IT in Africa

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.deeo

3 thoughts on “On mobile tech, and laptops, and technology in Africa

  1. I agree, it's businesses that generally provide lasting change in Africa, regardless of technology. That being said, there still needs to be the technologists and entrepreneurs who are creating things and trying to make them work. This does mean that some technologies do have to be "built for Africa" because their counterparts in the West don't fit (think bandwidth or electricity). It's why products like Maneno do have a chance.

    So, technologists have this quandary… We have to wait for said person to get that "glint in his eye" about using a technology before he is making money, but at the same time how does he get that glint without there first being a technology in place to get the glint from/through? They can't get that glint without seeing it, we can't make money or see it grow in usage, without building it with no revenue at first.

    This means that at the edge, the fringe, where you see Miquel from Maneno, Justin at Afrigator or me at Ushahidi, we're all doing stuff and talking about things that aren't really happening yet. We have to, because what we build is about the future, not just about the now. So, to us the debate over mobile's vs PC's is not only interesting, it's vital to understand, because this is what we are taking a risk on.

  2. Good write up of your on the ground observations, Theresa. You do fuel the fire that it is indeed a price driven issue in the here and now. And yes, I agree that will dictate a great deal of where it goes from here.

    One thing I want to mention about Maneno though, is that we aren't trying to have people switch from WordPress or Blogspot. I love both of these platforms for their own reasons and if they work from where you are for what you're doing, then that's great.

    Maneno is all about offering an alternative system that is focused on being the most accessible given the needs of the blogger in Sub Saharan Africa. Beyond localization, small footprint, and mobile access, our greatest challenge is going to be getting the word out to these new bloggers who may have been put off to the whole medium due to the issues that we're working to address. Those folks and anyone who wants to write about Africa are who we see as our main user base. So… if you bump in to any people looking to blog in Benin, see if they'd like to check out Maneno.

    Erik, always a pleasure.

  3. There is plenty of room for Maneno. With regard to form factors, computers will continue to get smaller. It's hard to say what will win out, but if it is mobile it will need to e rugged or ruggedized.

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