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Technology and Social Issues in Africa

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Information Technology
Wordcount: 5457 words Published: 20th Sep 2017

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Nigel McKelvey 

For many in the western world, the perception of Africa is one of starving children and war torn countries. But 21st century Africa is a continent that is attempting to dispel the old imagery and is ready to compete with the rest of the world when it comes to embracing technology. The major success of the mobile phone industry has revolutionised how the people of Africa live, work, learn and communicate. Technology has changed industry in Africa, while natural resources are still being mined by international companies with no benefit to its people, there is now an opportunity for individuals to reap the rewards of this new revolution as the skills are accessible and have allowed many individuals to empower themselves and realise their potential. A technical hub in Nairobi, Kenya is a huge success storey that can be replicated anywhere throughout Africa; because it is the people that are the greatest resource and not the blood diamonds or crude oil that others have been exploiting for decades. The hub has become so successful it has been dubbed “Silicon Savanah”. There are currently developing a 5000-acre site to develop the “Konzo Techno City”, the first of its kind in Africa. It is attracting major global companies such as Samsung, Blackberry and Huawei and when completed in 2025 will have 200,000 people working and living there. This is working proof that the African people given the same opportunities as the western world can serve as major competitors in the global market.

Africa, colonisation, poverty, mobile phones, child labour, cocoa farming, Silicon Savanah.

The media have been consistently severe in their portrayal of the African continent throughout the years. The Africa that the west perceive is one that Chavis,(1998) suggests as “being as dark as the pervasive fear conjured up in the their minds”. With constant images of famine and skeletal children viewed on television screens by millions throughout the decades, it is difficult to invoke a reimaging of the country as the problem still exists to a lesser extent. Many African countries are still suffering and reports that another major famine is imminent, which could affect forty-nine million people across southern Africa (Robb, 2016).

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In the last six years, there have been more wars in Africa than anywhere else on the planet (Arieff, 2016). The wars are ongoing and it is a struggle to establish economic and social growth in countries that are at war and those surrounding them. In Northern Africa, there are nine countries at war or have internal unrest, in central Africa there are three, in the east there are four while South Africa is also looking at unrest as support for the ANC is declining due to accusations of corruption (Timeslive, 2016).

It is one of the major problems that affects the progression of a vast continent, each country has such varied and unique characteristics to offer the world, yet hindered by government corruption, conflict and poverty. In addition to this Birrell (2012) suggests there is a disconnect between what the western perception of Africa is and its fast-changing reality causing a lack of financial investment.

Although these issues currently impede the economic growth of Africa and the social welfare of its citizens that live in the 54 countries that make up the continent, there is a change taking place where the digital age is being embraced and in doing so a new Africa is evolving. With a country that has only 40% reliable energy supply and 20% having access to the Internet, there is a new wave of optimism coming from an impending digital and cultural revolution (Kanza, 2016).

This paper will look at how the social issues have improved with the introduction of new technologies especially the success of the mobile phone; it is a technology that has united the continent. Subscriptions for mobile phones have now surpassed half a billion and it is expected that 54% of the continent will be connected by 2020 (GSMA, 2016). The largest market for mobile phones are Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, with countries such as Kenya, who have a population of 45 million having subscriptions of 38 million (Mutiga, A., Flood, Z.,2016), which is more than 84% of the people in the country. The lack of infrastructure with unreliable and scarce fixed line telephone has contributed to the success of these devices and has given countries throughout the continent a freedom and new opportunities unheard of before.

The effect of colonisation in Africa since the 1870’s by European countries has played a major part on how the continent is perceived today. Before the European Renaissance, Africans were building cities earlier than the Greeks or Romans and had developed writing skills in the form of scripts such as Demotic and Hieratic (Pheko, 2012). It was a continent that was always rich in resources such as oil, coal and diamonds, but few countries within the continent rarely profit from them only other countries and multinationals (BBC News, 2012). Since the end of colonisation, little has changed in the way the many African countries have suffered, especially at the hands of their own governments who made deals with the devil. Multinational companies and foreign countries are still instrumental in the unethical exchange of billions of dollars to leaders and warlords to extract rich resources that they will greatly profit from while they allow the countries people to starve and be murdered. Any profits that are generated are never invested back into the country or its people (Pear, 2014). A continent that was historically ahead of its time had become a mere shadow of its former self. When the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a trip to Gambia in 1943, he was shocked at the conditions its people were living in and was quoted saying

It’s the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life. The natives are five thousand years back of us. The British have been there for two hundred years – for every dollar that the British have put into Gambia, they have taken out ten. It’s just plain exploitation of those people.”

74 years later countries are still being pilfered and little has changed in the way of financial investment in many countries that could greatly benefit from a fraction of the profits made by foreign countries or global corporations.

With Africa having one of the youngest populations in the world, and an average age of 19.5 years (Worldometers, 2017), with 60% under 35 years old (Some, 2014); it is not surprising that it is a continent embracing the technical revolution. With new technology, brings an innovative era for millions regarding information relating to social aspects such as health, farming, business and education issues. The mobile phone market has grown so much in Africa, that it will generate one tenth of the GNP by 2020. Mutiga, and Flood (2016) suggest that by the end of the decade there will be 657 million mobile broadband connections, contributing $300 billion to sub-Saharan Africa’s economy.

It is ironic that the success of this new technology has created a child labour market in its own continent. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces half the world’s supply of Cobalt; a metal that can retain it magneticity at high temperatures, which is used in the manufacture of mobile phones, car batteries and computers (Bell, 2016). The 16 multinational brands that use this metal, including Apple, Microsoft and Sony; are aware that the mines that they are purchasing from use children as 7 years old, getting paid $1 a day for working in life threating conditions companies (Kelly, 2016).

Amnesty International have been investigating the practice and have traced the supply chain of the mined metal to companies such as Volkswagen, Daimler and Samsung. Having received the list of companies that were recorded as customers of the battery manufacturer that uses the metal, only one admitted that they were aware of the connection of the cobalt mines and the batteries. None of the companies could provide any details to verify where they were sourcing their battery products (Amnesty International, 2016). The car companies involved use the metal as a key component in the lithium-ion batteries, while the marketing focus is encouraging the potential buyer to consider purchasing their product because it is environmentally responsible thing to do. The demand for electric cars is expected to reach 17 million by 2030 which will invariably increase the demand for cobalt and the expectation is already pushing up the price of the metal (Desai, 2016). While the process of extracting cobalt has now become mainstream knowledge, it has not hindered the sales of smartphones or electric cars nor will it as the public want to enjoy the benefits of having these goods without wanting to know what was involved in its production.

Child labour does not only extend to the mining industry; the farming community also exploit children for labour and involved in the slave industry. Cocoa farming in countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast contribute to a large part of its exports with over 60% of revenue generated alone from cocoa. Large international companies such as Hershey’s, Mars and Nestlé use the farms to supply the demand for their chocolate bars. The farms are generating so much money for the countries, that their governments are turning a blind eye to the amount of child slavery and kidnapping that is prevalent in these countries to keep up with demand and keep prices low for the large global customers. There are now estimated to be 1.8 million children working in dire conditions, where they are barely fed and working with dangerous pesticides and tools. In Ghana, 73.6% of rural children work in these types of farms with children as young as five have been reported to be working, with little chance of getting a decent education; they may spend the rest of their lives been exploited by these farmers (Mull and Kirhorn, 2005). With the chocolate industry, worth $100 billion (O’Keefe, 2016), the demand for young workers will not stop. This can only be stopped through government intervention and the chocolate manufacturers paying a reasonable price for the cocoa they procure for a minimal cost at the expense of the country’s children. The governments behaviour in the past, only further damages the chance of fair working practices and pay. Three journalists who reported the findings of a government probe into the corruption in the cocoa export trade, were detained until they disclosed the source of the findings, whilst another journalist went missing in 2004 when investigating the practices of the Ivory Coast Government and the cocoa industry (Crawford, 2005). The cocoa farmer is at the mercy of the suppliers, who along with the corrupt governments dictate the price they receive for their crops, ensuring the farmer and the workers stay in uneducated and poor because it suits their needs. The responsibility of the multinationals and the consumers of chocolate must decide where their conscience lie. The more consumers demand that the cocoa that produces the chocolate they so readily enjoy; comes from ethically sourced farms, only then can there be some movement in how the farmer can relieve young workers from their farms.

By using mobile technology as an information tool cocoa farmers can use mobile devices to gain essential market knowledge relating to crop and animal prices. They also can sign up to information centres where they can educate themselves about best practice and the introduction of new techniques in different areas of farming that can help with increasing productivity and profits, whilst informing about proper pest control and correct disease management of their animals.

In Senegal, a company called Mlouma offer farmers a service where they are informed on a timely basis of the best prices for selling and buying agricultural products (Omondi, 2014). This gives the farmers a market knowledge they never had before and enables them to get the best price for the product they work so hard to produce.

A similar premise called Esoko began in Uganda and is now also successful in Tanzania and Kenya. It offers a central virtual market place, where the farmer is informed of market prices by SMS and part of their services includes a call centre where illiterate farmers can have access to the same information while also allowing farmers to put money aside or borrow money to buy necessary farming equipment (esoko, 2017). The cocoa industry may be corrupt, but by the farmers becoming more knowledgeable about the prices that are available, there may come a time where they get to demand a fair price for their goods based on what the information acquired through the established network creating using this technology.

There are similar services throughout Africa that exist to empower individuals throughout the many areas of the production within the continent. Fishermen, fish processors and traders can avail of the service called EFMIS-ke. It is an electronic fish market information system that was launched in Kenya to combat the waste of post-harvest fish which was costing over 450,000 Euros annually. Data from fish landing sites and markets are continually uploaded onto a central database to be processed, which in turn is shared with users who can make informed decisions on where to sell or buy the fish depending on the going price (Nyabundi, 2017).

While technology has allowed farmers and fishermen to gain a new perspective on how get the most from their product, there are still many social issues that blight the way. Strass, (2016) suggests that Africa must overcome 6 major challenges to make way for a better future.

Low Economic growth rate.

This is due to the oil prices and exports falling and the richer economies suffering from the after-effects of the Arab spring Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. This is all about to change according to Barton (2016), who believes technology is one of the 3 trends that will ensure an economic and social change for Africa in the future. The first, by having the largest working population in the world by 2034. The second where the cities are becoming ever larger and becoming more productive and the third where technology will help bypass the infrastructure issues that are so prevalent within the continent.

Lack of Industrial Development.

Industrial development in Africa has not grown since the 1970’s. Page (2014) believes it is a combination of bad luck and government policy that has left the continent 40 years behind the rest of the world. Bad luck, in terms of the economic crisis that occurred globally in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which brought about a ‘macroeconomic’ strategy where governments and banks made policies to keep inflation to a minimum. When Africa came out of its economic recession, the rest of the worlds’ economy had grown with inflation and Africa could no longer compete. Bad policies were put in place to reduce imports and attempt to increase exports, but little understanding of the global market place meant they were doomed to fail.

Poverty, hunger, poor education, ill health and violence.

Although the situation is slowly improving, the living standard in comparison to the rest of the world seems bleak. The Democratic Republic of Congo; Africa’s second largest country, is the poorest country in the world. Out of 20 of the countries in the world with the worst food and nutrition provisions, 19 of those are in Africa (Barton, 2016). Only through education and intervention from governments can there be any kind of social escalation in these countries.

Urban slums.

60% of people living in African cities are living in slum areas. As more of the surrounding land becomes urbanised, the larger the slums are growing. Programs are in place such as the ‘UNHabitat’ who are working with governments to acquire lands, but the slums are growing faster, with expectations that by 2050 1.26 billion people will be living in cities; only further exasperating the issue.


The chair of the Transparency International José Ugaz said

“Corruption creates and increases poverty and exclusion. While corrupt individuals with political power enjoy a lavish life, millions of Africans are deprived of their basic needs like food, health, education, housing, access to clean water and sanitation,”

(Veselinovic ,2016).

Needs such as attending a doctor do not come easily for some citizens in many African countries. In Liberia, 7 out of 10 people claim to have paid bribes to access services such as healthcare or education. In Zimbabwe, a man who raped a 9-year-old year which resulted in her being infected with HIV; was released in secret because he paid a bribe. It is estimated that nearly 75 million people in Sub Saharan Africa have paid a bribe to officials to stay away from court and for basic services that they badly need (Transparency.org, 2015).

Global Trade Partnerships.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act is a trade agreement established by President George Bush in 2000, with an aim to develop market access to the United States for countries with Sub-Saharan African countries who adhere to certain human rights conditions and labour laws. This has afforded countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia to export $1billion in clothes to the United States with no tariffs (Schneidman, 2016). The worry for African countries with amendments to the Trans-Pacific Partnership was that other countries were attempting to get tariffs reduced and increase their exports to the United States. Since President Trump has withdrawn from the negotiations on the 23rd of January, the TTP may be dead in the water. What the growing concern now for the United States is that the Chinese are trading with them through the back door as they own many of the clothing factories that are exporting to them (Thomas, 2017).

In a continent where hardship and starvation is commonplace, it is difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel from an outsiders’ perspective. Africa had never experienced any of the fortunes that North Europe gained from the industrial revolution (Armstrong, 2013), but it seems they do not want to bypass the digital revolution that is currently exploding throughout the continent, which to many may seem surprising that a continent so full of old traditions; such as men kidnapping a bride in Sudan (Hearfield, 2014) or negotiating a price for a bride in Southern Africa (Ziddina, 2009). They are a highly superstitious group of countries where the existence of witches is still believed to be true (Radford, 2010); all of which is deemed archaic by the western world, have surprisingly embraced technology with great ease. This may be because the technology that exists today and is being made available to them suits their needs. Technology is defined as the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment. Technology has created so many opportunities in Africa and has allowed it to leap into the 21st century with the same enthusiasm the rest of the world has. TU Delft are a group of Global Initiative Scientists who are using high tech science to find solutions for problems people are facing in developing countries (TUDelft, 2017). They have just been given the green light to start on 7 new projects in Africa; they include:

  • Affordable housing

Using technology to develop new design methods for low-cost housing in Addis Ababa where 75% of its people live in slums.

  • Building Adaptive Cities

Working with local authorities and it citizens during the stages of urban development to look at solutions on how the city and its people serve each other in the future.

  • Water Balance in the Zambezi River Basin.

The Zambezi river basin is shared by 8 countries and is home to 2 of the worlds’ largest reservoirs. The construction of the 2 dams had a massive impact on the basin and the studies will be carried out to predict floods and water levels which have affected its natural habitat and its people.

  • Diagnosis of Tuberculosis and Detection of Malaria

New technology in mobile phones is being proposed in the detection of Tuberculosis which kills millions of people each year, while an optical device is being developed to identify the presence of malaria.

  • Biogas Fuel Cell System in Rural Areas

Biogas Fuel Cell System is where a fuel such as gas is converted into electricity, a technology that IKEA is known for using in the United States (Bioenergy, 2017). TU is hoping to use this technology in remote areas (Holland, 2016).

These new technologies can only be good for a continent that has suffered hardship throughout the last 400 years; from the colonisers to the corrupt governments and leaders who live lavish lifestyles while they let their people suffer. The technologies are a plaster on a large wound that requires proper attention. The mobile phone and tablet technology however is an accessible one that everyone can benefit from and requires little or no technical ability to use. It is why it has been so successful in areas such as banking where in Kenya, Sudan and Gabon have 50% of adults using online banking. This is also true of online education tools that are so popular that the market is set to be worth $530million this year. These types of online tools are helping young people get an education they may otherwise not afford to or have access to without this technology. Health education is also another use of the mobile technology where information is disseminated to the masses at the click of a button, which was unthinkable in the 1980’s (Ogunlesi, 2012). It is now an opportunity for Africa to shine as it once was and to lose its unfounded title that once was “the dark continent”.


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