Internet freedom good for African innovation

At the just concluded Transform Africa Summit in Kigali, a father told me a story about his seven-year-old daughter. He asked her what they had learned at school that day and she said: “I learned how to make a baby robot”. It was a largely normal answer from a seven-year-old.

But the individualism about the answer intrigued the father compelling him to probe further: “You mean your class learned how to make a baby robot today”?

Daughter: “Nooo, dad. I don’t know what the others learned. I learned about robots on the internet and I was alone.” The answer gave the father a full plate of food for thought.

A curious seven-year-old meets the internet and sets out to have her questions answered; questions the father may never have taken seriously just like any parent taking their kids for granted. The kid also abandoned her classmates to embark on a solo knowledge venture.

“I am worried she may become anti-social just because her class isn’t teaching things she’s interested in forcing her to pursue selfish ambitions,” the father said, visibly disturbed.

We were standing on the sidelines of the MH3 hall where exhibitors at the Summit were showcasing their innovative digital projects. In my view, this father shouldn’t be worried but rather find ways to encourage her daughter’s curiosity.

“Congratulations buddy, for you have an upcoming innovator in your seven-year-old daughter,” I told the father. He asked, “How do you mean?”

“Look around the exhibition hall and mentally workout the average age of the exhibitors,” I told him.

His eyes went roving from one end of the hall to the other, staying longer at the Volkswagen/Awesomity, Fablab and Informatics. Africa gazebos which were directly opposite to where we stood.

“Yeah, quite young. Most are probably below 25 years,” he said.

I said: “What we are seeing here is a representative sample of what is happening across the continent. The projects on display at this summit, we can say, are exhibits of Africa’s curiosity; it’s a continent pregnant with technological curiosity and these are some of the babies”.

The Transform Africa Summit 2018 attracted over 4,000 delegates from across the continent and beyond with discussions themed around ‘Accelerating Africa’s Single Digital Market.’

Delegates included innovators and policy makers. The success of the former depends on the quality of policies made by the latter group of delegates.

The summit’s theme suggests that to transform Africa, governments need to accelerate a single digital market. But how should governments support the acceleration of the Africa single digital market? The answer lies in the quality of their policies especially on internet freedom legislation.

African governments must provide more internet freedoms to facilitate the curiosity of its young innovators and researchers as they pursue answers to their questions to spur more innovation towards building digital solutions that respond to the continent’s current needs.

From the seven-year-old curious daughter of my friend, we learn that the classroom and the teacher are no longer the exclusive custodians of new knowledge and answers to questions of the continent’s young people. In fact, there’s the bigger risk that most teachers are clueless.

Thanks to the internet, the world’s physical libraries have since been integrated and their knowledge resources are now available on the World Wide Web, just a click away with the support of fast internet. Innovation starts with curiosity followed by a hunger for information.

Unfortunately, many governments around the continent appear determined to create barriers to more access to information on the World Wide Web by pursuing legislation that limits access such as taxing the usage of applications that connect people for social and commercial purposes.

Where we have failed to build physical infrastructure that connects Africa through fast railways and smooth highways, internet based platforms have proven to be efficient alternatives as they connect everyone regardless of their physical location.

Thanks to the internet, e-Commerce businesses are now thriving across the continent, run by mostly young people who couldn’t find meaningful formal employment in countries where youth joblessness is a major problem.

An e-Commerce business in Kigali can sell to a buyer in Botswana and settle the transaction through an integrated mobile money platform in an instant. Yet this is still utopia.

Rather than discuss how to integrate Africa’s mobile money payment platforms to facilitate seamless transactions, some governments seem to be more interested in anti-access legislation.

in how to limit the activities of their citizens on the internet while collecting more introducing new taxes on the service, ultimately making it harder to send or receive money.

But anti-access to internet legislation and greedy tax regimes by African governments undermine good initiatives such as the Transform Africa Summit which seek to build the capacity of Africans to innovate and build solutions to our pressing needs.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.


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