What technology can do for Africa

Technology

To fly north from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), is to look down on a country that has become hell. The dark shadow cast by the UN helicopter passes over mile after empty mile of green, fertile land. The few signs of former habitation—a homestead on top of a hill, the remains of a once-ploughed field—have been burned to the ground or overrun by bush. After an endless succession of conflicts, almost all the people have fled to refugee camps guarded by the UN.

There are many reasons why the CAR is in such a wretched state, but high among them is that it is Africa’s most remote country, with almost no connections to the outside world. Even ideas struggle to cross its borders. Fast internet and mobile-phone reception is available only in and around Bangui. Its people are largely illiterate. It is, in short, a country that technology has skipped over.

Yet the CAR is an exception. Across the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, countries are on the cusp of a tech-driven transformation that is already beginning to make people healthier, wealthier and better educated at a pace that only recently seemed unimaginable.

The first taste of these new possibilities came when mobile phones swarmed across the continent a decade ago. Within just a few short years hundreds of millions of people were able to phone and text for the first time, bypassing monopolistic state-owned phone companies that kept customers waiting for landlines indefinitely. And leapfrogging over old technologies and business models with mobile phones quickly made other sorts of leaps possible. Thanks to M-Pesa, a service that lets people send money through their phones, everyone with a phone suddenly also had, in effect, a bank account in their pocket. As mobile money has lowered transaction costs, it has brought down barriers to innovation in all sorts of other areas, allowing lenders quickly to assess credit risks, insurers to sell life and medical cover in small chunks and new energy firms to sell electricity by the day or week.

Some of these innovations are emerging from the thriving tech hubs that are popping up across Africa, but most of the technology transforming the continent comes from elsewhere. The $50 smartphones on which apps connect motorcycle taxis and customers in Rwanda are Chinese, for instance. However, these technologies are often being combined in new ways to solve uniquely African problems. If you want to book a truck to move your cow, or get an ambulance to go to hospital, you will probably turn to an African startup.

For an example from the field of medicine, take Dougbeh Chris Nyan, born in Liberia and educated in Germany, who spent most of his career in America, developing tests for infectious diseases. Since moving back to Liberia after its Ebola epidemic in 2014-15, he has been working with scientists both there and in America on a battery-powered device that provides a quick and cheap test for six different infections at a time. It is fairly common in Africa (though rare in the rich world) to see patients with multiple diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and HIV. Mr Nyan’s machine “is an Africa-induced innovation”, he says. “We are forced to be inventive to become masters of our destitution.”

Much of the money going into African technology comes not from philanthropists but from hard-nosed investors looking for attractive returns. In 2016 African tech firms raised a record $367m. Although paltry by the standards of Silicon Valley, this is helping to stimulate the setting up of firms such as Flutterwave, a Nigerian payments company, and Zipline, which uses drones to deliver blood to clinics in Rwanda.

To be sure, the argument that Africa can catch up with the West through technical wizardry has many critics. To begin with, hundreds of millions of Africans are still without power or safe drinking water, never mind phones or the internet (see map). Corruption and misrule are widespread, and too many economies depend on commodity exports. In 2016 weak commodity prices were partly responsible for a slowdown in economic growth across sub-Saharan African to 1.4%, its most sluggish pace in more than two decades. With the population growing by about 3% a year, people on average got poorer last year.

Moreover, technology is advancing far more slowly in Africa than it is in the rich world, so the gap has been widening in recent years. “The poverty gap is a technology gap,” says Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, Ghana’s science and technology minister. It is also a knowledge and education gap. Three-quarters of children in their third year of schooling in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are unable to explain the meaning of the sentence “The name of the dog is Puppy” after reading it aloud. If the education system cannot prepare youngsters for jobs in a tech economy, Africa risks falling even further behind.

Yet a school in Mpigi, a town near Kampala, Uganda’s capital, shows that technology can also make teaching far more effective. A class full of children in bright yellow uniforms chant in unison after their teacher: “The letter q sounds like kw, the letter s sounds like sss” as she holds up flashcards with letters on them. The school, run by Bridge International Academies, represents the biggest and boldest effort yet to improve teaching in poor countries by putting technology in teachers’ hands.

Each teacher works from an electronic tablet that has scripted lessons. This enables the head teacher, as well as staff at Bridge, to follow the progress of each class. It becomes instantly obvious if teachers fall behind with their lessons or do not show up for work. Last year Liberia handed over the management of 93 state schools to various private operators, including Bridge. A follow-up study showed that children at the Bridge schools learned about as much in one year as their peers in the state system did in two.

Other firms are experimenting with putting technology in the hands of students rather than teachers. At the low end of the cost scale is Eneza Education, a Kenyan firm that allows students to revise and take mock tests using text messaging on basic mobile phones. At the other end are initiatives such as the Kio Kit, a set of rugged tablet computers that can be used by children in the classroom.

Many of these initiatives are still embryonic, so data on which ones work are scarce. But there are some encouraging signs that even simple interventions can make a big difference. A study of adult education in 160 villages in Niger by Jenny Aker of Tufts University and Christopher Ksoll of the University of Ottawa looked at whether weekly phone calls from researchers to teachers and their students would improve the quality of learning. Remarkably, those calls seemed to result in much higher grades for the students.

Tech-friendly

This is not just a top-down process in which people with technology force it upon others. Given an opportunity to grasp that technology, many in Africa do so with both hands. In a tech hub in Lagos, Nigeria, enthusiastic youngsters tap away on laptop computers, practising coding skills that many have picked up through online portals such as Udacity or by watching YouTube videos. Jean-Claude Bastos, who sponsors an annual innovation prize in Africa as well as a tech hub in the slums of Luanda, Angola, recalls how alarmed he was when he first put a 3D printer into the centre, only to find that the youngsters there immediately dismantled it. “They took it apart, then put it back together, then did it again. Now if anything in it breaks they rebuild it on intuition, like it is a motorbike or car,” he says.

In that spirit, this report will argue that a cluster of new technologies promise to have a huge impact on Africa, not least because they can help solve some of Africa’s biggest and longest-standing problems. These include weak state-run education systems, a high burden of disease, broken infrastructure and low productivity on farms and in factories. What made mobile phones so much more important in Africa than in the rich world was that for hundreds of millions of people they were the first and only form of telecommunication available. Equally, if a vaccine is developed for malaria, it will make little difference in the rich world but could save millions of lives in Africa. “Investments in health R&D for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases will be a massive boon for poor countries where the disease burden is highest,” says Bill Gates, whose foundation funds some of this research. “The same is true for innovations like better seeds that enable poor farmers to increase crop yields.”

What will all this technology add up to, and will it be enough to help Africa close its gigantic income gap with the rich world? The first thing that needs to happen is for the continent’s people to gain broad access to the most basic technological building blocks: electricity, phones and internet connections. “You cannot have a 21st-century economy without power and connectivity,” says Erik Hersman, a founder of several startups in Kenya. “But if you have those, you can do almost anything else.”

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