From ensuring politicians play fair to providing better communication infrastructure, technology is slowly transforming Africa.
For a while it looked as if a new dawn had arrived in Kenya. Sustained efforts by the country's technology developers, the electoral commission, by local authorities and civil society groups, had produced a bright new system. The 2013 elections would herald the start of a new accountability.
Biometric details of voters were collected, using technology not previously available in the country. All the votes were to be sent directly to a central hub in Nairobi to be assessed by a new, sophisticated computer system. But despite a smooth period over the elections themselves, once the results were announced it was a different story.
"Once the polling stations closed, and the results were sent to the central tallying station in Nairobi, the trouble was that the central server failed," says Jonathan Bhalla, research manager at the Africa Research Institute. "The area where all the data landed became clogged. People weren't trained properly and couldn't sign in – it was a really botched job. So the technology was fine, but the management and training of staff was a problem."
There were soon claims that the management of the tallying system had been infiltrated by supporters of the election victor Uhuru Kenyatta, with many observers pointing out that the announced results did not add up; in some areas, more than 100 per cent of people voted. There were widely-held suspicions that the election had been tainted by a new form of ballot-stuffing – altering the results once the votes were electronically collated, by pretending that the technology didn't work.
This collision of technology and human agency – where the full benefits of scientific advances are thwarted by people's determination to override them – is repeated across Africa today. From the elections of Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania, to the mining industry of South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo and the engineering profession across Africa in general, the prospective improvements that can be achieved with technology routinely fail.
In African elections there are no half-measures. The winners typically reap an enormous financial benefit, with access to the revenue from the continent's vast natural resources, with far less hindrance from legal or civil society institutions to restrict their movement and their enjoyment of power. The losers have virtually nothing with which to console themselves: unlike the political system in many developed countries, there are no generous salaries for opposition politicians. The incentives to override the system are extremely high.
So how can technology overcome such challenges? In some African elections, there have been small victories for emerging technologies. Using cameraphones to record turnout and having the results posted on to public buildings, then sharing them on social media, has been effective in some countries. In Zimbabwe, this method was instrumental in curbing some of the excesses of President Robert Mugabe.
More recently, in Ghana and Sierra Leone, local pressure groups have adopted new technology to help monitor election results. In Sierra Leone, photographs and thumbprints were recorded by the National Electoral Commission and biometric data was used to create voter ID cards. In Ghana, IT was employed to monitor polling stations with live websites, along with biometric data taken from all ten fingers of voters, to help prevent multiple voting.
"Transmission systems can help to cut out a big part of election fraud," says Bhalla. "With civil society monitoring, we are going to see an increasing amount of innovation and experimentation with things that are unique to individual contexts. He recalls the 2012 Somaliland local elections where the populace rejected a computerised system, because it cut across their established tribal dispensation. Sometimes technology tells truths that people prefer not to hear.
"Collecting and distributing data as soon as it is received increases transparency and openness and calms people down, because they have a port of call to find information," says Bhalla.
Bhalla is generally optimistic that the difficulties that have beset some African election technology will slowly be resolved or removed as its implementation is improved. "You can create a more accurate, competent, permanent register, so that ' for example ' dead people, under-age people and non-existent people are not counted as voting," he says. "In theory, these measures will get rid of multiple voting. But they don't address the underlying issue of fraud."
There has to be a collective will among societies and nations to abide by the proven, scientifically verified results in elections, before corruption in African politics can begin to disperse. At the moment, there is insufficient general understanding of technology, so those who are in charge of the technology are able to subvert or ignore its results, as was seen in Kenya.
Africa Internet Technology Initiative
Campaign finance, an issue that looms large in American politics, is equally fraught in many African nations. The days where politicians would sit in open-top trucks handing out wads of banknotes is over (thanks to a more watchful media) but less obvious inducements still help shape elections across the continent.
Whether such flaws are endemic and irreversible, or whether the tide of history favours the triumph of technology over corruption is a matter of conjecture and subjective opinion. Dr Solomon Assefa, New York-based research scientist at the IBM Thomas J Watson Research Center, co-founded the MIT Africa Internet Technology Initiative. This programme sent MIT students to African colleges to teach Internet skills in Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, reaching more than 500 students since 2008.
Dr Assefa is resolutely positive about the potential impact of new technology on African society and the continent's economies. "I'm very optimistic about what's happening," he says. "In Kenya for example, there are many opportunities in agriculture, in water provision, in allocating resources' There are prime opportunities to develop renewable energy, physics-based models for irrigation, to improve the supply chain."
He concedes that some challenges remain daunting, but perceives a strong forward momentum. "Universities are producing students well equipped with degrees in maths, sciences and IT. There's a massive workforce coming out of Africa."
Individual countries are creating partnerships with both universities and businesses to develop relevant skills. At IBM, Dr Assefa is working on a project with the Kenyan government, employing Africans with "the best PhDs" to address traffic congestion and devise e-government solutions. "We're making government more transparent and efficient, using 'big-data' technology to gather and analyse information and provide feedback. This is all being done by Africans, coming from every continent." The African diaspora is reversing, in some degree.
Dr Assefa saw first-hand, through the MIT project, how initial responses to the introduction of new technology included hostility and suspicion. "But once the university deans and professors saw what we were doing, their mindset changed and we saw a multiplier effect. The project continued well after we left."
An Ethiopian by birth, Dr Assefa moved to MIT after high school and has been named one of the Top 35 Innovators Under 35 by the college's Technology Review magazine, having filed more than 25 patents and published at least 30 papers in technical journals. "I'm a firm believer that the latest technology will have a big impact in Africa," he says. "I think affordability is changing. The middle class is growing, the demographic is changing and so the picture is changing. In a decade or so we will see a transformation."
Preparing for development
Without such faith in the relentless march of technology and its transformational power, there would be little hope for mankind, never mind Africa. But not everyone shares Dr Assefa's position. At the African Institution of Technology (AFRIT), founder Dr Ndubuisi Ekekwe has seen too many examples of poor uses of technology: "The quality of education in Africa is still very primitive," says Dr Ekekwe, who is also professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"The African university system is not very inventive, it doesn't have the institutional readiness to assimilate nano- or bio-technology, because the universities and the economies are dominated by government and the public sector. There are very few private sector players in nano- or bio-technology in Africa. So there are no job opportunities."
The building blocks for technological development are still lacking, he argues. "Broadband provision in most of Africa is still not good, so you can't bring in technologies such as video conferencing. I've just come back from Nigeria, where downloading a 2MB file takes ages. And in most parts of Africa there's not even reliable electricity."
ICT and mobile technology is the one bright spot in the continent, Dr Ekekwe points out, partly because it doesn't rely on constant electrical power. "This could drive development in the continent," he believes. "I've seen businesses in Africa going to mobile: where someone develops intuitive mobile content, it's more successful than if it's tethered to a desktop."
In this way, Africa is following a similar mobile adoption curve to the West, but even more dramatically, since there is far less background and track record in conventional computing and telecommunications. Yet even here, there are daunting challenges across the continent.
"Africa hadn't had the necessary investment," says Dr Ekekwe. "Banks are only interested in making short-term loans, so financial institutions are part of the reason why technology hasn't moved ' unlike the United States, where specialised technology investment banks have emerged. In Africa, it's difficult to model long-term risks, because the game changes whenever a country's president changes."
An exception is the central African state of Rwanda, which (after some years of disastrous civil war in the 1990s) has adopted some of the most advanced technology in the continent, laying fibre-optic cables and creating the foundation for a broadband economy. "Now that companies can get the bandwidth in Rwanda, they're moving in and hiring low-cost staff, because the Rwandan government had the vision," says Dr Ekekwe.
The African Development Bank has played a positive role in nurturing technological development, he says, working with the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (its commercial sibling). So long as government corruption is cleared up, such initiatives can flourish, he argues.
"The challenge is having the right government policy and private companies coming in. The World Bank has tried to make progress for 30 or 40 years and it hasn't worked, but when private enterprise comes in, you see results within three or four years," says Dr Ekekwe. "In Nigeria 10 years ago, there was only one mobile telecoms player. Now there are multiple players and they're doing very well."
Indeed the remarkable spread of mobile technology, particularly in East Africa, has been. "One of the best [technological] things to come out of Africa," says Dr Ekekwe, becoming more optimistic by the minute. "It has liberated a lot of people and brought them out of poverty. Mothers no longer need to go to the bank to pay their children's school fees, lots of people can join in the financial world and save money. It has had a very dramatic effect on Africa."
As a former banking executive with Diamond Bank in Lagos, Dr Ekekwe speaks from personal experience. At AFRIT, his goal is to bridge the technology gap between African and developed nations, something that mobile technology is uniquely able to achieve. "Mobile money has become a very important part of Africa's financial ecosystem," he says.
Reluctance to adopt new technology
Where advantages and ease of adoption in mobile communications technology are plain, achieving similar progress in the heaviest of heavy industries is quite another matter. In the South African mining sector, automated technology promises to improve working conditions throughout the supply chain, from the testing and exploratory work far beneath the ground, where the potential for fatal rockfalls and other incidents is high, to the massive transportation operations, where millions of tonnes of ore must be carted from one place to another at speed.
"We have real problems with technology adoption," says Declan Vogt, strategic research manager at the Centre for Mining Innovation in South Africa. "Workers don't see the point and won't cooperate. So dealing with people is essential." A series of confrontations between South African authorities and mining workers culminated in the deaths of 34 miners and 10 police at the Marikana mine in August 2012. The conflict was not ostensibly about the introduction of new technology, but more about poor working conditions and job security. But the mining companies' response has been to look more closely at automation, as a means of reducing such disruption. "Even the unions are saying, 'If automation reduces fatalities, then let's bring it on'," says Vogt.
South Africa's specific geology, with narrow seams of gold and platinum, creates challenges which advanced technology can solve, providing that there is the willingness of the mining companies and the workforce to implement such solutions. Robotics, for example, can help mining operations become more productive and safer, along with automated data collection and various forms of automated transportation and delivery. "The difficulty is that the industry doesn't want to invest in research," says Vogt. "We can solve problems, but the industry is very conservative. It lacks willingness to change."
As so often in contemporary Africa, the advances held out in prospect by new technology are proving extremely difficult to implement. Dawn remains tantalisingly close for the continent's innovators.