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A chance to speak up – notes for my talk at the Sweet Mother conference

I’m giving a talk (far too early) tomorrow morning at my friend Derrick Ashong’s Sweet Mother Tour conference, on new technology and the digital divide in Africa. The conference – titled “Youth and the New Pan-African Renaissance: Rebuilding Africa for the 21st Century” – is a great chance for me to share some of my more hopeful thoughts about African development, something that often gets crowded out of my thinking by the problems faced every day on the continent.

I’m discovering that I can only organize my thinking these days by writing, and so my notes for the talk have inadvertently turned into a blogpost. If you can make it to the conference in Cambridge tomorrow, skip this post, and I’ll see you in person… And even if you can’t, make sure you don’t miss the concert, which should be amazing…

Anyone who works in, travels to, studies or otherwise thinks about Africa is aware that a major revolution has taken place over the past decade – the rise of the mobile phone. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of mobile phones on the African continent increased tenfold, to 76.8 million, putting a phone in the hands of roughly one in ten Africans.

The number of landlines in Africa increased from just under 2 million in 1994 to over 3 million in 2004 – in other words, at a snail’s pace.

In 1993, when I moved to Accra for the first time, I asked Ghana Telecom to put a phone in my apartment in Osu – when I left 9 months later, I was still on the waiting list. When Geekcorps opened an office in Accra in 2000, my country director faced similar waits for a land line – he took matters into his own hands and hired a “fixer”, who “borrowed” two phone lines from our next-door neighbor… the US Embassy Visa section! Now when I come to Ghana, my mobile roams on one of Ghana’s four mobile networks. If I’m sticking around for a while, I borrow a SIM card from a friend who carries multiple phones, slip in into my GSM phone and make calls at Ghanaian rates.

Ten years ago, it was easy to dismiss mobile phones as a “luxury technology” that was unlikely to benefit Africa in the near future. No one would make this mistake these days. With some tweaks to economic models – prepaid scratch cards instead of monthly billing – mobile phones made great sense for Africa because they required far less basic infrastructure than rolling out millions of copper phone lines. And, as my friend Iqbal Qadir wisely realized early in his work on Grameen Phone, adopting cutting edge technology for use in the developing world means that the developed world does your R&D, making devices smaller, more robust and cheaper. It also means that people can recycle devices – a mobile phone discarded in Europe is a valuable commidity in Ghana.

African hackers are brilliant at putting “advanced” technologies to work in challenging environments. Years before I heard American companies talking about building wireless clouds and founding WISPs (Wireless ISPs), companies in Bamako and Accra were attaching cheap wireless routers to directional antennas and providing commercial broadband service over long distance wireless. Again, WiFi is a technology that’s inexpensive and extremely well-suited to environments where you don’t have much infrastructure to work with.

What’s most fascinating to me about the rise of mobile phones in Africa is that they’ve had lots of unintended (mostly positive) consequences. Mobile telephony has cut down on transporation costs – instead of going to a factory to see if a part is available, you make a phone call. Instead of showing up at a friend’s office and waiting, you make a call and agree on when to meet – and you call again to tell your friend you’re held up in traffic. I wait a lot less in Africa these days than I used to. This makes me more productive. But more importantly, it may make African economies more productive as well – countries that reached 10% teledensity via mobile telephony had 0.6% higher GDP growth between 1996-2003 than countries that didn’t experience teledensity growth. (Correlation is not causation – it’s possible that economies liberal enough to allow mobile phone growth also had economic policies that encouraged growth…)

Phone minutes are becoming an alternative form of currency in some countries. You can log onto Mama Mike’s website and purchase mobile phone minutes in Kenya and Uganda – this is changing how remittance works, allowing people to send “money” to their relatives without paying overhead to Western Union.

Communications affects transportation, productivity, remittance… and politics. Mobile phones allow listeners to call into radio shows and put questions to politicians without waiting for hours in their offices (in countries brave enough to allow independent radio stations and put politicians on the air…) And mobile phones are terrific for election monitoring, allowing observers to call into radio stations if violence or fraud is taking place.

There’s an assumption that as Internet technologies reach Africa, they’ll be used in the most basic ways possible – accessing information on the web, sending email. But the rise of the mobile phone on the continent should serve as a hint that technology adoption doesn’t always happen the way we think it’s going to.

Whether through market forces or through efforts like the One Laptop Per Child initiative, millions of Africans are going to get online in the next few years. Yes, they’re going to download textbooks and read wikipedia and send email and chat.

But they’re also going to create content.

New internet users these days go from consumer to creator in just a few clicks. It’s increasingly easy to take photos with your phone and share them on flickr, or share your thoughts through a blog. These tools aren’t being picked up just by the broadband-enabled elites in the North – they’re getting used by everyone who gets online.

And this is going to have some profound and unanticipated consequences.

Most Americans don’t hear much about Africa. Our news media tends to focus on conflicts in the Middle East and on wealthy nations. When we hear about Africa, we tend to hear about HIV/AIDS, abject poverty, corruption and war. And we very rarely hear Africans talk about what problems they think are most important.

Citizens’ media changes that. The folks starting blogs and writing about their experience in Africa aren’t starving – they’re getting by, and in many cases, thriving. Their experience isn’t every African’s experience by a long shot… but it’s compelling evidence that Africa isn’t the basket case it sometimes seems to be in the Northern media. Read the bloggers who contribute to BlogAfrica and Global Voices and you’ll see people who are tackling challenges head on, starting businesses, exposing corruption, pursuing higher education and finding solutions to the problems the continent faces. I challenge you to read African blogs for a week and not come away with a renewed sense of hope for the continent.

What’s this going to mean, in the long term? It’s hard to say… in the same way it was hard to predict in 1994 that mobile phones would change how the diaspora sent money home. But I’m willing to take some guesses.

If Africans can represent themselves in the news and in the media, there’s a much better chance that people will see opportunities for economic growth on the continent… which means increased foreign investment and trade. If Africans can help the North understand the beauty and richness of the continent, that means increased travel and cultural mixing, which leads to more people in the North working on projects that create opportunity in Africa. It also might mean that, as Africans frame conflicts and struggles on the continent, people in the North understand that their governments are going to need to provide help and support to resolve the crisis in Darfur, as well as ongoing violence in Northern Uganda and eastern DRC.

I don’t mean to make this transition sound like fait acomplit. For Africans to find their voices online, there’s an enormous digital divide to close. And it’s not just one divide – it’s a set of divides: electrification, telecommunications, literacy. And it’s not enough for Africa to speak up, through blogs, podcasts, videos, photos – the North has to learn to listen up as well. We’re so used to not hearing from Africa that it’s a surprise and a shock when Africans speak up about their own issues, as so many did around the Live8 concerts.

But there’s only one way to get this thing started. As young people concerned with the African renaissance, you’ve got to start talking. Start blogging. Help someone else find their voice – show them how to blog. Interview your parents and grandparents. Put their stories online. If we want people to listen up, we have to make it clear that Africa has something to say. Mobile phones let us talk to each other. This next revolution lets us talk to the world. It’s time to speak up.

4 thoughts on “A chance to speak up – notes for my talk at the Sweet Mother conference”

  1. hi ethan – wish i could make it to the SMT conference too. but sadly, i need to be in zimbabwe right now. am sure you’ll have an excellent conversation about african development. be inspirational. looking forward to hearing about the outcomes.

    take care

  2. Hi Ethan,

    This is the best warmup for a speech I have heard (read) in a long time. Make sure you let the audience know about your blog post so that they can follow the embedded links to more information. If this is your speech, you’ll knock ’em flat.

    The way I see it, the early birds will get the worms re: positive and productive engagements with and support of the new citizen leaders and entrepreneurs emerging from Africa and the diaspora today. In the next ten years or so a lot of people around the world will be saying, “Damn! I wish I had been paying attention to Africa back in…”

  3. Ethan
    I have to admit, this is a great speech. With a bow, my hats off to you. My opinion about you (from TED prise blog conversation) has changed.

    A remark though,
    1) There is a digital divide here in Amreica between the afluent white population and the rest (mainly African American and Hispanic population. We need to talk about that too.
    2) There are over a million Africans (from Africa)who live in North America and who have been speaking and no one was listening for the last 40 years. May be such a conference need to have Africans come and talk about their continent and the obstacles they need to overcome.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, folks. I ended up giving a slightly shorter version of the talk, as I wanted to make sure my copanelists got a chance to speak as well! I’m thinking about taking the thoughts here and writing a more developed piece for Worldchanging, probably incorporating some of my recent thinking on “advocacy by pointing” as well…

    Danny, I’m glad that you’re still reading the blog, despite your disagreement with the post that got you to take a look in the first place. Most of my work and writing these days is more focused on these sorts of ideas – helping people make their voices heard – than on “traditional” aid strategies like that pursued under the TED prize.

    On your first point – absolutely, the digital divide in the US is a real, continuing problem. What’s tricky about it from the perspective of someone who’s worked on the digital divide in the developing world is that it’s unclear whether solutions to one set of problems work in another situation. While there are parts of the US that don’t have electricity and telecommunications infrastructure, they’re the small minority… while that’s the predominant situation in many developing nations. And there’s often access to the Internet via schools and libraries. In the US, the digital divide seems to have a great deal to do with making computing affordable enough that it can be part of people’s home life… and sufficiently relavent that more people choose to get involved.

    Your point about the existing African disapora is well taken. In my experience, a good percentage of the African and Afrophile blogosphere (30-40%, I would guess) are Africans living in the US, UK or Europe. These are some of the most dynamic voices currently talking online about Africa. My great hope is that this population can expand from a few hundred articulate commentators to a wave of thousands or tens of thousands of people knowledgeable about African issues talking about their concerns and helping these issues make it into newspapers and policy debates. That’s the change I’m trying to help happen in whatever small ways I can…

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