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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

The Status Quo and Radical Ideas

What so many of us discuss about Africa is the desire to see things change. We apply the lenses that color our lives to the problem and come up with solutions that fit our world view. Challenges to that world view are hard for us to deal with, because it likely means a paradigm shift is needed in our own lives.

The Status Quo is a Failure
However, there is one constant – we all agree that change is needed. The status quo is the polar opposite of change, and in Africa can be summed up like this:

Africa has poor infrastructure, bad governance and poverty and that donating your Western money or time will help save Africa because Africa can’t save itself.

What generally happens is that Western governments and organizations continue to pour billions of dollars of money and resources into the same programs that have failed Africa for the last 30 years. This actually proves out two major fallacies with the status quo. First, that change comes by doing the same thing over and over again. Second, that Africa needs the West to change.

As Gavin Chait so eloquently stated while discussing the informal sector in Africa:

If the same proto-society received material support and charitable donations at every step of its evolution it would be like a man in a wheel-chair. Should that support suddenly be cut then the society is helpless and will fall apart. There is no amount of charity or support that can be given to a long-term supplicant that doesn’t reinforce the need for that charity or support. The more charity available, the less opportunity there is for the recipient to become self-sufficient.

If we truly want to see things change, then the prerequisite is to stop doing things that don’t work. It doesn’t mean that those in the West can’t be involved in the change, it means that we need to give up ownership of the problem and start investing in the new owners – the Africans.

The Need for Radical Ideas
Ethan Zuckerman wrote a brilliant article for the Boston Globe this week about the power of incremental development in Africa by Africans. He uses the example of Alieu Conteh’s mobile phone carrier in the Democratic Rep of Congo to demonstrate how African infrastructure and economic wealth can be grown through starting small.

…But perhaps the solution is to go in the other direction: phone companies could become incremental power companies. If base stations built significantly larger power generators — preferably using renewable energy sources as well as diesel — they could sell excess power to their surrounding communities.

That’s a radical idea, primarily because it disrupts the status quo.

If you read my blog regularly, you would likely get the impression that I think Africa’s problems will be solved by technology. Not true, but I do believe that technology will be one of the major catalysts for change in Africa. It’s not even radical actually, as we see it being played out in the mobile phone market every day on the continent.

Here are some radical ideas for change, and the people that are working them:

In Summary
The lenses that color my world are tinted by technology, the need for investment capital and the idea that Africans need to own and make the change happen themselves. Am I part of that? Sure, if I remember that I’m not there to “save Africa”, but that I’m there to make a living, and do good through my business endeavors.

Providing opportunities for others (and myself) to create wealth is what I see as the best use of my time. A real world example would be Martin Fisher of Kickstart, who creates business opportunities as a business model. It’s a great idea and it’s a money making opportunity for everyone involved.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Hash!
    A very good point, which I very much agree with. – Making money = getting food everyday, sending your children to school, moving on in life – also seems to be the most powerful driving force in Africa. As in the rest of the world.

    It is difficult, and possibly stupid, only talking about democracy, good governance and anti-corruption to people who didn’t eat or haven’t been to school, and who can’t sell their products.

    Anyway, I am still around Africa, trying to figure out the perspective . Anyway, check out my photos from Juba here; http://www.flickr.com/photos/74938124@N00/tags/juba/. Interesting that you used to live there, the place is amazing in its own wicked way.

    Greetings from Uganda,
    Pernille

  2. Orijin is designed to connect all African descendants, sharing each others culture and history through entertainment: Music, Fashion, Life Style, Sports etc …. back to the Roots

    check out http://www.orijin-ent.com
    contact me, will love to do something with you

  3. Erik, I’m hosting a chat http://www.worknets.org/chat/base/ Thursday, August 9, 2007, 2:30 pm London time, about incremental infrastructure and a proposal that I’m writing http://www.worknets.org/wiki.cgi?Offline with thoughts on social software for people with marginal Internet access, and how that would facilitate the rolling out of local wireless networks that would gradually link up with the global Internet. I hope you might join us!

  4. It appears you are hot potato!

    Well, back to the discussion…technology will pay a major role in reversing the negative trend seen in Africa, however – and just as you stated – it’s not a silver bullet, and shouldn’t be seen as one.

    The problems in Africa stem not from lack of technology but lack of the right mindset. With the right mindset, common problems become solvable, bottom-up, by the people, while those in positions of power and authority will look out for the common good.

    Having the right mindset is all about having a “can-do” mentality, like the Malawian kid William who went out to build himself and family a windmill! If this attitude can be milled and dispensed to a couple of thousands Africans…ha-hah!!!

  5. in my humble opinion, this is one of your best posts. good stuff here.

  6. Clay, I appreciate that. You and I have been reading each others blogs for a long while now.

    Imnakoya, how do you propagate that “can do” mindset? I know a lot of Africans who are trying to make a go of it. I think it’s like what John Wesonga said, instead of people being innovators and creators they tend to copy. He was talking about the digital world, but I’ve seen it happen in other industries as well.

    So, is it innovation, education or entrepreneurialism – or all 3?

  7. Thanks for the link to John’s article.

    I think it’s more of a way of life – an attitudinal change – so to speak. Yes, it encompasses all the three areas you listed and much more!

  8. Hash:

    Very well said. I agree with you that it is all about allowing the continent to take ownership of both it’s successes and failures. And I might add that something which is beginning to happen is Africa telling her story from her perspective to take the PR back.

    On to what you said about making a living and doing something good in the process-Amen! And again this is already happening. I don’t want to rant so I’ll keep it to one example.

    Lagray Chemicals is a company owned by a husband and wife team. The wife is from Nigeria and the husband is from Ghana. The company is based in Ghana and makes drugs to combat malaria and Aids, but here’s the kicker-they are for profit and they are making a big difference by helping so many to regain health.

    Dr. Graham talked about something related in a comment on beninmwangi a while back

    Lagray’s website

    Hash, it is hard to say, you’ve had a lot of top 10 type posts lately-but I’m inclined to agree with Clay that this is your best post yet!

  9. Africa turn to move forward is now. Starting small irrespective of the odds is important. But we shall need to adjust our collective dependency attitude that someone out there can come in to fix it for us. Slowly we are adopting and adapting to new means of production, delivery and communication. We need to identify our strategic advantage, local resources, problems and creatively and innovatively try to work to resolve our local development challenges. Perpetual anticipation for external humantarian solutions is still a mass attitude problem though. Through continuous exposure, education, information sharing a critical mass will take over the responsibility fo changing the development process in Africa.

  10. Incremental or not, what Africa needs is Entrepreneurial Infrastructure

    By Andrew Mack

    In his piece last month about “incremental infrastructure”, Ethan Zuckerman makes a number of excellent points about the recent development of infrastructure in Africa. Using his example of the entrepreneur who put up cell towers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he rightly observes that there are opportunities to think beyond the traditional, top-down structures of infrastructural development.

    He cites the logistical and budgetary problems of many nations as they seek to build out not just the famous “last mile”, but in cases like DRC, many of the basic earlier miles that need to be in place if a country wants to be connected – by road, by power grid, or by wireless. And, while he doesn’t dwell on one of the real reasons for this failure – Government disorganization or outright corruption – he hints at it as a driving force which creates both the space and the need for other approaches.

    However, while the idea of incremental infrastructure is interesting, I would argue that at least to some extent, Ethan’s argument misses the larger point. It is not incremental infrastructure so much as “entrepreneurial infrastructure” that Africa needs and has shown it wants.

    By focusing on the example of cell towers in DRC, Ethan may have chosen the one item best suited for incremental infrastructure. But consider roads… if a community – or a firm – decides to build an incremental piece of road, and who pays? Who maintains the road? Who sets the safety standards (as road accidents are an epidemic in many African countries today)? And what if the road doesn’t connect in to a larger grid? Clearly, while cellphones may not need coordination to function, most other pieces of infrastructure – roads, energy, etc. – do. And they need standards.

    Moreover, there are issues of economy of scale and policy. Consider the case of neighboring Uganda. In Uganda, cellphone licenses were bid out, encouraging competition, and cellphone use has grown from some 5,000 lines in 1998 to more than 2.6 MILLION today. The major carriers have invested – and made – millions, and I would argue, have done more for Uganda’s development than most of the major donors over the last decade. A licensing regime that favored incremental providers might have brought service to a few villages, but today, CelTel is the largest taxpayer in the country, serving the entire nation and recently, offering no-roaming service across the sub-region – in Kenya, Tanzania, and recently also in DRC. An incremental approach would not have been able to provide this service, pure and simple.

    What we need to do is re-orient our thinking, I believe. Rather than focusing on the challenges – and there are many – we need to step out of our past frame and see the markets as what they are: big and underserved. What we need is not so much small (incremental) infrastructure as infrastructure that is constructed by people with an entrepreneurial mindset. If the Government of Kenya is prepared to invest in wiring classrooms and has both the scale and technical savvy to pull it off, that’s great. If the private sector can do it better, then the Government should act as facilitator. In some instances, a public-private approach will be the best.

    Without question, Ethan makes a good point about the effectiveness of many large projects in Africa, especially famous dam projects and the like. Still, this is not unique either to Africa, or to energy. Corruption and a lack of oversight will ruin a project, whether it’s managed by a poor African Government or Halliburton. Especially in infrastructure, the key is getting value for money. Everybody – Governments, the private sector, and consumers themselves – all need to think entrepreneurially.

    In the end, while small may be beautiful in many things, I wouldn’t want my own water system in Washington, DC any more than my friends in Lamu would want their own. What they want is a water system that works. Based on my observations from more than 20 years work on the continent, I would argue that a focus on the incremental could – while providing solutions in some areas – actually hurt efforts to build a more complete and more robust African infrastructure with the policies and investments to make it sustainable.

    While there will always be underserved areas where other options might not be possible, incremental infrastructure would be a poor substitute for the kind of top shelf, state of the art infrastructure Africans are looking for, the kind of infrastructure that could help them compete in the global economy.

    Andrew Mack is the Founder and Principal of AMGlobal Consulting, and a former World Bank official. He can be reached at: contact@amglobal.com

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