For a penetrating insight into the new economic and political realities in the sub-Saharan, read Calestous Juma’s well-written and lucid take on the situation in the usually densely technical journal, Finance & Development, published by the International Monetary Fund. In charting the emergence for the first time of a robust African middle class, Juma, a development expert and a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, highlights the importance of the trend for international policy, which long has emphasized the primacy of aiding Africa’s poor: “To the outside world, the symbolism of helping people living on a mere $1 a day had irresistible appeal,” Juma recounts. “But the emphasis on aid did not encourage Africa to aspire to higher economic performance. A change in focus from poverty to gradually growing prosperity represents a deep shift in the perceptions of Africa’s economic future, with profound policy and practical implications.
Archive for June, 2012
This afternoon at Accra’s august Annan center for information technology, at the invitation of director-general Dorothy Gordon, I gave the keynote address for iWeek, a series of lectures, workshops and discussions about innovation in West Africa taking place this week in Ghana’s capitol. An excerpt from my prepared remarks, which emphasized the challenge of creating “indigenous innovations” in computing and communications:
“African technologists should not fall prey to the problem of thinking to small, of settling for the comfortable life of creating incremental improvements in existing platforms. Such innovations are profitable and important. They are also less risky. Platforms are useful because they provide, for a time, stable targets for the entrepreneurial energies of techno-scientists. But Africans should also selectively attempt to create what are known as “moonshots”: high-value, high-ambition technological systems. Pursuing moonshots need not to be expensive. Two people designed the original search-engine that remains the foundation of Google’s business. In Lusaka, my good friend, Chanda Chisala, president of Zambia Online, is supporting a team of a two people to create what he’s describing, cryptically, as an African search algorithm.”
“The lesson here is that the pursuit of soaring ambitions need not costs much or even consume much time. Aim high, and fail quickly, for failures often teach more than success. Mix many conservative projects with occasional low-cost moonshots.”
After Sunday’s horrific air crash in Lagos, which took the lives of at least 150 people, the drumbeat of complains against Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is reaching a deafening levels. In the most stinging indictment of this indifferent, indecisive African leader, the excellent Femi Fani-Kayode’s astute observation from last January bears repeating. “This government is not only weak, it not only lacks direction but it is also insensitive and callous,” wrote Fani-Kayode. She added: “May the Lord save Nigeria from this mess and from this weak man and may the Nigerian people themselves wake up from their accursed slumber and take their destiny into their own hands. The smell of religious war, sectarian violence, regional and ethnic conflict, insecurity, untold suffering, rampant poverty and economic hardship is in the air. Nigerians are divided as never before and our country is slowly crumbling and dying before our very eyes. Who will save Nigeria? Who will stand up and say enough is enough? Who will pull us back from the brink?”
The question now begins to sound like a sneer. If Boko Haram claims credit for this airplane malady, many may conclude that Nigeria cannot escape its own variety of self-destruction. May God — and Allah — soon reveal the accurate cause of this air disaster. Even if terrorists aren’t behind it, the sheer pace of the calamities besetting Nigeria insure Jonathan’s presidency now can safely be deemed a failure.
I landed in Accra last night and this morning I awoke to the welcome economics of cell-phone ownership in Africa: if you need to make a basic phone and your own unique number, all you need is twenty U.S. dollars — and that covers the launch costs of a Samsung simple handy and a Sim card from mobil provider. To be sure, the mobile owner in Accra must buy calling units — which can raise the cost of living considerably — but not mobile ownership. To keep a dial-tone with a basic handy in Accra can cost as little as a few dollars a month.
My Samsung handy has a feature I’ve never seen in the U.S: the capacity to accept dual sim cards. Very interesting. No need in the US for this feature but a need in Africa where siblings share phones, even husband and wives might. The dual sim allows one $20 handy to support two separate phone lines, each supported by their own line of credits. And why? Because in Africa, the biggest risk in loaning your phone to your brother is not that he’ll lose your phone or steal it — which might be the worry in the US — in Africa the risk that the friend you loan your phone too will consume all your calling credits — and not replace them! This phone — and now many others in Accra — sport this innovative feature that promotes self-reliance (at least in phone calling units) — among friends and family.
Now whoever says that the innovation system for developing countries is broken may well be correct. But this morning, the dual Sim card feature — whose innovation was driven by African social reality — proved otherwise.