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.