I have been a consumer technology blogger for almost a decade now. My enthusiasm about digital technology started in 2006 while I was working in an Internet café in Kampala as I waited to join university.
As curiosity and adventure about this new Internet thing overshadowed me, I started to connect the dots about what technology really is and all its possibilities.
In that Internet café, we had a dial up Internet connection from Uganda Telecom with a speed of approximately 64Kbps. Of course, kids of these days wouldn’t understand the hustle. However, back in the day, this was really fast Internet and I was among the privileged few who had access to the Internet for almost the whole day. People came to the Internet café in for all sorts of reasons; some just needed secretarial services such as photocopying, document typing, scanning all of which could be done offline and this was really a very lucrative business at the time.
Most teenagers walked in to find pen pals and this was really the early days of social media. The older guys walked in to check and reply to e-mail. Yes. Imagine someone leaving their home perhaps even 20 kilometres away just to check e-mail.
My job was to collect money, assign customers computers equipped with billing software called “Butterfly”, which, by the way, was developed by a Ugandan software company called Digital Solutions. This desktop app was so good it made us more money than we had paid for. In fact, we didn’t even pay for it, the company used to make money via display Ads on the screen while nobody was using the computer. Almost every Internet café around Kampala had this software installed on their computers.
Death of Internet cafes
At the time, I was probably in my 3rd year at Engineering school in Makerere. France-based Orange Telecom had opened shop in Kampala and they had a USB 3G dongle for Internet access. A few months later, MTN Uganda launched their 3G network in most parts of Kampala. This was the start of the mobile Internet data bundle revolution.
The first thing that happened is Internet cafes started to die as I wrote in 2011. That guy who used to walk 20 kilometers to the Internet cafe to check his e-mails suddenly could do that on their phone, which, by the way, wasn’t yet smart. He simply needed to buy a 3G dongle and hook it up to his computer via USB, or, if they had a slightly advanced Nokia phone, download the G-mail app from getjar, ovi app store or just install it offline.
At that time, I had the Nokia 5310 which was what you call a mid-range device back then.
Across Africa, 3G based Internet connectivity democratized access to the Internet. The Internet was no longer restricted to big corporations or institutions, it was now a commodity that anyone could afford. It really was the means through which most people came to access the Internet for the very first time.
However, while the data pipes had started widening, the software and hardware to truly grasp the full potential of the Internet was still lacking. I used to use the Opera Mini web browser, which, thanks to its caching and proxy technology, could strip websites bare to the level that they could be processed by mobile phones. Web pages were not even optimized for mobile phones back then. The world wide web experience on mobile phones was still for geeks like me who could stand all its shortcomings for the long term benefits.
You still needed to have a laptop or desktop to truly do anything useful on the Internet. Most people didn’t have one. I didn’t even own a laptop myself even at university.
What came next, was quite a revolution.
Smartphone revolution in Africa
Apple launched the iPhone during 2007 and then Google followed suit with an Android-based smartphone the following year. Just four years down the the road, I got to own my very first smartphone which cost about $150 - the legendary Huawei Google Ideos. Holding this phone after ditching my Nokia 5310 felt like I had time-travelled 100 years into the future.
What was this thing even?
A phone, a web browser, an MP3 player, camera, e-mail client, voice recorder, e-book reader all in one device.
I knew this was it.
While still amazed, 4G LTE arrived.
Smartphones + 4G LTE was like driving a Bugatti Veyron Super Sports car on a super highway, alone.
Nothing felt better than this. There was no looking back and indeed technology has never been the same again.
Smartphones and fast mobile Internet connectivity brought more people online because of new possibilities that were previously impossible on a desktop computer. Social media became a thing. Facebook was the Internet for most people in Africa and probably still is. Ride sharing services such as Uber, Taxify (now Bolt), Safeboda became another thing.
That's another very terrible thing apart from fake news. Along with that, authoritarian African governments are making it normal to simply completely or partially shutdown the Internet without consideration of the consequences.
Back to the future
The year is 2019. I am still a Tech blogger. Not much has changed about me except I have celebrated more birthdays, married and consequently developed a tummy. I still love roasted maize, eat lots of bananas and drink coffee with friends at café Javas. I am actually considering growing my own maize and bananas to cut down on costs.
However, the world is changing really fast like it did a decade ago; new frontiers are ahead of us. Artificial Intelligence is no longer a buzzword and a Sci-Fi only thing. Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Big Data analysis are now incorporated in most apps we use even though this could be hidden from you.
My keyboard knows what I am typing next and my G-mail automatically writes accurate replies for me. I just have to hit send. Driverless cars are hitting the streets and so are self-driving grocery delivery robots. Meanwhile, someone believes your TV should talk to the wall clock, wireless speakers, lights, doorbells, cameras, windows, window blinds, hot water heaters, appliances, cooking utensils. They are calling them Internet of Things (IoT).
Elon Musk wants to save the world from fossil fuels with his grand vision of clean energy and autonomous transportation on earth and outside. 5G is the new big fat wireless data pipe that should make all these things a reality. The digital fabric that connects and brings it all together.
Being the technology enthusiast that I am, I have to justify new spending on new gadgets to my wife. To her, perhaps buying a shoe rack makes more sense than shipping that $150 new smart home camera by Netgear. My old battle-hardened Toyota RAV4 needs constant maintenance thanks to Kampala’s pothole filled roads and is already due for servicing. However, I am thinking an upgrade to new electric Tesla Model S3 fully loaded with autonomous driving could save me a few shillings on fuel.
But would it work on Kampala’s roads?
What about the charging infrastructure?
Technology that will shape Africa's future
I hope the message is clear; with all its challenges, I am not leaving Africa anytime soon for a more advanced utopian futuristic high-tech country somewhere. It has to work here, similar to how it way in the fictitious African country of Wakanda in the Black Panther movie.
While mobile technology could be responsible for getting us to where Africa is today, it might not be the thing that propels it to the future.
Mobile penetration is at least over 70% in most countries in Africa. There are cellular masts everywhere, even deep in my village where there is still grass thatched huts. Telecommunications companies aren’t investing anymore into infrastructure than they already have. They are now aggressively looking at recouping back their capital. Almost every mobile services provider now has 4G LTE coverage at least in Kampala, but it’s not speed that consumers what.
People want higher data volumes at lower rates. The age of capped Internet (aka data bundles) must now be superseded by true unlimited fast Internet plans mostly for homes. Perhaps Fiber-to-the-Home solutions should now be aggressively rolling out in Kampala and its suburbs the way that Safaricom has done in Nairobi.
Today I spend about $30/month for about 30GB for home internet. It’s never enough even though at 2-5 Mbps speeds, it’s fast enough for casual browsing and Youtube watching even on a Smart TV. In most cases I find myself loading data twice or even thrice a month when I have guests at home. That’s a cool $90/month. Frankly speaking, the average Ugandan middle class family is not willing to part any more than Ugx 75,000 or $20/month for Internet access.
Just like dial-up Internet and later 3G along with clumsy phones that impeded the explosive growth of certain Internet services a decade ago, this "data bundles economy" will keep certain new possibilities at bay in Africa.
For instance Video-on-Demand and live-streaming services have struggled to take off in Africa. DStv is still enjoying a monopoly over premium entertainment and they are not even moved a bit about Netflix except in South Africa. Econet’s Kwese meanwhile in a very absurd strategic move ditched their satellite TV offering opting to go fully into streaming with iFlix.
Africa has a terrible habit of leapfrogging stages of technology development much later to its disadvantage. Of course you won’t hear that at your favourite technology conference. You’ll only hear of praises; how Africa leapfrogged landline telephony straight to mobile and then traditional banking to mobile banking.
But lets keep this for another day, shall we?
Hacking boda bodas
Four years ago, Daniel Mwesigwa wrote “Why are we still hacking mobile apps — and not boda bodas?”.
No seriously why?
“The vacuum created by unreliable public utilities, high public demand for alternative services and ease of acquisition of better services birthed two products every African is quite conversant with. The mobile phone and the motorcycle.”
You see what these boda bodas or okadas or motorcycle taxis did is decentralize and democratize public transportation in the face of an unregulated sector and significantly rugged road infrastructure. The boda boda is the proverbial “killer app” for transportation in African cities. It’s agile, fast, cheap and easy to maintain compared to cars and trucks. More importantly, they are privately owned by entrepreneurial semi-literate youth who use them to run errands, transport people and products.
The boda is now being used by e-commerce sites like Jumia to make last mile timely deliveries to customers. Boda bodas are sorting out a logistical nightmare of moving physical products from one point to another within African cities. There’s even now a massively successful “Uber for Bodas” by Safeboda. This is evidence that boda bodas have a story in the future of African cities.
Impact of Artificial Intelligence
Now let's talk about 5G and AI. One is not feasible — at least not within the next 20 years for reasons I have already discussed above. Mobile users need volume, not speed to repeat myself. The other is well, mostly a good thing.
That’s not because AI is directly going to happen in Africa. It’s effects are going to be mostly felt indirectly.
In Uganda, at least 70% of the population is offline — off grid. They are like your friends who are not on Facebook — invisible — forever. It’s like they don’t even exist in your “real” world until you visit them or grab coffee at a restaurant. AI needs at least a digital footprint or vast amounts of data to make any significant impact. It’s the 30% of the elite population that can’t live without Silicon Valley Big Tech AI-driven services that might feel the effects of AI in their lives — for good or bad. For good perhaps via improved services, and for bad perhaps because of massive surveillance or that the AI might take their jobs.
Africa of course doesn’t have much manufacturing, so the picture of an autonomous robot in the assembly lines doing everything isn’t familiar or even remotely terrifying enough for most people as it is in other countries like Mexico, China, Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh.
The vast majority of the rural population in Africa engages in agriculture as their main economic activity. They are not even using tractors and other mechanized equipment yet. Automation is way too expensive for the vastly subsistence population to afford. So the idea of an autonomous robot tractor mowing the fields somewhere in Kumi district in east Uganda is way too “Wakadan."
In the urban areas, most African economies are very much service-driven and it’s not very intuitive to see how AI could affect these service-orientated jobs. But AI could subtly replace a good number of white collar jobs. For instance, customer care agent at a bank or call centre could be replaced by a more advanced chatbot. A lot of accountants could lose their jobs to intuitive AI-driven accounting apps, but we are talking only 30% of the population here.
What about blockchain?
My head starts to spin and ultimately hurt when this topic comes up and to contextualize it to Africa is even a bigger burden. Arvind Narayanan has an interesting thread on blockchain and the utopian permission-less decentralized world it promises to bring us.
In my opinion, the arguments for and against blockchain are more philosophical than they are practical and so I want to stay clear of those debates to avoid flame wars. The merits of blockchain technology are obvious to anyone curious to know, especially in Africa. Supply chains can easily be managed. Imagine being able to trace the cup of coffee someone in San Francisco is taking right from the mountains of Elgon in Mbale East Uganda to a café in Starbucks. We can eliminate lots of middlemen and their nefarious business dealings while ensuring the farmers get the most value out of the chain.
What about smart contracts?
The cancer that corruption has become, eating away wealth from the economy could finally be eliminated. The arguments for blockchain get even more compelling when you consider how the electoral process is marred with irregularities and rigging in Africa.
Finally we can get rid of dictatorial regimes with rigging-proof blockchain based election system. Once a vote has been cast, it can’t be changed, the results are visible to all parties concerned.
But what is the cost of running blockchain based systems in Africa?
Currently it takes lots of energy to maintain for the value it creates — energy we barely have. Crypto miners are located in economies with access to cheap energy, and because we don’t have it, we are once again consumers of technology rather it produces of it which begs the question: can we truly control our digital future?
What will Africa look like in 2030?
Cover image credit: Wkanda, Black Panther movie. Marvel