By Anne Collier
You know that maxim that “necessity is the mother invention” (it goes back at least to 16th-century England, according to Phrases.co.uk). Well, South African journalist Tony Shapshak recently showed in a TED Talk in Edinburgh how necessity is the mother of (tech) innovation, and that innovation is certainly not just happening in Silicon Valley, Bangalore, or the Zhongguancun part of Beijing, but on the continent that probably has even more power outages than the Indian subcontinent.
His talk shows parents why developed countries like the United States do not have a corner on innovation, why it’s so important to get digital, connected learning into school, why there was a groundswell behind the week-long Hour of Code campaign last December, and why that campaign just happened in the UK too (here, at the BBC, is a dad’s description of his and his 10-year-old twins’ Hour of Code).
As Shapshak pointed out, we may be intrigued by the way a vendor at a California farmer’s market can complete a credit card transaction with a swipe through a little reader attached to a smartphone or tablet, but for 15 years people in Africa have been able to do transactions with much more basic mobile devices, with no need for a credit card.
“Something like $25 million a day is transacted through M-Pesa” (“pesa” is Swahili for “money”), the online commerce app, and “40% of Kenya’s GDP moves through M-Pesa,” he said. “You can pay bills with it, you can buy your groceries, you can pay your kids’ school fees” with M-Pesa, he said. “Pay-as-you-go is one of the most dominant forces of economic activity in the world,” and it was one of many innovations that have been developed on what is often called “the dark continent,” the one that isn’t lit up on NASA’s composite photo of Earth at night (Africa’s some 1 billion people use 4% of the world’s electricity, according to The Economist).
“People are solving real problems in Africa. Why? Because we have to. Because we have real problems. And when we solve real problems, we’re solving them for the rest of the world at the same time,” with non-smartphones and even more basic technology, Shapshak said with a slide behind him with just the words “You’re Welcome” on it. Johannesburg “is sometimes called Egoli, which means City of Gold [created by South Africa’s 19th-century gold rush].… I don’t believe that the gold is under the ground. I believe we are the gold. Like you’ve heard the other economists say, we are at the point where China was when its boom years began, and that’s where we’re going.”
And if parents, educators and policymakers in developed countries can see their children as “the gold” too and allow digital, connected learning to happen at school, children in developed countries as well will be able to explore and innovate real solutions to real problems. They just may be able to keep up with their less privileged counterparts around this networked world!
- Although the headline of an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine reads “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem,” seems to me the article is not so much about a youth as a tech “problem,” at least in Silicon Valley, how technology is “no longer primarily technology driven; it is idea driven” and more a service than a product, the writer, Yiren Lu, a computer science graduate student, points out – though “what matters most [“to a software engineer in his 20s with endless opportunities”] is not salary, or stability, or job security, but cool.” Maybe, just maybe, at some point, this latest “gold rush” to Silicon Valley (and more now to San Francisco again) will include innovation for real global problems as much as the “cool” social apps Lu suggests are the focus of young engineers’ move west.
- “Self-definition in social media: I am not my online profile” (2013)
- “Social media natives in Myanmar” (2013)
- “Digital citizenship in process: Notes from the Baku IGF” (2012)
- “Digital citizenship reality check: Notes from Nairobi’s IGF” (2011)