Michuki Mwangi is the regional development manager for Africa at the Internet Society (Isoc). Based at the organisation’s African Regional Bureau in Nairobi, he has worked to promote internet growth and sustainability on the continent since 2008.
Last week, Isoc celebrated its 25th anniversary and I caught up with Mwangi at a commemoration event they hosted at the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. I asked him to reflect on the progress being made to enable more and more Africans to harness the life-changing potential of the internet.
I also took the opportunity to gauge what he makes of the perplexing dynamic brought about by a growing number of political and commercial interests who assert themselves as guardians of the world wide web on one hand, while shamelessly exploiting the internet to advance selfish ambitions on the other.
Mwangi argued that our progress as a continent should be measured by community participation and impact. He reckoned that we would all do well to resist the urge to chase shallow, short-term victories, but rather commit to helping African communities fully embrace internet access by leveraging it cleverly to create innovative solutions to challenges faced within their context.
Mwangi said he's encouraged by the impressive accomplishments of eight exceptional young Africans that Isoc is honouring this year, along with 17 other youths from all around the world.
He believes their efforts not only bear testimony to African resourcefulness, but also prove that however modest the gains being made in terms of bringing Africa online appear, millions of people stand to benefit when we get it right.
Case in point, Akah Harvey Larry - a 24-year-old Cameroonian who is being celebrated for leading a team of fellow engineers to develop an app called The Traveler. The application crunches big traffic data to offer users real-time insights on how well vehicles are being driven.
In the event of an accident, emergency response teams and family members are contacted, and users can also alert authorities to safety issues along the roads.
Akah and his team are intent on improving driver habits and putting a dent in sub-Saharan Africa's unnecessarily shocking road death statistics. To date, according to Mwangi, Akah’s solution has been deployed in several urban areas in Cameroon, and he is currently working with that country’s transport ministry to deploy the solution nationwide.
Isoc recently released a global report entitled Paths to our Digital Future. The document looks out over the next five to seven years and identifies factors that are likely to shape the future of the internet. Despite sporting a relatively optimistic outlook overall, Isoc published a list of threats (or opportunities, depending on how you look at it) to realising the promise of an internet “for everyone, everywhere”.
Some of those items include the rise of artificial intelligence, imminent cybersecurity threats, fluid internet standards, the proliferation of internet of things enabled devices, the expansion of the digital economy and the increasingly problematic role of government and big business in regulating internet use.
Several weeks ago, I posited that as a society we may well need to accept the inconvenient fact that because pretty much anyone in the world with internet access and web skills (however modest or sophisticated) now has the unprecedented capacity to assert or promote a nefarious agenda, no one can be trusted.
When I put to Mwangi that perhaps even seemingly impartial entities such as Isoc - proponents of net neutrality and free, universal web access - shouldn't automatically be entitled to the people's trust, he admitted that as the internet continues to transform every sector of the global economy, the debate around digital divides of the future won't be limited to matters of internet access. It will also pertain to the gap between the economic opportunities available to some and not to others.
He also acknowledged an online security divide that separates individuals, corporations and countries who can protect their digital assets and those who cannot - citing the problematic trend towards the creation of “walled gardens”.
However, Mwangi was quick to highlight the fact that there are no simple, binary answers to how Africa and the rest of the developing world can harness the full potential of the internet and avoid iniquities from the colonial age being perpetuated in the digital era. He did emphasise, though, that adopting an insular, isolationist view is not the way to go.
Sally Wentworth, Isoc’s vice-president of global policy, recently stated that its research shows that the internet’s core values are still widely embraced. It appears that at Isoc there is no shortage of rhetoric promoting the existence of this sublime imaginary of the world wide web as being a global, open, secure internet that is “used for the benefit of people everywhere in the world”.
I have some difficulty ignoring the steady decline in internet freedom around the world, as well as the normalisation of surveillance, internet shutdowns and content regulation.
Call me paranoid, but I also can't bring myself to completely trust the motives of increasingly dominant commercial tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon.
This statement by Wentworth does a good job of summing up my feelings: “We found that people share a sense of both optimism and disillusionment for the internet’s future, in equal measure. While there are no guarantees of what lies ahead, we know that humanity must be at the centre of tomorrow's internet.”
Andile Masuku is a broadcaster and entrepreneur based in Johannesburg. He is the executive producer at AfricanTechRoundup.com. Follow him on Twitter @MasukuAndile and The African Tech Round-up @africanroundup
- BUSINESS REPORT