A key aspect of nearly any innovation ecosystem is an academic component. This is typically hosted in or around a research institution like a university or lab, especially as these types of organizations can focus on more experimentation and more public knowledge generation and training than a company or NGO can afford. I stopped in the University of Zimbabwe Department of Computer Science to touch base with prominent scholar Dr. Sam Takavarasha, Jr. Sam focuses in information systems, and had a lot to say about how the ecosystem in Zimbabwe could be strengthened.
One advantage of being in academia is that it structures space for critical reflection. Indeed, the 20th Century sociologist Thomas Merton boiled the scientific method down to a few critical points, one of which is "organized skepticism." Dr. Takavarasha demonstrated this with clear focus on what was going wrong in the Zimbabwe milieu, even though he cited several positive and hopeful areas. I'll focus on the critiques, then briefly touch on the positives. In my next several blog posts I'll interview others in Zim with a different set of interests and concerns.
Computer Science building at the University of Zimbabwe. | Chris Csikszentmihalyi
One of the key critiques from Takavararsha was that it is very difficult to produce local technologies for local needs. Several factors are key blockages. Interestingly, local businesses do not seem to be particularly interested in sourcing local techs. Local business, according to the scholar, are not interested in things that are made locally, in part because they know how difficult it is to develop things in Zimbabwe. If a mobile payment system is developed in country, with all the fiscal and political challenges, then why wasn't it developed elsewhere first? Prof. Takavarasha's acquaintances with businesses always choose software developed in India or elsewhere for these reasons. (This is essentially the opposite prejudice from what I've seen in my home country, the USA.)
Research takes money, and this led to the second point the professor made about challenges to local innovation. He argued that many funders focus on only what they already know, looking for more of the same. For foreign funders, this can mean bringing expectations from their locale. This creates pressure to satisfy the explicit or implicit expectations of the funder. "Sometimes I worry that the software industry in Africa is just stuck in eternal mimicry. Which I don't think works." For Dr. Takavarasha, imitation fails in two ways. First, imitation is a losing game if you're slow to it. Inundated with examples of successful apps from other parts of the world, CS students often reproduce local versions (AliBaba, Uber) that fail to gain traction. "It works technically, but the guys are doing it 10 years too late."
"All these people who have hubs... they basically just have a room.” Dr. Sam Takavarasha Jr.
The second reason that imitation fails is that you can imitate the product, but not necessarily the user. "Because really when you are diffusing and transferring technologies, you are also diffusing different cultural practices, because the technologies are not value neutral or ideologically neutral. And the people who write software tend to be the people who do not appreciate the social side of technology." I should say that, as an American who has mixed with some of the top computer scientists in USA Universities, this observation was as thrilling as it was unexpected.
Few in the US tech sector take time to understand the cultural and ideological values associated with their work. They think -- and much of the world follows suit -- that their technology is "the" technology, neutral and advanced. But indeed these technologies are as much cultural productions as are super hero movies and fast food franchises. Importing the technology means, as Dr. Takavarasha says, simultaneously importing the underlying values of the culture that made it. This may not be optimal for the importer, and it may cause the technology transfer to fail.
Indeed, a technology -- or the means to launch one -- that is perfectly appropriate for a place like Silicon Valley may be ludicrously maladapted for another like rural Germany. From my perspective in Europe, for instance, it is clear that many of the top tech projects of the last few years (think AirBnB or Uber) export what early Internet theorists dubbed the "California Ideology," a playful mix of libertarianism and adolescent disruption. In the context of the USA, these projects look like cutting-edge technologies, but when put against European labor laws or privacy values, their ideology becomes visible. This is the kind of disconnect made so clear in the "first world problems" memes.
To be clear, Dr. Takavarasha's point about cultural and ideological mismatch isn't just about devices or services; it's about how to make them as well. Dr. Takavarasha sees some of the same dangers of mimicry in the fact that everyone is trying to create tech hubs and accelerators right now. Indeed, the perceived need for these spaces often runs ahead of the surrounding infrastructure or internal resources to make them work. "All these people who have hubs... they basically just have a room."
One place where Dr. Takavarasha sees potential -- and indeed this was confirmed by everyone I spoke to in Zim -- is in new and necessary forms of information sharing. During the worst period of political and economic deterioration in the 2000s, nearly all of the non-state journalism organizations in Zim had their licenses revoked. WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter, popular throughout sub-Saharan Africa, have special significance here, as they have become a way to communicate things that would be difficult or dangerous to do in media or in public speech. Takavarasha sees many new and interesting uses of these platforms, and the possibility for others.
The other major potential that Dr. Takavarasha pointed to stems from the spectre that loomed over Zimbabwe during my time there, which was the government's introduction of the "bond note." To understand the palpable anxiety about this introduction that blanketed the country, you have to understand that in 2008, Zim had one of the most extreme and famous cases of hyperinflation in world history. There were people whose job was literally to carry massive bags of cash for shoppers. When I was there a lunch took a shoebox full of cash, and a nice dinner a large pillowcase or two would have been necessary. Zim actually issued a 100 trillion dollar note, shortly before switching to the US dollar. Using the US dollar pulled the country back from the brink, but by last year a shortage of US dollars has meant that Zimbabweans are forming massive queues at banks -- even sleeping outside them the night before -- in order to withdraw currency. Finally the Minister of Finance led the government to create the new bond note, which to date is trading at its official 1:1 rate with the US dollar. But for many Zimbabweans, the other shoe will eventually drop.
Takavarasha identified a continuity between the growth of alternative payment systems like EcoCash (and mPesa) and cryptocurrencies like BitCoin. He sees these systems as potentially continuing to provide value to citizens even if the economy suffers.
Finally, I asked Takavarasha to speculate how he would stimulate social tech in Zimbabwe. Not surprisingly, he suggested an alternate model that would take advantage of Zimbabwe's still excellent universities. As he sees it, students and innovators in Zim have great ideas, and there's no lack of great prototypes developed both in the universities and in the hubs. But without the industry and funding required to take them to the product state, they die on the vine. Takavarasha would love to see a software house affiliated with the U. Z. that could take some of those projects and finish them according to best practices, while at the same time professionalizing their creators.
Cover Image Credit: Dr. Sam Takavarasha, Jr. in his office at the University of Zimbabwe. | Chris Csikszentmihalyi
This article is republished with permission from Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute, conducting a study of social tech ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa, commissioned by three UK foundations: Comic Relief, Nominettrust and Indigo Trust.