How Africa Could Lead The World In 21st Century Technology

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The US is no longer the leader in internet technology. Akamai Technologies studies download speeds around the world last year and found that the US ranked 14th in internet speed. Hong Kong is in first places, followed by unlikely places like South Korea and Latvia. Switzerland, at number seven, is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

The internet began as a Defense Advanced Research Project to connect computers in a way that couldn’t be interrupted by cutting phone lines. The Rand Corporation proposed “message blocks” that would become packet switching, the basis of TCP/IP protocols. The web was built on the backbone of the internet by researchers at CERN on the Swiss border who needed to share valuable visual information and important documents in addition to messages.

As for the next step in the internet’s evolution, it could come from anywhere and there are a few good reasons why Africa is a likely candidate. The level of innovation in Africa is at an all-time high. Piezoelectric power generated by walking is a true reality in the state of Kenya and mobile web use already has a high adoption rate due to the cost of transportation. In Rwanda, over 200,000 laptops have been distributed to school children across the country.

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In Nigeria, Maker Faire Africa generated a group dedicated to open source hardware development. Across the region, people have offered critical solutions to the continent’s most extreme and toughest technology challenges in the 2013 Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), funded by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the African Innovation Foundation (AIF).

It’s significant to note that internet access and capability is growing more rapidly in Africa than anywhere else on the planet of Earth. Currently, only about 16 percent of Africans can access the internet, but there have been great leaps in service since 2009 thanks to an unlikely source. The World Cup came to Johannesburg in 2010, bringing with it internet infrastructure for the journalists and football fans. From only three fiber optic links to serving the entire continent in 2008, there are now eight new ones and billions of dollars have been invested in laying optical fiber cable along the East coast of Africa by Seacom.

Seacom is a young company that is 75 percent African owned and dedicated to positioning the continent as a technology leader in the world. Since 2009, they have added a ten-fold increase in bandwidth to their network and they continue to expand communication capabilities.

Meanwhile, African businesses have been active in organizing and advocating for the needs of their communities. For example, they’ve demanded local hosting and are working out guidelines for protecting their own data as well as the privacy of the individual. Since use of this technology is developing with the economy, it is easier for more people to adapt to and adopt new ways of life. The social structures in many areas are more cooperative and intentional than in the West and a more cohesive community is able to cooperate and share resources more efficiently, thus they are potentially more competitive (and efficient) on the global stage.

Rudy De Waele, founder of Nyota Media, stunned the crowd at The Next Web conference in Amsterdam with some of the stats he presented “Mobile Trends Africa 2020“, including predictions from 30 industry experts. For one, few people realize that seven of the top ten fastest growing economies are in Africa, including Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda. For another, the number of mobile subscribers throughout Africa have doubled every year for the past decade.

Consumers in Africa, particularly young people, are more active, engaged, and better able to retain control of technologies. In particular, the many different languages spoken across the continent make top-down control difficult and leave more freedom in the users hands. Social technologies have allowed young people to connect and build strong networks.

Many of the communities are leapfrogging ahead on the mobile web, which has penetrated areas which did not previously see fixed line service. One challenge is the rate at which mobile has outpaced the web, providing a less robust experience for users of the mobile web, who may not have Internet connectivity at home. Access is a big questions for users of the mobile web all around the world:

Many of us rely heavily on our cell phones to access information and to keep in touch with what is happening around the world, at times this proves to be quite a challenge, as opposed to using a computer. Some of the sites are not available on mobile.

Nwabisa Ngumbela

Freelance writer, Johannesburg

Though there are many obstacles due to uneven economic development and impoverished areas, it is worth remembering that harsh conditions on the African continent were probably what pushed humanity to evolve such complexity. It might just be time for that to happen again.

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