Welcome to Africa Research Institute’s blog. Africa Research Institute is a strictly non-partisan think tank based in London. Our mission is to draw attention to ideas which have worked in Africa, and to identify new ideas where needed.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Connecting the unconnected

On a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, I met up with Tonee Ndungu, co-founder of NAiLAB, an incubation laboratory for ICT businesses and start ups. One of the things we discussed in detail was how the internet can be harnessed to have a more ameliorative impact on the lives of ordinary Africans, rather than just acting as a medium for social networking.

We agreed that infrastructure has been a hindrance. Africa has the lowest number of internet users than any other region; with internet penetration at just four percent of the world’s total. Almost half the continents 63 million internet users are in Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco. Going online in Africa is more expensive, and unreliable, than any region in the world. A recent report by the STT Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends notes that, before 2009, residents of Nairobi paid up to US$5,000 per month to rent an internet connection equivalent to that of an average European urban household.

Significant progress has been made in recent years. In 2002, sub-Saharan Africa had access to one undersea fibre-optic data cable – the SAT3/SAFE which runs from Spain to South Africa with several landing points along the West African coast. By 2010, the continent had access to seven cables. A further three are scheduled for completion by the end of 2012, by which time Africa can expect 17 terabytes of online capacity.

New and better infrastructure is only part of the solution. Increasing internet penetration won’t automatically mean a greater proportion of people go online, or that the internet will become an increasingly valuable source of information for people to address everyday problems in business to agriculture, healthcare or at home. The rapid growth of internet penetration rates must be matched by concerted efforts to increase local – African – content online.

The majority of Africa’s internet accesses social media sites or adult material. The internet has failed to penetrate much beyond Africa’s urban middle classes, a reality that is hindering its development potential. Education and access are significant barriers. But most importantly, the internet is still not relevant to the majority of people’s lives in Africa. The content on the internet is mostly generated in English-speaking industrialised countries.

The questions that predominantly agrarian populations in Africa ask are not necessarily dissimilar to those an average European or American citizen would ask – but the answers are! Geography, law and culture differ remarkably between regions. The answers exist in Africa. Local knowledge is in abundance. The problem is that this information is not digitalised and readily available online. Unless the dearth of local African knowledge online is addressed, efforts to develop SMS search engines or website translation facilities will have limited impact. The impetus for this must come from both the top and the bottom.

Initiatives are underway. In 2010, Google launched Google Baraza, a community driven question and answer site, as a way of integrating more local knowledge into their search engines. Google Baraza follows a host of other Google products designed specifically for the African continent, including local language search engines, an Africa blog and Google Trader. But Google Baraza and similar products are only likely to have limited impact on localising digital content, largely because they only appeal to Africans who are already online.

More bottom up approaches are needed that tap into the knowledge of people who are not online. Map Kibera uses OpenSteepMap, an open-source online mapping website, to create the first public digital map of Africa’s largest informal settlement, Kibera. It not only records streets and alleyways, but important public goods – including schools, health facilities, religious institutions and water points. Crucially, the map was researched and constructed by local residents with an intimate knowledge of the settlement’s geography. Map Muthare, a project to map another of Nairobi’s large informal settlements is currently underway.

Mocality is Africa’s first business directory accessible through a mobile phone. Over the past year, agents have been scouring Nairobi recording and mapping the city’s small and medium-sized businesses. Each business recorded is allocated a web and mobile page detailing the services they offer, contact details and location. Small businesses in Nairobi are provided with a web presence, and are searchable via Google and the Mocality website.

These are just two examples. Efforts to increase African content on the internet are growing. Kenya’s ICT Board has been trying to encourage local entrepreneurs and businesses to build their web presence through digital content grants. But my point is that more of these initiatives are needed, and fast.

The internet is a public good, but a largely private service. People are required to pay to use the internet. The mere presence of cyber cafes and WAP enabled mobile phones will not entice the vast majority of Africans to go online, unless what they can access is relevant to their everyday lives. Development theorists have long held a lack of information as a principal source of underdevelopment. The source of this information is often far closer to home than many recognise.

Jonathan Bhalla

Research Manager – Africa Research Institute

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The cans and can'ts of technology

In late 2010, I travelled to East Africa to explore the region’s budding technology industry. It was not just the growth of telecommunications that interested me, but the emergence of a new generation of technology bloggers and entrepreneurs who are busy designing mobile applications and web platforms to tackle everyday problems. Africans are not merely passive recipients of communication technologies; rather they are actively participating in the development of a new industry by building innovative, locally relevant, software and web platforms.

'The ubiquity of mobile phones is matched only by the ingenuity of their users'. African Affairs, August 2010

The creativity and ingenuity deployed in the development of telecommunications is indicative of a much wider shift in Africa towards more active participation in the global economy. Local innovations, such as Kenya’s Ushahidi, an online platform that maps real time crisis information, has proved to be a robust export and shown that African software developers are globally competitive. Users too have proved to be equally robust innovators. One only needs to look at Kenya’s flagship mobile banking facility, MPesa, to discover the resourcefulness of people who use the service for myriad purposes, whether sending money to rural relatives, paying for services and household utility bills, or purchasing groceries in local supermarkets.

The growth of mobile communication in Africa has received extensive coverage. But one of the consequences has been a great deal of hype about the potential of information technology to alleviate poverty. American economist Jeffrey Sachs championed mobiles phones as the ‘single most transformative technology for development’. Some have heralded the potential for One Laptop per Child to eliminate poverty through education. Others have touted mobile phones as the vehicle to raise rural incomes. The assumption in much of the rhetoric is that information technology is some sort of developmental panacea for Africa, and that it can provide a shortcut to more conventional methods of tackling poverty.

It can’t. Hard evidence to back up such grand claims is thin on the ground. While the notion that information technology can have a positive, lasting impact on African societies is no longer fanciful, much remains to be proved. In almost all instances where technology has been successfully harnessed to promote development, humans have played a far more important role than the technology. Kentaro Toyama, a researcher at the University of California is correct in asserting:

technology – no matter how well designed – is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well intentioned people, then appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements'.

Successful application of technology for development is seldom about the technology per se, but the way in which it is utilised by people and organisations to address specific development priorities.

The danger with overstating the development potential of information technology is that it obscures genuine insight into how technology can be best used to alleviate poverty in Africa. Understanding the limitations of technology is crucial when formulating effective policy and harnessing the potential of technology to promote development. It might be productive to establish clearly what technology can’t do for development rather than indulge in wishful thinking about what technology potentially can do.

In 2009, Africa Research Institute published Nursing the Future, which chronicles the evolution of an e-learning programme to provide Kenyan nurses with new knowledge and skills. The programme, run by AMREF in conjunction with the Kenyan Ministry of Health and the Nursing Council of Kenya (NCK), uses rudimentary technology – desktop computers installed with the course material – to address the shortage of skills among frontline health workers.

Since 2007 the programme has trained 2000 nurses with a further 7000 currently enrolled. Previously, the NCK had the capacity to train a maximum of 150 nurses a year. These results could never have been achieved without the technology, however basic. But the computers were only effective because they were deployed within a programme that embraced local knowledge and institutions, addressed the needs of hard-pressed Kenyan nurses, and did not rely on sophisticated or expensive infrastructure.

People have achieved remarkable things with technology in Africa. But until initiatives like Kenya’s e-nursing programme start to proliferate, technology cannot be assumed to underwrite – guarantee – a ‘revolution’ in Africa’s development prospects. The challenge for technology entrepreneurs, business, NGOs and think tanks is to focus attention on clearly documenting what works – how and why – so lessons can be learned and experiences shared.

Jonathan Bhalla Research Manager, Africa Research Institute