African opportunity: Technology and the new industrial revolution
“We think of Africa as a victim continent when in many ways it’s actually more advanced than many of the economies that we would think to be better,” says Adam Shaw, business journalist and presenter of the BBC’s technology [...]
“We think of Africa as a victim continent when in many ways it’s actually more advanced than many of the economies that we would think to be better,” says Adam Shaw, business journalist and presenter of the BBC’s technology programme, Horizons.
BBC’s Adam Shaw gives an example from his travels with the programme – a Kenyan farmer who routinely pays hundreds of workers by transferring the money directly between mobile phones. Here, he says, technology is developing to deal with what are traditionally seen as problems inAfrica, such as distance. It’s difficult for a bank to build branches across Africa, so transferring money ‘on the go’ becomes the norm, using technology better than that available in theUK.
“It’s ultimately a massive opportunity because [Africa could] start a new second or third industrial revolution, and at a much higher pace than we’re able to in the UK for instance, and without the inheritance issue. In the UK, we say ‘we’ve got this old infrastructure, we can’t just abandon it’. Well, they don’t have it, so they can start afresh and in that way it gives them a competitive advantage.”
In terms of developing Africa’s economy, Shaw says: “Aid is clearly an important part of the mix… but what you’re trying to do is help develop self-sustaining economies and release the potential of Africa, its own capital and human resources. Just giving handouts isn’t the full picture.”
But it’s not just about importing technology from the west. Shaw points to a “halo effect” surrounding technology in developing countries, where local developers take technology and use it as a starting point for ideas relevant to their own needs.
“You have to look at continents likeAfricaand see them not just as the recipients of information and aid. It’s important to ask what is applicable in your environment, what ideas do you have to take this technology and change it and actually make something new out of it, which could benefit not just you but perhaps the country from which the idea originated.”
Shaw highlights technology like the Lifesaver bottle – a water bottle which uses micro-filters to make even the filthiest water safe to drink. It’s simple, inexpensive and flexible technology like this which he believes has the potential to make a difference, rather than trying to replicate Western infrastructure.
“We come into disaster zones, especially if there’s a crisis, and try and build sewage plants – and this is a ridiculous way of doing it – you don’t need to build an infrastructure. There’s loads of water around, it’s just dirty, so just bring in a water bottle. It’s about making technology appropriate.”
“We should be saying ‘Well, maybe it’s a different environment, maybe they have different problems so maybe there should be different solutions’. That sort of approach is actually very compelling.”
Shaw visited 32 countries with Horizons and noticed that many of the technologies being produced for and by the developing world often have the added bonus of being environmentally-friendly.
“I think it’s very likely businesses are understanding that they have to have a sustainable argument. Not because they want to be good to the world, but because their own businesses will not have a future unless they take on board sustainable issues… I think that green agenda is changing, not dramatically, but it is noticeable. Hopefully it’s sustainable as well.”
For more information, see gatewaytoafrica.com/bbcinnovations
Rebecca Cooney 2012