I recently stood in a line at the supermarket with an American tourist who was feeling very, very fed up – and he didn’t mind that everyone around him knew it. He was, apparently, visiting his South African wife’s family for the first time and very eager to go home. “It’s so backwards,” he fumed, whilst his son proceeded to pull the stock off the shelves beside him. “You know, it took me six hours just to download a movie.” And then he added, rather mournfully, “I want to go back to civilisation.”
Civilisation, presumably, comes with faster downloads.
Let’s be honest: we all have pre-conceived notions of what the future should look like, and it involve bigger and better gadgets.
A friend of mine recently sent me a paper by economist Robert J Gordon, that confronted the phenomenon of “faltering innovation” in the United States, in particular. Gordon addresses the “near universal assumption” that economic growth and innovation will continue indefinitely, suggesting that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years may be little more than a unique episode in human history.
In the past, innovations and inventions had real impact. Think of how the railroads, the automobile and mechanisation impacted human lives. In the 1800s, life was dark and dangerous and involved heavy labor, including carrying every single drop of water in and out of your house every single day. Air pollution from oil lamps nearly suffocated residents on the inside, while the daily amount of manure horses produced (equating to 10 tons per urban square mile) made for a less than sanitary environment outside the home. Life expectancy was only 45 years, due to poor sanitation, water-transmitted diseases and contaminated food.
All of this had been changed by the great inventions erupted after the 1870s: electricity, the internal combustion engine, indoor plumbing, rearranging molecules (chemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals) and of course, communication devices such as the telephone, photography, and the radio.
The world hasn’t seen innovation like that in a long, long time. In fact, Gordon notes that although the computer and Internet revolution may have last for a good thirty years, its main impact on productivity has withered away in the past 8 years, with much of the focus being placed on entertainment rather than practical improvements.
In short, whereas the innovators of the previous century concerned themselves with improving productivity or healthcare or transportation, the modern idols of invention are concerned with...well...designing a flatter iPhone.
Innovation is a term we throw around far, far too liberally when it comes to gadgets and gizmos, while in some instances we’re far too self-deprecating – particularly in Africa, and probably because we define progress in the same way my American friend in the supermarket did.
The developed world is still under the impression that the West has created the ideal model for industrial and economic progress, and that all that is left for the developing world to do is “catch up”. The message seems to be that the continent must improve its lagging infrastructure issues, and adopt the same technology and the same solutions as the United States and Europe to finally be considered as being on par with the rest of the world.
The reality is that the continent is circumventing its infrastructure issues and embracing a virtual, mobile reality. Africa is producing what Ghananian economist George Ayittey has called “the Cheetah Generation”, a generation of fast, adaptable innovative entrepreneurs who aren’t waiting for their leaders to make their lives better but who will act to do it themselves.
The technology sector in Africa is growing rapidly, providing new opportunities for wealth and business.
iHub, in Kenya, rolls out approximately 1000 apps annually, and has served as an incubator for over 40 companies (including M-Pesa’s Kopo Kopo service). Mxit, a mobile social media platform, has brought in tools to help rural farmers improve their agricultural endeavours and provides child-bearing and –rearing advice to uneducated women who don’t have access to health care providers or information. Independent South African telecommunications firm Vox Telecom brought broadband satellite to the continent, effectively connecting rural areas to the Internet – in some instances, for the very first time. Progress in cashless transfers and flexible communications – is being led by techpreneurs in Nairobi and Lagos rather than London or New York.
True, these enterprises aren’t new or exciting. They are not nearly as exciting as Google Glasses, they are not inspiring the same creativity in design as smart phones and tablets and they are not as powerful as Android – but they are impacting lives.
There is a marketing element to the mix, too. Mobile –only social networks far surpass global platforms such as Facebook, with millions of users logging on every day. Think about it. Whoever unlocks the key to social media in the developing world will win the next billion users.
Taking the potential of the continent into account, no developer should be quick to dismiss the thought of focusing on what may be seen as outdated technology: feature phones. Already, Kenya has one of the most advanced mobile markets in the world – not because of the devices they are using, but because mobile services (particularly mobile transactions) have become engrained in their culture. Businesses and consumers are paying for everything and anything without ever having to open a bank account. By 2010, 50% of Kenya’s population were making use of mobile payments – Masai herdsmen are often seen whipping out their Nokias to make payment at the village marketplace. It’s proven to be a godsend for rural tradespeople, who had to carry large amounts of cash across large distances, subjecting themselves to the risk of banditry and theft. There are more mobile banking agents in the country than there are bank branches. Migrants are sending money home to their villages. And everyone is keeping in touch, uploading photographs and IM’ing across the board.
These innovations will have significant impact on the economy and the standard of living.
Africa might seem backwards, but in actual fact, we are in the middle of our technological revolution. We are the new innovators.
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