Afrika Needs More Technology Focused Academics To Propel It Forward

Like Harvard University, Uganda's Makerere University has birthed notable alumni including Nobel laureates, presidents, scientists and some of the finest thinkers the world has been blessed with.

Before delving into the finer details and sanctity of the prestigious Ivy League university — pitted against a struggling third world university - I would like you to take this story with a pinch of salt, coupled with an open mind.

Was Makerere University Ever The Harvard Of Afrika?

Founded in 1922, Makerere University was by all measures a true symbol of academic success in East Afrika.

For example, from 1959 –1964, a literature undergraduate, James Ngugi (popularly known as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o) wrote two novels, eight short stories, three plays, and over 60 articles for different publications. This, by any standards, was a remarkable feat for a young and fledgling writer.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Literaturhaus München 2012
2012: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o at the Literaturhaus in Munich, Germany. | Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to the beginning of 1968, Ngugi moved back to his home country, Kenya, where together with two other scholars — Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong — he pushed for a curriculum review in the arts department at the University of Nairobi. They held the view that the curriculum review should add multicultural content. To this effect, they suggested that the curriculum had to be reconceptualized within the foundations and needs of a typical Kenyan, in a Kenyan university.

They won.

The Early Days Of The Computer Age

During the same period, a special kind of rebellion against the status quo was brewing at Ivy League universities, namely Harvard, MIT and Stanford among others. This rebellion was largely influenced by the advancement in technology and the impact it posed.

It’s very hard to argue about the importance of the ivory towers in question without sweeping under the rug. The arms race between the USA and the USSR in military, cosmic, intellectual superiority fueled most of the research that would later profoundly influence the computer and Internet ages.

However, the overarching story gravitates around nooks and crannies of the ivory towers as centers of excellence in fostering revolutionary thinking. The rebellion was charged at the rigged priesthoods which were hellbent on maintaining states of equilibrium in society and curtailing efforts to bring about any change — positive or negative.

Moreover, the majority of people were comfortable with whatever they had, be it the political structures, academic curricula, music and fashion, et al. They didn’t really care about the utopia the irreverent nerds were trying to spread, or sell — in the name of making the world a better place. The USA and the Western world at large were by all standards already better places.

The rebels didn’t falter. It wasn’t long enough before the computer age penetrated the deepest fabric of society — in science, art, music, fashion.

They won.

Post Colonial Afrika

Post Colonial Afrika showed a lot of promise. Around the late 1950s and early 1960s, intellectuals from public universities like Makerere and those lucky enough to have traveled overseas for further studies influenced the rhetoric.

They influenced several facets of life but most remarkably, they redeemed their countries from the claws of imperialism and colonialism. The politicians ultimately were at the middle ground.

They won. (albeit a short-lived victory looking at the continent today.)

In fact, after gaining independence, several Afrikan countries turned to re-awakening their economies to the needs of the indigenous people.

Advancing from the Proto-Colonial Afrika could arguably be one of the most herculean tasks Afrika has been confronted with in the last century. (Afrika, in this example, is used loosely despite the fact that it has 54 independent sovereign states with unique histories and political structures).

It is a public secret that, even to date, the politics of Afrika have long been interfered with by foreign powers and charlatans interested in the vast riches in agriculture and the resources industries.

While Afrika is heralded as a promising emerging market with projected average growth rates of 7% (for the majority of the countries), and as experts have conveniently predicted, technology is the harbinger of hope — for the “mobile-only” continent, but the status-quo has not changed much.

The West still largely treats Afrika as a vast resource pool of oil, gas and other minerals.

Nothing more.

At the plight of British musicians, Afrika has been relegated to one big gift bag, having received over a trillion dollars in foreign aid in the last sixty years or so. For the rising hegemony stemming from the Far East, with China at the chagrin, the story has largely been the same, not much different from the Western rhetoric, only veiled in robes of “trade not aid”.

It is true, technology is a powerful force that has disrupted everything it has been exposed to. It could be argued that the Google, Facebook, Uber empires have likely done so much more for humanity in the last fifteen years than any revolution has ever done in history.

Where Are The Ngugi Wa Thiong’os In Afrika's Technology Ecosystem?

It’s tempting to take a walk down memory lane and prod where the public intellectuals and the thinkers in the New Afrika (moulded from Post Colonial Afrika) went.

The Ngugis who influenced and championed desperately needed curriculum revisions in Kenya in the late 1960s. These are the people who put up spirited fights against the imperialists. These are people who lobbied aggressively in far-flung areas from material and logistical support. These are people who summoned the best of their physical and mental abilities.

Where are they?

More importantly, where are they in Afrika's technology industry that so much needs second level thinking?

The Rise Of The Thought Leader

The palpable hunger for solutions to the myriad of challenges affecting many Afrikans has birthed a new phenomenon, the thought leader.

The thought leader has arguably been birthed because of two reasons:

  1. Sterile governments: the majority of which are mired in scandals, broken institutions and ruled by dictators and tyrants. They have been reduced to receiving foreign aid handouts.

  2. The safe spaces for intellectuals such as universities have since lost their luster due to underfunding and mismanagement. For this, the little brilliance has been hemorrhaged by a severe brain drain.

One could also argue that the rise of social media, especially Twitter, and the Internet at large has given the few daring, bold and imaginative individuals a platform to air their thoughts.

They have rallied and inspired. They have mentored and guided startups. They have engaged policy makers and helped pass a couple of favorable policies and laws. Quite obviously, they also have been invited to the high tables in foreign lands to talk about the plight of Afrikans. They have done well — despite operating as lone wolves and quite often treating thought leadership as a career.

It seems like the role of academia has been taken over by thought leaders. Despite the blame and trepidation academia has had to put up with, whether we like it or not, it remains one of Afrika’s best bets at working towards solutions to some of the grandest challenges she faces.

The Importance Of Academic Research

Dr. Chao Mbogho is a Computer Science lecturer at the Kenya Methodist University and researcher, a public intellectual whose passion for finding the strait between technology and research is supercharged.

I spoke to her about this topic because she doubles as a fervent intellectual and thought leader. In the conversation, we sought to demystify the death of Afrikan intellectuals in the technology scene, some of whom are widely produced from the edifices of ivory towers.

In Kenya and sub-Saharan Afrika at large, the majority of the technology solutions are directly imported from abroad and are not deeply researched to suit the local contexts. With the exception of M-Pesa (which was developed by Vodafone by the way) and a limited assortment of other mobile products, the majority of solutions are basically churned out straight from the assembly lines in Silicon Valley right into Afrikan backyards.

M-Pesa Vodafone Patent
Vodafone's M-Pesa, Mobile Money Transfer, Patent

As a continent that has carved a special status as a consumer, even in the age where producing technology products has grown progressively cheaper, consuming everything that comes off the assembly line seems to be the best thing that we can do.

Yes, we need not re-invent the wheel.

How then do we truly look into our backyard for solutions that could exponentially impact our lives and boost productivity in triple bottom lines?

For example, how could we use the sophistication being weaved in Artificial Intelligence and Computing to attempt creating a vaccine for HIV?

How are we trying to boost crop production per hectare without entirely relying on Bayer Monsanto?

How can we increase an uptake of clean energy consumption without waiting for some goals set by a world governing body?

As Professor Calestous Juma recently argued, maybe we were oversold the mobile first and mobile only narrative. Technology is a critical layer but it does not abstract away the critical hardware supporting society.

There are many questions that need continuous prodding and interrogation. Unfortunately Afrika contributes a paltry 1,1% to the scientific body of knowledge in the world. Yet it is known that research and development are the fuel for innovation.

There are no shortcuts.

The obvious reason is there is just not enough funding for research at the expense of basic social needs governments must render.

The thing about research is there is no instant gratification. Rewards are realized after a long while, and as Dr. Chao argued, “if we have managed to make tech hubs and the mobile narrative sexy, why haven’t we made (tech) research sexy?”

Dr. Chao added, “coding is the cool thing, but for us to produce (more) cool things we have to do research.”

South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya are the forerunners in the technology entrepreneurship narrative. They have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the short span tech investors have shown interest in emerging markets.

But what brought the contempt in research? Why is there limited funding?

“Fake degrees,” Dr. Chao explained, “a PhD isn’t just a gigantic thing but it is the application of specialized skills to a problem.”

For her PhD research from the University of Cape Town, where she graduated in 2015, she designed a mobile scaffolding Android application to enable students to learn how to program directly on their mobile phones. She argues that it is an inexpensive way to nurture the next wave of Afrikan programmers who in most cases own low-cost smartphones, and are often not in the position to afford more expensive computers let alone find them at their universities.

Even when such insular initiatives shed some hope, she still argues that research on the continent is on a lower scale without bankable and sustainable plans.

“You can’t be invisible if you’re into academia. If you Google Chao Mbogho and nothing shows up then that raises suspicion. I know of professors who don’t publish any bit.”

“We took away the glory of academia and higher education by pretty much handing it out (to thought leaders?).”

While her mobile scaffolding application may not be the saving grace to Afrika’s structural problems, it’s a move in the right direction. When research is published and shared widely, there is a fairer chance that other people are going to augment or reject it. The ripple effects are profound.

When she went to the University of Oxford for her Master’s degree in Computer Science, for three months, she had to work thrice as hard. She wasn’t prepared for Oxford from her Bachelor’s degree. It gave her one of the best lessons, that of being able to sell herself.

Given the cultural connotations of humility and reservedness (and patriarchy), she had been conditioned to learn to minimize her achievements so as not to embarrass people.

“Care to say what you bring to the table. You get more opportunities other than dumb down,” she argued.

Medieval Europe knew this too well. They knew that to conquer the world, they had to travel in uncharted areas and impose their ideas on an unsuspecting indigenous people — through religion, imperialism, witchcraft, and statecraft. The reason I highlight this is because of the conquest of Afrika, Asia, and America, by Europe, was not just as a result of technological superiority or an overly ambitious profiteer elite. It was more than that.

As argued by Noah Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the Chinese empire sent missions to East Afrika and the Asian archipelagos in the mid-1400s, long before the British imperialists, but they (Chinese) had no interest in spreading their ideologies and conquering foreign lands.

It is not just technology that helped Britain trounce over foreign lands, neither is it the reason China didn’t reign over the coast of East Afrika, but it is largely how the British thought, how they imagined the future, how much they dared.

Above all, it was about how they accepted the unknown unknowns.

Despite the carnage by the imperialists wherever they went, it was clear, they cultivated the best of rational skepticism and measured objectivity; which many would identify as science (and research).

For the new breed of Afrikan thought leaders, and the few surviving public intellectuals, the need to propose conjectures and ideas for conquering new territories maybe outright cuckoos. However, the need to capture back our intellectualism is dire.

The need to go back to the basics and think about our future without being beholden to the glorious past is needed.

We need to capture our minds and thoughts and creativity back.

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