“Germany can learn from entrepreneurial spirit”

Katja Böhler explains in an interview why German-African cooperation in the digital field is so productive.

Stiftung Partnerschaft mit Afrika e.V./Torsten Seidel - Katja Böhler

Ms Böhler, your foundation promotes civil-society engagement in Germany and Africa. Why does digitisation play such an important role in many of your projects?

Digital media, especially the internet, allow limitless communication and offer a wide range of instruments for civil-soci­ety actors to find like-minded people to join their cause and to spread information. Accordingly, media literacy today is key to the success of civil-society collaborations.

When it comes to civil-society engagement, should there not be different projects for Germany and Africa?

Working on joint projects is at the very core of our special partnership-based approach. For us, German-African cooperation means that both sides are on an equal footing from the outset when it comes to formulating targets and needs, developing ideas and planning projects. In our organisation, people do not come together primarily as Germans and Africans, but as experts and people interested in things that are important to them and determine their everyday life. This means that our projects are built on a sustainable foundation that is cemented by personal relations. We believe that such cooperation is also possible and makes sense in many more areas than is generally believed.

What can innovative information and communication technologies (ICT) achieve, especially in the civil-society field?

They allow German-African collaborations that would otherwise not be possible due to the distance between us and even greater financial and administrative hurdles to personal encounters. Our Fieldworks project is a good example of this. For several months our Fieldworkers – a group of volunteer, amateur researchers in Berlin and Cotonou (Benin) – intensely studied the relationship between urban and rural areas, especially concepts for socially and ecologically sustainable global food systems. This exchange would have been impossible without the internet. By the way, to date our network incorporates 25 African countries, including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

How much do digital infrastructures differ between Germany and Africa?

Here, too, common assumptions often don’t tie up with reality – and that applies to both sides. The African continent is in the fast lane in the field of mobile com­munications. As a result, the infrastructure for our work is often better than people in Germany might think. For their part, our African partners would certainly be surprised to find out that computer skills among German school kids are only about middle-of-the-road by international comparison and that, on average, the ratio in our schools is eleven students to one PC. Both sides benefit from joint projects.

One of your projects – Pixels Instead of Chalk – focuses on the digital revolution in the classroom – what exactly is your aim?

In a wide range of workshops we provide teachers with knowledge and skills that enable them to use and pass on the classroom possibilities of the digital media. In addition to communicating media literacy, intercultural and global learning is at the centre of this Germany-wide series of events. The participants are offered a platform where they can exchange views on digital innovations in education. These encounters help to build innovation partnerships in the ICT field. We promote the potential of digital Africa and, conversely, learn from the progress made by our African partners.

In October 2014 you organised the First German-African ICT Start-up Fair in Berlin. What potential do you see in joint start-ups?

An ever-larger group of innovative, tech­nically well-trained entrepreneurs and developers is developing in many parts of Africa. Every year sees the launch of many new co-working spaces, business incub­ators and ICT hubs, where they meet, exchange ideas and try out new things. And not only in Nairobi and Cape Town. Now we in Germany are also experiencing a boom in the ICT start-up scene. However, we know that Germany can learn a lot from African entrepreneurship and invent­iveness. This is exactly where we come 
in: we bring together ICT developers, inventors, company founders and investors from Germany and Africa to mutually create added value. Ideas are exchanged, potential solutions reviewed and discussed, collaborations and joint ventures begun.

One important element of the Start-up Fair is the ICT@frica Start-ups, which you fund directly. What teams have been formed?

Since 2013 we have been working on bringing German and African company founders together in teams, so that they can jointly develop innovative ideas and profitably implement them in a new German-African company. Ten German-African start-up teams have formed so far in sectors such as automotive, refrigeration, inventory management, irrigation, engin­eering, solar and wind power, as well as sanitary and electrical engineering.

Which German-African project do you personally find especially exciting?

I find the AquaCubus idea impressive. The start-up team wants to build up a pilot project for bioenergetically sustain­able aquaponic fish farms in Cote d’Ivoire and Brandenburg. Aquaponics is a technique that uses a closed water and nutrient cycle to combine crop cultivation with fish farming – generating enormous efficiency gains. It can even be used to generate excess energy. ▪

Interview: Clara Görtz