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Can Technology Help Save Africa?
R. Dennis Hansen   Sep 25, 2014   Ethical Technology  

Ray Kurzweil recently made the observation that:  “A kid in Africa has access to more information than the President of the United States did 15 years ago.”[1]  Since I try to spend at least one month a year in Africa (mostly in Uganda), this quote got me thinking.

Could technology be an important fix for some of Africa’s most pressing problems? One helpful sign: major fiber-optic cables are being submerged along the east coast of Africa, connecting countries from Djibouti south to South Africa. On a recent trip to Africa, I witnessed an army of ditch diggers burying fiber-optic cable extending into northern Uganda.

Cellphones have already had a major impact on sub-Saharan Africa . They are changing the way businesses and educators do work.

An important use of cellphones in Africa is mobile banking. For example, it is now estimated that 70 percent of Kenyan adults transfer money using their mobile phones. Mobile banking lets users load money onto their phones and then send it to another phone through a simple text message. When the concept of mobile payment was introduced, the majority of Africans did not have access to formal financial services. With the arrival of mobile banking, any mobile phone can operate like a banking center.

Just as Africans moved from having no phone to owning a cellphone (skipping the landline phase), banking is moving from an individual having no bank services to mobile banking (skipping traditional brick and mortar banks).

Similarly, IT technologies can also be used to further the reach of education. At an extremely isolated school with no electricity but with cellular coverage, a lot can be accomplished with a smart phone, a LED projector, and speakers. All you need is a fairly dark room (for example, shutter the windows).

Even without the Internet, a laptop computer and LED, battery-powered projector can be a game changer. The projector allows the information on the computer to be shared simultaneously by every student in the class. With these devices, it’s possible to improve the quality of education with a relatively small investment. According to J. Hughes:

“Early childhood education from prekindergarten through the first grade, has an effect on cognition and academic achievement. [And] information technology and artificial intelligence now allow us to move beyond the industrial model of education that developed a century ago to more personalized and adaptive curricula that will hopefully identify and develop our fullest natural capacities throughout the life cycle.”[2]

Earlier this year, my colleagues and I visited a small Ugandan island in Lake Victoria. We were there to work with a school in a remote village. We were assisting with a water harvesting system, installing an alternative energy system, encouraging women’s groups, enlarging playground facilities, and making micro-loans.

Traveling with us was a research engineer from NASA. We asked the headmaster if it would be okay to make a short PowerPoint presentation about America’s space program. The headmaster liked the idea, and suggested that we also invite interested villagers.

Since the village didn’t have power, we had brought along a small battery-powered LED projector. But the projector needed dark conditions. So at 7 pm, we headed out of our guesthouse to the center of the village where we set up our equipment. Under the stars, fifty-plus students and adults circled around the projector and screen.

The engineer from NASA made an interesting presentation, complete with animated graphics about a recent Mars landing. Despite a few distractions, the presentation went well. Several times during the presentation the children were encouraged to stay in school, and study both math and science. After the presentation was over, there were many questions.

In all, it was a very surreal experience: at night, in the center of a very poor African village, making a presentation about America’s space program. But it was very useful illustration to us about the incredible potential for the technology.

The use of higher and higher forms of IT technologies brings up the issue of “appropriate technology.” The following story was related in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains:

“When [Innovative health reformer Paul Farmer returned] to Cange [Haiti] from Harvard and he found that [Father] Lafontant (one of his local contacts) had overseen the construction of thirty fine-looking concrete latrines, scattered through the village. ‘But,’ Farmer asked, ‘are they appropriate technology?’ He’d picked up the term in class at the Harvard School of Public Health. As a rule, it meant that one should use only the simplest technologies required to do the job.

‘Do you know what appropriate technology means? It means good things for rich people and shit for the poor,’ the priest [Lafontant] growled.”[3]

While technology alone cannot save Africa, it will certainly be an important contributor, particularly since costs are dropping rapidly and the potential uses of technology are expanding exponentially.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/12/tech/innovation/ray-kurzweil-sxsw/

[2] http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/hughes20140910

[3] Tracy Kidder, 2004, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York.

R. Dennis Hansen is currently employed as a planner for a federal resource management agency in Utah. He enjoys traveling and has lived in and/or visited and/or worked in over 40 countries on five continents. Hansen is a member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association and Engineers without Borders.



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