ICT brings tremendous opportunities – privately and in business – to Africa. RuralWeb helps out to master ICT to those who do not have access to this huge source of information.
As an African, what is the use of a smart phone, when you only can choose from applications that show you restaurants in Ney York or hotels in Amsterdam? Africans need applications that opposes African challenges. The reach is big enough: only Nigeria already has 166 million inhabitants. For example, to have more democratic elections the websiteyourBudgit was created, on which Nigerians could get information about public expenditure in graphics, through messages and twitter, and have politicians accountable for their policies and spending. It was the first time that citizens were able to communicate directly with their leaders and that politicians could feel the polls of the nation through Facebook. The website has actually changed the dynamics of power in Nigeria, according to Femi Long from Co-creation Hub Lagos.
He was one of the speakers at the workshop: How deep is Africa’s ICT revolution? at the Africa Works conference I visited October 30th. Other speakers were: Jasper Grosskurth (Research Solutions Africa, Kenya), Ben White (VC4Africa); and Mirjam de Bruijn (Africa Study Centre Leiden). Below you can read my record of the session:
Internet coverage in Africa
It is estimated that 1 out of 2 Africans have a cell phone with access to internet (thanks to the Chinese!) and these numbers are increasing rapidly). In (urban) South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe internet access is above 71%. And in 2013 it will only be Eritrea and Western Sahara without access to internet (and that is due to political reasons). Within 10 years everyone in Africa will have a smart phone.
The well-known Facebook picture showing users worldwide is already 2 years old and ever since Facebook users in Africa has grown spectacularly. The main reason: Facebook is free of charge on smart phones. Although free use of Wikipedia and other websites is growing. For many applies: better miss out a meal than miss out credit on your smart phone.
ICT empowers people
Half of the money in Nairobi is transferred from one phone to another. It is used to send money at very cheap rates, for instance to pay for a taxi, send money to relatives living in the rural areas, and it is currently also used to give out micro loans and to close insurances. In Kenya 22% of poor people earns money through their cell phone (getting their salary paid; got to know job opportunities etc). And it is said the more connectivity, economy grows with an average of 0,3%.
ICT empowers people also in a non-material way. It empowers because it equally shares information. It is the first time the African voice is to be heard in the global debate (if you are willing to listen to it, Jasper Grosskurth added). With an important role for the diaspora: they demand for democratisation through social media.
ICT in African business
40% of African inhabitants is below 14 years of age and youth unemployment is striking on the continent. ICT can offer opportunities for young people since they are able to learn ICT skills in no time. ICT brings the latest developments, it connects people, information resources and curriculum learning. What’s more according to Ben White: ‘ICT is an incredible tool for the 1,9 billion entrepreneurs all over Africa. It can be an incubator of business skills, investment plans and connections.’ Especially for the opportunity entrepreneurs, those with big ideas and solutions.
What’s more, it already showed ICT can work for young entrepreneurs in Africa: there are currently 72 Afrilabs to be found around Africa. These hubs are places where young creative entrepreneurs work together using ICT, ranging from information to technology. There are commercial hubs, hubs working on capacity building or providing information. Some of their activities: create applications and websites; making games with educational value; books to be read on cell phones, including cliff hangers (Kenya); safe mobile user experience for children (South Africa). These educational games will really be an export commodity in future.
An obstacle for entrepreneurship in Africa is lack of investment opportunities. However, diaspora and western citizens are interested to invest in promising businesses, for instance by means of crowdfunding.
Social entrepreneurship is the combination of rational thinking and efficiency of businesses with real problem solving (that governments and NGOs should do but do not manage to do) according to Femi Long. Ideally ICT works at the intersection of business and civil society. For example the Assisi Hub in Lagos (a community of 1200 individuals and organisations) who work by questioning themselves: What is the smartest way to challenge problems lots of people face? And how to create value for them? This particular hub came up with the mentioned yourBudgIT initiative. And they also created an app where women and their husbands can find out which hospital provides best care when having a baby. These hubs can really be successful: Femi’s Co-Creation Hub in Lagos collaborates with Google, Samsung and Nokia.
What is left to learn? Creativity and experiment.
In general, there is still a lot to be developed in ICT: training of companies’ staff on how to use ICT. In marginal areas like Darfur, central Chad, and northern Mali, where Mirjan de Bruijn researched the consequences of (not having access to) ICT, a so called 4th world emerges of people who have never been connected to the internet. And where ICT can provide opportunities, it can obviously be abused too, for instance by authoritarian regimes.
On the other hand, Femi Long answered to a NGO worker providing entrepreneur-training: It is not trainings from western organisations that the African labs and hubs need; People grap opportunities if they are there. We are looking for inspiration in terms of creativity. Room to experiment, fail and sometimes be successful, because that is what gives you opportunities. Instead of training, it is sufficient to connect entrepreneurs with one another, who face the same challenges. And finally, we need people who have time and take the next step in linking research and practice.
RuralWeb: Closing the ICT Gap
The workshop confirmed my research on ICT for development for the RuralWeb initiative. Ruralweb is working on closing the gap between those who have access to internet and information and those who have not. On its open source website it provides a first-time-online learning that gathers existing trainings and a community platform, but also a starting page for e-courses and development resources. The coming year we will work on improving the website and also work on new first-time-online content made by and for non-western users, in cooperation with a local African partner. (See more about our next year’s plan in our 5 min. movie: made by Wiser Film).
The bad news: our website is already blocked in Sudan. The good news is: our colleague-organisations working on ICT4D believe in the unique idea of RuralWeb, which also prevents people and organisations to explore best ICT trainings over and over again. It will be a success if we manage to polish our website with the tons of information that is out there, and will be able to have a really good offer that can compete with existing initiatives. That’s exactly our plan!
Also published as a column at Africa Works’ wesbite: november 2012