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Young Kenyans Build Mobile Apps For Local Use

You're out navigating the jammed sidewalks of Kenya's capital city when you suddenly realize you're in desperate need of a toilet. You crane your neck over the crowds, vainly seeking a McDonalds, a Starbucks — no such luck. What next?

There could be an app for that. Twendeloo, which is Swahili for "Let's Go to the Loo," would allow you to use your phone to locate the nearest public restroom in Nairobi's business district, then give it a rating for cleanliness.

Twendeloo is still only an idea in the mind of its developer, Andrew Moro, one of the young Kenyans competing in a "mobile apps garage showcase" this weekend in Nairobi for prizes and seed money from Samsung.

College students fresh off their exams and recent university graduates crammed the top floor of a downtown tech hub for the competition, organized by the women technologist collective known as Akirachix and built around the theme "Solutions for the Next Billion Mobile Users." Africa has more than 600 million mobile phone users (approximately 11 percent of the global total). As that number increases, there is expected to be increasing demand for apps developed by and for Africans.

Eric Wasambo, a child of farmers, took a five-hour bus ride from Kisumu to pitch an app to help subsistence farmers select the best seeds for their soil and climate and thus lift themselves more quickly out of poverty.

Another would-be developer ventured into thorny Kenyan politics with his app JuaKatibaYako: Know Your Constitution.

"People complain that our constitution is written in language that's hard to understand," explained Eric Wesonga to the four judges and a crowd of 20-somethings tweeting the event. His app would allow Kenyans to use their phones to search the text of the country's constitution annotated with links decoding the juridical jargon.

During a break between pitches, I sat next to a man huddled over his laptop making last-minute tweaks to his PowerPoint slides. Boniface Muganda, an unemployed computer science graduate from the University of Nairobi, said he had the day before won first place in a Google-sponsored hackathon to create an Android app for an order-and-delivery service for Nairobi restaurants. Now, he was hoping to win a prize in this Samsung competition as well with an app "to help Kenyans find cheap and affordable housing for rent or purchase."

The mic was temporarily handed over to Samsung's East Africa mobile division business leader Manoj Changarampatt.

"I'm still waiting for the next big breakthrough," he said. "And I urge you all to get your ideas to market as soon as possible."

The students listened patiently to the Samsung rep whose up-vote could help them do just that.

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