The continent of Africa has long been seen as the place where humanitarian aid and World Bank loans go — to attempt to save lives or to dictate how countries should grow.
Now there’s a new movement underway — a technology movement. Young entrepreneurs from the continent are protesting the old ways by launching startups that, they say, will put Africans in the driver’s seat. But not everyone agrees that technology is the solution to Africa’s problems.
Gregory Rockson, 24, is definitely in the pro-tech camp. He started the tech company mPharma in his home country, Ghana, to improve health care.
Rockson had been living in San Francisco, thinking about working for giants like Google, when he learned about a problem back home: People were dying of treatable diseases because they couldn’t access available medicine quickly enough.
He recounts a story: Two years ago, at the national teaching hospital in Ghana, called Korle Bu, a patient came in with heart disease. The drugs he needed were not available in the hospital.
The doctors started calling other hospitals and pharmacies. Rockson says, “By the time they identified which of them had the drugs and [the drugs were] brought to the hospital, it was two hours too late. The patient had passed away.”
In this day and age, Rockson says, that makes no sense.
So mPharma aims to fix that problem with an online database. Pharmacies log the medicines they have. Doctors know where the drugs they need can be found. And they can write digital prescriptions for patients via text message, with a nine-digit code. They take this code to the pharmacy that has the drug. Because the database tracks the purchase of the drugs, doctors know when a patient has followed through.
This is not charity work; mPharma is creating a kind of Google Maps for prescription drugs and then selling the data (on the location, the quantity and the price of drugs) to multinationals — pharmaceutical companies that want to know more about demand for their drugs.
The money pays the salaries of some of his employees, says Rockson, and he reinvests some of it into hospital networks, to improve their computer infrastructure. He considers his Internet business a small part of a much bigger “revolution.” That’s the word he uses.
“[It’s] a New Africa story whereby it is about Africans taking ownership of the problems of Africa. It’s about Africans creating the solutions that help solve and lift the multitudes of Africans who are in poverty out of that,” Rockson says. “It’s no longer about sitting down and having Westerners come in to the continent to do charity.”
Because it’s so cheap to start a business based on software — it doesn’t cost as much as mining diamonds or drilling oil — young entrepreneurs in Africa say their ability to take leading roles in business is growing and their continent’s relationship with Western money is changing.
Though there are plenty of dollars here. Last week, the CEO of Microsoft was in Kenya to launch Windows 10. And the founder of AOL, Steve Case, was in Nigeria.
Case was visiting Andela, a startup that recruits local software developers and trains them so they can give creative input, not just cheap labor, to technology projects in Silicon Valley. Andela plans to have 100,000 high-end developers trained in a decade or so.
Fellow Pule Taukobong stepped to the mic and began to explain “a lot of the developers here are working for some fantastic clients like Google, like Microsoft.” But, he continued, in the Internet of the future, where do newcomers like him fit in?
Back when AOL started, Case recalled, just 3 percent of Americans were online, and only for an hour a week on average. Then connectivity took off, followed by the mobile app generation. Now, Case said, we’re in the third wave.
“The third wave, we think, will be integrating the Internet seamlessly and pervasively in every aspect of our lives,” he said. And that’s complicated work. It takes people who have deep local knowledge. That means big opportunities for Taukobong and his peers.
Case quoted an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, you must go together.”
The big question is, where do you end up? Kentaro Toyama is an award-winning computer scientist and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. And he’s not so sure technology by itself is the solution.
Technology projects help “a relatively well-educated elite in the developing world plug into an elite industry in the developed world,” Toyama says. But he does not believe that the deeper inequalities in developing nations are addressed. If 100,000 Nigerians became software developers in the United States, “that’s a small drop in the bucket, not even 1 percent” of the country’s 170 million population.
What’s more, the U.S. is in the midst of a “golden age of technology and innovation,” and yet, he says, “the rate of poverty has increased, inequality has skyrocketed and social mobility has stagnated.”
That’s not to say technology can’t help. But rather, as Toyama puts it: “Without something else, technology simply does not address these problems.” If a car has a more powerful engine, he says, then it’s all the more important that “the person behind the wheel knows where they’re going and how to drive well.”