This post is the first episode of our series “Confessions of an African Coder”
My friend (let’s call him Victor) and I along with others, were recently discussing the suspiciously low numbers of Covid-19 cases in the African continent. We are descendants of the West African subcontinent where the highest concentrations of people living without reliable access to basic infrastructure like water, sanitation, and electricity reside. In light of these facts, we all chuckled at the reports coming from West African governments that purport low infection rates. You see, Victor is a software engineer who has extensive experience dealing with big data. Our other compatriots, who were part of our recent chat, are also software developers as well as web designers, data scientists, and analysts. Only I, being the oddball in the group, trained as an urban planner. That said, we are all trained in professions deeply rooted in the traditions of logic and science. So when ruminating on the situation, we realized that what is being reported to be happening in West Africa, defied both logic as well as science. Wanting to avoid the trap of always complaining about what’s wrong with our homeland, we also pondered on what we can do to help. “Technology to the rescue”, we all said. Then Victor gave pause.
As mentioned before, not only is Victor a software engineer, he is also an entrepreneur. His professional portfolio includes digital products designed for various sectors, both in the private and government industry. Victor received all his education in West Africa and holds a Bachelor’s in engineering. He also possesses a Master’s in software entrepreneurship from a premier university in West Africa. So what did Victor do with the powerful set of skills he has? He went right to work after finishing school.
Victor developed an application focused on connecting skilled tradespeople to potential clients as his first business venture. After 3 years, the company went under due to unavailability of investment. His second attempt at entrepreneurship focused on building software for local and central governments in West Africa. After navigating the complex web of insurmountable bureaucracy that these governments spun, he was disheartened by the institutional corruption that made technically viable digital tracking systems fail. Victor quickly realized that he was being set up by gatekeepers for the elite posing as technocrats and administrators. These individuals did not want a system of accountability in place. They merely wanted him to go through the motions of setting up a system to demonstrate to multi-national donors that some action was being taken.
You see, Victor believed that he lived in a meritocracy that would eventually reward his grit. This did not happen in his entrepreneurial dealings so he transitioned into the corporate world. In the corporate sphere, Victor built enterprise and consumer applications for large global firms like Stanbic and Barclays banks. Victor also built e-commerce and mental health solutions. Needless to say, at some point in his corporate career, he was thrust back into the world of government contracting.
Victor recounted to us, partly crestfallen but mostly defiantly, the deep disappointment he experienced working with public sector stakeholders. On one project, he was asked to build a backdoor to the software so that data could be “cleaned” if the need arose. Of course, he refused! He also recounted the difficulties of regime changes when it came to government contracting. Namely, with a change in power, came a change in contractors. Often, a firm that began a project with a previous administration was forced to abandon it after a change in regime. Victor recounted how one administration told his firm, who had less than a few months to complete a project, that the product did not meet the specifications laid out by the new administration. A few months later, the same bid was put out, and not surprisingly, it was won by a political supporter of the ruling party. After several years of this wrangling with implacable stakeholders, Victor left West Africa for the Americas, representing the new wave of brain drain on the continent.
So when discussing what we could do to help, government contracting was taken off the table. Why? According to Victor (and the others), the application of technological solutions to help solve some of the data and efficiency issues as it relates to governance and the public sphere on the continent is not one of technical incapacity. Instead, it is a problem of political will and institutional corruption.
But there is hope. A new generation of Africans has the power of social media, crowdsourcing, and big data at their disposal. They are leveraging these tools in various contexts to change the public discourse around governance in it’s very broadest sense.
In North Africa, the world witnessed the powerful organizing capabilities of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and BlackBerry Messenger with the Arab Spring. Countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and even more recently Sudan, who were gripped by years of authoritarian rule were able to mobilize the masses online in order to get them to the streets. The protest movements that ensued brought international attention to countries that are often disregarded by Western media outlets. It also demonstrated that change was still possible in areas of the globe which had been written off by the world powers.
Conversely, crowdsourcing has been leveraged in a variety of contexts beyond protest. During the 2008 violence that erupted in the wake of elections in Kenya, coders created a platform for tracking unrest as a means of getting ahead of a rapidly deteriorating situation. The group of coders named the platform Ushahidi, meaning, “testimony” in Swahili. The system which used SMS technology and anonymous posts to upload and map politically motivated clashes became a powerful tool in helping quell the attacks. According to the Guardian, since its creation, the platform has been deployed over 12,000 times, to aid disaster relief efforts around the globe. Presently, it is now being used as a tool by the Kenyan government to share healthcare and education data. The Kenyan public is able to help its government track, monitor, and update healthcare and education data sets through the same SMS technology and anonymous tracking system.
And big data? Well, big data is still an underutilized tool on the continent. According to Audrey Ariss of the World Bank’s Open Impact Data Map Project, “most of the data generated on the continent is not machine-readable”. In a survey conducted by the World Bank, over three fourths (¾) of businesses surveyed stated that the data was largely shared using PDF formatted documents. Even though big data is generated through satellite imagery, mobile phones, and social media, it is grossly underutilized by the African private as well as public sectors. However, there are still pockets of innovation happening using these powerful tools. For instance, in Senegal, Ghana, and the Gambia, satellite imagery, along with historic weather data and artificial intelligence are helping farmers in arid areas predict when to sow their seeds. For these farmers who rely solely on rain-fed farming, these predictive analytics are vital to their survival as agricultural producers.
Moreover, big data generated by satellite images and mobile phones are being leveraged in the public sphere to help bridge the data gaps that result from resource scarcity that prohibit the deployment of teams to collect survey data. This in turn is helping planners, demographers, public health officials, local, and central governments track outcomes and plan for the future.
In conclusion, though our relationship with our homeland has been fraught with conflicting ideals, we have not fallen out of love with it. Far from it. We, young Africans in the diaspora, see the promise that tech holds for our continent. We see now more than ever that tools like social media, big data, and crowdsourcing hold big promise for helping liberalize African markets, create jobs (like the African content creators who generate a living from documenting life around them, assisting in resource planning, and paving the path for financial inclusion). We, as young technical professionals, are inspired by our comrades who have not left the continent, but instead have chosen to stay and contribute to the growing sense of hope that comes with Africans redefining the narrative that is put out to the world about the continent. We have caught the fever of hope which we want to spread through our work for the betterment of the society which nurtured as well as challenged us.