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.

Kenya Tech Community’s ‘Dalliance’ with the Goverment

It is no doubt that many Kenyan stakeholders have benefitted from the ‘Silicon Savannah’ and ‘East Africa ICT Hub’ monikers bestowed upon Kenya. It is also no doubt that ICTs are a player in virtually every aspect of society and industry today, and are here to stay. All stakeholders are clamouring to establish their significance and how their roles and responsibilities will be disrupted by digital technologies and the Internet.

Kenya’s tech sector has been lauded, and recently even ‘validated’ by the government of President Kenyatta. From government investment into incubators, as is the case with Nailab, to the famed recent impromptu visit by His Excellency to iHub, Nailab and other tech companies housed at the Bishop Magua Centre (including a shout out in the State of the Nation address) and even funding commitments to establishing entities like Enterprise Kenya, to be co-facilitated with players from the tech sector.

Some have said the community is currently experiencing a ‘honeymoon phase’, with government. This isn’t a bad thing, as it has taken lots of hard work for the tech players to gain rightful recognition. However, players in this scene, and in particular, local tech folk with access to the highest office of the land, will do well to learn from the missteps and relationship dynamics that the Kenyan government has had, especially with the media and civil society. The Public Benefit Organisations (PBO) Act, The Media Council Bill and Kenya Information Communications (Amendment) Act come to mind. How media and civil society actors have found themselves battling against problematic clauses in these laws provides a cautionary tale for the nascent ICT sector.

As the tech space expands, government is also looking at regulating it, and this could be done in ways that undermine the emerging local scene, if caution is not heeded. Laws proposed and government thinking around data privacy and cyber security, for instance, do have implications that may complicate e-commerce and Internet freedom. The Security Laws Amendment Act had clauses that touched on ICT components, in particular Internet and social media use for communication. While wining, dining and basking in government/The Presidency’s attention, those representing the tech sector–from the non-government/non-profit hubs, to private sector tech companies and everyone in between — should keep a very watchful eye on what the Executive and Legislative arms of government are doing, boldly or stealthily, as far as investment commitments, regulations and laws go, even as they hope to further their agendas. It would be a tragedy to have been coopted into an agenda that undermines the future of the ICT sector.

The tech sector, however defined, does not exist in a vacuum. The battles between government and media and civil society also have an impact on how this cross-cutting sector pans out. Bloggers for instance, who fall within media and civil society, rely on ICTs for their work. Rules and regulation attempts, impact their work. The tech community also expands to the consumers of products and innovations. They should be kept in mind as well.

 

There is ongoing talk for players in the tech community (innovators, business operators and others) should have their own association, to serve as a voice of the technology sector in Kenya. How that shapes up will be interesting, as we also figure out what and who comprises the tech sector/community in Kenya. Recent history bears lessons for those at the forefront to heed, as we forge as ‘the home of the Silicon Savannah’.
This article also appeared on the Daily Nation, on April 23, 2015.

Dear Kenyans, Tweet On!

Social media are playing a critical role in lending and amplifying citizen voices in Kenya today, contributing to what has been termed a ‘networked fifth estate’. Citizens are finding and amplifying their own collective voice; we no longer have to wait for the media, the opposition, civil society, religious institutions,the government or any other ‘intermediary’ to ‘speak on our behalf’ or to represent our views while we passively watch/listen.

 

There is no shortage of issues and problems plaguing Kenya today, heck, it’s like a cruel game of whack-a-mole. Coupled with the politicization of virtually every discourse on any issue in any sector, to be a diligent Kenyan, practising one’s constitutional right to public participation is no small feat.  

 

Our country, for all its misfortunes and blunders has one interesting tool whose impact we are just realizing: the Internet. We have Internet Freedom(the efforts to curtail them,though, are a discussion for another day). Coupled with the proliferation of Internet-enabled mobile devices at increasingly affordable rates for an increasing percentage of the population, we are well on our way to writing an interesting chapter in world history on use of these devices and tools to shape our democracy.

 

Take the controversial Security Laws (Amendment) Bill discussion for instance. Public discourse  began with news pieces from our media that were shared online. The interaction and reactions that ensued largely entailed demanding access to the draft bill that only journalists initially seemed to have access to. Relentless efforts by vigilant citizens tweeting at journalists and legislators to avail the draft saw it uploaded online for wananchi to read and scrutinize for themselves. Problematic clauses in the draft have been highlighted and discussed at length on Twitter for instance, arguably with more depth and diversity of insight and contribution than on traditional media’s coverage. Pressure to allow for public input to the draft has largely come from the online community, when it was noted that this had not taken place.

 

The turnout at the public forum earlier this week was low, despite the flurry of online engagement on the issue. This is where critics of social media’s impact come alive and scorn at the poor translation of online activity to offline action. However, it must be noted that different times call for different strategies. Traditional forms of turning up – physical rallies, street protests, town hall meetings- while significant, are no longer the only forms in which we can exercise civic engagement. We need to be open to the fact that they may no longer be relevant. Besides, don’t we have a  ‘digital government’, in the home of the ‘Silicon Savannah’? This, to me, says that it’s time to rethink public consultation forum models. The newspaper announcements for sessions that are held at impractical times during the week should not be simplified to indicate apathy. In this case, one afternoon session, in one location (Nairobi), on a law that would affect all Kenyans cannot be counted as representative by any stretch of the imagination.  Pressure must be mounted on government, at both county and national levels to rethink effective ways of facilitating citizens’ public participation in governance issues given the various contexts in which they operate. Online consultations have been leveraged before, and are flaunted as a success by the government. I refer to the famed crowdsourcing of contributions to the National Budget by President Kenyatta back in 2011 when he was Minister of Finance. Though we never got to know how citizens’ contributions contributed to the final budget, the approach taken heralded new thinking that shouldn’t be abandoned now.

 

Yes, social media use is not representative of the population. Yes, we have a long way to go before we can talk of all Kenyans being represented online. But this should not give cause to dismiss what is playing out in the online spaces that Kenyans occupy. I contend that these spaces are perhaps even more democratic than ‘offline’ barazas or whatever predated social media as a means for congregating citizens and having them engage in discussion. I contend that for the first time, more Kenyans are transcending physical boundaries and engaging with fellow Kenyans and the rest of the continent and the world, through these online social networks. We have, for a long time, been trying to figure out what national cohesion and integration in Kenya means. Some form of it is being practised on social media. Frictions abound, as they would offline. Insults are hurled, and every so often, dangerous speech (speech with a potential to catalyze violence) rears it ugly head. However, it doesn’t carry the day. Kenyans online must be applauded for the self-regulation mechanisms they engage in to minimize toxicity in their online space. Kenyans ‘cuff’ hate by naming and shaming such speakers, countering such messages, and even drowning them with more speech, something observed by the Umati Project that monitors online public conversations to better understand hate speech dynamics. What is interesting about this trend is that it primarily stems from the citizenry. Calls by media, civil society and even government to ‘stop hate speech’ cannot be said to be the most impactful in easing any online tensions that often arise. The ‘traditional authorities’ do not always hold sway in the online space.
It would be unwise to underestimate the significant role social media is playing in aggregating citizen voices on issues affecting them. So dear Kenyans, tweet on!

 

This post also appeared on the Daily Nation, on December 17, 2014.