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The Big Question: What Role Should Technology Play in Africa's Development?

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From the Winter issue "Africa's Moment"

What Role Should Technology Play in Africa's Development?

Technology is the touchstone of development. Acquiring advanced technologies helped boot-strap China and India out of the economic doldrums in a generation. Across Europe and North America, it’s maintained the West’s economic, social, cultural, political, and military leadership. Yet for decades, Africa was perceived as having been left behind. Now, as mobile technology spreads across Africa, innovative ways of using technology are transforming almost every sector of life. We have asked our panel of global experts to weigh in on what role technology should play in the development of Africa.



Kaakpema Yelpaala: "Health by Phone"

The mobile phone has become an increasingly powerful tool to improve health care by facilitating data collection, enhancing patient engagement, and supporting community health workers. Mobile health in Africa has been flooded by donor dollars financing short-term, small-scale initiatives. While these resources can be catalytic, they are limited in driving product innovation and allowing the private sector to flourish locally. Many such programs use open source solutions to collect data, remind patients to visit the health clinic for their HIV treatment, and enable quality care through better access to information for health workers.

It is a mistake to think that donor-funded projects are the only solution. Technology’s central role in Africa’s transformation suggests an economic model that will drive its dissemination through private business. As the middle class continues to grow and demand high quality health services, we will see an enhanced opportunity for private sector actors to drive technological innovation in the health sector in Africa. The demand for consumer health applications from health insurance companies and health-savvy consumers will increase, creating opportunities to leverage mobile technology to meet consumer health needs. We have started seeing this trend in developed markets and in African markets with large populations and growing middle classes, such as in Nigeria and South Africa.

Kaakpema Yelpaala, a Ghanaian-American social entrepreneur, founded, a mobile technology company in Kampala, Uganda and Denver, Colorado.


Elron B. Awase: "Technology for Development"

Technology has been part of Africa’s development for centuries. We have seen the tremendous benefits telecommunication has brought to Africa, especially through wireless technologies, which have transformed our businesses into mobile and global enterprises. We now have faster, real-time access to information about our performance, markets, and customer perceptions. This data helps us make swift decisions, improving our service and delivery. We also have the opportunity to place our products and services in a more competitive global market, comparing ourselves to similar companies around the world.

Our software solutions, telecommunication technology, workstations, and mobile devices have changed our entire business model—from the conventional large office structure to virtual mobile working units. At the same time, we’ve reduced our fixed expenses and increased sales through virtual offices and cloud central database warehousing. We have seen an increase in startups, with similar virtual office concepts. This accelerating transformation shows the role technology has played in developing local markets and how it is increasing the demand for faster and advanced technologies. Thus, it is important to ensure the benefits of southern African technological development and the value it adds to everyday operations and lives. 

Elron B. Awase, managing director of Tesla Energy Solutions, a Namibia-based company dedicated to pursuing energy efficient technologies, runs Mondesa Youth Opportunities, a nonprofit after-school program.


Riitta Vänskä: "Learning Mobility"

Mobile learning will play a central role in Africa’s educational development, providing equal access to quality learning regardless of place, gender, and age. It help the population to overcome urban/rural education gaps by allowing teaching materials, resources, and student communication to travel long distances, creating an environment of interactive learning. Mobile learning will also help Africa move toward “Education for All”—a key UN Millennium Development Goal—offering 24/7 access to materials and extending learning outside the school building.

Many African countries suffer from high unemployment and a dysfunctional education sector. Mobile learning can fill this void by delivering high quality and reliable content for learners and teachers—empowering low income learners to access high quality education and to aspire for a brighter future.

Riitta Vänskä, project manager of Nokia’s Mobile Mathematics initiative, is a senior manager for mobile and learning solutions in sustainability operations, based in Helsinki.


Jepchumba: "Digital Art"

Before the African Digital Art Network (ADAN) was created, few would have put the words “Africa,” “Digital,” and “Art” together. Africa is rarely seen from a digital perspective. Rather, it’s seen as stuck in the past. However, as Africa’s recent developments in mobile technology show, we are great early adopters. ADAN has presented unparalleled ideas, works, and design solutions by the African creative community—a platform with a sophisticated blend of fresh talent and successful, seasoned designers and artists. As more artists are exposed to digital technology, they are also exposed to new tools to change the way we perceive Africa. Art has powerful importance here—the potential to transcend barriers and resources. With a host of untold stories, art is able to help African communities express and share their stories and experiences. Art, especially digital art, is a form of ingenuity that often fosters innovation. Through creative exercise, new solutions are brought to light that often help empower individuals to improve their communities.

Digital art expressions are growing rapidly across Africa. Young people are experimenting with interactive technologies, motion, video, and sound, as more Africans continue to push beyond digital boundaries.

Jepchumba is the Kenya-born founder of the African Digital Art Network. Her art utilizes digital technology and social media.


Philip Parker: "Reaching Africa’s Farmers"

How long does state-of-the-art “best practice” knowledge get to Africa’s smallholder farmers? One estimate is 40 years. Without the next revolution of localized content embraced by the Grameen Foundation in Uganda, Farmer Voice Radio in Malawi, the GSM Association in Mali, or Farm Radio International across the continent, this lag might persist for generations.

The economics of publishing in a small language means fewer titles for the vast number of Africa’s local languages. The lack of content is crippling to farmers who have yet to hear a weather report for their local village in their native tongue. The latest information on weather, soil conditions, plant pests and diseases, livestock management, and market prices is crucial content that is in very short supply.

This problem is being tackled by NGOs, private volunteer organizations, telecom operators, and others seeking scalable models that can cut across all languages in one shot. Universal wisdom, scalable at low cost, presented in whatever format is required by the end-users—FM radios, mobile phones, or printed materials designed to apply scientific management strategies to achieve high volume production of content in local African languages—will be key in the very near future.

Philip Parker, the INSEAD Chair Professor of Management Science, based in Fontainebleau, France, is working on content automation projects with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their partners in Africa and Asia.


T.B. Joshua: "Transmitting Religion"

Technology affects all aspects of human life. Its role in Africa’s religious development cannot be overemphasized. The gospel of Christ is preached to the world through television, films, programs, and encounters. This process has helped us at The Synagogue Church Of All Nations to reach millions of people. Most importantly, it brings attention to certain issues to which Christians and motivated individuals have the opportunity to address their commitment, energy, and resources. When the church was founded, we had little access to such technology. We had to depend on occasional campaigns, radio announcements, and columns in a few Nigerian weekly or daily publications.

In the future, technology will continue to grow—through e-books and Facebook, which provide greater access to Christianity. This technological growth will result in audiences having a heightened sensibility and a stronger awareness of religion. It will also engineer a new passion and respect for religious worship among more people on all continents, creating opportunities for local and global interactions and a sense of unity. That way, people all over the world can learn about what they can do to assist the needy, poor, widows/widowers, and the physically challenged. Free and easy communication is thus possible between these viewers and the church in Africa through e-mail, telephone services, and the Internet.

Temitope Balogun (T.B.) Joshua is a religious leader based in Lagos, Nigeria. He serves as the General Overseer of The Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN).


Saheed Adepoju & Anibe Agamah: "Power to the People"

The role of technology in Africa’s development is to give power to the people—not electricity, which remains one of the continent’s biggest challenges, but rather the power to enable citizens to create a better future for themselves, free from continuous dependence on foreign aid and ineffective government. Mobile Internet technology would drastically improve our economic standing within the world economy, since higher Internet penetration is directly proportional to increasing economic growth. In the next few years, Africa and its technology sector will attract even more investment than foreign aid—creating a different type of economy.

The growth of mobile devices on the continent represents a move toward putting technological tools in people’s hands, transforming their daily lives while the economy improves. Most people’s first experience with the Internet is now on a mobile device. Imagine a school where every student had a portable tablet computer connected to the Internet—serving as a notebook, dictionary, calculator, and all the textbooks the child would ever need. Never would they be out of date, while delivering learning through audio or video channels. In this fashion alone, technology can help close the knowledge gap between Africa and the rest of the world. Replicate this across communities and eventually more people are educated and better equipped to sustain themselves. Technology provides Africans with the power to foster sustainable development.

Saheed Adepoju and Anibe Agamah are Nigerian co-founders of Encipher, a technology development company.


Idris Bello: "Revolution or Evolution"

For millions of ordinary Africans, it is not solely the availability of technology that might be expected to translate into development. Rather, it is the ability of bright, independent, and tech savvy entrepreneurs—or Afropreneurs—to harness technology to solve the pressing problems that plague everyday life, leading eventually to development. Revolution may kick-start the process, but technological evolution is the key to ensuring lasting gains.

Four steps are crucial in ensuring that technology can enable long-term development on the continent. First is transforming the educational system in most African countries, now focused on paper certification and producing job-seekers, into one that can create a new generation of innovators. Such a system in Africa must emphasize critical thinking, technical skills, computer programming, and entrepreneurship, not rote learning. Second is to build incubators that encourage innovators to focus on demand-driven applications that can be turned into viable businesses. Third is the need for governments to start massive investments in people and technology that support environments able to foster development and transform Africa’s business environment.

Government’s role includes investing in infrastructure required for the proliferation of new businesses while building a strong legal framework and reducing bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Finally, collaboration is key. Africa’s problems are big and require bold ideas. More importantly, they require the collaboration of a host of entrepreneurs to create solutions. We call this process, when like minds develop new ideas or solutions through purely collaborative work, “wennovation,” replacing the “i” in innovation with “we” to emphasize the collaborative future of Afrocentric entrepreneurship.

Idris Ayodeji Bello is a Lagos-based Afropreneur dedicated to developing technology-driven platforms for social enterprises across Africa. 


[Compiled by Hallie Golden, Sarah Lipkis, and Victoria Rau]

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