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The cans and can’ts of technology in Africa

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