Africa Online

January 7th, 2010 by

MIT Media Lab's $100 Laptop for Third World Children by Quiplash! on Flickr

Speak to me of Africa and my mind fills with images of broad savannahs, teeming with wildlife. Dense, impenetrable jungles, also teeming with wildlife. Vast, inhospitable stretches of desert, not quite so teeming with wildlife. Warthog and Meerkat singing show tunes as they help a young Lion reclaim his rightful place as….The Lion King!

Okay, clearly I’ve seen too many Disney films. In reality things aren’t quite so peachy on what was once called the “Dark Continent”. For the animals, the circle of life, as the scientists at Disney have termed it, has been in action pretty much unchanged for millennia. Our young lion friend would have more likely known Meerkat and Warthog as appetizer and main course.

Sadly for humans, life in Africa bears little resemblance to the wonderful world of Disney. Homo Sapiens have been on the menu for an estimated 200,000 years. Historical records cover only a minute portion of that time. But they tell a story of famine, disease, attempted conquest, and inter-tribal warring that continues in some parts to this day.

The keen eyed amongst you will note that slow internet connection isn’t raised as an issue above. This is because a good broadband connection tends to take a backseat to sourcing clean water, and providing enough food and sufficient shelter for your family. However, in more developed parts of Africa, the information superhighway is opening for traffic. And Africans want a better set of wheels with which to cruise it.

An Eye on the Future
Even Rwanda, synonymous with the problems that characterize many people’s views of third world Africa (which are often based on false assumptions), is getting on the bandwidth-wagon. It is still an extremely poor country, but it is also a very ambitious one. The government has realized that with an age imbalance in the population – 50% of the population is 14 years old or younger – there will be huge demand for employment in ten years time. Expecting an economy currently heavily reliant on subsistence farming to provide these jobs is unrealistic. It sees technology as a solution to this problem.

Though landlocked, Rwanda is fortunate to be geographically located next to Kenya, and its new undersea cable connection to the world. A fiber optic ring is in the process of being laid in Rwanda, which will connect to the Kenyan cable. In the capital, Kigali, antennae will utilize WiMax technology to provide wireless broadband to the city.

The appeal of WiMax is a 4G technology is that it does not depend on conventional wire infrastructure (which is poor in Africa for various reasons including lack of investment and even theft of the copper wire from the ground). Anyone with a USB device that can be plugged into a laptop can connect to the internet within 50km (30 miles) of any WiMax tower. As the most densely populated country in Africa, it is an ideal solution for Rwanda.

Of course, even if they are successful in implementing their plans, economic success is not guaranteed. But if fast, stable internet access became the norm in many African countries, what new opportunities might be available to them?

A Comparative Advantage
Along with free access to Disney movies, the internet provides Africa with opportunity to exploit its comparative advantage in cheap labor. This is because most African countries have low incomes relative not only to Western countries, but every other region in the world. This might provide Africans with an opportunity to earn money directly from a firm, for example as part of crowdsource labor, bypassing the need for the firm to actually invest in Africa (which, due to high risks, firms have been reluctant to do). $3 someone in London earns for carrying out some microtasks will go on a morning coffee; In Ouagadougou, which as we all know is the capital of Burkina Faso, it might feed a family for several days.

Samasource, a not for profit organization, is already doing just that. It currently employs over 500 of the world’s poorest people to provide microwork (little bits of labor that can be performed anytime and anywhere) to a diverse range of clients.

Mobile Solutions
It is all well and good to have a willing workforce, but gaining access to the work is a potential problem. Not many Africans own a computer. While the price of PCs is falling (especially in India, which is producing them for a tiny fraction of the prices we are used to), a more immediate solution may be cell phones. Africans have embraced these with gusto.

Like wireless internet, cell phones don’t rely on Africa’s poor existing conventional infrastructure. A report issued recently by The International Telecommunications Union states that by the end of 2008 there were 246 million mobile subscriptions in Africa. Many of these subscriptions are no doubt linked to phones that Westerners now use as doorstops. Sourcing phones that are internet-ready and can handle memory-hungry applications is an issue.

But hardware problems seem unlikely to derail this opportunity. As I write, Txteagle is on track to becoming one of Africa’s largest employers based on this concept. It brings together some of the 2 billion literate, mobile phone subscribers in the developing world with corporations that need help with billions of image, audio and text-based tasks. And if the nature of connectivity being installed in Rwanda is an example of what will become the norm in Africa – Libya is another heading down the WiMax route – Africa’s Information Superhighway will be more than capable of handling the traffic.

Political Change?
At nation level, the internet brings scope (hope?) for change too. Would a few terse emails to Robert Mugabe from his constituents have altered the course of action that saw the ruinous decline of Zimbabwe’s economy? Probably not. But when one of the enabling factors cited for the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the international media ignoring or misconstruing reports coming from the country, you have to think there are times when it will make a difference. Enhanced connectivity gives people the power to organize, as demonstrated recently in Iran, where protesters used text messaging to coordinate their demonstrations (until the Iranian Government blocked the networks).

Dinner over, our young lion friend picks the remains from his teeth. Just delightful. That was an especially juicy Warthog. As he looks on, he must shake his mane sadly. In the last fifty years, as far as development goes, Africa as a whole has been a huge disappointment. Perhaps its fortunes are about to change.