By Brian Ogalle
Africa in history came to bear the pejorative term “The Dark Continent.” It is now over ten years past, since the term was coined. We are now in the era that has had a unanimous global acceptance as the digital age. So, what is Africa’s status, and place in this digital era? Looking back at the varied astute and missteps that Africa has taken to find its foothold, and a place at the table amongst the rest of the world in this epoch, what has been done right and should be augmented? And what needs to change? This piece of blog examines this.
To borrow and infer from pioneers and scholars (William Frederick) in the field of network theory; I find the evolutionary perspective of the network theory, as rather committedly put forward by William Frederick, an apt point to start from. In précis, William Frederick posited that the growth and coming about of this current networked (digitally) society structure was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The digital societies that we have now, and the digitally propped livelihoods we undertake and engage in every day, has not been realized in a few years revolutionary push and shove of will. It is a result of bit by bit of digital innovation; that most especially had its inception, foundation and momentum from the western world. Notwithstanding, in similar vein, not to disregard the East and Far East countries.
The western world got ahead of the rest of the world in pinnacle events such as the great industrial revolution. With the complimentary nature of this industrial revolution system, digital technology was one of the facets, and in these western world societies, this digital systems had their formative years and in those environments, the system found definition and adoption. Africa having missed out on starting and keeping abreast here, Africa has had to play catchup.
Here in Africa we have tried several ways to get up to pace in being digitally at per with the rest of the world. One of the approaches that has been tried, is what in computing circles is known as, “copy-pasting.” This means copying something from one place, and as it is, apply it at another place. This approach has been tried by parties here in Africa who decided to adopt digital systems from the outside world, and just as done there, replicate it in Africa; and this went sour for those parties. An epitome here would be the comparison and contrast between the telecommunications companies, Safaricom and Airtel Kenya here in Kenya.
Looking back to the years around 2002, Safaricom and Airtel Kenya (then Kencel) had equal dominance in their sector in the Kenyan market. Fast forward from then to now, and you will look for answers to what did Safaricom do right and Airtel do wrong. The answer to that lies at the crossroads point back in around 2002. Safaricom and then Kencel were operating in the Kenyan market in similar practice with industry in the western world. This was in billing customers per minute for phone calls service. However, Safaricom realized the business impedance to this practice, as the state of the economy here in Africa was not the same with that one in the western world. In so doing, Safaricom adopted per second billing of its customers for the phone calls service, whereas Kencel stuck to the “old” system, if just for a little longer. And now the market positions of Safaricom against Airtel answers who made the suitable decision early. The point here, the third world state of the economy in Africa does not facilitate for adoption of digital systems in similarity to adoption in the first world economies of the western world.
The other point to bring into retrospection is the platforms adopted in Africa for digital systems. The computer as a platform for digital systems and media, has its history, nurturing, upbringing and acceptance as a common household tool of productivity, in the western world. Even though the mobile phone was not invented in Africa, due to its price of affordability and a level extent of computing functionality, the mobile phone device is known as the “computer of Africa.” Once again the state of the economy playing a defining role. Over time we have seen the majority of businesses that had computer platforms as a core part of their business processes, have to incorporate or even do a complete overhaul in to the mobile side. This is because as this companies have to innovate to retain and gain new customers to survive in the market, this innovation has to be done in a platform that the market is in.
Having set the mode for contemplation so far as retrospection has guided, here is the parting shot. Looking in the context of the digital sector in Africa, is Africa still the “dark continent?” This is open to varied viewpoints from the jingoists’ camp, to the pragmatics and other parties included, but it is not the key question under examination. The examination here is, how should the digital age be adopted in Africa in best practice? What we have already seen is that it is not by direct replication of what is happening in the world outside of Africa, or even adoption through popular platforms in the outside world.
Carnegie Mellon University from the USA has kind of pointed out the right direction in adoption of digital systems in Africa, as exhibited by one of its projects in Rwanda. Digital systems and media is a powerful modern tool for people to use to make their lives better. Supermarkets and malls employ till ladies and men and provide them with the till computers to make their business efficient. What Carnegie Mellon University has done in one of its projects in Rwanda, is provide operators of small local shops with affordable tablet devises and compatible barcode scanners, so these operators can be able to maintain sound inventory and keep tabs on revenues and cash flow in their business. The big supermarkets and malls can afford those expensive till computers and their constant electricity connection and billing. But for that sole proprietor out there in the village, those proprietors need this cheap, battery powered tablets and scanners to keep eyes on business cash flow, inventory and be efficient in business. And it is with this approach of modelling digital systems for Africa around the environment in Africa, which will help Africa keep abreast with the rest of the world in this digital context and era.