Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

3 technology lessons from Africa everyone should learn

How a mission to Rwanda and Kenya changed the way I look at new technologies

Kigali, Rwanda
Technology is distracting, limiting choices, and hijacking your thoughts and opinions.
Social media is addictive, kills creativity and human interaction. You should delete your social media accounts.
Autonomous machines and sensors have ushered in the era of “no privacy.”
The digital world is again being replaced by “old-fashioned ways of working.”
There is no future for crypto and blockchain.

I read such messages more and more on social media outlets. Stories that are most negative about digital developments and emerging technologies are among the most popular ones on Medium. And, I must admit, these stories do appear to have some appeal.

However, after an almost two weeks mission to Rwanda and Kenya, I’ve changed my mind about such stories. I came to realize that these technologies are or will be firmly part of our societies and any attempt to stop, frustrate or undermine their significance are bound to fail.

The importance of digital and emerging technologies

We should encourage rather than discourage the use of social media and the further development of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, sensors, and distributed ledger technologies. While they might be viewed as unnecessary and undesirable — creating “luxury problems” — in the “developed world,” they help solve fundamental life problems, such as poverty, injustice, and inequality in emerging economies.

Here are some of the benefits of digital and emerging tech that became very clear to me over the last two weeks.

#Inclusion

The 4th Industrial Revolution leads to more and more inclusion. Social media and the digital space have been incremental in including more people in the political and public debate.

Online training platforms and social media allow for more people to be involved in the educational system.

Financial technology solutions and cryptocurrencies form the basis for more financial inclusion and economic benefits for the people who were generally excluded from traditional banking and money systems.

As a taxi driver in Kenya put it to me last week:

“Financial tech made it possible for me to become part of the financial system. The biggest advantage is that it allows my children to get a proper education.”

#Sustainable developments goals

The United Nations Member States have adopted seventeen Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

It is clear that technology has, in general, a positive impact on most of the SDGs. I already mentioned the benefits of digital technologies for educational systems. The current technological developments have also led to economic growth, potentially reducing poverty.

Other emerging technologies limit the human impact on the environment and promote health and well-being for everyone at all levels and ages.

#Disruption of the established elite

The exponential growth of technology has already provided greater opportunities for more companies. It has created new markets and put immense pressure on incumbents.

For instance, I learned in Africa that traditional banks have severe issues with the digital transformation and continually evolving consumer preferences. The “shaking up” of established markets lead to new competition and arguably less corruption.

#New business ecosystems

Social media, digital applications, and application programming interfaces (APIs) have allowed third-party developers and other business to build “on top” of existing products and services. The result is the creation of extensible platform ecosystems of different type of companies.

SafeMotos is a clear example of the creation of such an ecosystem. It uses technology to encourage safe driving (by remotely tracking the drivers’ behaviour and attitudes). It has the potential to become a SuperApp (similar to GoJek in Indonesia), which offers a portal to numerous services in the areas of food delivery, FoodTech, FinTech, etc. What makes the SafeMotos story so interesting is that it prominently refers to the UN SDGs on their website:

“SafeMotos is working towards multiple on the United Nations Sustainable Development goals including building a safer taxi experience (SDG 11), developing a local technology industry (SDG 9), increasing taxi driver economic productivity through technology (SDG 8) and enabling female’s to become taxi drivers (SDG 5).”

But SafeMotos doesn’t only offer economic benefits. It also offers their drivers continuous training and lessons in English to enable them to attract the increasing numbers of foreign tourists visiting Rwanda (SDG 4).

#Empowering the younger generation

Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.) have introduced new platforms for the younger generation to connect on a global scale. This has enriched their lives and augmented their knowledge and skills.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the youth in Rwanda are driving a “bottom-up” social transformation which leads to a cleaner, more structured environment and further technological developments.

My three lessons from Africa

Lesson 1: We must focus more on “tech for good”

It’s clear that new technologies and digital developments have both advantages and disadvantages.

In the emerging markets that I visited, the benefits prevail. In general, people focus on the purpose and impact of technologies on people’s lives and the environment. The social and economic benefits and impact resonate with younger generations and empower people that had no or just a few opportunities in life.

Lesson 2: We must understand the culture of tech companies

Many pieces that highlight the “luxury problems” with social media and emerging technologies tend to discourage technological developments.

This isn’t the solution. It’s better to understand and influence the culture of the companies behind the technologies. These companies must focus less on profits and more on purpose and impact. Think SafeMotos reference to the SDGs.

We all have a responsibility to make sure that the tech companies put the right technological protections in place to offer the users a healthy and safe environment. By doing this, we could open up a wealth of new opportunities, and develop innovations that can, in fact, further protect us from the potential technological dangers.

Lesson 3: Education

I cannot say it enough, but the best answer to the adverse effects of the current technological revolution is education. For instance, we must spend much more time on explaining a smart use of social media and digital storytelling.

We must provide the next generation with a deeper understanding of emerging technologies. They can then ensure that the positive impact that emerging technology can have for humanity actually materializes across the board (not only in emerging economies, but also in the “developed world”).

I learned a lot during my stay in Africa. I am more positive about the current technological developments and what they mean for emerging markets. And before I start complaining about the “problems” that may be caused by tech, I will first focus on the genuine solutions that they offer to the life problems of people in other parts of the world. Particularly, in those regions that receive less attention from platforms that are often still very US or European focused.

If these benefits are real (“tech for good”), we should not ignore or reject technological developments, but instead focus our energies on training ourselves to become better and more responsible users.

Thank you for reading! There is a new story every week. So if you follow me you won’t miss my latest insights about how the digital age is changing the way we live, work and learn.

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