Creating technology that gives power to city residents

Kwesi Afrifa arrived at MIT in 2020 from Accra, Ghana, with the intention of pursuing a dual degree in urban planning and computer science. Growing up in a bustling city, he often noticed areas where urban life could be optimized. To tackle these issues, he decided to combine his passion for computing and coding to create software tools for city planners.

Now a senior, Afrifa is working with the City Form Lab and collaborating with Andres Sevstuk on an open-source Python tool that enables researchers and policymakers to analyze pedestrian behavior. This package, set to launch next month, will make it easier for city planners and researchers to study how a city’s structural characteristics impact walkability and the pedestrian experience.

During his initial two years at MIT, Afrifa worked in the Civic Data Design Lab, lead by Associate Professor Sarah Williams. In this role, he assisted in creating sensing tools and developing an online portal for internet access and survey research for residents of Kibera, Nairobi.

Upon graduation, Afrifa will work as a software engineer at a New York startup. In the future, he aspires to establish his own company that focuses on building urban data tools for integration into mapping and location-based software applications.

He quotes, “I view it as my responsibility to enhance the efficiency of city systems, strengthen the bond between residents and their communities, and improve the overall experience for everyone, including marginalized groups.”

“Cities hold a unique significance”

Afrifa firmly believes that technology plays a vital role in accelerating urban development and empowering citizens within these settings.

He witnessed technology’s unifying power during high school when he created ghanabills.com, a website that aggregated parliamentary bills in Ghana, allowing easy access to information and providing a platform for discussion. Afrifa describes this technology as a “democratizing force.”

Afrifa also explored the connection between cities and communities as an executive member of Code for Good, an MIT program that connects students interested in software with non-profit organizations in the Boston area. In this role, he mentored students and assisted in pairing them with suitable non-profit organizations.

Language and representation

Furthermore, Afrifa places importance on sharing African languages and cultures. In his first two years at MIT, he co-founded the Mandla app with other African students across the country. The app aimed to revitalize African languages and make them more accessible to the broader diaspora through gamified lessons, voice translations, and interactive features. At its peak, the app had 50,000 daily active users.

Although the Mandla app is no longer available due to funding constraints, Afrifa continues to promote African culture at MIT. He is currently collaborating with graduate students TJ Bayowa and Courage Kpodo on a project titled “A Tale of Two Coasts,” which explores the connections between African art, identity, and perceptions across two Atlantic coastlines. This ongoing collaboration holds potential for expansion beyond MIT.

Exploring the arts

Afrifa has had an affinity for literature and poetry since childhood. Encouraged by his literary-loving parents, he immersed himself in the Accra theater and art scene. Although he did not anticipate continuing these interests at MIT, his involvement with the Black Theater Guild (BTG) changed his trajectory.

The BTG, which was active at MIT from the 1990s to around 2005, was revived by Afrifa during his sophomore year. Professor Jay Scheib, head of Music and Theater Arts at MIT, motivated him to write, direct, and produce more of his work after completing his final project for 21M.710 (Script Analysis), a dramaturgy class taught by Scheib.

Since then, the BTG has staged two productions: “Nkrumah’s Last Day” in spring 2022 and “Shooting the Sheriff” in spring 2023. Both plays were written and directed by Afrifa. He expresses his joy in conceptualizing ideas, crafting stories, and witnessing a community of individuals come together to produce them.

When asked about his plans for theater post-graduation, Afrifa responds, “That’s definitely the goal.”

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