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TechWatch: Making Technology Work in Africa

I remember a National Academy committee meeting during the late 1990s, where we were discussing the role of the Internet. One person said, “At the rate people are coming online, it won’t be long before the whole world is connected.” My comment at the time was, “Since half the people in the world have not yet received their first phone call, perhaps there are a few challenges we are ignoring.” This came home to me in the Central African Republic (CAR) as I looked at the role technology might play in transforming this society.

Typical Internet Cafe in Banqui, CAR

Yes, there are Internet cafés in the capital city of Bangui. Internet access for one hour from the café we frequently visited cost only $1. From our end it looked like a bargain, though the slow response of the system meant that it took me the first eight minutes to get into my Comcast account! But in a country where two-thirds of the people live on less than $1 per day, access still is a significant barrier for most.

Technology is featured on the 10,000 Central African franc (about $20) bill, with a picture of satellites, airplanes, and railroads. Unfortunately, there is no railroad in the country. Satellites provide the only link for mobile phones in many parts of the country, making telephone access very expensive outside of the capital city. And air travel is limited. Air France offers one flight per week from Paris. When I inquired about a visit to Lagos, Nigeria, during my stay, I was told the best way to get there was Air France to Paris and then another flight from Paris to Bangui. This is like flying from Seattle to San Francisco by way of London.

Technology in CAR requires thinking at a more basic level, starting with the wheel. Push carts are growing in popularity for hauling all sorts of things. One of the big items is firewood, since many cook over an open fire. Little firewood remains in close proximity to the city, so it is brought in from 10 to 30 miles away by push cart. This is hard work for very little reward, but the wheel makes it possible. This is actually a very good and appropriate use of technology in this environment.

Central African FrancIt raised the possibility to our team in CAR that perhaps they could create a business with a truck. People in the villages have almost no access to money or goods, living off the food they can grow. Perhaps a truck could go out to the villages purchasing crops, firewood, and other natural products to bring into the city. Thus the people would be able to sell their goods without pushing them all the way to the city. The truck could also be a “store on wheels,” selling basic staples that are unavailable in the villages, such as soap and salt. In turn, this would increase the market for those people making soap or other goods for sale.

We spent some time analyzing this possible “technology-based” solution to an economic problem. We encountered a number of barriers to implementing this solution. Not surprisingly, the barriers are very similar to those any business encounters in creating a technology-based solution.

Cost

While this seems like a modest plan, the cost of a truck is huge for this environment. And this is just the beginning. Fuel is also very expensive — approximately $6 per gallon. Labor costs are very low, so saving the cost of someone walking 30 miles into the city is not enough to create the business case for the truck and its fuel.

Another cost to consider with this plan is jobs. Since the unemployment is so high in CAR, no plan would be acceptable that would eliminate jobs. In this case, it would seem that a truck/store would actually create jobs. Many of the remote villages are able to raise crops but cannot sell them because they have no way to get them to market. The same people that would otherwise push their products to the city could be productively raising crops, gathering firewood, and so forth. Other people would staff the truck/store.

Even in the West, cost is a major consideration when introducing a new technology. Unless you can “build the business case,” most businesses are not interested in implementing a new technology just because it is there.

Infrastructure

Even if the business case for the technology could be built, the next question is the infrastructure. Major technology innovations over time (including the automobile, telephone, computer, etc.) have been slow to be adopted because of the required infrastructure that must be built.

The idea of a truck/store is challenged by the lack of supportive infrastructure. First, the roads are not safe from bandits. Second, the roads are “littered” with checkpoints, informal places where officials with guns detain the traffic for inspection and fees. We encountered seven such stops on a modest trip just 50 miles from the capital city. Government corruption is a third factor. Excessive fees that get filtered out of the economy make it difficult to run an effective business. Banking and insurance are foundations for business, and these services are not readily available or accessible except to the wealthy.

These infrastructure items are different from those that are faced by new technology in the West, but the concept is the same. An effective computer requires standards, connectivity, software, and the expectation that others will also be using computers. Until the infrastructure is in place, the computer is just a novelty. Solving the infrastructure problem is fundamental to new technology.

Appropriateness

The basic technology of the wheel is most popular.

People in the West often look to technology as the answer without first asking for the question. I heard about the delivery of snow plows to the Central African Republic (where it never snows) from the Russians, in the name of foreign aide. In Vietnam, well-meaning providers wanted to deliver defibrillators, when the medical challenge there is primarily safe water, not heart problems.

Sometimes a technology is inappropriate even if it is useful. In the 1980s, I was on a school board that was offered a used mainframe system for the school at no cost. All that would be required was a new raised floor, significant power costs, and an expensive maintenance and support agreement. We could not afford the free computer!

When considering technology as a part of a solution for a country or a business, it is important to understand the needs. Then it is important to understand what it would take to support the resulting solution.

Change

A fourth barrier to the introduction of new technology is simply dealing with people’s willingness to change. This resistance is behind the failure of many new technology systems in the West. And it would be a factor in the implementation of a truck/store in CAR. People used to bartering may be hesitant to exchange goods for money, especially with banking unavailable to most people and the continued threat of theft. Can people gain the expectation of reliability of such a service so they could raise crops, gather firewood, etc.? Will they gain the confidence of a reasonable sale at a reasonable price?

It takes time for riders to develop for a new transportation system in the West. Similarly, it would take time for people to develop confidence in a truck/store even if, in the long run, it would help many people.

Conclusion

The truck/store is one of many ideas that could be developed in CAR using technology. We did consider the cost, infrastructure, appropriateness, and potential for change from this solution. Cost and infrastructure (particularly around security on the roads and the ability to pass through checkpoints) remain formidable barriers. It is not yet clear if this is a good idea. But any idea needs to pass through similar analysis.

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998. He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology. He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990, and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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