On Writing about Tech in Africa (part 2): our toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs

 Back in 2009, some journalist -perhaps trying to make her story about “the pearl of Africa” land some eyeballs- stated that Uganda was “a place where cell phones could outnumber light bulbs.”

Now, that little nugget has morphed into the widely parroted factoid, that there are more mobile phones than bulbs in Uganda. It’s been cited in keynotes, presentations, maybe even helped advance some careers.

By 2010, we were being regaled with a UN statistic, that there are more people on earth with access to cellphones, than to toilets. It’s only upon digging deeper that one finds that the toilets benchmark for this factoid, is the flush toilet. Assumedly, it is the gold standard of toilets to access.

This particular statistic has been unleashed more specifically on India; though it is cited as both about the world in general, India specifically, and with pepperings of the country of Africa.

It is a tragic irony to think in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones,” so many people “cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,” UN University director.

Perhaps one day cell phones will bring to half the African population something else they lack — clean toilets.” The World Bank’s Chief Economist, MENA region.

Friends, it’s now 2016, and we are comparing mobile phone access to…drumroll please…toothbrushes.

Behold, the rush to quantity Africa, and indeed the “developing world”. We are our mobile phones, toilets, bulbs and toothbrushes.

Have pointed out severally how uncritical and condescending these kinds of comparatives are; even more unfortunate is we — as Africans, or “global Southerners” — tweet, ooh and aah at these nonsensical references.

So it seems the number of bulbs, for instance, is picked from household surveys, as this Ugandan who was just as tired of that uncritically trumpeted statistic about his country sought to investigate.

Other than to tingle the senses of those excited about “Africa rush 2.0″, what do such findings – flaunted and cited ever so excitedly – do for the perceptions of Africa, not just to the rest of the world, but also ourselves?

As someone rightfully asked, what logical policy conclusion does one draw from these stats? I mean…toothbrushes?

Am I too cynical to think this part of the bigger digital colonialism creeping upon us? Or the digital era’s version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

One’s tingly senses are activated when one grows increasingly familiar with how such projects have worked to keep us in need, lacking.

Of toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs in Africa. And the mobile phone takeover.

I am the first to acknowledge that there is a dearth of data to help many actors make sense of the continent. This is more so in certain parts than others, such as the absence altogether, of Central Africa on many maps.

But for crying out loud, this has got to stop. What next, more mobile phones than coconut trees? (Oh snap, did I just inspire some Africa research “expert”?)

On mobile phones, we need a serious push back on the thinking/operational hypothesis that a mobile-first Africa will make for a digitally transformed continent aside from generating consumers for products that will predominantly be from elsewhere.

For all our excitement about Silicon Savannah, most emerging market countries — including India — are rounding errors when we look at their share of global revenues on the app stores. Revenue is concentrated into a handful of markets that take the lion’s share back into their own countries, with local sales from local developers almost absent except for unique markets such as China, South Korea and Japan,Winners and Losers in the Global App Economy.

No app will make up for a lack of political will.

So, for crying out loud, enough of these insulting comparatives. There simply is no other way to rationalise that kind of framing.

And as always, Africa is not a country. There is no buy one, get 53 free.

Just stop it.

PS: Some may also want to scroll through “On Writing about Tech in Africa“.

On Writing about Tech in Africa

(As posted on Medium)

Read an article (on international media) lately about some tech startup or innovation in Africa? Have the words “disrupt”, “revolutionise”, or phrases like “the next big thing” appeared? Have you found yourself believing that there’s a “tech revolution” across the continent (country) of Africa?

It is understandable that the rest of the world (Africans included) is now a bit more aware, and perhaps (more) vested in the “Africa Rising” narrative. As a friend once put it: “Africa rising ; someone opened the oven early, the yeast is not ready”.

It is tedious, to always be on the reactive side of matters Africa — be it in the political, humanitarian , and now, tech framing. The instruments of global opinion-shaping media are skewed to the global North, even though there are, and have been concerted efforts to “Africanise” them; solutions offered to the “time to tell our own African stories” mission, if you will.

Reading piece after piece about African tech startups or tech innovations, coupled with working in one of the emerging ecosystems in “the home of the Silicon Savannah”, I have noticed the range of lexicon used to describe them. “The [insert Silicon Valley enterprise] equivalent of Africa/country X in Africa.” “ Startup X or innovation Y will “revolutionise” or “disrupt” industry Z.” Share others that come to mind.

It is tiring, and irking. But more importantly, it’s problematic for a number of reasons.

I appreciate that media works in a certain way — globally, regionally and internationally. Sensationalism seems to be here to stay. All that aside, my contention really is with the tech determinism that is created in framing nascent endeavours as “the next big thing(s)”. And it is interesting to note that many of the innovations/start-ups are often still trying to figure out what their business, profit and sustainability models are/will be, perhaps even trying to grasp the operating environments, the challenges and opportunities preceding the tech. Forward thinking is always welcome, but creating a false determinism, especially given the oft missing context of operational environments is, in my opinion, tainting the outlook on tech in Africa, by Africa, for Africa. I also don’t believe that many, if any of the startups or innovators interviewed (when interviewed) get to review the final drafts of these media articles. Even if they do, one would not fault them for not correcting the descriptions created, or for even performing to the media spotlight (no such thing as bad press, right?) . In an attention economy, you have to do what you can to gain traction, as many probably argue. It’s not to say that the industries in which tech innovations or startups operate or innovate won’t be disrupted; the framing in many a news article or documentary creates the false notion that this will happen in the next year, or two. And when that doesn’t happen, whispers of “why aren’t we seeing another M-PESA” start to be heard. Impatience starts to creep in. Any new or recycled attempt to figure a role for tech in some sector catches the hungry media’s radar. Another news article is quickly and eagerly put together. Yet another “next big thing”, another startup/innovation that will “revolutionise” or “disrupt”. A vicious cycle.

For our dear friends in local and international media who feel vested in writing about tech in Africa, note the following: You are not necessarily helping by using such bold declarations and descriptions, especially if research or background assessments to establish the context(s) around which these innovations/startups emerge is/are not part of the consideration. If you haven’t been informed already, please understand: technology is NOT a panacea. I do see why it is so tempting to make that the case for Africa. What were your news organisations writing about Africa (local and regional ones included) five, ten years ago, after all? A startup or innovation in, say, edtech, will not “revolutionise” learning. At best, it will amplify the preceding efforts. At worst, it will create further divides.