By Charles Dhewa
Hundreds of mobile applications and technology platforms are launched in Africa almost every day, thanks to the promise of digital-fuelled progress. Unfortunately most of the platforms (including those owned by famous mobile network providers) are trotted onto the market prematurely before sufficient pre-testing. There is also confusion between a platform, a portal, a WhatsApp group and a mere website. Instead of generating new insights badly needed for socio-economic development in many African countries, the proliferation of platforms is leading to unbearable information overload.
Long road to digital maturity
In spite of the hype surrounding platforms, technology hubs and hackathons, these are not yet able to deliver the kind of world-class digital transformation that can fuel productivity and economic growth in developing countries. For instance, digital technology is far from addressing the aspirations, concerns and fears of farmers and entrepreneurs in remote areas. Farmers in marginal communities can only imagine how digital technology can test their soils and water without them taking samples to the capital city where laboratories are concentrated. The same applies to livestock farmers who are still travelling long distances to district or provincial towns in order to get livestock movement permits in the event of selling or buying cattle. Unless digitisation addresses some of these practical pain points, it doesn’t matter how many mobile network boosters are set up in rural areas or how many farmers are using mobile phones.
Fragmented value chains
Some of the main reasons for low levels of digitisation in African agriculture revolve around the fragmentation of diverse value chains as demonstrated by how individual farmers, traders and other actors focus on discrete commodities. Additional enduring challenges include the long cycles of agricultural experimentation, poor connectivity in rural areas as well as complex ecosystems affected by weather—genetics, nutrition, water availability, soil composition and seasonality, among others. Digital technology development is yet to crack these intricate issues and as a result, the majority of marginalized people are yet to find advantages associated with digital technology. In fact, they remain consumers of external information than producers of local content.
ICTs and power imbalances
Those promoting ICTs are doing do so without considering power imbalances that underpin different socio-cultural contexts and could be increased through ICTs. If farmers and traders become digitally connected, it doesn’t mean knowledge gaps are closed because knowledge is influenced by deeper issues than cannot be addressed by ICTs. For instance, converting information and knowledge depends on people’s capacity to understand, interpret and absorb information that is flowing to them through social media and related processes. Information receivers must possess some cognitive filtering and structuring mechanism to sort out relevant information from irrelevant information. To the extent most farmers and rural people have a deficit in these skills, they accept whatever is sent to them through WhatsApp groups that are mushrooming everywhere. That is why fake news is now an epidemic.
Need for nuanced reflection on what ICTs can and cannot do
While African governments and development agencies have embraced ICTs and digitization as a catalyst for development, there is need for a more nuanced reflection on the possibility that a focus on ICTs could be preventing broader discussions on authentic local challenges which cannot be solved through ICTs. The increasing faith in ICTs like mobile phones, mobile applications and the internet is an extension of the historical tendency by development agencies to privilege technology transfer as a solution to poverty. Yet in reality, developing countries have several social, political, economic and cultural barriers that cannot be solved by digitisation and ICTs. In fact, there is evidence showing that ICTs are exacerbating inequalities in some communities, towns and countries as well between rural and urban areas.
Importance of defining a national digital vision and strategy
It is possible that if deployed properly, digitisation can improve the quality of life for citizens by fostering greater civic participation, providing access to information, and offering new tools for health and education. Software entrepreneurs can also present solutions to complex public-policy problems, such as the creation of drought alerts through push notifications on mobile phones. However, successful national digital transformation depends on having a clear vision and defined goals, and then setting priorities. For governments, this means intimately linking digital to public-policy objectives and viewing it as a lever for achieving them. To establish a clear link between its digital vision and public value, each government should consider revisiting the country’s ICT Strategy and aligning it with the country’s current and future needs and priorities. If that is not done, the majority of people will not see the value of ICTs