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Africa should stop being a lacklustre consumer of technology. Here is why…

Guest Column

Africa should stop being a lacklustre consumer of technology. Here is why…

How can we use technology to level the playing field and allow rural or poorer communities to gain access to better education without Angelina Jolie building a school or Madonna adopting another one of us? Asks Winnie Odinga in this opinion.

Technology, it is said, has cancelled geography. Today, a student in deepest rural Uganda can virtually attend a class in Korea. The possibilities are infinite, if only we are prepared to grasp them.

When people speak of car racing, the first thing that pops into the minds of many is Formula One. If you’re East African, it’s probably the Safari Rally, if you’re American, perhaps the IndyCar races. But recently I came across a new phenomenon hitting the streets. This is probably one of the smartest inventions in sport ever witnessed. It’s called Formula E.

Formula E is a class of motorsport that uses only electric-powered cars. That doesn’t seem very impressive but here’s the cool part. Aside from simply watching cars race across your television screen, the geniuses behind this have created a real-time virtual racing simulator which pitches you against the entire Formula E grid.

In simple terms, they have made an app that allows you to play a racing game which streams live images from an actual Formula E race on to your screen and so you feel as though you are racing against real drivers on the track live. (Just Google it!)

The gist of this is just how innovative technology is becoming; if they can mimic this, then just how many previously unlikely realities can come true? Imagine being able to play alongside Tiger Woods at the Masters as you watch the golfing event from home!

As you know by now, I think of all things in an African context and wondered just how far this sort of simulation could be used to bypass tedious, bureaucratic, never-gonna-happen-in-my-lifetime processes.

For example, distance learning is something extremely popular around the world. On my phone currently I have the Coursera learning app that allows me to access university-level courses from around the world and in the end, earn a certificate from various institutions.

Right now I’m studying Game Theory at the University of Tokyo (Japan), Moral Foundations of Politics at Yale (US), and Federalism & Decentralisation at Leiden University (Germany). On my Duo Lingo app, I just earned points for achieving a 21-day streak in my basic French courses. Physically it would be impossible to be in New Haven, Tokyo, Leiden and Kinshasa (the largest French-speaking city in the world) at once. However, here I am in Nairobi with access to all, at once.

Africa has always adopted technology in a somewhat untrustworthy manner – apart from taking to the mobile phone like a duck to water. I’m an ‘Afro-Techno-Optimist’, which is a term I made up to explain my belief that there is a technological or scientific solution to virtually every problem that exists in Africa.

However, the popular perception around the continent is that technology is more a threat to limited job offerings, than a compliment to daily lives.

Africa has always adopted technology in a somewhat untrustworthy manner – apart from taking to the mobile phone like a duck to water.

For example, as prevalent as traffic jams are in Africa, it’s rare to find one that isn’t caused by a traffic policeman. In Nairobi they stand underneath the traffic lights and render the technology useless as they forcefully direct (and jam up) traffic based on emotion rather than analysis. Somebody somewhere ordered him on the street to ‘secure’ police jobs. Let’s not even get into the Uber–taxi wars!

It’s safe to say that Africa has a feeling of being burned by technology more than feeling its benefits. At best, Africa has been a lacklustre consumer of technology, not a seeker of it. If we look around the continent we have the same big problems – poor health facilities, poor education facilities, low standards of living and infant support infrastructure.

In this column I often discuss what governments should do, today I want to tell them how.

You see, just like Formula E created a virtual world to entice new users to their sport, Africa can create a virtual world to entice its citizenry to perform better. I’ll give one quick example and hopefully it will jog all our thinking on how to pivot.

When it comes to education facilities and opportunities, rural Africans are at a disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts, who are also lagging behind the world. These rural or low income students are required to compete for opportunities with students from across the globe.

How can we use technology to level the playing field and allow rural or poorer communities to gain access to better education without Angelina Jolie building a school or Madonna adopting another one of us?

How can we get world-class, practical courses to the grassroots level? How do we ensure that farmers in rural Angola can walk to a community centre every week (such as a church) or a provincial office (once every three months) and attend a class on soil samples and farming techniques to produce better yields?

We can offer medical students in Jinja the chance to virtually attend world-class surgeries being performed in Seoul. Or chefs in Kumasi can study a masterclass from the UK’s Gordon Ramsay, while college-going students in Lilongwe can learn about methods to access capital and tips on entrepreneurship. This sort of approach takes a wide shift in thinking.

What does it take, you ask? 1. Internet connection and 2. A screen. In other words, a Thuraya satellite modem, laptop and projector and small power source. Total cost about $3,000.

If our children and communities don’t have access to the internet at this stage of the 21st century, then we are busy educating them to live in a world that no longer exists.

Deployment could be immediate and governments could pay for 10,000 classes, for example, opening community computer labs and handing courses out as scholarships to students. They wouldn’t have to worry about flights, accommodation, visas, foreign upkeep, etc.

Students would learn world-class theories and practice right on home soil. Technology can finally bring curriculums to life.

My push to you, dear reader, is that incentives influence behaviour. Being rural should no longer be our excuse for underdevelopment.

Broadband connectivity is our key to unlocking enormous learning opportunities. We are asleep with the key in our hand.

If our children and communities don’t have access to the internet at this stage of the 21st century, then we are busy educating them to live in a world that no longer exists; let’s prepare them for a world of what will be.

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