Technology, not aid, is the key to African development

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“I heard this in a workshop we ran recently and I think it’s very true,” says Betty Enyonam Kumahor, the Ghana-born regional head of Thoughtworks’ African operation, “Technology, not aid, is the currency for economic and social development.”

To call Kumahor a technology evangelist is something of an understatement, but her enthusiasm and passion for people in IT to be “the change agents” is probably just what most in the industry need to hear right now. Last week, a blog post by US tech writer Josh Ellis went viral in which he described all the broken dreams that those in technology had back in the early 90s. Rather than bringing a new utopia, we have Snowden, the tedium of social networking, screen fatigue and an ever widening income gap in the developed world as technology destroy jobs, dehumanises services and reduces human activity to its value as a marketing exercise.

Ellis’ bleak appraisal of the current state of technology clearly hit many nerves but I get the impression, as she talks during the keynote at Joburg’s Agile Africa conference this morning, that Kumahor couldn’t disagree more.

“Every time I land in Ghana,” says Kumahor, “Every couple of months, I’m amazed at the new building work going on.”

If there’s a core to Kumahor’s philosophy, it’s that technology’s role must be used to promote individual rights and not just corporate agendas.

“The next big push for ‘Africa Rising’ is to empower individuals,” she says, “To go to school, to get access to healthcare. ”

It’s a hot topic in development circles, where former World Bank economist Bill Easterly shook many feathers with the publication of his latest book, The Tyranny of Experts, in which he argues that most economic advisers, fiscal planners and aid agencies aren’t just getting things spectacularly wrong, they’ve made the world a far worse place than it could have been over the last 150 years. In the book, Easterly charts economic growth over almost a thousand years and finds that regions – not countries – which have a strong tradition of individual rights have invariably been more successful than those which don’t.

In practice, Kumahor says, promoting rights through tech in Africa manifests itself in five instructional points.

Kumahor's five points for economic progress in Africa.
Kumahor’s five points for economic progress in Africa.

Create local content that drives broadband usage

Four years ago, while working in Ghanaian telecoms, Kumahor explains that she was part of a large conference designed to promote access to broadband and reduce the cost of access. While prices have dropped, she says, people still aren’t moving online as quickly as expected and hoped for by those who see a direct correlation between broadband use and overall economic growth.

The reason, says Kumahor, is that many online services simply aren’t relevant to ordinary Ghanaians – or indeed Africans in general. They’re built outside the continent, not optimised for small, cheap phone screen and don’t solve local problems.

As an example of the kind of service which would promote local internet use, she cited a project developed by her own firm – Thoughtworks – which looked at the issue of remittances, or money sent back to the continent by ex-pats.

“Last year, remittances were 650% more than the World Bank and IMF put into the continent combined,” she says, “We have to find a way of tapping into that.”

The problem her team identified was that workers in the US who sent money home for – say – siblings’ schoolbooks would wire money to someone in a city, who would take a cut then send the remainder of the cash on. Thoughtworks developed an ecommerce site for people in the US that allows them to buy books and materials directly from suppliers who receive the order online then deliver as one package. It’s efficient, and makes sure money reaches its intended destination.

“People have to be on the internet to do things that led to economic growth,” she says, “Not just for the sake of being online.”

For Africa, by Africa

It’s a cliche, but Kumahor says it’s true. Not even the best-minded people from outside the continent can understand the “frugal innovation and context adjustments we need to make”. Again using the example of the dumbphone as a point of interaction with online services, she cites an accounting package for small businesses that works via SMS as being a good example of an African app. The pricing model is key too.

“It costs less than a can of milk [to subscribe],” she explains, “You just pay more frequently.”

Focus on job creation

Kumahor is surprisingly sceptical about the state of the African tech hub movement, which many cite as hotbeds of local innovation. Few, she says, have a track record of creating employment beyond one or maybe two small app development companies.

“The hubs don’t really drive employment ,” she explains, “I talk to the young people in the hubs, and they’re [not talking] about how to employ 20, 30, 40 or 50 people. I don’t think the hubs are driving the kinds of employment opportunities the continent needs.”

That can change, says Kumahor, but the message needs to be that Africa can’t use technology to replace jobs – as has happened in the US and Europe – but that it must use technology to create employment – and that’s hard. The philosophy at Thoughtworks, she says, is:

“Are we doing what is efficient and profitable or are we doing what’s right? At every business decision you’re going to face a choice – you have to face that choice. ”

Of all Kumahor’s points, forgoing profit for the sake of job creation may be the hardest to convince other businesses of.

Women with and in IT

So many of problems disproportionately affect women rather than men, yet men dominate in problem solving circles. Kumahor cites research which claims that while almost half of South Africa’s population is made up of black women, they count for less than 1% of active software developers. With the best will in the world, she says, that means many potentially useful and profitable technology businesses are going overlooked.

“Women are not going to be looking a their mum and seeing the problems they are facing and saying ‘I know how to fix that’,” says Kumahor, “We need to make sure that the people thinking about problems and applying technology are as diverse as they need to be.”

Improve infrastructure, and ensure ownership

Kumahor’s final point is back to basics. In Nigeria, now the continent’s largest economy, she says less than 4% of government workers have official email addresses. Which means that either they’re not using online tools at all, or giving away their business to Gmail, Hotmail, et al. That’s simply got to change.



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