How Africa Can Be Part of the Digital Revolution

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…What To Do To Make This Happen 



Kenneth Nkemnacho/ Writer at Large

Every modern day technology has gone digital, and everyday, technological devices are getting smaller and lighter, while at the same time, becoming more sophisticated. In 2006, I bought a 42-inch flat-screen LED television, and it took about three to four people to move it from the van to the sitting room. Ten years later, I bought same size of television, and imagined that it may take same number of people to move it to the house. Instead of going to the shop to pick it up, I asked them to deliver it, so that their staff will be responsible for taking it from the van into the house. It took two days to deliver, which meant, not having the luxury of watching my new television. When it was delivered, I was still at work, but the surprising thing was that, it only took my ten year old son to move it into the house. It was so light that I could virtually use one hand to pick it up. Though light, the smart TV was another type of computer as I do use it directly to browse the internet, watch YouTube videos and do a lot of stuffs that the computers can do. This is the digital age – the digital revolution has taken over the whole world, and Africa, interestingly has not been left out.

All over Africa, smart phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, 3D televisions, and digital cameras have become ubiquitous. Equipment used for print publishing, music and film production, health and financial institutions, marketing, and other industry sectors have all gone digital. Africa is fast developing because of the digital age. What took the developed world years to achieve is now gotten with the speed of light because of the day to day improvement in digital technology. We are all basking in the euphoria of the many comforts that digital technology has afforded us. We sit in the opulence of our rooms and communicate with people in different parts of the world. We even ride on buses and cars and still chat with family members and friends in various locations across the globe. The world has never had it so easy – Africa has never had it so cozy in terms of relating with the outside world.

April 2015, as I walked along the streets of Lagos Island, Nigeria, I asked my nephew-in-law the scores between Arsenal and Liverpool. He moved his left arm towards his eyes, tapped a few buttons on his wrist watch, and told me the result. Unknown to him, I gave myself a smile and said, “The digital age has made life easy and simple!” Recently, in one of the National Health Service Trusts in London, I saw a digital Dinamap, and I was impressed. I was one person that always imagined that to make the task of documentation easier for doctors, nurses and all healthcare professionals, having a digital Dinamap where clinical observations are recorded directly on the computer is imperative. I was too late to imagine it because it was already in vogue.

I appreciate the fact that Africa is digitalizing, but it does so mainly as a consumer rather than a producer. We are a big market for small and big digital companies to make profits, and most of these profits end up in the western world, as they are hardly reinvested where the money was made. If nothing is done, it will continue to be so. And when I talk about doing something, I am not spouting about banning foreign digital companies from operating in Africa, or stopping the importation of digital devices. This quick-fix, not-too-brainy mentality is what most of our leaders do – they ban or stop the importation of what they are not producing or what they have an intention to produce but haven’t started producing – sometimes, they also ban what they are insufficiently producing, and then put the people into untold hardship. For instance, the ban on importation of rice in Nigeria was an error of judgment because the nation doesn’t produce enough quantity to meet demand. By banning what you don’t have enough of, you cause inflation.

Regardless of the beautiful history of digital technology, its story cannot be complete without mentioning the age of digital revolution which barefaced the start of information technology. You can’t mention digital revolution without naming and acknowledging Steve Jobs. According to many online information, and from what I watched him say, Steve Jobs never had a university degree, but was able, through transformational knowledge, to innovate and come up with both music and mobile devices that revolutionized the digital industry. What does this tell us, Africa? I think Steve Jobs story tells us to take the following actions:

Design Curriculum that Inspires Personal Philosophies

Steve Jobs is a perfect example of the need for our governments to come up with educational curricula that inspire personal philosophies. What do I mean by personal philosophy? In Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, he said, “And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made.” Philosophy is all about values, and if you can’t find the values, it becomes a waste of time and resources.

For digital technology to advance in Africa, the institutions responsible for designing educational curricula must input meaningful, valuable and practicable measures of digital modules into the educational system from start to finish. In addition to the input, they must leave room for personal creativities and innate digital potentials to express. These curricula must be designed in such a way that will encourage a child to juggle his so called childish stupidity and thinking – because in these childish stupidity and thoughts come innovation. The expression of self evolves new ways of thinking, and these new ways lead to new designs. If man is permitted by structures to be himself, expose himself and design himself, other men will reap the benefits of him being himself. Steve Jobs took a huge risk of dropping out of the university because in the curriculum, he didn’t see himself being expressed. If he had acted like every other person in the world, who saw university degrees as the ultimate road to success, we wouldn’t today, benefit from the massive digital devices his decision to leave school gave to us. He acted on his personal philosophy, and that gave him outstanding breakthroughs.

Our educational system therefore, must imbibe cultures of self conviction – it must give us room to stray into unusual ways of doing things, rather than dumbly following all the time, textbook theories. We must be allowed to explore, dismantle and rearrange what we’ve been told based on our own convictions to see if we can come up with something better. Curricula with such windows of idiosyncrasies define a man’s personal philosophies, and make learning fun.

Set Up Well Equipped Digital Laboratories

To promote digital technology, the governments must see the need to set up well equipped digital laboratories. For instance, in 1861, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was founded for the purpose of emphasizing laboratory instructions in applied science and engineering. Kings College London also has King’s Digital Laboratory created to undertake a range of innovative digital collaborations with academic staff across the faculty of arts and humanities, the wider King’s College London Community, as well as the external partners in London, Europe, and the wider world. King’s Digital Laboratory plays three roles – be part of digital project space, partly as a research laboratory and partly as hacker zone. These are the kind of institutions we need to boost digital technology in Africa if we are to stand side by side the developed world and measure up with this ever dynamic digital age.

Digital laboratories will expose the young generation to understanding the basics of what goes on in the digital world, and through this exposure, they will be able to drive themselves in the line of innovation. Innovation is receptive to an inspiring environment – an inspiring environment is that which contains the fundamental triggers that incite and excite natural potentials to manifest and propagate.

On the occasion that the government does not have enough resources to establish digital laboratories at strategic locations, international digital bodies, private organizations and well-meaning individuals can be encouraged to do so. As they do so, these monies should be used for what they’re meant for, and not to be stolen. According to WikiLeaks, as published by The Telegraph on 05 February 2011, £1.2million given to Sierra Leone by the Department for International Development (DfID) to “support peacekeeping” was stolen by the country’s “top brass” and spent on plasma television sets, hunting rifles and other consumer items. Other examples include £16.5million allegedly stolen by ministers in Uganda and £800,000 intended for schools in Kenya stolen by education ministers. These kinds of attitudes discourage the sectors interested in helping to build and advance Africa’s digital technologies. Our attitudes should make them help rather than dissuade them.

Establish Train the Trainer Digital Workshops

Every day, new digital technologies, software and research findings emerge, and there is the need for regular updates in order to catch up with the latest trends of doing things – catching up helps one take advantage of the easiest ways of dealing with some herculean tasks. In schools, colleges, universities, and other forms of institutions, those responsible for impacting digital information must be told about latest updates. That is why train the trainer workshops are expedient. Leaving those that communicate knowledge with stale information makes them obsolete because they will keep giving what is dated. Most information accessible to us are dated, and most educational technologies available to us are also dated. With dated knowledge, we will be unable to compete in this digital age.

To train the trainer on digital updates, the governments may not need to build big training centers – it can also be done digitally. There are numerous online training centers that have top of the edge trainers and materials. Going into corporate agreement with some of these online digital schools can help cut the cost of updating those that need it. Besides that, in the comfort of their homes or offices, they can log on and avail themselves the information that is paramount to them. As you train the trainer, you’re inadvertently training the generality of people that require the knowledge. It is instituting these types of arrangements that will help revolutionize the digital industry in Africa.

Incentivize Digital Innovations

In my book, ‘Be An Icon,’ I told the story of two teenage boys that came up with technological inventions without` any knowledge of science – one was from Kenya, while the other was from Sierra-Leone. These stories were also widely reported by CNN and other major news channels.

As written by CNN – “living on the edge of Nairobi National Park, he first became responsible for herding and safeguarding his family’s cattle when he was nine years old.  But often, his valuable livestock would be raided by the lions roaming the park’s sweet savannah grasses, leaving him to count the losses.  At the age of 11, he decided that it was time to find a way of protecting his family’s cows, goats and sheep from falling prey to hungry lions. His light bulb moment came with one small observation. One day, while walking around, he discovered that lions were scared of moving lights. He further noticed that lions were afraid of venturing near the farm’s stockade when someone was walking around with a flashlight. He put his young mind to work and a few weeks later he’d come up with an innovative, simple and low-cost system to scare the predators away.

He fitted a series of flashing LED bulbs onto poles around the livestock enclosure, facing outward. The lights were wired to a box with switches and to an old car battery powered by a solar panel. They were designed to flicker on and off intermittently, thus tricking the lions into believing that someone was moving around carrying a flashlight. And it worked. Since he rigged up his “Lion Lights,” his family has not lost any livestock to the wild beasts, to the great delight of his father and astonishment of his neighbors. What’s even more impressive is that he devised and installed the whole system by himself, without ever receiving any training in electronics or engineering. The 13-year-old’s remarkable ingenuity was recognized with an invitation to the TED 2013 conference, held in California, where he shared the stage with some of the world’s greatest thinkers, innovators and scientists. His name is Richard Turere; a Maasai boy from the village called Kitengela in Kenya.”

The second teenager, Kelvin Doe was born in 1997 to a poor family in a poor community in Sierra Leone. Despite his humble background, he deliberately refused to be pinned down by the ugly claws of poverty and deprivation. Kelvin, with his inventive mind has done what most kids in the western world with all its western education and exposure couldn’t do. He has built his own battery out of acid, soda, and metal parts scavenged from trash bins that he now uses to light up area homes in his community. He has also built a homemade FM radio transmitter plus a generator to power it. These, he uses to run his own community radio station. Due to his innovative skills, he was invited to spend a few weeks in MIT Media Lab in United States, where he worked alongside graduate students. During his visit to the U.S, he was granted access to MIT’s resources and mentors. He even met with Harvard University president.

Kids like this need to be incentivize by the government, as this will inspire other children to think innovatively. With these types of minds, Africa’s digital technology will be in the avant-garde of a modernistic world.

Recognition and Support of Indigenous Digital Companies

We must not feign ignorance by pretending that there aren’t indigenous African digital companies scattered all over the continent. Most of these organizations are struggling because of lack of government support. The various African governments must identify, appreciate and reward these companies by giving them jobs they’re capable of handling, rather than hiring international organizations to do them. Supporting such organizations will put money in their pockets and these financial boosts, they will in turn put back into expanding their businesses, which will be to the continent’s advantage.

Yes, Africa has embraced the digital revolution, but mainly as a consumer, not producer. To produce, more need to be done, and this more, must be sedulously empowered by the governments.

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