Sub -Saharan Africa’s predicament has hinged on global revolutionary episodes.
The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries commoditized African people for export to drive up productivity on sugar and cotton plantations.
The onset of the Digital Revolution (Information Age) in the latter part of the 20th century offers Africans an opportunity to join global players at the market place.
A revolution is broadly viewed as a fundamental change in power or organizational structure that takes place in a relatively short time. To paraphrase Nicholas Negroponte (Director Media Lab. Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Digital Revolution entails the migration from atom (physical) based economy to creation, manipulation, communication and storage of electronic binary digits or “bits.”
Digital Revolution is also generally viewed as the revolution of the Information Age. For the first time in human history, colossal amounts of information are available at the touch of the button. Will the Digital Revolution free Africa? glimpse at the African persona reveals an individual (hardware) with a corrupted political system (operating system) and thought process (software).
Other civilizations are falling over themselves to access the continent’s wealth such as the sub surface mineral resources and the 60% uncultivated farmland. The continent’s political systems with its supporting caste see only poverty and push for beggar-aid as opposed to funds to drive up productivity. Developed and emerging economies put a premium on their people and salivate at the news that close to 330 million Africans spend $2 – $20 a day.
The African thought process views the 1 billion people on the continent as a burden. The continent’s competitors yearn for a youthful population. Africa on the other hand runs scared of its 65% population aged below 30 years – they are referred to as a “time b**b!” Instead of scaling up youthful activities to be competitive at the global stage; Kenya and by extension Africa are keen to mimic the youth. African leaders are keen to sustain the youth in ignorance by adopting their mannerism (speaking “sheng;” “Rapp” music and dressing in sagging trousers). The tension generated by the ongoing Digital Revolution between individual Africans and the traditional “gatekeepers” such as political elites, media, Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) and “experts” on African affairs offers hope to the continent.
Political elites watch in dismay as their citizen transform into “Netizens” free from the controls of space sovereigns. The media which for a long time has “sanitized” and kept the status quo in place (be it at national or international level) is awed at the rate information crawls out on outlets such as short text messaging (SMS), Twitter, Facebook, Ushahidi, and Wikileaks. NGOs role as citadels of the suffering has been taken up by corporate bodies utilizing data to drive up sales as they engage in corporate social responsibility initiatives.
On the political front, digitized information has driven masses onto the streets and yanked presidents from their thrones in North Africa at a speed never countenanced before. On the economic front; over half a billion Africans have been connected to the global system through cell phones and internet. Mobile telephony has increased access to banking services that was initially a preserve of few urbanized populations. Kenya for example, boasts of 14 million M-PESA mobile phone banking users. Distance learning has been made efficient away from postal mail (snail mail) correspondence.
The world of the arts (music and film production) has gained through low budget movie productions as exhibited by the surge in “Nollywood” (Nigerian movies). Judiciously used as a tool, Digital Revolution will free Africa; the late Maruge Kimani Ng’ang’a from Kenya offers a vital lesson. He stunned the World when he joined lower primary school aged 87 years old as a student.
The motivation behind his quest to study was driven by the burning desire to read the bible on his own. It is his personal drive to kick out the “gatekeepers” and read the bible himself that turned him into a celebrity. The Digital Revolution has no intrinsic and autonomous power to free the African people. Rather, it is the African people who must urgently and proactively use it as a strategic tool to free themselves socially, economically and politically.
By James Shikwati, The author [email protected] is Director, Inter Region Economic Network.