A year and a half ago, when M-ITI won the bid to conduct this study on "tech4good" in sub-Saharan Africa, we thought we would complete it in nine months. Indeed, our interviews ended exactly a year ago, and while the time to publication has been very long, we feel the findings are solid.
The funders of this study took a major chance with commissioning our team. We told them that we saw a large gap between many Western representations of technology in Africa and what we had experienced ourselves; that our backgrounds and training were very different than most of the teams responding to the call, and that they might be surprised by our findings. Our team included five scholars conducting research in Africa; while only one member was in Africa during the entire study, three others had worked there, and three are from Africa (two expatriated). We have spent person-years in tech hubs; developed major technical systems; and published quite a bit on tech in Africa. We suspected, then, that our informants' portrayals would largely agree with our own experiences, but not with the “Africa Rising” tech narrative favored by the Economist and the World Bank.
A Narrow Path
Despite our experience, we were nonetheless surprised by many of the things that we learned from our interviews. This was one advantage of taking a wide sample of diverse people in the ecosystem, many in jobs or roles we had never occupied, or in countries none of the team had visited. We heard often, and in varied detail, about the challenges innovators faced in attempting to access funding; of finding distribution channels in an ecosystem where the Mobile Network Operators have nearly uncontested power over the “net”; and of running tech hubs.The testimonies we heard were both more diverse and, frankly, often more dispiriting than any of us knew. For example, the degree to which local languages and literacy levels moderated the possibilities of "Northern" approaches to user interfaces was beyond what we had imagined. And the role of race in investment was something we had all experienced, yet we were nonetheless unprepared for its scale and determinacy. These findings led to what became our internal name for the report: “a narrow path.” It is very difficult for a local startup to launch and scale a technology, and the current paths to success are narrow.
We are not gilding lilies in this report. We believe that another team might have highlighted some very different factors, or taken a more boosterish tone. Indeed, we know for a fact that our informants told things to our seasoned Ugandan interviewers that they would never have said to someone "parachuting" in from the UK or the USA. We originally thought we’d publish the names of our interviewees and their institutions, but very quickly realized that unless we promised anonymity to our subjects – many of whom depend on Western donors – we would receive completely different types of responses in our interviews.
Given the results of the study, there is a chance that this report can be interpreted as what some observers have called "Afro-pessimism." This refers to a description of Africa that only focuses on poor roads, poor infrastructure, poor health, poor governance, and poor… poverty. Indeed Afro-pessimism is a kind of genre, one that dominates certain fields and parts of the media. We hope that this is not what we have done. Rather, our mandate was to focus on what external (in particular UK) funders could do to support a strong social tech ecosystem in sub-Saharan Africa. If we have focused on problems, this is because these appeared to be places where outside energy could help; but they are also concrete examples of where the wrong kind of outside energy can backfire. For example: knowing that there is a dearth of patient startup funding in Nigeria is great, but undercapitalization is not amenable to a one-bit solution. It is not a light switch. Throwing money into startups without understanding the differences between Nigerian business cultures and those in the West, or without understanding the inherent racial biases that shape many investment decisions, is a recipe for failure.
We did not interview a single entrepreneur who did not tell us about major structural challenges in their local ecosystem. This is not to say that Africa is poor or lacking; this might instead mean (as we argue) that the types of things that work in other places will not always work well, or in the same way, in Africa. It might mean, for example, that most of the training materials, online classes, and conventional wisdom about running a tech startup comes from parts of the world where 80% of the economy isn't informal; where there are one or two languages in your national market rather than 40; and where there is electricity.
Africa Already Innovates
Africa's informal economy is dynamic and resilient (if also problematic). The West's formal economy is relatively predictable, but very problematic in different ways (see, for example, the global financial crisis). The fact that most Western countries have at most a few official languages is an advantage to communication in some ways, but many Africans should be considered polyglot geniuses. And the ability of so many Africans to thrive on no more than a few hours of electricity per day is probably a skill we should all be striving toward, at least until the climate is stabilized. Seen in another light, these differences are opportunities – superpowers – if addressed with the right approach to innovation.
Indeed, in one part of the report we write about M-Pesa, which is often hailed as an incredible African innovation. This is partly true: people all over Africa had figured out how to transfer money indirectly by way of electronically transferring phone credit (airtime), which could then be resold. M-Pesa – incubated inside British multinational Vodafone, developed by a UK software company, and initially run on servers in the UK and Germany for the Kenyan market – simply formalized and centralized that process. In this case, Africans’ informal economic creativity was packaged and sold back to them as a monopoly. This story leaves us feeling ambivalent. Not only do aspects of this seem exploitative and extractive, but many technologists in the West are now calling for decentralization of communications, and the development of peer-oriented systems. As we further understand the effects of delegating and concentrating communications in a platform like Facebook, or the impact of AirBnB on urban housing across the world, it is not clear that M-Pesa’s model is better than what Africans were already using.
If there is one message that has emerged most powerfully for us from our research, then, it is that the North/West should stop pushing (educating, funding, evangelizing) its approaches on sub-Saharan Africa, and that Africans should avoid adopting techniques that squander their home-field advantage. For example, there is a great hope that "tech hubs" will lead to a Silicon Valley-esque renaissance for tech in Africa, without noting that Silicon Valley was the itself the product of a hundred years of investment and infrastructure development. This report found that hubs were indeed operating in a parallel dimension to universities, local business and capital, and other pre-existing infrastructure. Their impact is thus significantly diminished. Many tech hubs are doing good work, but if most had been thoughtfully integrated into their local ecosystem from the start, they would almost certainly have more positive impact.
The process of bringing this report to light took longer than expected. After six months of interviews, our early drafts echoed the language of our subjects, and some of our European readers were unsettled by the unexpectedness and intensity of some of the views we uncovered. So as not to lose European readers, we had to moderate our tone and explain things that were obvious on one continent but not the other. This took longer than the study itself. Regardless, here are the results, a bit less fresh than we had hoped, but we believe still accurate and timely. The last year has indeed validated central tenets of the report: that technology is a social and political process; capable of both increasing and reducing equality; and affected by as well as potentially reinforcing racism.
Please enjoy the report, and by all means leave feedback on our "contact" page.
Finally, we'd like to thank the 116 interviewees who gave us their time, and the many other people who contributed in other ways. It was a pleasure to speak with you, and please visit us in Madeira!