Africa's Digital Revolution

By Meera Patel, Operations Associate at Ashoka UK.

Just over 20 years ago, Robert Kaplan wrote a stark warning about the mounting strategic danger posed by an anarchic, uncontrollable, “increasing lawlessness” in West Africa. He argued that a sort of ‘criminal anarchy’ was emerging as a major strategic danger.

Six years later, the Economist ran an editorial naming Africa ‘the Hopeless Continent’, claiming “brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere”.

However, in the decade following this editorial it became increasingly clear that the narrative of pathological violence and consequent economic failure was being radically disproved by statistical evidence. Average growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is consistently around 5% – 2% higher than average for ‘developing’ countries. In 2011, The Economist was forced to retract its condemnation of the continent in favour of a more nuanced view.

Far from the image of war torn, skeletal economies, the last 10 years has seen a tripling of investment in Africa reaching more than $192 billion. A key component of these growing economies has been the adoption of new technologies.

Regina Agyare has always been fascinated by science. As a child growing up in Ghana, she watched a film on television in which a man flew with a rocket strapped to his back and she decided to build her own rocket.

She developed a prototype herself and took it to her physics teacher, who responded by telling her that girls don’t study science, that she would ‘end up in the kitchen’. Despite the scepticism of her physics teacher, Regina went on to found Soronko Solutions, a social enterprise that simultaneously supports small enterprises in digital expansion, teaches girls to code, and develops apps for disabled users.

Ashoka fellow Regina Agyare is one of an increasing number of entrepreneurs who are using technology to catalyse social change.

Tired of the ‘single story’ about Africa as a continent of ‘war, poverty [and] famine’ Agyare conceptualises herself as one of a growing number of Ghanaian citizens ‘developing our own solutions to poverty’. In 2000, only 0.56% of the population of Africa were internet users. In 2010 this figure had increased by 2357%. By 2014 the internet penetration rate in Africa was 26.5% of the population – the image of technology across Africa has undergone a profound change, and it is increasingly a key resource for social entrepreneurs in addressing major social problems.

In Burkina Faso, Ashoka fellow Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaore is working to open up the rural communities that are excluded from the information exchange between literate, fluent French speakers. Using tech-savvy individuals, employed as ‘Synthesisers’, Yennenga Kompaore is curating the local knowledge on issues from health to agriculture.

Armed with a laptop and publication skills, the synthesiser supports the community in co-authoring publications and audio cassettes that are disseminated to appropriate groups from groups of villages to the government and development officials.

In some ways Jocelyne Kompaore and Regina Agyare mirror one another – both are using new technologies to extend access to the public sphere. Regina in particular is aware of the need to ”tell our own stories, as citizens.”

Soronko Solutions are currently extending the technological literacy of 455 women enrolled in their mentoring programme. These coding classes are increasing the channels through which individual women can shape their representation in the public domain.

Beyond representation in the public domain, technology also continues to be crucial in shaping new economies in Africa. Mobile phone usage is key to this, nearly two thirds of households in sub-saharan African own at least one mobile phone – in six African countries this statistic is 80% and higher. Growth rates since 2008 are as high as 9% in Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso.

In Kenya, where 30 million people are dependent on the agricultural industry, Ashoka Fellow Adrian Mukhebi is using mobile technology to facilitate the flow of information between small scale farmers and commodity markets.

Through Market Information Points and text messages, Mukhebi is enabling farmers to capitalise on the information offered with remarkable success. During one farming season Mukhebi monitored the profits of those using his system: farmers who utilized the data streams sold their maize at 22% higher than farmers who did not, highlighting how new technologies are enabling a systematic change in the Kenyan agricultural economy.

From new voices in the public sphere to accelerating and shaping new economies, new technologies are not only shaping the stories of a new Africa, but the voices of the storytellers themselves.

Regina Agayre is an Ashoka Fellow elected in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation as part of the Future Forward: Innovations for Youth Employment project. What does it take to address youth employment in Africa?

A key theme across innovations: empowering young people to be changemakers and problem-solvers who create opportunities themselves. For more lessons and to stay up to date with the continuing conversation, sign up for our newsletter. Be on the lookout for the upcoming innovation guide and toolkit on youth employment and join the online conversation using the #AfricaYouthFwd hashtag.

You can follow Meera on twitter. Keep an eye out for more within this series by following Ashoka UK and Virgin Unite on twitter, using the #AfricaYouthFwd hashtag.

Editor’s Note: This blog was previously published on VirginUnite and is reproduced with permission.

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