Africans need to grow technology, but on their own terms

Thursday July 20 2017

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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Technology, together with all the disruptions it causes, has secured a big part in narratives, norms and visions for Africa’s future.

The past half-decade alone has been an interesting showcase of the proven and the possible, and with it has come a set of narratives about the future of African technology that merit further discussion, and in some cases, debunking.

Here, I will discuss a few that, for me, range from the problematic to the outrageous, as well as those we need to build upon.

Who predicts, assesses and influences African tech narratives ?

In many a tech conference in or on or about Africa, it is still somehow ‘normal’ to find that it is white men and women speaking, analysing, predicting, and in many ways, shaping the narrative about technology in Africa.

The same applies for several of the influential research and policy outputs. Some may argue that, well, she or he who pays the piper calls the tune.

As someone recently quipped, it seems that with any new idea or proposal in Kenya, specifically, but perhaps applicable to much of the continent, the go-to response is, "Who will fund it?"

So off we go, to seek those funds, to facilitate our tech future. This could perhaps be emboldening these Africa experts, speaking about how technology 'X' will disrupt or shape the lives of Africans. Without a hint of irony, this not only seems to be normalising, but also acceptable.

Yet, who knows our contexts better than ourselves? We Africans are then brought in to affirm these set narratives, to be showcased as examples of how the predictions and trends, from elsewhere, by non-Africans, are coming alive.

Closer home, this narrative and norm is being challenged, or at least registering protestation. Our policymakers would do well to heed this.

One is more likely to gain access to our own policymakers, legislators and regulators abroad, in these cushy conferences and ‘thought leadership’ gatherings, where they lap up these perspectives that we’ve hardly had a role in shaping, and with a begging bowl at hand.

It is fundamentally problematic and I hope that these protestations continue to manifest until we go back to the drawing board and really question who is predicting, assessing, influencing and shaping our tech narratives, and resulting policies, plans and investments.

I would propose a simple yardstick: whoever will be at the helm of our tech-related ministries (which go beyond ICT and include Trade and Industrialisation, Education and Finance, to name a few) must engage just as much with local tech ecosystem players as they do with foreigners, here or abroad, in collecting insights right from base level.

It is not sufficient to have strategies, policies and other instruments shaped by foreigners, then have them brought to a rushed validation process by the locals. Somehow, it’s always very urgent at this last stage, when we were hardly involved in the formative stages.

(2) Africa (and Africans) lacks digital skills

This reductionist statement that is the stuff of keynotes, reports and policy outlooks needs to be nipped in the bud until it is further qualified.

At the very least, it is a blanket insult to the many talented young men and women on this continent, and specifically to home-grown African talent, people who are born, raised and schooled on the continent.

A common recommendation to address this skills gap is usually to attract Africans from the diaspora, who are automatically placed higher in the pecking order.

Recently, I came across an absurd justification for this. The suggestion read, in part, that the “(African) diaspora and their local knowledge [are] privileged development partners (and should be drawn upon to plug the skills gap)”.

Until this lack of digital skills is qualified and also calibrated against the numerous initiatives on ICT skills, digital literacy and even reskilling efforts for those who have already gone through our formal education systems, there should be a moratorium placed on this fundamentally flawed narrative.

While it may not be easy or automatic to draw local tech talent to local start-ups and even multinationals, the response can’t surely be that Africans are not talented, so let’s bring in the diaspora and expatriates meanwhile.

The diaspora community is definitely important and has a role to play, but if the narrative evokes the thinking that people from the diaspora are ‘better’ than local Africans, it creates a dangerous pitting game that will not bode well for sustainable tech ecosystems across this continent.

(3) A mobile-first continent

Africans are primarily plugged to the World Wide Web and all its offerings via mobile. For millions, it is the first mode of connection. But as we gear up for digital futures where work will primarily be online, we need to deeply assess how this mobile-first inclusion is translating, or will translate, into meaningful use of the web for economic empowerment.

For example, take the Ajira Digital Platform in Kenya, which the government has championed as an online workplace that will create jobs for tech-savvy youth in this country.

Without the benefit of a strategy or policy document, I am limited in my knowledge of the kinds of jobs available, or the set targets for how many youth are expected to post jobs or seek jobs on the site.

However, questions that I keep asking include: Just how many of those jobs can be performed on a mobile phone? How much internet bandwidth would an online worker on the Ajira platform require to complete the tasks? What is the cost-benefit analysis of input vs output and remuneration?

Is the mobile device they have able to actually conduct all the tasks they will be assigned? If these tasks require one to be working on a desktop computer or laptop, how accessible are these tools to each worker registered on the platform?

Some people argue that the nature of work will indeed change or adapt to the mobile-first environment. Here, I must add that one of the most interesting 'second-layer' narratives to 'Africa is a mobile-first continent' is the creation and use of apps for pretty much anything.

Well, how many of those apps can and are being created off these same devices? Just how much creating and contributing to the internet ecosystem are people empowered to do via a mobile device?

Mobile, indeed is a great tool for digital inclusion. Yet, once we are all included, will we be 'equal' in the diverse online ecosystem in terms of creating, contributing, inventing or tweaking how the vast array of products or services available in the online world work?

Or will we primarily be consumers, who at best contribute, or create, on already created platforms such as social media ? Will that be the extent of our creation and contribution, given the mobile-first approach to connectivity?

These are a few urgent questions that need to be assessed by those of us dipped in our contexts, not to be shaped by onlookers. It should be for our researchers, entrepreneurs, policymakers to assess, and articulate.

It is urgent that we qualify the 'Africa as a mobile-first' narrative, and weigh the pros and cons and what they mean for the future of employment, job creation and meaningful, equal digital participation as with the rest of the world.

Yes, Africa is rising, and the future of tech in Africa is promising. But who is dictating the terms? For whom is it rising?

Twitter: @NiNanjira