It's a whirlwind of energy inside the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. I'm surrounded by innovators, investors, and media from around the world at the first-ever DEMO Africa forum. Over the next few days, more than 40 African innovators and technology start-ups will get the chance to unveil their products to the world for the first time. In cooperation with Appfrica International, the U.S. State Department will be announcing the launch of the third annual Apps4Africa contest -- Apps4Africa 2012: Business Challenge -- which we hope will inspire African innovators to develop mobile, web, and desktop applications ("apps") that address the challenge of youth unemployment in Africa.
Apps4Africa was launched in 2009 as a way to energize African innovators to work with civil society, private companies, and local investors to develop on-the-ground technology-based solutions to local problems on the continent. In the inaugural competition in 2010, Apps4Africa: Civic Challenge spurred apps developers to find innovative technology solutions to everyday problems on issues ranging from government transparency to health and education. The winning app -- called iCow -- was developed in Kenya, and it allows farmers to track the breeding periods of their cows to maximize farm yields. In 2011, Apps4Africa: Climate Challenge encouraged apps developers to confront the challenge of climate change adaptation. Apps poured in from across the continent and addressed issues from disaster preparedness to health and disease monitoring.
Apps4Africa, like DEMO Africa, is a key partner in the State Department's Liberalizing Innovation Opportunity Nations (LIONS@FRICA) alliance, which uses public-private partnerships to promote innovation and support technology and entrepreneurship in Africa. As in the past two years, Appfrica International will run this year's Apps4Africa competition, under a grant from the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs.
This year's competition -- Apps4Africa 2012: Business Challenge -- will call on African innovators to develop apps that promote job creation, help businesses connect with potential employees, and tackle other challenges faced by young African job-seekers. The competition saw significant growth during its first two years -- from 20 participants and four countries in 2010 to nearly 300 participants from almost 20 countries in 2011 -- and we're looking forward to see how many step up to the challenge this time this time.
Two past Apps4Africa winners have been invited to launch their products at DEMO Africa. Farmerline is a mobile and web-based system that provides agricultural industry information to farmers and investors; and Mini-Shop offers software to help small business owners keep track of inventory, sales, and expenses.
After the launch in Nairobi, Apps4Africa 2012: Business Challenge will be split into three regional competitions: East Africa, West and Central Africa, and Southern Africa. Seven regional brainstorming sessions -- in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria -- will bring together prospective apps developers, universities, businesses, and members of civil society to help identify needs, form networks, and explore solutions.
A panel of judges -- including experts in technology and entrepreneurship from Africa and the United States -- will pick winners from each region, along with a single grand-prize winner for the continent. Winners will receive cash prizes and follow-on mentoring and support to help bring their products to market.
But this competition isn't only about leveraging the innovative thinking of African technologists. And it goes beyond creating solutions to the difficult challenge of youth unemployment in Africa. We hope that Apps4Africa 2012 will help show young Africans that technology can be a means of empowerment; that it will forge links between civil society and the private sector; that it will highlight African solutions to African problems; and that it will unveil a cadre of African innovators who can serve as role models for the young people to spark innovative solutions to local challenges.
The excitement at DEMO Africa today is palpable. The former Apps4Africa winners are ready to go. We can't wait to see the creativity that's unveiled over the next few months. Stay tuned!
Tom Genton is a Senior Advisor in the Bureau of African Affairs, Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.