Washington — From the day he first used the Internet on his boss's computer and dial-up connection in 2001, Limbikani Makani has seen new technologies and the Internet as potential solutions to some of Africa's oldest problems. As the founder and managing editor of TechZim, Zimbabwe's leading technology website, he works regularly with entrepreneurs, technologists and developers to establish a national atmosphere hospitable to startup enterprises and innovation.
Makani talked about his work June 12 in Washington, where he was one of more than 60 young African leaders brought to the United States to take part in a two-day Innovation Summit June 14-15 as part of the President's Young African Leaders Initiative. After the Innovation Summit, participants will travel to U.S. cities for a two-week mentoring partnership with U.S. companies and nonprofit organizations.
"This is the time where now we have affordable access to the Internet and we can use it to change so many things," Makani said, explaining the Internet's potential applications in governance, economics and service delivery. These uses, along with its capacity to bring valuable knowledge from faraway countries to Zimbabwe, make the Internet a practical and versatile tool for development, he said.
Known as a leader in Zimbabwe's online and tech communities, Makani advocates vigorously for increased Internet access and the incorporation of new information technologies into entrepreneurial and development ventures. Consistent with these broader goals, he recently launched JumpStart, a community initiative that helps locals found tech startup companies.
Through his work with TechZim and JumpStart, Makani has observed firsthand the powerful link between technology and business development, but he has also recognized the power of the Internet to mobilize people for positive social change.
"We can know about what's going on in India, in the U.S. and everywhere," Makani said of life with Internet access. In his view, reading foreign news and learning about other countries through the Internet enables Zimbabweans to "look at our situation and say: 'How exactly do we compare? What are we doing wrong and what are we doing [well]?'"
According to Makani, one of the most difficult obstacles to development that Zimbabwe and other African countries face is a lack of accountability among public officials, in both a political and an economic sense. However, the Internet's capacity to make information available to all and to act as a forum for ordinary people's opinions could enable the public to expose corrupt officials and counteract this persistent challenge, he said.
When people read about the inappropriate actions of their public officials on the Internet, they "have an option to say, 'Wait a minute, that doesn't look right,'" Makani explained.
"And if enough people say, 'Wait a minute, that doesn't look right,' you cannot keep leading if this is how you're going to lead ... When that keeps happening, then the culture changes."
The President's Young African Leaders Initiative is a three-year, sustained U.S. government engagement with African youth interested in positively affecting the future of sub-Saharan Africa.