Where is the African Digital Sandbox?

Investment in roads, railways and airports may help to Africa, but what about IT infrastructure?

I recently completed research in Africa to determine where and how to invest from an IT perspective. I discovered fascinating extremes, from enlightened IT entrepreneurship to crazy air castles with little to show for it, but mostly I found a continent deprived of basic IT-infrastructure.

Most people have heard about M-Pesa, Kenya’s mobile payment success, tablets and smart phones manufactured in Ghana (G’Slab), Congo (VMK) and Nigeria (Inye 2) and the African counterparts of iTunes iROKOtv and Afrinolly. Even African governments have jumped the IT bandwagon.

A great example is Rwanda’s Tax ePayment System (file ‘and’ pay tax online) and the Single Electronic Window System (electronic import, export, and transit forms). And a less inspiring example is Konza City, or the Digital Savannah, a megalomaniac project to develop a BPO (Business Processes Outsourcing) City in the middle of nowhere.

And then there are the NGO’s with a many great IT initiatives from UN’s ICT in Agriculture sourcebook to Farm Force and iCow (dubbed Cows in the Cloud). But all of this is like a ‘drop of water on a boiling plate’. If the world, and especially institutes like IMF, Worldbank, UN and the myriad other donor agencies, want to help Africa, they should divert some of their funds to growing IT.

$40bn investment on infrastructure a year is what Africa needs to build roads, ports, railroads and airports, according to NEPAD, the African Union’s development arm. Maybe some of it should go into fiber optics and datacenter-hubs?

I believe it is more intelligent to allocate part of the funds towards developing Africa’s IT infrastructure and most importantly investing in IT knowledge transfer towards locals. Roads and ports take a long time to build, require massive capital investments and are expensive to operate. IT infrastructure and its benefits for communities - social interaction, health care, education, trade and commerce - are faster, easier, and self-perpetuating.

Sure, Google, Microsoft and IBM have opened up sprawling campuses in Kenya, but let’s not forget they are there to make money. Access to information and scaling information is what drove two spectacular evolutions for mankind - ‘the printing press’ and ‘the internet’. Today Russian boats filled with millions of cheap books still arrive in the port of Alexandria to share information with countries that are underdeveloped in terms of information access, but smartphones with internet access are slowly changing that need. The consequences are enormous.

Luckily there are bright sparks, like Liquid Telecom, a South-African company that is determined to hook up Africa’s undersea connections and bring broadband inland. Its challenges would scare off most other companies, but Liquid demonstrated grit by overcoming African bees, elephants and bureaucrats. And when it succeeds, more of Africa will be connected, to communicate across long distances, to learn, to grow, to trade, to be entertained and to blossom. The ‘digital sandbox’ that the rest of the world has access too, will be available for Africans.  

I am sure African IT will mutate into a unique form, adapted to local needs, maintained by the African IT professionals with their own set of priorities. Many of these individuals are already capable of performing wonders with a smartphone, copper wire, Ubuntu and home grown code. So, my advice is, donor agency decision makers, take notice: do not just build roads, rails and bridges, but invest in the African digital sandbox.  


Roel Castelein is GTM Strategy for EMEA at EMC