I have always believed technology will change our world in a number of ways we cannot envisage so I was not particularly bemused when Apple Inc. released its latest device, the iPhone 4s, which came with a voice-recognition minion called Siri. Online rant about Siri implied that the role of a real life personal assistant was about to become obsolete. What intrigues me as a person living in the third-world district of Africa is not what Siri thinks of my girlfriend but how much technology can spur development and consequently transform the continent.
In the West, Africa is synonymous with hardship; a narrative akin to having a mental picture of sushi each time Japan is mentioned. The difference is that Africa’s sushi is far from delectable. What is important for the continent is how to move forward beyond all the drama of G8, G20, G100 and other Gs there might be. Whatever Western powers and more recently Eastern powers map out in their communiqué at the end of such G conferences the resolution is always similar and annoyingly predictable: more aid, fight AIDS. How? More aid. The effect of these policies, to be fair to the G-elitists has been good if you count the number of Africans who now get free access to antiretroviral therapy and how many communities now have water boreholes. Statistics on the number of Africans who have actually been lifted from the quagmire of poverty due to the handouts from these kind foreigners are really foggy. Whatever the case, the reality is painfully distressing. From WHO to Amnesty International there are still organizations whose findings show millions of Africans are still holed up in poverty. Africa needs the money – but even more.
BILL GATES’ TOILET
He is one fellow we know for his Forbes rating but Bill Gates certainly has taken a global stand on philanthropy. What strikes me is how thoughtfully he goes about it. In July 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation provided a little over $40 million in grant for sanitation projects with the ultimate goal of reinventing the toilet. At first blush it is very tempting to condemn this as risible (a Times magazine headline called it ‘Human-waste gold mine’) but you only have to look at the statistics to understand the significance of having a waterless toilet. According to UNICEF, at least 1.2 million children under the age of 5 die of diarrhoea every year; the main cause is contact with human faeces (source: Times magazine). 1.2 million! That’s staggeringly high considering the deaths are due to a dearth of toilets! So Bill Gates came in with the millions and he deserves some commendation and some emulation too.
As far as financial aid is involved the investment by the Gates foundation represents the model the G-force of our world should adopt when giving money to Africa is concerned. There should be project-based funding that meets unique needs of Africans. Traditionally, foreign aid is doled out to Non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The argument against this model is that these NGOs use a part – if not all – of the resources to foot their administrative bills. Also, with corruption level at an alarming high across the continent it would be foolhardy to give money to these organizations without any assurance that it will reach the boy in the streets of Bujumbura or Ouagadougou.
I’M FEELING LUCKY
While the online search engine, Google, may have become a global brand accessible via mobiles and ‘immobiles’, it is also worthy of note that the full potential of the internet at large has not been fully unleashed in Africa. Businesses flourish when people have access to them. The meaning of this access in the 21st century world of digitalization now transcends proximity in miles. Rather, it now connotes a more modern meaning of how quickly it can be seen at the click of a button. So if you want flowers to be delivered to your wife at home all you have to do is make a quick search online for the nearest florist, make your pick, fill out your credit card details and in a couple of minutes your wife is savoring the allure of a blossom. That could happen in Chicago, Paris, and Tokyo. In Africa there are strings attached. Apart from the risk of spurious credit card details – which, let’s be honest, can happen anywhere – local businesses in Africa have very little online presence. This makes it difficult for consumers to locate businesses online and limits the profit the local businesses can derive. If Africa will truly flourish it will be spurred from local businesses especially those in the remote parts. Thriving businesses, no matter how small in size, lead to a cascade of sparks which spurs development in local communities.
This snag of online absence of African businesses is really not hard to fix. With about $65 a company can set up a website which can be accessed by everyone all over the world. So Western donors should rethink the strategies they have traditionally used. Would it not be easier to help all business owners in Africa set up websites rather donate millions of dollars which, humongous as it appears, slims down to a trickle when and if it reaches the girl in the streets of Kumasi or Abeokuta.
AGRICULTURAL BEASTS OF EASE
While many African parliaments are still embroiled in the debate over whether they should cultivate genetically-modified crops or not, what is incontrovertible is that farm machinery such as ploughs, harrows and seed planters will immensely improve the capacity of a nation to become a buoyant agricultural force. It is also a cold fact that the developmental potential of Africa relies critically on agriculture. The question, therefore, is how many farmers have access to these implements. The answer: only few.
Customarily, governments give out loans to farmers to buy these equipments which they pay up with time. Laudable as that might appear it is not as good as giving the machines for free. With pests, floods, natural disasters and non-existent insurance policies there is really little a farmer can do to avoid bankruptcy in the face of any unavoidable peril. A farmer who takes a loan and soon finds himself in the thick of the Somaliland famine will ultimately be plagued by hunger, debt and ultimately death. The headlines in the West would capture the death, more aid would be given, more loan will be taken and it’s déjà vu all over again.
To any financial brain doling money out without any financial interest is foolish. The reality, however, is that rich countries of the world have been doing this for years. It is important that these nations apply some wisdom to this foolishness by giving the money to farmers who, by so doing, would have overcome the offsetting financial limitations of purchasing machines. In Zimbabwe, after Robert Mugabe swept out most of the white farmers agricultural production in the country ground to a halt. The emerging black farmers could not meet the agricultural expectations not because they lacked the technical know-how but largely because they had no tools to work with. And yes there was politics involved too.
AFRICAN BITE AT THE APPLE
Like millions across the world, I was awe-struck to hear that Apple Inc. had more money than the US government. A newspaper columnist took a dig at the Obama administration suggesting that the White House would better serve as an Apple outlet retailing ipads and iphones. I took a bigger lesson from this: There is money in technology. Silicon Valley accounts for a large pool of money that America boasts of. A parallel Valley can be ‘dredged’ in Africa only it would require a level of compromise from Silicon Valley of Santa Clara. There have been huge investments by Western tech companies in East Asia. Hewlett-Packard laptops are assembled in China and many GSM operators in the USA have their customer call centers in India. Call it outsourcing the reality is that India and China are better off with these foreign investments. African countries may not be resourceful as India and China in terms of number of software engineers and programmers it has but our human resource are in no way any less knowledgeable. So I pose this question to Siri “Why assemble your iphones in China where a communist government limits freedom of speech when the same assemblage can be done in downtown Nairobi?” Arguments that suggest Africa is volatile strike me as completely incomplete. In the heat of kidnappings and vandalism by armed militants in Nigeria’s Niger-Delta no multi-national oil company pulled out of the country completely. Also, soon after the Libyan crisis died down ENI, the Italian energy company was quick to commence its operations in the oil-rich country even in the face of the uncertainty and instability of a National Transitional Committee. How is ENI different from Apple? If western powers truly want to help us in Africa they must put aside the hypocrisy of yesterday and see Africa for its potential to become a technological hub and not for the headlines splashed across the dailies.