Why explore the future of African Digital Societies
Why the future?
Africa is the most ethnically diverse continent with an abundance of natural resources, yet the continent is full of debilitating paradoxes. Resource-rich countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan are deeply mired in the throes of civil strife. Africa holds the bulk of the world’s youngest democracies, which are led by some of the longest-ruling heads of state globally. And despite having a slightly larger female population within the continent, girls and women across Africa are subject to numerous forms of gender-based discrimination that hinder effective participation in educational, employment, and governance structures.
Hence the importance of the future and the use of strategic foresight in the discussion on healthy digital societies in Africa. We needed to move beyond the present reality to a future where our ideas, notions, and visions could be brought to life without restrictions. Quite often, people are used to performing things a certain way, or seeing them done in that particular manner, and will be restricted to perceiving such methods as the sole options for achieving desired results.
Foresight activities enable them to emancipate themselves from such limitations and fully engage their imagination. Moreover, futures thinking, through its multiplicity of concepts and tools, also enables people to adequately and comprehensively assess the underlying systemic issues of the present reality.
A surface issue such as the proclivity to choose old male leaders should not simply be perceived as is. Rather, it is moulded by deeper underlying factors that are not immediately discernible, but which are crucial for development of effective solutions.
Why digital societies?
Most conversations revolving around the topic of data governance have been the preserve of people within the technological field, from technology companies and technology experts in academia to policymakers concerned about technological uptake and utilization. The result of such limited conversations is the technology echo chamber, within which people increasingly encounter beliefs coinciding with their own and limiting consideration of alternative ideas.
To compound this, a bulk of the digital technologies used globally originate from the global West, a fact clearly exemplified by the prominent role of companies such as Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, amongst others. North America controls the conversation, noting that all of the earlier mentioned companies were developed in the U.S. Europeans influence the flow of conversation due to the importance that citizens and policymakers in this region attach to healthy relationships between technology companies and end users. The global East also has a significant say in how digital technologies are applied in their regions. Not only are a majority of digital devices and components manufactured and assembled in countries such as China, the governments in these countries have enormous control on the digital technologies used in their countries.
But most people in Africa are not aware of the terms and issues around digital technologies and data governance. Regulations and policies in this regard are either insufficient or completely missing. Import of digital technologies is the norm, and even in cases of locally developed or registered technologies, the face of the financiers, developers and managers of the technologies are still foreign. Jumia, Sendy, Twiga Foods, and numerous others across the continent exemplify this point too vividly.
To break out of this echo chamber, we needed to change the question. Through initial investigation, the team decided to reframe the project around how young Africans imagine healthy digital societies in the future. If a healthy society is like a garden ecosystem, which digital technologies should be bred and planted and watered, which invasive species should be removed, which delicate shoots need protection, and from which menacing threats?
Why these creators?
It is a paradoxical situation that the world’s youngest continent has the oldest leaders. The median age of people on the continent is 19.7, yet the average age of an African president is 62. This situation led Wole Soyinka, Nigerian poet, novelist and playwright, to refer to most of African leaders as “sick old men”, a phrase that signifies the lack of women and youth in leadership and policymaking capacities. Accordingly, youth had to be a large part of the data governance project not only due to their overwhelming presence on the continent, but also because they are the primary users of most digital technologies on the continent. All of the participants in the program were between the ages of 18 and 38, a significant milestone with regards to involvement of youth in foresight work.
Gender inequality is a prevalent issue cutting across the entire continent. Women and girls across the African continent are at a greater risk of marginalization, discrimination, and neglect. Consequently, a crucial aspect of the program was to include female voices, a target achieved through incorporation of an equal number of male and female participants.
When South Sudan seceded from Sudan, the number of different nationalities that people on the African continent could identify with increased to 54. Over 1500 different languages are spoken across the continent by an almost equal proportion of male and female Africans. The diversity in professional domains is partly exemplified by the number of individual courses offered by the continent’s top universities. A majority of the continent’s workers are however domiciled in the informal sector. With such diversity entwined within the very fabric of the continent, it would be unwise for the program not to reflect an aspect of this diversity.
The length and breadth of the continent was spanned to account for various demographic factors such as nationality, gender, age, occupation, and even the rural-urban divide. Participants hailed from countries in North, South, East and West Africa; Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa were among the countries represented. Since two of the cohorts consisted exclusively of participants from Kenya and Nigeria, the pan-African cohort effectively bridged the gap in regional representation.
We sought participants from a variety of disciplines not traditionally involved in conversations regarding technology, digital issues, and data governance. The project involved agricultural experts and farmers, healthcare workers and medical practitioners, community and social workers, lawyers, human rights activists, university students, and even personal growth coaches. However, a few technology practitioners from cryptocurrency experts to software developers and computer scientists were incorporated to help fellow participants understand unfamiliar terms and concepts encountered.
Lastly, the involvement of 8 participants each within the Nigerian and Kenyan cohorts offered an opportunity to involve people from both urban and rural areas. This was a vital aspect in ensuring diversity of thought on the topics raised due to the disparity in uptake of digital technologies between rural and urban areas, and the corresponding grasp of issues around data governance. Diversity in this respect is important since more than half of Africa’s population resides in rural areas, although countries such as Gabon are over 85% urbanized. In Kenya and Nigeria, the rural populations account for 72% and 48% respectively.