Sauti East Africa: Students Use Tech to Increase Legal, Safe, and Profitable Trade in Africa

At Lambda School, up-and-coming software engineers have the opportunity to partner with for-good organizations on meaningful projects that are making a difference in communities across the world through a program called Lambda Co-op. These Co-op projects allow Lambda students and recent graduates to gain real-world experience, and provide web development services that help achieve positive social and environmental change. Today, we’re highlighting the work Lambda students are doing with an organization called Sauti East Africa, and one stand-out project that is making a big difference across East Africa.  

The Sauti Impact

Sauti East Africa is a non-profit organization that empowers entrepreneurs in East Africa to trade legally, safely, and profitably in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. Within these East African economies, cross-border trade creates jobs, contributes to food and energy security, and alleviates poverty. Still, many traders, a majority of whom are women, face corruption and a lack of information, leading to a loss of profits. 

“Unfortunately these traders don’t often have the technology or capacity to get consistent access to the information they need,” said Lance Hadley, CTO and co-founder of Sauti. “They often don’t have smartphones or consistent access to the internet. Without that they can’t look up official trade procedures, market information [like] prices of goods they are trading or exchange rates [and] can’t make the best economic decisions.”

In response, Sauti launched a mobile-based platform on the Kenya Uganda border where traders with any type of phone could SMS Sauti’s short code and navigate through a series of menus to access pertinent trading information. 

Traders are commonly unaware of their rights and the required customs, procedures, and documentation involved in cross-border trade, making them vulnerable to abusive practices. Sauti helps to simplify access to this information using mobile-based trading tools and platforms to report incidents of corruption and harassment, and has facilitated 30,000 information requests from 4,500 cumulative users across the region.

With help from Lambda Co-op and Social Impact Manager Jessica Wilkinson, Lambda partnered with Sauti to develop four unique projects to improve usability and reach of the platform, including incorporating new tools and technologies. 

These projects include:

  • Sauti Databank, which looks at key trade demographics.
  • Sauti Design Studio, which is empowering inexperienced content creators to build their own text-based apps.
  • Sauti Market Prices, which provides real-time market prices for traders.
  • Sauti Android App, which converts Sauti’s existing SMS app into an android version with enhanced features and functionality.

Initially, Wilkinson reached out to Hadley to explore a potential partnership. According to Hadley, he got excited about the opportunity to innovate and grow beyond his knowledge base as a CTO. 

“We were transitioning from a small to a medium-sized business, and Lambda offered the ability to test our ideas and capacity,” Hadley said. “In the startup space, you have to do a lot for yourself, so I appreciated the teamwork and figuring things out together. Through having those good discussions I learned a lot.”

Wilkinson said she was excited to partner with Sauti because of the large user base and opportunities for Lambda to help expand their reach. According to Hadley, Sauti has reached almost 10,000 users and has plans to launch in Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and other areas within the East African Community (EAC) within the next year. Additionally, Sauti has been recognized as a finalist for the Google Impact Grant and has the continued support from the French Development Agency and other government donors.  

“I love that our students have an opportunity to work on apps that can create jobs, contribute to food security, and alleviate poverty,” Wilkinson said. “Since most cross-border traders are women, this directly impacts families including the education and health of children.” 

Sauti Android  

The Sauti Android project involved the creation of an Android app for the Sauti trade and market platform. This met the urban growth and population needs of the area, as more cross-border traders adopted Android technology. Lambda students converted all existing SMS features in the Android app, while adding new features such as favorites, recent searches, and a storage system to dynamically update information depending on the user’s connectivity. 

“Cross-border traders are unable to trade freely or safely when border procedures are hard to understand or not readily available,” said Troy Schennum, UI/UX Designer for Sauti Android. “Traders could be violating laws on restricted goods without even knowing it.”  

Schennum was drawn to the Sauti Android project not only because it provided an amazing learning opportunity for him, but because the project would make an impact by helping others. 

“I had been super impressed with the Android and iOS developers at Lambda, and wanted the experience designing an Android app,” he said. “There was a huge opportunity to conduct extensive research for this project and learn all about the East African Community culture and economy and the goals and frustrations of cross-border traders.”

Schennum learned that traders often do not use apps in their daily life aside from messaging apps such as WhatsApp, so the team would need to keep the Android platform simple and efficient. Additionally, their research uncovered that most users would not sign up for apps, so they would need to create full functionality without an account. 

“There is little WiFi infrastructure in the EAC,” Schennum said.“People will buy data to do anything online because it’s much cheaper to buy than WiFi. Users will pull up the app then switch on their data, load what they need to and then switch the data back off.

To combat this issue, the Lambda team designed the app to work offline and enabled the platform to save data from searches locally while adding warnings to ensure users knew when their data was last updated. 

“The smartphones they do have are usually smaller or older versions. I added a dark and light mode to help with battery life and kept the size of the app small to help work on older Android versions,” he added. 

Although English is the official language of the East African Community, the Lambda team worked had to preserve local languages and culture within the platform as well, further demonstrating that Sauti cared for the cross-border traders and their culture. Schennum said he learned to avoid using confusing English words that aren’t used often in their region and culture, instead using simple labels and icons to guide interactions through the app.  

“In Kenya there are 42 local languages spoken and 56 in Uganda. We translated the app to Swahili and Luganda with built-in room for more languages to come,” Schennum said.  

Lambda student and Android Developer Patrick Martin found the exploration and research of international markets to be the most interesting part of the project and enjoyed developing creative solutions for the needs of countries with limited bandwidth ability and limited hardware. Martin said he is filled with gratitude for working with such a talented team.

“My team and I are satisfied with what we were able to produce and [amazed] that a three-person team was able to accomplish so much when projects like these are meant for five to seven people,” Martin said. “My experience working with a stakeholder was really informative and has helped considerably in my job search.”

The Lambda team is hopeful about the Android app outcomes, and have continued in a volunteer role with Sauti to help with usability testing and to implement small bug fixes. According to Schennum feedback has been very positive, and the organization has plans to deploy the final product in the field soon. He is confidant the new platform will increase overall usage and may have the potential to improve lives all across East Africa. 

“My hope is that the Android app will bring market intelligence to this next segment of people,” said Hadley. “When they progress out of that micro enterprise, like moving into a storefront, we are trying to open a channel to increase information. Ultimately, this will help with economic justice.”

You can explore the fully functional Sauti Android app here.

Want more info on Co-op projects? We’ll be sharing a new project every month, so be sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram to learn more about the ways Lambda School students are using tech to change the world. Interested in becoming a co-op partner? E-mail jessica.wilkinson@lambdaschool.com

For more information about Sauti East Africa, visit http://Sauti africa.org/

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