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African Tech for African Problems Should We Be Celebrating Big Tech in Africa?

The African tech industry still struggles to define itself: what is African tech? How do you define African tech? What qualifies as an African tech company?

Artificial intelligence, despite the name, isn’t intelligent on its own. It is the product of our individual intelligence and collective consciousness manifested through digital outputs and collected on the Internet as data. Technologies, like AI, learn and become better based on the data we make available to it: Apple’s Siri, for instance, became better based on increased usage; self-driving vehicles, touted as the future of transportation, are increasingly becoming better, learning and accumulating knowledge with each drive. This, in other words, suggests that the more we use digital technologies, the more data we release, and the better technology becomes.

As emerging technology, AI has a significant place in humanity’s future as it is poised to become an integral part of our daily life in the nearest future, regardless of location and social status, playing a critical role in the digital economy. Without a doubt, AI will have a significant impact on Africa and Africans, empowering millions and transforming our society and systems. Such is the power of innovation. And history has shown innovation to be a key driver of wealth creation and accumulation, and human progress. 

CAPITALISTS AND INNOVATION

Centuries ago, modern capitalism emerged in Europe by toppling feudalism, a system that was premised on severe inequality between lords and serfs, the latter living on the whims of the former, living and working on the property of lords in exchange for housing, military protection and subsistence. Capitalism disrupted this feudal system and brought with it a new wave of private individuals, who might not have been lords or of the ruling class, but owned properties and means of production, stimulating the economy through innovation and competitiveness, and empowering people across social class.

The presence and fast growth of capitalism was, according to Nicholas Kaldor, a major factor that led to the industrialization of Britain, which coincided with urban migration as workers left feudal lands to work and earn a better living in urban centres, the location of the means of production. This change of dynamics resulted in mass consumerism, as capitalists, powered by the industrial revolution, manufactured goods in mass. But this industrial age capitalism, which saw a leap in production, also drove up international trade. Thus, capitalism, led by businesses who exported surplus products from Europe into Africa and imported raw materials from Africa to Europe. Ultimately, capitalism became the bulwark for European imperialism and colonial rule as Europeans sought to and, eventually, established economic dominance in Africa—and, in the process, systematically killed emerging local industry and competition, like the pre-colonial palm trading houses along the coast of Nigeria in what is presently Rivers State.

In Steam-Powered Knowledge, Aileen Fyfe points out how the industrial revolution in Britain led to innovations in the media and also transformed how information was distributed and consumed which, ultimately, resulted in mass media. The media thrives and trades on attention, hence the presence of mass media provided—as it still does—an opportunity for producers of goods and services to reach and communicate with their audience; allowing organizations to shape public opinion and, possibly, drive sales. One could argue that capitalism, as societies moved from majorly agrarian to industrial, has been a major driver of media innovation.

However, if the industrial revolution quickened the pace of media innovation, the digital age drove it into the stratosphere—taking less than a few decades to reconfigure the face of mass media, consumer products, marketing, audience engagement and how networks are built. The digital age is premised on information: how information is consumed and released; how to earn and hold the public’s attention through content; so much so that every sector (from banking to agriculture and governance) has been affected as they seek to earn consumer mind share and drive sales. One can easily call our present economic reality the digital media economy and not be so wrong.

This growth in media technologies rest also on the back of the growth in innovative modern technologies, propelled by capitalists seeking to make as much money as possible by exploring and seeking out new opportunities, pushing the frontiers of humanity from what it is to what it could be and, in so doing, stimulating market demand. Unfortunately, the unanswered questions about this technological revolution are the consequences new technology will have on the future of humanity—considering, in fact, that innovative products are emerging at a rate faster than the policies and laws to guide their usage and development. We’ve seen, several times, the consequences of letting capitalist organizations run unchecked, that the primary interest of capitalists in turning a profit tends to come before ethical considerations and awareness of social consequences.

Increasingly, we’ve also seen that digital technologies, mostly owned by profit-seeking organisations, are driven by data thus making data gold and the primary raw material in the digital age. Currently, the race is on between firms for who will harvest and utilize the most data. So, therefore, it is easier to argue that the current wave wherein companies from Google to Netflix compete to gather data for the development of artificial intelligence isn’t just a response to market demand but an effort to stimulate demand, too, by gathering and analysing data to understand consumers better, market better, predict the future through trends gleaned from our digital lives and prints.

Data, mostly unstructured and gathered from multiple sources, is the lifeblood of modern industry. Using data, Netflix has grown from a little-known video store to a major player in the film industry, destabilizing Hollywood and currently making inroads into world films, including Nollywood. But the data that Netflix, like most data-mining organisations, uses for its growth is acquired mostly free through self-reporting from users, and publicly available information. For every tweet, every click, every comment on the Internet, something is watching, gathering data and using this to build data sets on each of us, turning the very thing that makes the Internet powerful and captivating against us, the users.

THE FAILED PROMISE OF THE INTERNET

The Internet, in its current iteration as Web 2.0, is premised on the idea of a decentralized, independent system where users create and engage with content. Over the years, however, this founding idea of the Internet is failing as the web is now dominated majorly by a handful of Internet companies functioning partly as media, intermediaries between individuals and firms, data miners and digital spies. In response to the global dominance of these companies as well as the violation of user rights through unfair practices to fulfil capitalist agendas, governments across the world are putting up regulations and laws to guide, protect and check the power of these companies.

While the regulatory response of governments to the dominance of Internet companies across the world has been slow, especially compared to the pace of innovation and tech expansion, it is however happening. Facebook, for instance, after an 18 months long investigation into data breaches, was referred to as a ‘digital gangster’ by UK lawmakers in February 2019, incurring punitive measures; and Google has faced several knocks from the European Union for violating regulatory laws, including a 57-million-dollar fine in January 2018. Unfortunately, Africa, with a growing population of Internet users primed to potentially be the future of new media consumption, has fewer laws or no laws guiding digital media. This leaves the continent’s population and economies unprotected and at the mercy of big tech from Silicon Valley.

If we can take a step back here to make a necessary point: it’s important to make clear that capitalism (and as it is, digital capitalism) isn’t completely bad or undesirable. In fact, humanity will hardly be as progressive as we are now without capitalists pushing and innovating us closer to a better life whilst making a profit. However, we know that unregulated capitalism creates deeper issues, fosters severe inequality and brings out the worst in humanity. Particularly in Silicon Valley, the global centre force of the digital economy, the wide income disparity between the lower and upper classes has risen tremendously over the years with the adoption of the Internet, thus showing that digital technology, despite its many advantages, is a major driver of inequality.

For a continent rife with inequality and besets by several challenges, digital capitalism would prove detrimental to Africa’s future if digital technologists aren’t carefully guided through future-oriented policies that enable local innovation, competition and prevent economic inequality. To Africa’s advantage: we already have a template to examine from other regions, and where necessary, copy, knowing what will likely work or not work.

While, at present, the African market is clearly less valuable to big tech in terms of profitability—Facebook, for instance, earns about half of its revenue from 12 per cent of its users based in North America generates no profit at all from some African countries—this market is a largely uncharted digital territory. On one hand, this may signal that business models successfully used in western countries might not be profitable in Africa; but, on the other hand, it shows that innovation (and, eventually, profitability) proceeds from a deep understanding of the social realities in a place, solving complex social problems and, thence, generating revenue.

Big tech, with its wild success in western economies and increasing usage in Africa, often does not have deep insight, occasioned by lived experiences, into African realities. And its practitioners will typically try to replicate formulas implemented in their often-western home countries in Africa. The Internet has done a good job of breaching the information divide and creating hubs that supersede physical borders, for sharing and consuming knowledge. Still, the future of Internet does not lie solely in the globalization of information but also in the regionalization of it; with tech and digital media companies reflecting the social reality or playing a part in building the identity of a region they operate within. In so doing, solving a local problem, generating wealth across value chain, and aiding the development of social identity.

AFRICAN SOLUTIONS TO AFRICAN PROBLEMS

Really, the foregoing argument can be surmised—to paraphrase the oft-cited foreign policy approach—as a case for ‘African tech solutions to African problems’. This is said with a clear-eyed understanding that Africa faces several issues, least of all being that the continent is behind other continents in terms of technology, and investment. In fact, apart from the less-than-a-handful elites, a large selection of Africa’s population is still far removed from self-driving cars and Apple’s Siri—not to  mention other AI products that are, increasingly, becoming lifestyle products in the West.

But we’ve seen the effect of African solutions to African problems in areas like film and music, where active individual efforts arising from within the continent has allowed these industries to grow, develop value chains along the way and, as pop culture products are wont to, have deeper social impacts. Rather than being passive adopters, Africa and Africans should actively be involved in providing innovative solutions to African problems, without first getting the approval of a global business with headquarters far removed from Africa.

Facebook, for example, wants to provide Internet for people in developing countries through its Internet.org programme (now known as Free Basics) and in April 2019 Google unveiled an AI research centre in Ghana. Yet little or nothing is known as to how these big tech companies plan to use data, the digital raw material, it gathers both now and in the future. Considering their antecedents, there is little doubt that they will use these data to further their exploitative capitalist agendas, and in ways that violate user-trust, hurt economies and stifle innovation. In some ways, this brings into sharp focus the contentious issue of digital imperialism, and the Internet as a modern-day neo-colonial tool.

Let’s be clear though: providing Internet connectivity or Internet-powered facilities for developing countries isn’t an altruistic move even if it might appear as one. Instead, it is a long-term strategic business move, allowing companies an edge in data collection for future and present deployment. So, it makes sense to view big tech investments in Africa with cautious optimism. All this because of the detrimental consequences big tech might have on innovation and development, but also because of the lack of regulatory laws and policies protecting citizens and local industry.

Big tech companies, with their large financial and data war chests, can easily monopolize an economy. Especially a developing economy with a nascent tech industry, big tech companies can have detrimental impacts by killing off competition and stymieing growth in ways that could have far reaching socio-economic consequences, such as creating more social inequalities, and perpetuating imperialism. To illustrate this point within a historical context, consider the value chain provided by the pre-colonial palm oil trade that extended from the coastal areas of present-day Nigeria where individual trading houses mediated trade with Europeans and producers in the hinterlands where this palm fruits where grown and produced. This chain allowed not only for wealth creation but also for self-definition, exploration and internal growth with social consequences. Unfortunately, these net positive effects of the palm oil trade were cut off by imperialists seeking to shutout the middlemen (African trading houses), maximise profit and further colonial cause.

Or consider, in a more contemporary sense, that in March 2019, the European Union fined Google €1.49 billion for violating the region’s anti-trust laws and stifling competition between 2006 and 2016. According to the EU’s commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager, Google’s actions ‘denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate—and consumers the benefits of competition.’ In India, Facebook’s Free Basics programme has faced criticism—and an eventual ban in 2016—for violating net neutrality, which could potentially stifle competition and, by extension, competition. It is critical, at this point, to point out that the African tech industry still struggles to define itself: what is African tech? How do you define African tech? What qualifies as an African tech company?

For instance, in April 2016, the e-commerce company, Jumia, launched its initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange. Their IPO, which ran on the back of the company being the first ‘Africa’s tech unicorn’, exposed a fundamental problem with defining African tech: headquartered and incorporated outside the continent, with non-African leaders and technologies located outside of Africa but operating its business services solely in Africa. Is Jumia an African start-up or not? Ultimately, this incident serves as an opportunity to have a broader discussion on what is and isn’t African tech, to define African identity in a technological context. After all, we know for a fact what is and isn’t Afrobeats or Nollywood films, because of their local histories and association, built largely without foreign intervention. Why not tech?

The presence of Silicon Valley on the continent, armed with their economic might, stands the risk of hindering the self-definition and introspection necessary to move African technology forward. Similarly, that the presence of big tech across Africa signals that Africa and Africans are a growing market. But we must be careful in how we approach this signal. As a continent still struggling with historical interferences and an environment not equipped to stand up to big tech, it is easy to imagine and ominous to witness big tech companies preaching about the redeeming power of the Internet in language reminiscent of missionaries peddling imperialist agendas