WEF meet in Kigali reminder to African government’s technological responsibility

The 26th World Economic Forum on Africa in Kigali ended yesterday and, building on the previous continental forums, it aimed to discuss and agree on strategic transformative technological actions that can deliver shared prosperity in the region.

I expect that this objective has been achieved, if only to chart the way the strategic actions can be “upscaled” in Sub-Saharan Africa and across the continent.

The WEF’s theme, Connecting Africa’s Resources Through Digital Transformation, was in recognition that Africans have the power to shape their continent’s transformation.

This is the kind of power Africans have amply demonstrated with their innovations. Some of these innovations have gained broad international recognition, with some like Mpesa impacting so many sectors.

Take the BRCK WiFi device, for example. Developed in Kenya, the solar-powered gadget can provide 4G internet for up to 20 connections from almost anywhere in the world.

BRCK –named so because of its likeness to an actual brick – is a mobile gadget for power and internet outages that is being used in digital dead spots in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Ushahidi, a crowd sourcing app, has proved highly effective as a tool for digitally mapping demographic events anywhere in the world, and was used by the Obama campaign in the 2012 US presidential elections.  

Such examples from Africa are peppered throughout WEF resource materials. One commentator notes how research he has been involved with highlights the existence of roughly 200 African innovation hubs, 3,500 new tech-related ventures, and US$1 billion in venture capital to a pan-African movement of start-up entrepreneurs.

But that is the sunny side of things. The WEF is quick to recognize the other side, and the work that remains to be done.

Currently, only 40 per cent of Africans have access to reliable energy supply. Up to 600 million in Sub-Saharan Africa – almost two thirds of the region’s population – do not have regular electricity, and just 20 per cent of people on the continent have internet access.  

Some 80 per cent of online content is only available in 10 languages, which only about 3 billion people speak as their first language.

East Africans are a bit lucky, and can access the internet in English, French, Kiswahili or Kinyarwanda. But it leaves a lot of Africans unable to access the internet. This becomes a vicious cycle, underscoring a lack of skills and awareness of the internet’s value adding to the access barriers.

The WEF has been advancing the “Internet for All” initiative which provides a framework for both governments and businesses to work towards. The Forum’s website says the programme is being implemented in an initial project in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia, where 75 million people (67 per cent of the total population in these countries) currently have no access to the internet.

The Internet for All initiative is only a nudge in which Africa is transitioning from the margins to the mainstream of the global economy, and which technology is playing an increasingly significant role as the continent comes onboard the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Professor Klaus Schwab, WEF Founder and Executive Chairman, informs us in a commentary that the First Industrial Revolution (circa 1784) used water and steam power to mechanize production.

The Second (circa 1870) used electric power to create mass production. The Third (circa 1969) used electronics and information technology to automate production.

Now, he says, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century.

The Fourth Revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

African policymakers cannot afford not to appreciate this. For this reason, we should expect that African governments, as they have been urged by WEF, introduce policies designed to improve infrastructure coverage and quality, provide financial assistance to those who cannot afford to get online, and set up public WiFi.

The WEF Kigali meet reminded us of African governments’ technological responsibilities to the future we are only beginning to taste.