How viable are technological inventions for social transformation in Africa today?
This blog is partially inspired by my belief that Africa has within itself the ability to self-propagate into the beautiful and successful continent that so many have dreamt of, and partially by a TED talk from a brilliant handsome Kenyan boy called Richard Terere. A TED-talk, I highly recommend to all those who seek solutions to Africa’s socioeconomic challenges. In a nutshell, he offers a simple but effective use of flickering light bulbs that allowed wild animals, particularly predators, share living space with cattle keepers in Kenya.
I am always in awe at how fast technology has advancements over the last 2 decades and how these technological changes have become pivotal to human existence and survival. No doubt that the non-profit sector has taken to technology as well. We have seen inventions in every field one could ever imagine; from space exploration and locomotives to food, medicines, education, communication, military, monetary systems, human management and so on. These inventions, some of which are out of necessity and others out of serendipitous interchanges and exchanges (of those that we have deemed as risk-freaks-drowned-in-trials), have today, changed the playing field in every global dimension of our lives.
Allow me put up two disclaimers before we go any further. First, I cannot say I can speak for Africa, as though it were one country and as many have set it straight, it is not one country. Secondly, I do not try to adduce to full comprehension of the use of technology, nor understand its scope completely by simply basing on what I have experienced or read and seen over the various media. All I ask is, how viable are the recent technological developments to the present ‘quest to offer better service delivery’ in the African context?
During one Action for Community Development resource mobilisation meeting, a question that had always puzzled me for the little time I have been with a non-profit was raised; “Why is it that most calls for proposals in the health sector were always geared towards new inventions, brilliant cost friendly and high impact inventions?” It is true that a majority of large international agencies and foundations are inclined to tech-based applications and interventions, evidenced by the majority of successful tech-based applications on record. The high impact and cost friendliness of these interventions make economic sense to me, but the newness or intricacy of the invention never did and may never.
In Europe, the Americas and the tech-giants of Asia have structures and systems that can support several technologically based inventions. The level of tech-savviness of the populations built over decades and extensive acceptance of technology is generally unequivocal. These inventions can easily be assimilated by these populations for social good. It therefore makes sense for a donor to seek out such new technological inventions that could be of social transformation in Africa and developing countries, since they have firsthand experience of how technology has and can change lives for the better in their respective developed countries. What, however, seems to be misconstrued is the easy technological transfer and therefore applicability to the developing countries, one of which I call home–Uganda.
Allow me grow my discourse using quantitative analysis. According to the Internet World Statistics from the World Bank, in 2007 all internet connections from Africa amounted to roughly 28,000 Mbit/s, while Asia has 800,000 Mbit/s and Europe over 3,000,000 Mbit/s. The total bandwidth available to Africa was less than that available to Norway alone (49,000 Mbit/s). The availability of electricity is rather horrid across the larger part of Africa as well. In 2012, The World Bank declared 25 of the 54 nations on the continent to be in an energy crisis. Excluding South Africa, the entire installed generation capacity of sub-Saharan Africa is only 28 Gigawatts, equivalent to that of Argentina. Imagine, according to ESKCOM a power generator in Africa, South African usage constitutes 85 % of the 204.8 billion kWh consumption for the South Africa Development Community; a block of 15 nations. How then, can the use of transistorized technology requiring power, internet and tech-savviness to function aptly, be the best form of innovation for social transformation in Africa?
I can comfortably say of the countries, that I have been to in Africa and those countries I have appreciation of, through the dialogues with family and friends who have been there, we share a very unique identity over and above our skin color. We share an unbreakable togetherness and a sense of communalism. Do not be deceived by the wars and blood-shed perpetrated by international war mongers and a few political dictatorships, any African country manufactures weapons and armored vehicles. We have a bond that transcends our dark histories, a passion for life that gives us hope even in the hardest and darkest of times, and a sense of communality that allows us to carry and share one another’s burden.
These are nations with highly rural populations. If we develop technologies that run on apps and electronics, we risk having well-intentioned, but poorly executed interventions, or worst case, completely inexecutable. Don’t get me wrong, these technologies are vital, but only useful to probably less than 10% of the targeted populations in developing nations.
I do not choose my hospital based on apps-advice, but rather on recommendations from my family and the social environment and ambience I receive from the service providers. I am not that tech-savvy but I can ably use technology when I have to, I simply do not feel I have to if I have the community from which I can get all this information. This feeling is resonant across a majority of people in Africa, including those that are tech-savvy. The recent declaration of Uganda as Polio free was not based solely on the vaccines but rather the community engagement during the “kick polio out of Uganda” campaign. Just like Richard Terere, he chose to share his invention without putting a patent on it. In Africa we are inclined share. The moment a community owns a campaign or a program, they will find their own appropriate technology, share it and customize it selflessly. I can comfortably place a wager on it, that these solutions and technologies adopted will usually be cheap, simple and high impact.
So for the non-profit community, maybe we need to not try too hard to develop new strategies and simply consider the old methods that have served so well, methods that allow for communal responsibility and ownership. “New” does not translate to better and reliable; some of the solutions are as simple as asking the first person in the community you meet on your travel. Simply smile and say a warm greeting, you will ever get lost in your travels. Just connect with the community. That is the Uganda I know, that is the Africa I know and that is the Africa I believe can meet its own social needs and justice demands.