Really want to help Africa? Let’s build an Africa TechCorps
By Andrew Mack and written with Jeremy M. Goldberg
All over Africa, there is a significant realization that tech is the wave of the future. African Government Ministers are traveling around the world – from San Francisco to the UAE to Bangladesh – pitching opportunities for new investors and building deals. Technology has also quickly become a major item on the development agenda, thanks in large part to Africa's new tech champions and a blooming tech sector.
This, of course, is not completely new news. Initiatives to get urban and rural African cities on the grid have been going for over a decade – things like USAID’s Leland Program spring to mind, but there are many others. However, in today’s Emerging Markets ICT world, especially in Africa, two things are different:
The first difference is Leadership. African leaders, including Presidents like Kagame, Kufuor and Johnson-Sirleaf, are more ICT-focused than their predecessors, offering high-level support to projects and policies that will really (not just rhetorically) help the spread of ICT. Countries from Senegal to South Africa are increasingly getting serious about protecting intellectual property, lowering burdens on ICT businesses and promoting investment – and Africa’s economies are benefiting.
Moreover, Africa’s leaders are investing in their e-futures. One need only look at the growing number of large World Bank-supported eGovernment projects planned for Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and other Sub-Saharan countries. From paying taxes and registering land, to getting passports and driver’s licenses, Governments’ are seeing ICT as crucial to their ability to offer service.
African leaders are even adopting the language of ICT, building Government around the needs of what they hope will become a new class of “eCitizens”. And to make this a reality, they are implementing institutional reforms. As just one example, according to Ghana’s Science and Sports Papa Owusu Ankomah, that country will introduce universal ICT education into the basic educational system in September 2007. And, as we saw at the March Sub-Saharan Africa ICT conference in San Francisco, Ghana is far from alone in its focus on ICT. Quite a change from even a few years ago.
The second difference is the increasingly active private sector, and its willingness to work with Government and civil society on all manner of partnerships. Some of these efforts are primarily philanthropic. A good example is the NEPAD e-Schools Initiative, which works with more than a dozen countries and major tech firms like Intel, Oracle, HP, Cisco, and Microsoft. The initiative aims to equip African youth with in-classroom technology and ICT skills to participate in today’s information society. It’s an approach that is innovative in the way that it brings together multiple companies and countries and is a long-term commitment.
And there are other examples – risk taking by private sector actors large and small that recognize the opportunity presented by technology in the re-building in places like Liberia or Northern Uganda. These are tough environments, and you can’t just come with your container of goods and try to sell. So businesses are working with Government, with donors and with communities and local entrepreneurs like never before.
However, today it’s simply not enough to raise the flag for enlightened Governments and innovative companies. Why? Because tech today is reaching only a small fraction of the people that it should. Specifically, tech is reaching only a small fraction of the youth and young adults that need it most, the citizen-consumers that are the heart and soul of tech-centered innovation and commerce in the “more developed world”.
What will it take for ICT in Africa to REALLY catch on?
The answer is as simple as YouTube, the same as anywhere in the world – DEMAND, specifically demand from networks of fearless, innovative tech-friendly young Africans. And what will it take to bring African youth and young adults more into the global chat room? Why not start by building bridges – and programs – to work between young techies in Africa and the US?
There are already good models that can be leveraged and groups with much to teach us. Perhaps the largest is GeekCorps (www.geekcorps.com), with more than 3,500 technical experts in developing nations around the world. Another group is Kabissa (www.kabissa.org), an international NGO that trains African NGOs on the use of ICT. In addition, there’s the International Education Resource Network or iEARN (www.iearn.org), an organization that enables teachers and young people to use the Internet and other new technologies to enhance learning.
We should build on these examples but we can go further, with broader reach and a broader focus on creating sustainable businesses. Imagine young African and American TechCorps members paired to work on technology projects, providing training aimed at youth, taught by youth, with an end goal of building not just friendships and skills but legitimate, lasting young business networks. Imagine some day soon – projects currently being outsourced to international firms could instead be “in-sourced” to TechCorps teams on the ground with support from the TechCorps network around the world.
Naturally taking this idea to “the next level” would involve investment. It would require close collaboration with the ICT development plans of participating countries. However, many parties – from donors, to Governments, to universities, the private sector and people themselves – are eager to make this happen. And think of the opportunities…
…TechCorps hubs in secondary cities like Gulu or Makeni that might start as a collaborative aid project, but morph from Peace Corps-type activity to legitimate corps (as in corporations) – creating an ongoing commercial relationship with Gulu TC members wherever they are in the world, something made possible by today’s technology.
… Partnerships with suppliers of hardware and software, bringing the latest technologies and training to young adults who will run the new e-gov programs and service the back offices of growing companies – after all, a country unfamiliar with the latest technology can hardly demand it.
… real business-focused training aimed at creating real businesses, directly addressing issues of project sustainability and employment that have stymied the growth of these markets and opportunities for years.
… a way for US young adults to get to know Africa and its future – today’s real Africa – in an organic way, giving future US business leaders a real, on-the-ground understanding of technology’s next frontier, something that today only European (and increasingly Chinese) companies have.
Is this a big idea? Perhaps. But it could be closer than you think. The projects are out there… Consider the ICT hubs program recently proposed by Uganda's State ICT Minister John Nsambu. With a budget of 1.2 billion Uganda shillings (just US $700k) for the establishment of 20 ICT hubs in 20 districts across Uganda, it would hardly be a big money maker for a consulting firm. However, it might be a great fit for a kind of Africa TechCorps with a focus on training and entrepreneurship aimed at BOP markets. If experience from around the world is any guide, much more than computer literacy education is possible and the personal connection is the key.
The future is rapidly approaching, one in which the Government is no longer the prime provider of jobs for young Africans entering the workforce. When Uganda Minister of Youth, James Kinobe met with a group from the Global Youth Partnership for Africa this past January he acknowledged as much: "Put away your hopes for jobs in the Government. Innovation and creativity is the reason for the gap between the rich and poor countries," said the Minister, and innovation will be the answer for Uganda as well. We couldn’t have said it better.
The best thing that we in the West can do regarding tech in Africa is not to approach it as a charity case, but approach it like a market. In a rapidly globalizing world, where personal networks and technology are the keys to prosperity, a TechCorps approach could help build the skills, networks, markets and experience, combining the best of both the development and business worlds.
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