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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Think Different: Africa’s Technology Gap

I was fortunate enough to spend an evening talking to Kaushal yesterday. He’s a third-generation Kenyan of Indian descent, now working in the tech-land of San Francisco.

During the course of our discussion, we talked about mobile phones and the web. An interesting point that Kaushal brought up was the fact that only a certain layer of society really has access to the web, and the rest only have access to simple communications through their mobile phone.

That little insight gets pretty interesting when you start applying some real project concepts to that thought. One of Kaushal’s ideas was to create a job platform that had two different levels and forms of interaction (using some of the same ideas behind Babajob in India).

  • Those hiring would interact on the web level first, and also the mobile at some point.
  • Job seekers would only need to ever interact through their mobile phone.

This allows those without access to high bandwidth technology to bypass the normal flaws (in a Western ideology) in the technology loop that generally break the cycle in Africa.

The Technology Gap in Africa
UNCTAD defines the technology gap:

“There is a wide gap between those who have access to technology and use it effectively and those who do not. The technology gap exists between those who can create and innovate to produce new technologies and those who cannot. It also exists between those who can access, adapt, master and use existing technologies and those who cannot.”

In Africa, the world thinks of the technology gap as the lack of bandwidth, low access to computers and non-data enabled mobile phones. This is all true, these deficiencies do cause a technology gap to grow. African income levels just won’t allow the same type of consumer behavior towards all technologies as we see in the West.

The average African is not the same type of technology user as the average European or American. Information flows differently, African’s don’t drink from the fire-hose of data that we do. They do use technology though, almost everyone has the minimal level of access to a mobile phone.

What if the technology gap that we see is not as big as we think?
In the UNCTAD definition, we can agree that there is a difference of levels between access and use. However, the gap between creation and innovation is less clear. It gets downright blurry when talking about adaptation and mastering of technologies.

You see, most Africans have a better understanding of the abilities and limitations of their mobile phones that most Americans. There is more modding and hacking of hardware happening in Africa than almost anywhere in Europe.

Summarizing these many thoughts…
What Kaushal is getting at with his ideas on using technology is really about adapting cultural and technological norms to everyday problems. Like any entrepreneurial thought, it’s about finding a challenge and creatively solving it. Ignoring the status quo way of thinking finding another way to make it work.

The R&D that goes into solving technical problems doesn’t always happen in the traditional form in Africa. It happens on the street level with little fan fair, it’s not always flashy and it doesn’t always conform to the way that Westerners would like to see a problem solved.

More high school and university programs should be in place to train technologists, but what is really needed is more businesses being created by solving African technology and communication problems. African government organizations generally do a poor job of marshaling their resources to foster growth in the technology sector – so more businesses pressuring their leaders to pay attention to this industry would be welcome as well.

7 Comments

  1. Can you imagine polytechnic courses dedicated to researching and teaching methods of leveraging already existing technologies to solve local problems. How cool would that be?

  2. Great post. I am also especially interested in the ways in which merely having a phone can become a lever for creativity and innovation *in spite of* lack of regular access to the web.

    But I have a picky critique of the phrasing above that “only a certain layer of society really has access to the web, the rest only have access to simple communications through their mobile phone.”

    I would personally like to see it restated as “only a certain layer of society really has *24-hour* access to the web, the rest *primarily* have access to simple communications through their mobile phone.”

    Picky, I know! 🙂 But I have a strong opinion about it.

    Here’s my thinking: Instead of a job board, let’s imagine a new application for teaching students a foreign language (or how to program, or learn economics etc). It seems to me that this could be done in a way that’s very appropriate for those using just a mobile phone. During the week, on the phone, on the bus, students could be using the phone as a flashcard tool, or for taking quizzes, or looking up words. Simple things that are appropriate to the UI. But then, I would love to think that some people could get to the “Real Web,” if only once a week. This could be an incredibly valuable enrichment of the service, assuming the application was designed with this audience in mind.

    So this imaginary application is then 95% mobile and 5% web.

    I think that 5% could be a big deal: I think it would be the high point of the user experience, something that motivates them to actually do the work on that tiny UI during the week. That once a week time on the web could really enrich the limited interactions on the phone, say, with visualizations of milestones and other classmates’ progress. (It might also help extend that abundant phone savvy into computer literacy.)

    Again, the key would be to plan on this 95/5 pattern from the first stage of the application design. It could not be a design afterthought.

    The 95/5 scenario says “once a week I get online and can see my work from all week I did on my phone,” while the 100% phone application has a bit more dreary ring to it: “I work on one problem at a time through my phone, while a different layer of society sees everything I’ve done all at once.”

    I am concerned that, if we design services under a binary have/have not model then we may end up reinforcing this divide.

    But I am optimistic that you do not need to have 24-hour web access to get most of the benefit.

    Am I being daft?

    While the 95/5 breakdown sounds a bit strange, it seems much more appropriate in many situations than an exclusively mobile solution — and it’s the assumption I’m using for brainstorming about designing Bottom of the Pyramid web applications. I think pushing the entire experience into a phone is not the only way.

    … Is it?

  3. Hey Chris,

    Very insightful comment here. I’d say that there are those who never touch the web on a normal PC still. However, for the uses you are thinking about, a 95/5 split does make sense. In the realm of education it probably makes a lot more sense than in general business solutions.

    It would be interesting to see if you could create a migration pattern for people who are solely on the mobile phone to also being on the PC web. It’s a really compelling thought actually, and I’m trying to think of examples where this type of thing has been done before. Anyone else know of any?

    I too wonder if we (Westerners) don’t tend to solve for our problems and project that on to what we perceive as African needs. We see how rich of an experience it is online and believe that that’s the holy grail. Whereas to someone who has moved from nothing to a mobile phone, the value you add through different layers like mobile accessible job boards is all they need/want and they’re absolutely blown away by that.

    Does that make any sense? Kaushal made me really try to think of things objectively, without my rose-colored PC-web glasses on. That’s what I’m trying to do here with this post, and with my answer to your comment.

  4. Yes, that makes a whole bunch of sense, and I am glad to have thought about both perspectives (two among many, I’m sure). It can only be about what mix is right for the community you are working with (or living in).

  5. You see funny thing about Africans is the fact that when making a decision to purchase a phone, no one guides him/her that “hey that phone can do this, or that or not” so the mentality is that, hey i wonna talk to my friends, or relatives, so am gonna buy a phone. So I wish every african would save up and buy a phone that atleast will allow access to all these goodies that online community bring brings at hand. Like, bank money online, seek for a job online, apply online and pass online just to report for job on monday! Technology gap is choking Africa. What an african earns also would not be enough for him to think technologywise, hope this changes with time. As some countries are now realizing it and working towards it.

  6. “You see funny thing about Africans is the fact that when making a decision to purchase a phone, no one guides him/her that “hey that phone can do this, or that or not” so the mentality is that, hey i wonna talk to my friends, or relatives, so am gonna buy a phone. ”

    bro had phone given, no friedns tio text so downer, crashed tree, locked in surgery, still no friends! Tagged bit and some greats come, yer know what I mean.
    Good post, trust it.

  7. I personally think Africa is not too far with it comes to web and distributed apps, but most africans dont understand that they are in Africa and thats why they cant come up with great stuffs, they just want to copy. I wrote a cool post about this on my blog http://mambenanje.blogspot.com

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