Digital Technology in Africa: 21st Century Challenges at the Royal Geographical Society

Our Director, Leon Tong and Alex Monk, Schools Linking Officer at Plan international went along to the Digital Technology in Africa event on Wednesday evening at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Here are Alex's notes on the 3 excellent speakers – each was allocated just 15 minutes followed by a panel Q&A session. This event was part of the 21st Century challenges series of talks see: Digital Technology in Africa.

Nicholas Negroponte

Most well-known for One laptop per child or the dollar laptop.

The cost of the laptop to buy, update and maintain is $1 a week. The laptops have been rolled out in Sub-Saharan Africa and been successful in some countries, particularly in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Ghana. The laptops were also used in Latin America, particularly in Uruguay and Peru. Negroponte believes the laptop has been particularly successful in countries with strong governments.

Each laptop has 100 books so that they can be swapped in the community. The laptops are not connected to the internet but can be networked locally to create a ‘local Facebook’ (though this idea seemed somewhat absurd – why would you do this when you can talk to each another?)

There is no doubt that this technology was helpful in terms of giving young people IT skills and literacy, but the lack of connectivity is a significant weakness and just seemed to highlight the velocity of technological change and how different things are to 5 years ago when it first came out.

One Laptop per Child

Nicholas Negroponte

TED Profile

Herman Chinery Hesse

Ghanaian entrepreneur and software developer formerly based in UK went to Ghana and formed Softribe. The software he has developed includes ‘Oyster card style’ technology for delegates entering conferences which he said significantly reduced disruption and corruption – ‘You cannot bribe a scanner'. He has also successfully developed a range of security systems in west Africa using similar technology.

Soft tribe provide "tropically tolerant solutions that work in Africa". This concept he reiterated several times throughout the talk: essentially the concept of Tropical Tolerance as far as I understood means that you are able to understand all of the difficulties that one may encounter when trying to do business in Africa and develop strategies and solutions within that context.

Chiney Hesse also advocates the idea of a significantly reduced state in African countries and spoke proudly of how his software business had delivered real solutions with no government involvement and no aid (which he was also not a fan of.) Hesse seems really keen to have the freedom to innovate and be profitable and said that there are plenty of people he knows in west Africa who think the same way.

Herman Chinery on the BBC

Erik Hersman

Erik Hersman , who grew up in Kenya is perhaps most known as the co-founder of Ushahidi, a free and open source platform for crowdsourcing information and visualizing data which was used during the violence in Kenya in 2008. Ushahidi harnesses SMS and the internet to gather information quickly. Hersman is based in Nairobi and also started the Innovation Hub there, ‘bringing together entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and the investment community.’

Hersman spoke of the successes of the mobile phone in East Africa, particularly with the mobile phone based banking transactions that are now so abundantly carried out using MPESA (development sponsored by DFID in UK, rolled out in Kenya) and the exponential rise of mobile broadband, also in rural areas. This can only continue. There are also smart phones now available such as IDEOS phones which are significantly cheaper than most but have all of the Android based applications and functionality.

Hersman also contributed to Vodafone’s paper, published yesterday on ‘Making broadband accessible for all’ — see page 21 if you are interested in what he has to say — there is some interesting data there.

Final Thoughts

Clearly the main hubs of technology in Africa are currently in Lagos, Johanessburg and Nairobi and as one member of the audience pointed out, the challenge is to penetrate the internal areas of the continent with the technology.

It is clear that the future is in increasing the prevalence of mobile broadband in both terms of both speed and outreach to rural areas which can then further tap in to the innovation of young hackers and developers everywhere.