17 September 2013

Africa: A Future of African-Led Development Is Underway

Powered by new tech, Africa is leading its own revival and challenging conventional discourse, says TMS 'Teddy' Ruge.

Saran Kaba Jones is passionate about universal access to clean water: she is the Liberian founder of the US-based non-profit organisation FACE Africa, which provides access to safe drinking water for rural communities in Liberia and other African countries. Her social media feed is a chronicle of her work.

Jones's efforts on the continent are not isolated. Take a close peek at Africans' social media chatter and you quickly realise that she is but one African whose work is now visible thanks to their embrace of emerging communications technologies.

A future of African-led social and economic development is under way - and technology is at its centre.

Rising African voices

According to the website Internet World Stats, more than 15 per cent of Africa's population has access to the Internet. Of those 167 million who are online, more than 50 million are on Facebook. [1]

Add in the millions of already connected and vocal Africans in the diaspora and, suddenly, an Africa flexing its uncensored, collective intelligence emerges.

Africans are leveraging the power of social media technologies to assert their influence by challenging prevailing development discourse.

The musician and activist Bono and development academics such as Bill Easterly and Paul Collier are no longer the go-to experts on the continent's development. Instead, development professor Calestous Juma, writer Teju Cole, political science professor Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, policy expert Semhar Aria and a chorus of other rising African voices are commanding the airwaves.

And for a taste of Africa's new frontline, look no further than last year's collective rebuke of KONY 2012, a video produced by the non-profit organisation Invisible Children, which was criticised for misrepresenting facts about the war criminal Joseph Kony and oversimplifying Ugandan politics.

The discourse is not about demanding that someone fixes the continent's development woes. It is very much an agency-affirming exercise where Africans are showing that we are bold enough to take charge of the continent's development.

Home-made solutions

And while social media platforms often get overrun with regurgitative pontification, sometimes they are a great way to discover other technologies being put to use for a better Africa.

This month alone I was introduced to Ndubuisi Ekekwe, an accomplished tech entrepreneur based in the United States, who is working to revolutionise higher education on the continent through a new university, an African Institution of Technology or AFRIT. Ekekwe's mission is to use telecommunications technology to deliver the world's collective knowledge to Africa's higher education students.

Meanwhile, my colleague Apolo Ndyabahika has been exploring ways of making sure that every child in Uganda has access to a digital learning device built in Uganda. And Solomon King, also in Uganda, is leading a team introducing robotics to the country's next generation of tinkerers through Fundi Bots, which aims to jump-start Africa's future as a technology-maker rather than just acting as a consumer.

Both Ndyabahika and King's initiatives are attempting to reverse conventional development practices such as One Laptop per Child that are heavy on imported consumptive solutions, and usher in an Africa that builds its own solutions.

With half of Africa's population under the age of 15, technology will need to play a huge role in how we both educate and employ the next generation of Africans.

Commercial successes

Africans around the world are also using innovation to develop lucrative commercial opportunities based on overcoming the lack of infrastructure on the continent.

Tanzanian native Patrick Ngowi studied in China and has spent the better part of his life as an entrepreneur. His company, Helvetic Solar Contractors, fills the energy gaps left by unreliable national power grids that no amount of traditional aid has been able to stabilise.

Ngowi leveraged the relationships he had made in China and started importing solar technology from Asia. Helvetic Solar is now an US$8 million energy company that is slowly expanding its market footprint in East Africa.

Across the continent in Nigeria, Jason Njoku took advantage of growing Internet connectivity to make the country's prolific 'Nollywood' entertainment catalogue available online. His iROKOtv platform - the 'Netflix of Africa' - now delivers content to more than 500,000 customers worldwide, making his company the world's largest distributor of Nollywood films.

This early success helped Njoku attract an US$8 million investment to bring more African film and music content online.

Nollywood's prolific film industry is the world's second largest in terms of income per capita, and employs more than 300,000 people. An expanded distribution network for its products assures continued employment. The investment will position the platform for even more job creation in Nollywood, as a young and tech-savvy continent begins to demand (and is willing to pay for) more locally made content.

Linked efforts

While conventional development discourse is preoccupied with institutional and academic punting on a post-2015 Africa, the continent is slowly putting the pieces of that future in play - no international Conference of Parties needed.

Technology alone is not a panacea to the continent's varied woes. But it is a critical thread being stretched through its emerging digital economies. There are 20 (and counting) technology and innovation hubs in African countries that speak to this truth.

The efforts and successes mentioned above are not simply independent efforts. They are interconnected - and will hold up the 'Africa by Africa' renaissance.

TMS "Teddy" Ruge is a technology writer and cofounder of Hive Colab, Uganda's first tech hub. You can follow him on Twitter @tmsruge.


[1] Internet World Stats Africa (Internet World Stats, accessed 10 September 2013)

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