Africa’s Technological Potential

I recently discussed ICT in Africa with practioners in the field during a recent morning, and had a realization shortly after about why I have a passion for Africa and for ICT. Because it can be hard to talk about my interest in the continent, I usually brush the question off on ‘Why Africa?’.

I’ve realized since the beginning of my interest, that for a young white male American to have an fixation on the continent is a fact many people find perplexing. African Studies on a whole is a threatened discipline in the United States, and I certainly don’t give off the vibe that I believe most people expect an Africanist to exude.

Another European Church

I’ve often told people that, having been taken to nearly every castle and church in western and eastern Europe as a child by my parents that I wanted something new to explore as I grew older. While it makes seem like Africa was just something to study, in reality it initially was a process of elimination (I had no interest in Asian studies, I didn’t feel I spoke enough Spanish to take up Latin American studies, and saw little future as an American specialist). However, since then, the interest that I hold in the continent has grown into a passion. It is still hard to describe why the passion exists, but I realized what captivates me about the continent: its potential.

Working in the tech industry in Los Angeles exposed me to a huge cross-section of society each day. It has been an eye opening experience to interact with different people from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I’ve been able to see how there is a universal joy when it comes to using certain pieces of technology, or discovering a new way to do the things easier with technology. However, I’ve also seen a perplexing amount of trepidation, hesitation, and disinterest in the uses of technology. While this might mean you conjure up an image of an elderly American, in fact, just as many young people fail to get the most out of their technology. And when we as Americans do utilize our technology it often serves as a purpose for distraction or entertainment.

I see this hesitation and fear of learning the by-product of the Microsoft-led PC-era, where IT departments were set up to support to a workforce that was forced to embrace technology, rather than empower the users. Still, using computers was seen as dull and monotonous. This relatively forgotten video makes the best critique of the era of the Personal Computer.

While the term ‘nerd’ is no longer in vogue, the pejorative nature of the term has lost some of its cultural significance. However, I believe this lingering stereotype has still impacted the willingness of people to dive into and explore new technology. Technology is increasing being used not only to solve old problems and processes, but allow us to think and imagine in new ways. With this potential, why are there people who call themselves ‘tech-illiterate’. I think of that as an excuse used by people to excuse them from learning. Why would anyone want an excuse to not learn?! Learning is one of the most enjoyable, rewarding, and fulfilling joys of life.

The classic modern/traditional ICT picture

The potential that Africa possesses is the fact that it avoided this debilitating PC-era. There is unlikely anyone on the continent who would describe themselves as ‘not tech-literate’. This term isn’t acceptable. For example for many, the ability to use a mobile phone to conduct your business, to send money, to receive money is crucial to their lives. This reality is not realized by many in the west who are able to coast along on legacy processes and technology.

This is where Africa’s potential gives it the greatest competitive advantage in the world. If you were to hand a multi-touch tablet to a young African, rich or poor, he or she has unlikely used or owned one before. Yet, the ability to touch, manipulate, and input data with their fingers would be extremely intuitive, just as with any young person around the world. The reason is many of the adults of the continent have lacked access to personal computers. While PC-penetration has skyrocketed in the past decade, there’s no institutional memory of using unnatural data inputs like a mouse and keyboard that exists like there does in Europe and the United States.

The uses and applications for technology in Africa are part of the final piece of the potential that I see. When I see how parents are increasingly using technology as a substitute for parenting or conversation in the US, I wonder whether this is setting the child up for success, or crippling his or her ability to have the skills to one day apply their creativity in designing new technology. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with games or social networking apps, if it is taking the place of opportunities to build skills that foster creativity: group collaboration, critical thinking, or problem solving, I fear that the future will not meet its potential. While its amazing to watch a child pick up the nuances of Cut the Rope, I wonder what this is teaching them.

I see the applications being made on the continent as being more about solving the problems that have inhibited Africa’s growth which means overcoming certain logistical, budgetary, or geographical problems. While not all of them are going to be as meaningful or well promoted as those from Apps4Africa, I believe the upbringing that is experienced by a majority of Africans will cause them to focus on creating technology that will continue Africa’s trajectory of growth and property, rather than the first African killer app being an addictive game.

This possibility of technology to have a positive and significant impact on development on the continent is what drives my current passion. Seeking out opportunities to increase these possibilities for change and growth in Africa is the mission I’ve adopted. Handing a mobile phone to someone is not going to instantly bring about growth, improved health, and good governance. People need to be able to make the apps and services that will do these things.There needs to be local content and cultural relevance for any ICT product that wishes to succeed. Developers need to be in touch with culture, society, and the history of the people who are the target audience for their app, or their hardware. This is where the melding of the humanities with the tech industry can serve to propel development on the continent.

The knowledge of an area’s history, politics, and culture can be the difference maker when it comes to providing and applying technological solutions. Without it, you fail to understand your potential customers and the market as a whole. While we would like to believe that globalization is making all those who use technology into a homogenous culture of YouTube watchers, Netflix renters, and App downloaders, the underpinnings of culture will provide obstacles for those who seek to enter new markets into the foreseeable future.

Africa’s underdevelopment has hindered progress in many areas. However, for once, the lack of a PC-culture on the continent may provide a unexpected advantage. With the future in mobile technology, and in new, more intuitive interfaces, Africa has the long-term advantage. With technology being seen as a gateway to prosperity on the continent, it will not be long until Africa out innovates the world.

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Post-Conflict Branding & Cote d’Ivoire: The Power of Chocolate

Cote d’Ivoire and Post-Conflict Branding

By Alex Laverty

A country that is emerging from a violent internal conflict often has a significant amount of rebuilding to undertake. This usually includes the service delivery sector, the import and exports markets, and the ways that citizens interact with politicians. A glaring issue that is often not treated at the same level as security or domestic services is the international image of the country, which has been negatively affected by the conflict. While there are rare cases when conflict elevates a country’s brand or soft power, most internal violence often bares cleavages in that society to the entire world. When outside intervention is required it signals to the world community that the society is incapable of solving their own disagreements, thus further deteriorating whatever good standing the country had in the eyes of the world previously. However, as it is nearly impossible for a country brand to change radically, there remain sources and images of brand resources that can help the country post-conflict. Often these images are obscured by the fighting and the social and economic toll of destruction. Thus post-conflict, there needs to be concentrated efforts to either reintroduce or reemphasize the representations of the best of that society. By doing so, economic and social recovery can be hastened by the benefits of increased country brand awareness.

In Cote d’Ivoire, a rebuilding is underway after the Second Ivorian Civil War. The conflict involved the French military and the United Nations and resulted in the forceful removal of one leader and the installation of the internationally recognized winner of the 2010 elections, Alassane Ouattara. Claims that human rights violations were committed by both Ivorian sides were leveled during and after the conflict. Due to the nature of the division of the country, along north-south divisions as well debates on citizenship validity, the reconstruction and reconciliation processes will be difficult. Overcoming these negative images from the conflict, along with the more ingrained disposition that French colonialism has placed Cote d’Ivoire in, will need to be addressed when building a new brand for the country.

Issues from Colonialism

Cote d’Ivoire faces a global recognition problem not just due to its recent history but also with its brand following independence. This is similar to other African states who face difficulties in standing out in a crowd of 53 nations. However, specific to Cote d’Ivoire is the issue surrounding how other countries and their media outlets discuss the country.

Since 1985 the country has asked that it be referred to as Cote d’Ivoire in all language registries. While FIFA, the IOC, and The Economist refer to the French name when referencing the nation, nearly all other major media outlets (BBC, South African Broadcasting Company, The New York Times, and The Guardian) all continue to refer to the country as ‘Ivory Coast’. Due to this confusion around the name of the country, Cote d’Ivoire faces a branding issue faced by few other nations in the world. While the economic linkages due to France means this is a non-issue in many circumstances, if the country hopes to break its reliance on France, it will need to solidify its name internationally.

Issues from the Conflict

The Ivorian brand has suffered for over a decade since the beginning of a anti-government rebellion in 2002. Since then, the country has been the focus of negotiations and stalled election dates. The focus of international attention brought about by the fighting between the two groups of presidential supporters and the intervention of the French military will undoubtedly play into the negative stereotypes held by developed nations about West African states. The fact that Cote d’Ivoire was the region’s power house 30 years ago has likely faded from any institutional or personal memory. Regionally, the long stand off between the government and the rebels will cause significant harm to its reputation because it was a constant reminder to the citizens of the region that Ivorians were split in two for a decade. However, more important for regional rehabilitation will be the xenophobic rhetoric that fueled the conflict.

While this talk of a ‘true’ Ivorian was first used in 1995 to block the current President from running, it has become part of the political lexicon of the country to discuss whether one is truly a citizen if their parents were born in neighboring countries.

With the country reliant on foreign labor for agricultural production, the damage to the country’s image as a attractor of labor may suffer in the short to medium term. With Ouattara (with foreign-born parents) winning the Presidency it will be his responsibility to maintain and strengthen the ties he made with regional leaders during the stand off and to make sure that Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbors do not see them as xenophobic society. A country brand that is tagged as xenophobic with an economy reliant on foreign labor is a dangerous combination.

Building a New Nation Brand

To address the naming surround the country, I would advise a straightforward effort to increase awareness of the French spelling as well as aiding the economic recovery. First, I would utilize the fact that the country is the largest producer of the world’s finest delicacy. 30% of the world’s chocolate (cocoa) comes from the country. As the largest supplier of the bean, the country has an opportunity to use the near universal awareness of the product as way to build the country brand.

While the country has been in the spotlight for using slave labor to harvest the bean, the recent electoral violence has no doubt replaced that fact in the world’s consciousness. Thus, to capitalize on their market dominance, the new Ivorian government should invest in manufacturing plants in the country in order to export finished products of cocoa based commodities, rather than raw materials. While this has been an economic incentive in other African countries that produce raw materials such as oil, the branding potential is much higher for chocolate because it is not associated with resource or inter-state violence like petroleum is often connected to. Exporting finished products that bear the branding “Grown and made in Cote d’Ivoire” serves two purposes. It helps show that the French-spelling is used even in the English marketing, plus it can help bring widespread (positive) awareness to the country for the production of a premium product that is not associated with violence or civil conflict.

African Weeks in Review 24 Feb – 9 March

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#kony2012 calls on white westerns to get involved without much of the facts. South Africa apologizes for keeping their citizens protected from disease carrying foreigners, and Mamelodi Sundowns believe no lead is every safe! Continue reading

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Op-Ed: To Save the African State, Negotiate with Terrorists

To Save the African State, Negotiate with Terrorists*

Published: March 5, 2012 (check out my NYTimes formatted PDF Version Here)

An Islamic jihadst terrorist group that uses violence in an attempt to expel Western influences is growing in notoriety and expanding its tactical audacity.

It opposes the teaching of Western education, and targets state institutions such as the police and government buildings through assassinations and car bombings. The state, an ally of the United States, has attempted to use its oil wealth to quiet dissent, but economic and political disparity located on ethnic, lingual, and regional lines has caused unrest to build among those who feel their share is insufficient. In response to the violence perpetrated by the terrorist organization, the state has violently cracked down on the movement and recently killed the leader of the group while he was being held in police custody.

This description is not of a country in the Middle East, but a recap of recent events in Nigeria.

Boko Haram, the colloquial Hausa name for the People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, is based in northern Nigeria and has undertaken such operations as a car bombing on the United Nations headquarters in the capital Abuja, brutal attacks on police stations in the north, and a Christmas Day bombing of a Christian church also in the capital. They claim to be a reaction to the Western influence they see being forced upon the people of the Muslim north by a corrupt Christian-led government.

“Boko Haram… exposes the frailties of the modern African state that have persisted since the end of colonialism” 

These actions have signaled Boko Haram’s increasing reach within Nigeria, as well as highlighting the inability of the Nigerian state to prevent the group from conducting their operations outside of their region of support. This sets Boko Haram apart from other militant groups within Nigeria, and exposes the frailties of the modern African state that have persisted since the end of colonialism.

When colonialism ended, the founding fathers of African independence made a critical decision in state formation. They accepted the borders drawn up in Europe as the sovereign domains of the newly liberated African states. However, these lines were often arbitrary, and neglected ethnic and geographic considerations. The colonial state imposed these borders through the agreement drawn up at the Berlin Conference in 1884, and enforced control through repression and manipulation.The post-colonial state lacked the resources, the skills, and often the legitimacy to simply subsume the capacity of the colonial administration. Thus, groups were able to exist outside of the purview of the central government or in prominent opposition to the state.Over the past 20 years, as commodities have become a larger part of African countries’ GDP, the benefits of controlling the state have risen considerably. Thus the economic differences between those in favor by the central administration or those marginalized have increased substantially.Without the same economic incentives, violent pressures, and geographic partitioning that characterized state and nation formation in other parts of the world, African states remain colonial amalgamations. To overcome those origins, there needs to be stimuli introduced to inspire greater cohesion among the populace, in a way that will encourage and incentivize the citizens of these states to pool their combined resources, rather than seeking to divide themselves along older ethnic or tribal boundaries.To create this incentive, the Nigerian government should work towards immediately engaging in constructive talks with Boko Haram in order to grant them some level of self-governance and to negotiate a level of autonomy. This would be a radical break from previous government interaction with non-state armed groups and seemingly counter-intuitive in terms of nation-building. However, despite military campaigns to crush radical opposition groups around the world, the underlying causes of the anti-government sentiments have not been solved. Poverty, political corruption, economic marginalization, and the lack of investment are well known to be root causes of insurgencies, radical movements, and jihadist groups. Military defeat will not create greater national harmony, in fact it will create the opposite.

“Military defeat will not create greater national harmony, in fact it will create the opposite”

Boko Haram claims to have substantial support in the north, and whatever their numbers, they grow each time retaliation is carried out by the government. Thus, the Nigerian state needs to immediately cease their attacks on areas where Boko Haram is located, and seek to negotiate their terms. This should involve deciding on which Nigerian states will be given more self-rule powers, how quickly state taxation and social services should be discontinued (including any receipts from oil proceeds), and how to deal with those wishing to move to the newly formed autonomous region, and those who wish to leave.

The end goal is to show non-state armed groups around the world that self-governance and the expulsion of the modern state will not lead to the economic empowerment that underlie much of their motives.

Very soon after the transition of power, those residents that chose to move to or remain in the Boko Haram-administered areas will see the effects of the lack of financial support from Abuja. Creating a state within a state will be a task greater than that faced by the founders of post-colonial states. In the case of this new Boko Haram-region, a small population, few natural resources, and a group that has no administrative training or background means changes will cause drastic negative effects and will be felt rapidly.

In this scenario, Nigerian public diplomacy can begin to engage the people of this autonomous region to reinforce how unity under the state, while far from perfect and in need of much reform, is a better option to the fractious alternative that they chose. Already, the northern region of 60 million people rely on government funds to prop up their economy as their previous enterprises have faired badly in the face of Chinese competition or dwindled through agricultural decay. The Nigerian government will need to back up this outreach through quality and lasting reforms. Education should be the forefront of any engagement with the north as the benefits from increased schooling and skills can directly dispute the content of Boko Haram’s message that western education is a negative influence.

This scenario will send a message to other non-state armed groups and African governments that interaction within existing state structures is the fastest way to implement reform and to increase services for the country’s citizens when compared to partition. Forming breakaway movements that challenge the sovereignty of the state will not be the panacea to Africa’s ills. The case of South Sudan should be monitored closely, but early evidence suggests that even ample supply of natural resources does not guarantee political and economic success post-independence.

Boko Haram cannot be bought off like other groups in Nigeria because their sources of bitter disagreement stem from less material issues, and are expressed through religiously infused rhetoric.

It is important for the international community to not aggregate Boko Haram as a sect of the global jihadist movement. The origins of Boko Haram lie more so in the colonial state formation of the continent of Africa and its failures in the 50 years since. This is an armed revolt against a serially corrupt government that responds to protests with abusive security forces. The increasing economic disparity that exists between these two regions, the oil-drenched Christian South, and the drier Muslim North, is a significant source of Boko Haram’s rise and growth.

“The origins of Boko Haram lie more so in the colonial state formation of the continent of Africa and its failures in the 50 years since.”

Boko Haram’s ability to inflict great damage on a powerful African state that has responded with the typical counter-terrorism playbook without success, shows that new ideas and new strategies are needed to deal with the movement itself as well as the underlying causes.  Structural change will take time in Nigeria, thus one option that should be considered is the opportunity to give Boko Haram exactly what it wants, in order to show that their radical goals cannot achieve what they promise their followers.

The stability of Nigeria depends on the actions taken by its leaders in the coming months. The future of the state in Africa could be solidified if Nigerian leaders can make an example of Boko Haram. Solutions should come from compromise as part of a greater whole, not through division and segregation. As the the transnational ties between the globe grow and strengthen, African governments need to quickly address the issue of insufficient service delivery, corruption in politics, and attracting investment if the non-state armed groups are to be dealt with. How governments responds to these issues will decide whether the African state will thrive in the 21st Century.

*This was an academic assignment designed to create a controversial opinion piece, known as an op-ed in the United States (from opposite the editorial page). The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the actual views of the author.