What Would a True Digital Renaissance in Africa Look Like?

As Facebook announces its foray into Africa, one development expert shares how the move could transform the continent.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 3, 2015· 3 MIN READ
James Kassaga Arinaitwe is a Ugandan international development professional, an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, and a Global Fellow at Acumen.

How do we build a renaissance in Africa? This is a question that thinkers like Patrick Awuah, the Ghanaian former IBM millionaire-turned-educationist, and Fred Swaniker, the founder and CEO of the African Leadership Academy, are trying to answer. It is one that I think about often too, especially in the context of sparking economic opportunities, specifically for our burgeoning youth population. I wonder: Does the answer already lie in our hands, thanks to mobile phones and Internet connectivity?

Mobile technology in Africa has leapfrogged development faster and in even more innovative ways than I have witnessed in high-income nations. In most parts of Africa, technologies like M-Pesa or Mobile Money banking systems and payment are almost the norm; the need for traditional banking and pole-to-pole electrical wire connectivity belongs in the past. Even in Bangalore—India’s Silicon Valley—where I’m currently based, mobile technology and innovations have not taken off in the way that its IT services have. Africa still leads the way in the mobile technology revolution, if you will.

The latest contributor to that will be Facebook. This week, the company announced it will open its first Africa office, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September. It is also planning to partner with mobile phone companies to offer what it has called “Internet.org, an intervention that offers free airtime for users when they access Facebook and a few dozen other selected websites,” according to Bloomberg.

This is huge for Africa, considering that the continent has 120 million people on Facebook and 130 million more with mobile phones who are not on the social media platform yet. If this is done right, Africa could perhaps lead the way as the world’s first digital “renaissance.”

So, Why Should You Care? Africa is the youngest continent in the world, with 80 percent of its population below 35 years old and 50 percent below 16 years old in most countries. This is a huge demographic divide, considering the continent’s entire population just inched over 1 billion. The youths are vibrant, are buzzing with ideas and innovations, and are hungry to transform not only their lives but also their countries and their continent. Access to mobile technologies and a free Internet will give our youths energy and excitement to test, innovate, and push their limits. Africa could be on a journey to solve its own social, economic, and political challenges.

First, a digital renaissance could be a gateway to a democratic revolution in Africa, simply because timely and reliable information has the power to transform lives and the way people make political, business, and personal decisions. We’ve seen this happen in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Burkina Faso. In Kenya, technological innovations such as Ushahidi have already led the way in creating access to reliable conflict and political information.

Second, digital connectivity across Africa could leapfrog our vestiges of dysfunctional colonial education systems and transform access to real-time knowledge and information sharing. Imagine if the African Leadership Academy, one of the vanguards and case studies of what a great education for all youths in Africa could look like, packaged its curriculum and made it open source for secondary schools and preuniversities across Africa to use. This could revolutionize the way education is achieved in Africa, using simple tools such as mobile phones and Internet connectivity.

Third, the open source could create windows of opportunity for universities with limited resources to perform research and development, making it easier for youths to carry out innovation in health care, agriculture, finance, and other sectors of the economy. In July 2014, the Rockefeller and Open Society Foundations in Bellagio, Italy, described OpenSource Pharma, as geared toward creating “concrete initiatives to discover, develop, and commercialize medicines for the pressing needs in our society.”

On a related note, Google Fiber recently launched one of its first Digital Inclusion Fellowships across eight U.S metropolitan cities to help low-income communities and families access reliable Internet—a move that would ultimately improve livelihoods, ranging from timely medical and health data online to finding new housing or educational opportunities. What if Facebook piloted its first “Internet.org Innovation Fellowship” across 10 African tech hub cities with high mobile-technology subscribers? From Nairobi, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda, to Lagos, Nigeria, and back to Johannesburg, Facebook could leverage learning that dramatically changes the way it conducts business and identifies communications technologies in Africa.

This is not to say access to mobile technology and the Internet equate to being a silver bullet to fixing Africa’s woes. The use of technological advances to fix social issues has been criticized for ignoring underlying structural, historical, and political issues, such as dysfunctional educational systems and corrupt leadership. Not to mention that the Internet could also land in the wrong hands, such as those of Al Shabaab or Boko Haram.

But what is more risky? Avoiding innovations that could lead us to solutions that would solve our problems, or waiting until we slowly catch up with the rest of the world?

What ails Africa is not that we are slow to innovate or that we lack smart leaders who are championing revolutionary ideas in all sectors of our economies. The issue is that we have not figured out how to leverage homegrown innovations and leadership and throw our philanthropic dollars and technological advancements to diffuse these innovations to reach the Africans who need them most.

This is our opportunity to do so. If we seize it now, we will have generations of Africans thanking us for having taken the courageous steps.