Moses Sitati is a Development Economist at Nokia Research Centre/Africa
Africa is a land of stark contrasts. From Cairo to Cape Town, Dakar to Dar-es-Salaam there abound too many examples of human suffering and poverty – whether disease outbreaks, hunger, environmental destruction, civil unrest and war or poor health and sanitation the list appears unending. On the other hand, the continent holds great potential as it teems with vast physical, natural and human resources - the wealth of the land and the people. Africa is a land of possibilities and promise, albeit still elusive. Over the years much effort has come in from all corners to help Africa realize her potential, with a contrast of results much like Africa’s own story - from the ravaging effects of foreign aid and the Structural Adjustment Programs to the commendable entrepreneurial solutions targeting farmers to increase their productivity or the mobile phone revolution increasing economic activity. What is clear is that though there have been no magic bullets there are great enablers of this potential including infrastructural development, trade, good governance and human capital development. Second, homegrown solutions have been seen to work better overall.
Information and Communication Technologies stand as a great potential enabler for development in Africa. Whether it is to deliver social goods such as education and health, to enable economic activities such as trading and commerce or to improve governance in the public sector and empower the civil society. Governments, private sector players and non-profit actors have recognized this and led the first wave in ICTs use through massive investments towards connectivity, access and literacy paving the way mainly for the PC. As mobiles phones have become more capable mini-computers, the second wave is occurring through mobile phone use and adoption led by citizens across the continent. Suddenly the first wave investments are materializing as powerful tools in the hands of many. Through the simple mobile device service delivery channels are opening up, communication tools are being discovered that give their owners a voice to be heard across the globe and access to information is no longer a privilege of the few.
A new question is forming in newly empowered African minds “What can I do with this? (Referring to the Internet, location based services, rich media, mobile money, mobile search, mobile music, near field communication, etc)” or “What can this do for me?” A potent question when asked by 1 billion Africans all with different daily challenges and aspirations. Enter the third wave – the creation of meaning. A redefinition of the meaning of ICTs is now underway, a kind of ‘literacy 2.0’. Mobile phones can allow delivery of highly customized and targeted solutions to their owners transforming the meaning of the former basic communication tool in their hand into a livelihood instrument through various applications and services. African livelihoods can be extremely wide and diverse given language, geography, economic circumstances, religion, culture, living environment or political situation. Interesting questions emerging in this third wave are how can this meaning be identified, grown and scaled? What can business, governments and other institutions do with it? How can new meaning be created? And importantly, how can it be leveraged to change Africa’s story? Local software developers and other content providers are among the first people to grapple with these questions. Needless to say, it will require a great amount of insight and awareness as well as innovation and creativity to deliver the answers.
Though knowledge, technology and innovation networks do exist within Africa, they have had little interaction or collaboration in the past. Building homegrown knowledge generation and use of ICTs for development would call for bridges to be laid across such networks to tap into systems that do research (understand the livelihood problems, collect information, needs and analyse it) and connect them to those that can develop and distribute the solutions back to the citizens. This would be a process of understanding, defining and formalizing the African ecosystem (actors, roles, opportunities and rules). It has to be an intentional process involving all stakeholders and a step that needs to occur. A second component of this system will be the market models used to deliver the solutions. As diverse as the livelihood circumstances, new and unique business models will need to be crafted for African users. These can for example, be built upon the existing social interaction practices and communal models of trade and commerce. The questions being triggered by the possibilities of ICTs are enabling African citizens to participate in Paulo Freire’s process of concientización – becoming aware of their environment and surroundings and, through the same tools, they are finding themselves increasingly empowered to deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. This awakening perhaps, will be the biggest contribution that ICTs can give to Africa’s people.