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Comfortable in his space: Tale of a local innovator

LINDUNDA during a presentation.

By NKOLE NKOLE
LUKONGA Lindunda knows not to waste a pure chance. For some, they come not at all and for the child of retirees, they come not so often.
Most recently this chance came for Lukonga via President Barrack Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), which is a long-term effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders and strengthen partnerships between the United States and Africa.
As the last-born in a family of six, it is his parents’ retirement fund that sent him to university. There was no other avenue for him to get a higher education other than through the retirement fund, so he made the most of it.
As the son of a police officer and an accounts officer, Lukonga’s background was modest.
“At the time I was going to university, my dad had just retired and my mum later on retired, so you could say that I finished most of my parents’ money,” Lukonga shared.
He recalls a joke that still runs in his family which makes light of the reality that by the time he was born, there was hardly any money left in his family.
Lukonga had therefore only to imagine that his father once had three cars and had been a well-connected police officer. For all he knew, these could all have just been stories although they were nonetheless entertaining and made him reflect on an interesting family period.
He was born and entirely reared in the Copperbelt town of Ndola and first attended a Catholic school, from where he did his pre-school education.
He sailed through his primary and secondary school years thanks to his good grades and eventually completed his secondary education at Kansenshi Secondary School in Ndola in the year 2000.
“Initially I wanted to study accounts at university because for me it was simple and so I thought once I got to university, I could become an accountant but then I decided to go for computer science instead,” Lukonga said.
You could say that a computer also had a part to play in this decision. To be precise, it was a Compaq Presario desktop that was running Windows 95 software.
His parents somehow managed to acquire this second-hand computer, which Lukonga eventually upgraded from Windows 95 software to Windows XP.
“It ran very slowly,” he recalled. “But, interestingly, a friend of mine who now runs a recording studio in Ndola actually used to come home and use this old computer to record digital music.”
As a result, Lukonga believes the old computer probably inspired a lot more people than just himself.
Even though he had the chance to study at both the University of Zambia (UNZA) and the Copperbelt University (CBU), his parents sent him to study at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in South Africa. It was a sacrifice they were willing to make for their last- born child.
In his first year at university, he won a top student award in the Faculty of Science and there were a number of other awards to follow afterwards.
Lukonga’s years at university, however, were not without struggle. His initial two years went by relatively smoothly but then the credit crunch happened and it messed up his plans to study beyond his degree programme.
“There were also not enough scholarships available, so when I finished university, I came back and started looking for a job,” Lukonga explained.
The first job he took on was at Dove Computing in Kitwe. This was after he had sent CV after CV to different organisations.
This marketing job, however did not last longer than a week. Lukonga was told by his employer that he was too qualified for the kind of job he was doing.
“I used to move from Ndola to Kitwe to actually go to work, so after a week I was jobless again,” Lukonga said.
A few months later he moved to Lusaka to look for work but hardly knew of any companies that were employing software developers then.
Eventually, he landed a job with the ICT Resource Foundation, where he was once again told he could not be paid what he deserved and so history repeated itself and he left.
In 2009 he saw an opportunity at a USAID-funded project and managed to get the job because his demands were lower than a lot of other people that had been interviewed for the same job.
It was his first real job,where he was responsible for recording and editing videos as well as designing different educational materials. These materials were packaged together with solar panels and batteries for use in rural areas.
Through the experience, Lukonga began to see the opportunities for innovation and how technology could help in serious circumstances.
“I would wonder how to actually help someone in a rural area who doesn’t have access to a TV or radio,” he recalled.
After a year and a half working as an IT and Communications coordinator and doing everything IT- related, he got another job with VVOB. The NGO was involved in education advocacy and building the capacities of teachers.
Working with community schools, teachers and students as well as colleges of education, he learnt of holistic methods to help make education more effective through technology use.
A Belgian colleague called Bart, whom Lukonga worked with at VVOB had a similar interest as Lukonga’s, which was the creation of a platform where local innovations could be harnessed and made relevant.
Lukonga approached two of his friends, Silumesii Maboshe and Simunza Muyangana, who were equally passionate about creating this platform, and the partnership led to the birth of the innovation hub BongoHive in May 2011.
Its main purpose was to provide a place where the local tech community could meet to share experiences, organise trainings and network.
It was also meant to specifically connect different aspects that would enable someone with a business idea or innovation to bring it to life.
This year Lukonga saw the opportunity to attend a fellowship at Yale University through YALI 2014. He was one of 21 Zambians chosen to take part in the YALI programme and out of the 25 different countries represented at Yale, he was the only Zambian.
“My goal for going on the programme was to learn about the entrepreneurship eco-system and how it was that various stakeholders had put together an environment which made it so easy for someone who had an idea to make it happen,” Lukonga shared.
He also had the opportunity to interact with big technology players like Google and IBM and see how they could help in capacity building through the provision of some of their technologies.
“Even at Yale we were looking at opportunities for some of their graduates to come and work with BongoHive or some of the start-ups here,” Lukonga said.
Last year, Lukonga was invited back to NMMU to speak about BongoHive and found himself speaking before some of his old lecturers.
“It’s always interesting when you see that I actually went back to talk to some of my former lecturers,” he shared with amusement.
At the end of his YALI 2014 fellowship, Lukonga was given the opportunity to give a talk at Yale University during a panel discussion on Citizen Engagement Using Technology at the Presidential Summit for Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.
Sitting on a panel with representatives from corporations such as Google, IBM, Yahoo and Mozilla, Lukonga gave a talk on innovation spaces.
He said they were places that looked to the future and were able to influence the present. Thinking about this deeply later, he felt it was actually profound.
“I meant that sometimes people don’t understand innovation hubs like BongoHive because some things that they work on may not make sense in the present but may have relevance in the future,” Lukonga explained.
And so, as the continent of Africa continues to rise and loosen from the shackles of overdependence on the West, this upward movement is represented by the entrepreneurial spirit of individuals like Lukonga Lindunda, who seems perfectly comfortable in his own space.

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