ICT: Will it Make or Break Africa?

Published on 23rd November 2010

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has no doubt positively transformed lifestyles in Africa; but long term focus calls for a more cautious approach towards its utilization. I was inspired by a unique film documentary producer who has made it a point to film his subjects after every 10 years. From West, Central and Eastern Africa, his films capture very interesting episodes.

To give you a little peep: In one of his films somewhere in Mahenge Tanzania, he captures a family in the 70s engaged in roaring cotton business. When he visits 20 years later, the family's farmland is in a desolate state; one of the daughters of the cotton farmer (now married) owns a roadside kiberiti (matchbox) stall (you should have seen her 20 years earlier: vibrant, full of energy and hopeful). The mzee, once an energetic supplier of cotton, is captured mesmerized with the value-addition aspects of cotton in developed countries depicted in fashion shows, catwalks, industries and banks. I paraphrase mzee's words: "We were left to simply scratch the soil with the handheld hoe, but real wealth went to those scantily dressed people!"

With a population of slightly over 1 billion people; Africa reportedly has close to 506 million active mobile phone subscribers and over 111 million internet users. Africa is on the roll - we are all going high technology. Information flow has been made easier and cheaper; one simply needs to "Google" "Yahoo" or "Baidu" it. One can set up a web based business; mobile phone banking has brought into the fold the majority that had been marginalized from financial services. The number of trips an urbanite used to make to check on their rural folk has reduced significantly. Face to face meetings with friends has been reduced to the most significant few (because buddies are simply an SMS or Face Book away). It is a matter of time and we will all recognize each other via SMS but not when we meet physically. (I sometimes remind my old friends when we plan to meet after a long time that I got zebra crossing in my beard!) 

I imagined the patient documentary producer visiting me or some village in Africa after 20 years. Culturally, a few people will have married "in their family" after falling in love on face book. The un-bankable having been swallowed by cheap credit access will now be in serious debt precipitating an African financial crisis. I am not sure whether people will be communicating in legible sentences any more. we will all go lingo-SMS. A number of African governments will have handed over their sovereignty after succumbing to internet "bombs" and "warfare." The internet "forest" will be crawling with such dangerous wild animals that no Maasai hunter will be able to tame them. By then, the mzee of the time will observe thus: "We were left to simply scratch the soil with the hand held hoe; but real wealth went to those people again!" 

ICT is great, only if we consciously choose to drive it as opposed to allowing it to drive us. Any motorist will agree that danger lurks in the air if you let the car drive you - you must drive your car. One cannot "drive" ICT without well developed core interests both as an individual, country and continent. It is with great concern as I watch wealthy economies develop special ICT defense departments while Africa retains her traditional armies of "wanamaji, wanahewa, wanchi-kavu, na wakupambana na ghasia!"(ground, air and sea troops). ICT has the potential to liberate Africa; if we consciously choose to drive it for our benefit. 

By James Shikwati

The author james@irenkenya.org is Director of Inter Region Economic Network


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