On mobile tech, and laptops, and technology in Africa
Everybody’s talking mobile! Will mobile phones with keyboards replace laptops? Was the OLPC doomed from the start? Why don’t any of these ICT4D projects seem to be run by Africans, anyway? Ushahidi! Web 2.0! Durable products built by Africans for Africans!
Who the fuck cares?
Miquel touches on this in an article on his Maneno blog. I like the idea of Maneno, but I’m skeptical of technologies that are “by Africa for Africans.” Especially technologies that mean to replace more Western oriented tools such as, in the case of Maneno, WordPress and Blogger. What’s the real incentive to make the switch?
My neighbor edits a local newspaper. He has never heard of social networking. He doesn’t know what Google maps is. He doesn’t know what Facebook and Twitter are. He doesn’t care that there are Amazing! Cool! Applications! created online everyday.
He does, however, care that this crazy white chick in his building says she’s got a way to let his journalists send text messages to a local number, that will automagically publish on his newspaper’s website. He also cares that the crazy white chick is a canny business woman. After all, they have a business relationship. My neighbor also cares that he can now use his cellphone to browse the web for 0,5F/1kB ($0.01/10kB). And if he can look at his newspaper’s website with his phone, that means that anyone else in the country can too. More pageviews = more advertising CFA + more political clout.
PDAs and smartphones with roll-out keyboards are neat, as is OLPC, as is a program I read about (can’t find the link) to fabricate MP3 players in Africa for Africans. But why would anyone spend $500 (actually, it’s about $650 on the street here right now) on an iPhone, plus a keyboard, when they can buy a perfectly serviceable usd laptop for $350? And then an internet-ready phone for $60? And a second-hand PC with flat screen for less than $200? Why would anyone spend $50 for a “rugged” MP3 player, when they can buy a cheap Chinese knock-off for $20?
Technologies can be made as rugged and “built for Africa” as you want. They can be cutting edge or innovative ways to use old tools. It doesn’t matter. The tool doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone looks at it with a glint in his eye and says, “I bet I could make a few bucks with that.”
And then does.