Transmediale: The future of Tech in Africa

Written for the Transmediale festival in Berlin – Feb 2nd -7th 2010

The transmediale festival is examinining futurity now what the ‘future’ as a conditional and creative enterprise can be. At its heart lays the intricate need to counter political and economic turmoil with visionary futures. With FUTURITY NOW! transmediale.10 explores what roles internet evolution, global network practice, open source methodologies, sustainable design and mobile technology play in forming new cultural, ideological and political templates.

What follows is my perspective on where the future is headed, particularly as it regards thinking of futurism, technology and Africa.

Before I get to the five ideas that shape my perspective on futurity in Africa, I found myself asking, where are the African futurists? In the discourse of futurist manifestos, there is a dearth of the African perspective. Perhaps its a hold over from the old and tired meme of colonization, post-colonial construct that characterized the 20th century.

Or perhaps its because African futurists are few and far between. This remains an open question for many Afrophiles I encounter.

Let me begin with a big disclaimer. When I speak of Africa, it is a major generalization, though in the technical space many of the trends we see appear to be similar in several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kindly allow me to generalize by using the term Africa to refer to the grouping of countries comprising, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana. Many examples that i will refer to will be from East Africa, particularly Kenya.

There are five points i’d like to make.

1. There is a new meme emerging. As we begin 2010 in earnest, Africa is growing, and some might even say it is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. The future of the web is already here, and it is in Africa.

The growth of mobile phone tech has been explosive. 550% in the last 5 years. The word leapfrogging doesn’t even begin to describe the transformative effect mobiles have had in Africa. Its been revolutionary. It has led to innovations that have applications around the world. Case in point, MPESA (#MPESAishowdoit) a service that started with 52,000 subscribers in April of 2007, it currently has 8.5 million users and processes nearly 10 percent of Kenya’s GDP in transactions that average less than $20. Since its launch, the cumulative amount of money transferred from person to person is 300 Billion kes. When it comes mobile money, the third world is first That this innovation took hold in Kenya first before its adoption in other parts of the world like Afghanistan is something that no futurists could have foreseen.

Many new users of the internet will experience the web through their mobile phones. The development of user interfaces and key research is happening in Africa, with Nokia and IBM setting up research centres on the continent, and home grown innovation hubs such as ihub present exciting possibilities.
My colleague and friend Erik Hersman wrote that if it works in Africa, it works everywhere, from current events in the African tech space, we could go further and posit that If its awesome in Africa, its awesome everywhere.

2. The promise of technology for social change. With the influence of writers like Dambisa Moyo challenging previously held beliefs about aid, and pushing the idea of microfinance aided by technology in the form of projects like Kiva, we see the potential of technology being used for real social change. Making Africans less poor by investing in their enterpreneurial drive as opposed to financing dictator’s lavish lifestyles. There are myriad organizations incorporating mobile tech in provision of services. Its not just mobile, just as Twitter aims to be the pulse of the planet when it reaches a billion years; We are seeing use of crowdsourcing software Ushahidi as an interesting indicator of what can happen when information is crowdsourced and visualized. Tighter coupling of the SMS realm, mobile and the cloud are exciting prospects in Africa.

3. Note: The knowledge economy is not an enclave of the west. The myths about the developing world being left behind have already been debunked by noted statisticians like Hans Rosling. It is a fact that technology is transforming Africa, and it has an important role to play in increasing GDP. As the tech space grows and matures, there will be more localized applications to help increase efficiency and overcome bottlenecks. There is alot of room for growth here, we will see the continued growth of Mixit (SA stats and Africa growth for this innovative application -stats) Pesa Pal, OboPay, Black Star Lines and other companies betting on the mobile and tech growth opportunities in Africa. Students in Africa will have to rise up to the occasion to provide these localized applications. We are clearly not there yet, but i would wager that the brilliant minds in African universities will step into the Global economy and fill an important gap.

4. I grew up in a country where authoritarianism/post cold war stupor? was the other of the day (80’s and early 90’s). There was a sense of oppression, even artistically there wasn’t as much self expression as we’ve seen in the late 90’s and early 2000’s (noughties). There was the age of conversation – with forums and IRC. This gave way to the age of participation, with blogs twitter and social networking, characterised with co-creation and well, the mashup culture (and LOLcats) For African’s online this trajectory has closely mirrored the global phenomenon of social networks, though it was only accessible to the well heeled or diaspora Africans. The problem was basically a lack of large pipes connecting Africa to the world. This is changing. With the arrival of Seacom cable in September 2009, streaming a you tube video is no longer an exercise in futility. What this means is we are likely to see the age of participation and co-creation as more new users get online. Twitter-like services are gaining popularity with the growth of Naija Pulse (uses Laconica) and aggregation services like Afrigator just to name a few. Take for instance KBC – Kenya Broadcasting service – When I was growing up it was the only tv station. Now they have a twitter account for their breakfast show and for some strange reason asked me a trivia question without giving me a prize.Its a new time. You’ve got foursquare, we’ve got smoke signals – Just kidding, there is growing use of google latitude. Hipster Kenyans with smart-phones were turning on their google latitude to find out where their friends are and where the party is during the holidays. One guy and his dad use google latitude to pinpoint their locations and triangulate the nearest bar to meet up for after work drinks. With the introduction of low cost GPS enabled phones in the African market, we are going to see some interesting uses of this technology and innovations that we cant completely foresee.

So what else is in store. I am going to harken to Clive Thompson’s observation about twitter, that it gives the user some sort of prio-perception/ social sixth sense. I do have to mention too that Clive Thompson also wrote about the point in social networks where the conversation stops because the social network gets too big.

5. The internet has enabled the diaspora to keep in contact with their countries, and with this comes the cultural exchange that’s been part of globalization in general. Project Diaspora is a great example of this. Teddy Ruge and his team are using the internet to support a community whose only source of income is from back breaking work at a stone quarry. The diaspora is part of the solution to poverty in Africa, and the internet is the medium.

There are transnational activists (some of them are my friends) participants in what Ethan Zuckerman calls the polyglot internet,
and whom David Sasaki calls ‘Believers without Borders’. They are participants in the mashup culture and could even be called cultural mashups if there was such a term. They may have been born in Africa, but; are global citizens by identity.

This cultural mashup sees an exciting time revealing itself through the retelling of old stories with technology, breathing a fresh perspective into African identity and self expression online. We already see this with the emergence of African Digital Arts, Animations made in Kenya (Just A Band) Senegal (Tree Lion), and the incredible creativity seen as part of the brand tourism around World Cup 2010 in South Africa.

The old memes are almost dead or as Fergie of black eyed peas would say, its so 2000 late. The new meme of Africa is unfolding in front of us. Technologically and culturally the future of Africa is absolutely refreshing.

Below are the slides

– Many thanks to Jepchumba for helping me out, and the Transmediale organizers for inviting me.

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21 thoughts on “Transmediale: The future of Tech in Africa

  1. Nice perspective Juliana. I do think that African futurists do exist, just not in the formal academic sense. It might take a rethinking of authority roles/qualifications before futurist ideas can thrive on the continent.

  2. @Kofi, absolutely. I need to edit the post to include your thoughts on trends + trickle up innovation. You totally inspired me when I was writing this.

    @Bankelele When I thought of the developments it made me optimistic, something that surprised me to be honest.

  3. Totally refreshing article and critical thought on how ICT might play out in Africa.

    Would it be possible to use the Mpesa Work Flow and Process model (Instead of AID model) to distribute health care and even education in basic computing skills? e.g. Tracking commodity prices, checking email or discussing in forums.

    The next big conference in Afrika in my mind should bring in all artists/music and production companies and Social Thinkers like yourself so that we can convince them (Entertainers) through incentives to socialize the youth into using mobile phones applications space for both Consumption and Production by either supplying their content there(PULL FACTOR) or actively promoting the use of the APP space (PUSH FACTOR).

    This would be a game changer if it works out. Cause every young kid will want a mobile phone (Smart Phone) just to access the application space or the Cloud.

    I am currently developing a social platform that will be a cloud for the African Space.


    Kudos for the Great Job 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. Juliana… what a refreshing article, right on the heels of talk on the future of a connected Africa at SXSW next month! I am even more inspired now!

    It’s beautiful to see the same minds over and over lifting the conversation of a new Africa to the cloud.

    Though I’d have to say that we are the futurists. You, me, Karanja, White African, Bankelele, et al… Those of us who see around the bend and ignore or smash through the limitations of “single story” on Africa. We are the those futurists, but instead of there being a single manifesto to unite us all, we each carry a piece of that manifesto and exercise it in our own realm.

    We are many, with a single voice, and a single purpose.. showcasing the awesome that is the digital Africa.

    I am inspired!

  5. A bit lengthy but a great post nonetheless.

    I especially appreciated the breakdown of the level of innovation? from the cold war till now, that was helpful.

    However I feel personally that the renaissance u are talking about is as of yet limited to art and software.

    I think people need to focus on manufacturing a bit more. Manufacturing I mean African computers, laptops, clothes e.t.c

    They are there, but I feel that is another area open for improvement.

  6. Enlightening and refreshing article. I think that despite the changes that technology and information brings, the true change to Africa will only come once the political and military oppression will stop.

    Real power to the people will come out of liberation and freedom.

    Thanks for a great post

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