21st Century Challenges – Digital Technology in Africa event

Computer Aid were out in force at last night’s Digital Technology in Africa event held by the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington, London. The panel consisted of Nicholas Negraponte, Erik Hersman and Herman Chinery-Hess and was chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones.

  • Having heard lots about Negraponte’s ‘One Laptop Per Child’, it was fantastic to hear about the programme from the man himself! One aspect of the programme that I hadn’t previously been aware of is that each laptop contains 100 books and each laptop contains different books from each other, so if a community is given 100 laptops, 10,000 books are made available to the whole community!
  •  Herman Chinery-Hess, founder of SOFTtribe, spoke about the need for Africa to develop its own technology solution and has developed his software to be, in his words, “tropically tolerant” – meaning that it accounts for regional issues with power, labour and politics, which technology built in the US and UK doesn’t account for.
  • It was great to hear from Erik Hersman, founder of Ushahidi who shared some very interesting insights on how technology is developing and gave examples of African entrepreneurs who are creating mobile apps and SMS services specifically designed for the continent.

There were a wide range of opinions and lots of food for thought – some of the comments that really stood out for me during their discussions were:

Herman: “Users of the PC web in the West don’t understand the use of the mobile web in Africa”

Talking about what he has seen from the one laptop per child initiative, Negraponte said that “low connectivity in Ethiopia means [children] are great programmers”

Herman: Why wasn’t Ushahidi built in Silicon Valley? “Because Silicon Valley solves different kinds of problems.”

Chinery-Hess: “We have SMS in the bush, and Internet in the cities. We can innovate around that”

Opinions within Computer Aid about the event were mixed – while some found the event very interesting and thought it served as a great (albeit very positive) introduction to the developments in ICT4D in Africa, others felt it only skimmed the surface of a complex and challenging issue. While we all acknowledged it was great way to raise awareness and bring together ICT4D professionals, those in the latter camp might have preferred a more in depth discussion of how IT can help further development across the continent and the challenges. For example, it would have been good to see the extent to which the lack of internet access hindered uptake and ways to address this challenge discussed – since surely this is key to development across the entire continent?

Having said that I was struck by the sheer number of people who attended – it seems that ICT4D might no longer be the niche sector of development it once was and there definitely seems to be a need for further in depth discussion among ICT4D professionals to tackle the issues in the field. Hopefully we’ll see a lot more similar forums for discussion in the future!

The event was run by the Royal Geographical Society as part of their 21st Century Challenges series of events and videos of the panel debate will be online next week at: http://www.21stcenturychallenges.org/challenges/digital-technology-in-africa/

Alexia Ward

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