her own country," Merkel added that this made Rotich a role model for many other women in Africa.

Rotich,42, is an African IT pioneer. She became mainly known through Ushahidi, an open-source platform that she founded where users can upload and share information about crisis areas. When Ushahidi started, Rotich's homeland Kenya was experiencing the darkest hours of its history. After the 2007 controversial presidential elections, bloody riots broke out with over 1300 dead. Ushahidi was able to release information about the violence. Today, the platform is used in more than 160 countries, including in war-torn Syria, earthquake-prone Nepal and Haiti, and in the documentation of hate speech in the US presidential election campaign.

Juliana Rotich
Juliana Rotich became popular for discovering the Ushahidi platformImage: DW/P. Böll

Read more: African software to prevent fraud in US elections

"Thanks to them, IT 'Made in Africa' is in demand worldwide," said Merkel. She added that Africa is a fast-growing market for information and communications technologies. Almost everywhere, digital progress is noticeable. Mobile payments are more widespread in Kenya than in Germany. "Of course, such conditions are not yet everywhere in Africa, but there is a potential for it in many places," Merkel added.

Rotich is also driving such digital transformation in another innovative project. She is co-founder of the technology company BRCK, which, since this year, is the largest public Wi-Fi provider in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a "groundbreaking idea", according to Claus Stäcker, jury chairman of the Africa Prize and also head of DW's Africa programs. "How many ideas fail in Africa due to lack of electricity and hence rare access to the internet."

Demographic change as the next challenge

BRCK should provide a way out in such situations – it works by battery or solar. "Her technological innovations are an exemplary contribution to the development of the African continent, and Juliana Rotich is the face of a successful African continent that actively shapes the world of the 21st century," said Stäcker. The jury had selected Rotich from more than two dozen proposals from Africa.

Claus Stäcker
Jury president Claus Stäcker praised Rotich's groundbreaking technologyImage: Deutsche Afrika-Stiftung/S. Wasserhäuptl

In her speech, Rotich said the prize was not only an honor for her. "The award also recognizes the potential for a digital economy in places where you would never expect a digital economy," said Rotich. In the future she wants to contribute to solving societal problems in Africa through technological innovations. One issue tha particulary worries her are the changes in population demographics on the continent.  "More and more young people are pushing to get into labor markets, but we are not creating new jobs and founding new companies fast enough," said Rotich.

Read more: Crowdsourcing project monitors Kenya election

Since 1993, the German Africa Foundation has awarded the German Africa Prize annually to honor "outstanding individuals for their longstanding endeavors to foster democracy, peace, human rights, art, culture, the social market economy and social concerns." It is also intended to contribute to the understanding of Africa in Germany.

Previous winners include Botswana ex-president Ketumile Masire, Somali women's rights activist Waris Dirie, and South African anti-corruption campaigner Thuli Madonsela, who played a major role in combating corruption within the Zuma government.