African innovators need more government help

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Godfrey Magila, who has developed Tanzania’s electronic voting system, says Africa can produce many Bill Gates if African governments are fully behind innovators on the continent. The 20-year-old student at the Institute of Finance and Management in Dar es Salaam spoke to Olubayo Abiodun and Monique Butt during the recent ITU meeting in Dubai

Africa Telecom & IT: You are one of the Young Innovators at this edition of the ITU Meeting in Dubai. What is it exactly that stands you out as an innovator that warrants your presence at this global event?

Godfrey Magila: I am a software developer from Tanzania. I have created two applications that I am here to demonstrate. I have developed a voting system that is going to be used for elections in Tanzania and also to address election problems that tend to exist in most African countries. The software is biometric based, which will enable disabled people for the first time to vote directly without assistance. I have also developed security software to deal with the threat of cybercrime in Africa and the lack of knowledge about security issues among ordinary computer users. This simple software will enable people to encrypt their data. And also we have a function that allows the data to self-destruct if they fall into the hands of a third party with a criminal mind.

AT & IT: Talking about the solution for elections in Africa, were you cognisant of the peculiarities in the different African countries to ensure seamless usage of the solution?

GM: I have developed the system based on the approaches that were initially implemented by the different governments on electronic elections. I have created software that suits all these approaches. For instance, the aim of every election is to have a clear, reliable and verifiable winner. And also to make sure that the election was not favouring any candidate or party. Therefore, based on my software, I have created software that will ensure a verifiable, reliable and transparent election. And also, based on the traditional system that is being used in different elections, it is a normal case to find a disabled person, for instance a visually impaired person, being assisted in voting.
But the feature of democracy is secrecy. No one should know the candidate you are voting for. I have thus created software that will enable even the disabled to vote directly and be sure of secrecy. It also removes the uncertainty whereby the person doing the assisting can tell the visually impaired voter that he or she has voted for candidate X while placing the thumb on candidate Y.
So I have tried to review different policies and systems used at elections, and the similarities so that the system could be modified to suit the needs of every party.

AT & IT: Does the solution have an inbuilt security system so that it will not be compromised if it is being modified?

GM: Yes I have security system. But rather than an inbuilt security system, it is an encryption security system that has four different algorithms that will make it almost impossible to crack the patent in the timeframe of the election. Election is normally between five to seven days maximum but the encryption system itself cannot be broken in 20 to 30 years. Apart from the four different algorithms, it and also has an entirely new architecture that has never been used elsewhere.
Systems are cracked because they have been deployed somewhere else. So someone has the entire knowledge of the architecture. This time it is a new architecture. It is a new algorithm and it is also implemented by Africans. We have not adopted a Western encryption system, which is just like a black box – you don’t know what is running back and forth in the background. Our system it will reassure users. When I am cutting out this box it is going to the person that has ordered it.

AT & IT: When you talk about enhanced security system, don’t forget that in the ICT world things happen by the minute and techies continue to devise ways and means to be ahead of the latest devices. What makes this system immune to technology fraudsters?

GM: Because the system has proforical algorithm. It is because the function changes from time to time. This is because every time the system is deployed it automatically comes up with a new security feature: algorithm architecture. So if you try crack the security architecture, by the time you are deploying the crack or trying to compromise the system it would have changed. That is what makes it different from other the systems that normally have signature.
If you are a super genius and you could crack the code, it will be a totally new when you are implementing or trying it out on a system. It is like you have learnt to drive a car and at the test drive you were given a jet to fly. You will have to go back again to learn how to fly a jet. And when you come you are given a train.

AT & IT: Does it transform itself automatically with every usage?

GM: Yes.

AT & IT: One fundamental problem in Africa is power. What kind of power architecture has been put in place to drive this functionality?

GM: This solution has been built to accommodate external power resources such as solar energy and could still allow the system to be used 100 per cent efficiently. Therefore, based on the Africa power problem, the system works with power generating locations and accommodates solar power and can perform on a 100 per cent rotation basis. It is design to accommodate external resources that are suitable for the African environment, with less power consumption.

AT & IT: On which operating system has this solution been designed to function?

GM: On a compatibility basis, the system is a computer application and it runs on Windows Operating system. That is the architecture that we have started with but the system will be upgraded and transformed to another operating system.

AT & IT: Most innovators in Africa are usually confronted with the challenge of funding to back up their innovations. Do you wish to share your experience with us?

GM: Innovation starts with an idea. Then, approaching someone and telling him that you have an idea that might change the world and change the way things work is really an issue. There is a question that is always asked: can you really do the thing that you are talking about?
I started this as an idea, but then I started implementing it slowly on the basis of building a prototype. After building the prototype, I wouldn’t say that I didn’t encounter problems when I approached the authorities because for an election system you don’t just approach anyone. You must have the authority’s backing. So I approached the authorities and it was really just delays until I approached the Commissioner of Science and Technology. This is where the project started. Five of us started and we are now almost 20.
The system was first deployed on a small scale. We started pilot programmes in schools and from there on the government, which is the main client of the solution, decided to push for this innovation. And we really thank the Tanzanian government because it is supporting young innovators.
Even other African governments are beginning to see the potential of young innovators in Africa who can match those in the Western world. There are many Bill Gates in Africa and they just need to be spotted and nurtured so that, one day, systems from Africa can be exported to the rest of the world.

AT & IT: From your experience of this deployment what are the shortfalls that you have noticed in the course of its implementation and your plans to remedy the noticeable glitches?

GM: There are challenges that we are facing. Basically, there is one party that wants to deploy the system and another that does not want to. People still don’t believe that Africans can successfully operate an electronic voting system. We hold the belief that the electronic voting system is only suitable for the Western societies.
But to tell you the truth, electronic voting is based on reliability and transparency and, of course, it is also cost effective. The main challenge is that people are yet to accept that Africa is ready for electronic voting.

AT & IT: With this would you say that what you have innovated is foolproof?

GM: Yes, it is foolproof solution. It is a solution that announces Africa’s readiness for the 21st century and is ready and active and ready to deploy anything that accommodates and suits its needs.

AT & IT: How do you think the elements of doubts can be countered?

GM: The element of doubt usually arises because of where the product comes from. But this is an African solution made by Africans.

AT & IT: In which election will the solution be deployed?

GM: We are starting with regional elections on a small scale. The main target is for the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. Once the system passes through the necessary certification, the system will be deployed.

AT & IT: What did it cost you to put this solution in place?

GM: Let me say that the most expensive investment in the system is knowledge. We had a composition of engineers, a team of programmers, a composition of different people, and different expertise in order for the system to address the problem we are trying to solve. So apart from knowledge, we had to rely on biometric machines that could take the details for the scenario that we were trying to create. It is difficult to put a figure on the solution but the government has provided sponsorship that has been very helpful.

AT & IT: What are your plans for making the system a commercial success?

GM: For now, it is not a commercial thing; it is more of a problem solving approach. Commercially, the system would be sold at a price that that could be affordable by many African nations.