Africa does IT

Google offers advanced payment-card services in Kenya that aren’t available in the US. Competing Ghanaian and Congolese companies manufacture tablet computers. “Silicon Savannah” explicitly aims to supplant India as a preferred provider of outsourcing services. Model backwards-appearing villages in Africa have higher cellular usage than urban areas of the United States. Has Africa become a new tech powerhouse?

No. But it does have interesting stories to tell, and deserves attention.

Big turnaround

On Friday, the Real User Monitoring blog relaxes a little, and makes a point of looking outside the walls of the usual datacenter where we’re wrapped up in application performance management (APM), mobile user experience, and similar concerns. The surprising news from Africa is that the same language–“datacenter”, “APM”, “mobile user”, and more–is in use there, at least in places.

That’s surprising because for so long–roughly 1970-2000–Africa mostly showed up in Euro-US news only as a spot mired in miserable corruption, violence, disease, and poverty. Now, if anything, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction: despite deeply-rooted difficulties, Africa is occasionally presented in a rosier light than the facts support.

One of the most interesting aspects of African economic development has been the extent to which cellular technology has served as a substitute for all sorts of other infrastructure. Naive models expect construction of highways, railroads, power grids, telegraph, banks, and other elements as pre-requisites of progress. Africans aren’t waiting. They make clever use of cellular handsets to replace many of the functions of these more traditional assets. One canonical example, repeated in hundreds of thousands of instances weekly, dispenses with conventional banking: a young person working in the capital city of Mali or Mozambique is unlikely to rely on a bank to send part of her paycheck to her family in her home village; she might well use a cellular-based payment system, though.

Similarly, business-to-business automation in many areas is transported by SMS (small message service–“text”), rather than the Web. That opens modern logistics channels to any company with a $20 “feature phone”, rather than requiring a $400 desktop computer. One predictable consequence is that Africa is cultivating a generation of innovative SMS developers.

Large and growing population, plenty of intelligent, ambitious people, familiarity with digital technologies, widespread use of English–it’s been tempting to jump to the conclusion that technocenters scattered across Africa are ready to compete with the maturing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) dynamos, or at least the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa) newcomers.

Too many liabilities

In the short term, it’s simply not true, apart from special cases at the extreme north and south of the continent. Think, for example, of datacenter siting: there certainly are spots within Africa with inexpensive real estate, vast hydroelectric, natural gas, or solar electric potential, and abundant bright young workers eager for certification in Operations or related skills. The liabilities remain overwhelming, though: the costs and delays of business licensing and the improving-but-still-erratic provisioning with fixed-line telecommunications and supply lines for repair parts make it easier for African IT (information technology) to run its own business on servers in Cambridge or Cologne than Kinshasa or Khartoum.

Africa is vast. Over a billion people live there, and over half are under the age of twenty. While there’s far more going on than any brief summary can capture, and its medium-term prospects are fascinating, Africa’s IT innovations and significance during the next year will remain specialized and isolated.

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