Tech Track: Technology solutions thinking for Africa
Some years ago I was talking to some newspaper editor and I said that we need to develop African solutions for Africa. He rolled his eyes and said; "Oh no, not that story again."
I instantly realised that he thought that I meant: lower the standards. That was not at all what I meant. If anything I meant: increase the standards. I forget now which newspaper it was, and which editor, but I realised that the perception which he had about the phrase was rather universal.
So let me know explain what I meant. This is particularly important in considerations about technology development, and the implementation of technology–based systems, which means essentially everything. Now for a few surprising thoughts… The size of Africa is misrepresented on the standard map projection, is it far bigger than it appears. Africa is larger than China, the US, India, Japan, and Europe added together. Madagascar is larger than Great Britain.
To emphasise this; another reality is that the distance from Pretoria to Cape Town is about the same as Rome to London. Bear in mind that most of South Africa's electricity comes from coal, and that the coalfields and large power stations are effectively north-east of Pretoria. About half of the electricity of the Western Cape comes from Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, but the other half comes from the coalfields. Imagine powering half of London with electricity from Rome.
So, 'African solutions for Africa' means; face our realities and find solutions which work here.
We are far too used to looking to Europe or the First World in general, and assuming that they know best. But they don't, particularly when it comes to our conditions. We have to think 'Outside the Boxes' and have confidence in our own abilities to come up with the best solutions.
The Karoo is larger than Germany. Imagine if in the middle of Germany a large delivery truck broke down, and they had to call repair mechanics from France. Our electricity distribution network; cell phone network; railway lines; petrol transport; and many more are on a completely different scale to those in countries that we often look to for answers and advice.
There are numbers of technological solutions for which we have to come up with a more advanced system than the standard first world answer, because we can't just call a mechanic to rush to a repair job in the middle of the Karoo.
Bear in mind that a technology is not just the gear wheels and transistors, it is the entire system of how a repairman responds; how quality testing is carried out; how the job is logged; and so on. A technology solution is an intellectual exercise of the highest order. Many people do not realise just what it really takes to get even some apparently simple system to work.
In East Africa and Southern Africa cellphone banking took off, and advanced faster than in the First World. There were good reasons for this.
After South Africa had had cellphone text messaging for about a year, I myself demonstrated how it worked in the US Senate. They had never seen it. I was waiting to give a Senate briefing and some fellow saw me sending a message to my office in Pretoria, and asked me what I was doing. A few minutes later I had an amazed crowd around me watching how you could send a text message to Africa on the cell phone, and get an instant reply. I later demonstrated it a few more times elsewhere in the US.
So we need to look for home-grown systems solutions which work here. We need to examine whatever the world has to offer, select that which is appropriate, and then integrate it into some system designed and implemented by South Africans. The scientists and engineers who do this type of thing are very under-appreciated.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is the chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants.