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Africa’s information revolution: rhetoric and reality

  • Written by  Pádraig Carmody and Jim Murphy
  • Published in Opinions
Africa’s information revolution: rhetoric and reality Riccardo Mayer
17 Apr
The mobile phone and broader information and communication technology (ICT) ‘revolution’ in Africa has been over-sold

There are currently an estimated 700 million mobile phone subscriptions in Africa, a statistic often touted as evidence of the region’s ‘information revolution’. Smart phone, computer and internet use are also on the rise as these technologies become more affordable and Africa’s connections to the World Wide Web (WWW) improve through new broadband cable installations ringing the continent.

For many, particularly those in the ICT4D (information communication technologies for development) community, these trends indicate that Africa is becoming more deeply and evenly connected to global flows of information and capital that can empower the region’s people, reduce poverty, and industrialize its economies. 

Some of the most powerful proponents of the ICT4D agenda include multi-lateral and bi-lateral development agencies (World Bank, UNDP, USAID) and corporations such as Nokia, Apple, Facebook, and Motorola who support and/or implement development projects throughout Africa. For example, Motorola has recently partnered with the UNDP to promote mobile technologies for development and Microsoft helped to fund the transition to an open-access format for one of the most influential journals in the ICT4D field – Information Technologies and International Development. Such trends and alliances highlight the powerful interests behind the ICT4D project and raise important questions about who, how, and where the material benefits of Africa’s ‘informationalization’ will accrue.

While it is true that recent economic growth trends have been encouraging in several African countries there are few signs that the region’s economies are undergoing deep, distributive, and/or profoundly positive economic transformations.

ICT is doing little to reduce economic inequalities that have marked the region’s relationship with the West, and now East, for decades

In order to determine whether or not ICTs were transforming businesses and economies in Africa, we examined the concrete developmental impacts of ICTs on small business development in Tanzania and South Africa. We interviewed over two hundred firms in the tourism and wood products sector (mostly furniture manufacturers). The use of information technology was important and ubiquitous, there were some surprising results that belie the boosterist perspectives of many in the ICT4D community. 

First, the positionality of African consumers and manufacturers in ICT value chains helps to replicate previous patterns of resource extraction and technological dependence on the West and now China.  Africans are primarily consumers of ICTs rather than manufacturers or developers.  While there are a few mobile phone assembly plants in Africa, the continent is connected most directly to the industry as an importer of mobile phones and an exporter of coltan, the semi-precious metal which makes ICTs work and which has helped to fuel the on-going civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Secondly, ICTs are used primarily for basic communications and information exchange rather than producing or disseminating the kinds of knowledge that can support innovation and industrial upgrading. Such communication activities, while essential, remain somewhat ancillary to innovation, market expansion, and exchange, as face-to-face interactions remain the primary means for building/sustaining business relationships and transferring knowledge amongst our study’s participants.

In fact, it appears that current levels of ICT adoption are symptomatic of technological underdevelopment as most business owners do not have access to other ICTs such as internet banking, computer-controlled manufacturing devices, or secure forms of credit-card processing.  Moreover, many firms use ICTs not to connect to global markets, but to manage labour locally and sometimes in ways that raise questions about worker rights. 

Third, despite the contention that ICTs can facilitate disintermediation – the cutting out of ‘middlemen’ such that producers and service providers capture more value from markets – we find that new forms of ICT enabled intermediation are emerging in manufacturing and service sectors.  Wood products and furniture markets in Africa are being dominated increasingly by imports from Asia (esp. China) which are crowding out even low-end domestic manufacturers unable to compete on the basis of price and quality.

Chinese intermediaries (namely import/export firms) are highly active in this business, often advertising their services through YouTube videos and webpages.  Intermediation remains highly significant in the tourism industry as well, facilitated in large part by foreign owned websites such as TripAdvisor and Hotels.com which often charge substantial commissions, sometimes taking business away from local tour operators or firms. This represents a form of what we call ‘neo-intermediation’ and it too replicates patterns of extractive globalisation.

Africans are primarily consumers of ICTs rather than manufacturers or developers

All told, African industries are by-and-large thinly integrated into the global informational economy and ICT diffusion is doing little to reduce the economic inequalities that have marked the region’s relationship with the West, and now East, for decades.  Yet despite the realities, the rhetoric surrounding ICTs and their transformative power remains somewhat taken-for-granted, often mobilised uncritically in a wide range of ‘e-development’ initiatives that insufficiently address the institutional, political, and material obstacles facing Africa’s economies today.

We think it is worth asking whether these are somewhat misplaced priorities when considered in relation to other, pressing development challenges in the region (e.g., access to medicine, clean water, roads, and manufacturing technologies).  Consequently we need to be much more realistic about what ICTs can and cannot achieve and how they should fit into broader planning for economic transformation.

Pádraig Carmody, Associate Professor in Geography at Trinity College Dublin, and Jim Murphy, Associate Professor at Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography, are authors of Africa's Information Revolution: Technical Regimes and Production Networks in South Africa and Tanzania.

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