A symbol of how Ghana maintains tradition while employing today's technology to make it a competitor in global trade and the digital landscape. Photo credit: Seth Ebenezer Tetteh

Tech from the Motherland: Africa moves out of the margins into the global tech race

With growing tech industries throughout Africa, and a population eager to enter into the world economy as wired competitors, Africa is the sleeping digital giant who awakens.

In April, Twitter announced that it would set up its Africa headquarters in Ghana by “actively building a team” in the West African nation. One of the most popular social media used around the world, Twitter reported 192 million users in its fourth quarter in 2020 with revenue of $3.716 billion last year. “To truly serve the public conversation, we must be more immersed in the rich and vibrant communities that drive the conversations taking place every day across the African continent,” the company said in a release.

Ghana expressed surprise at winning the bid; especially, with the digitally influential neighboring Nigeria boasting a globally salient video movie industry and entrepreneurs launching tech start-ups daily.  But, Twitter explained they selected Ghana because it has shown to be a “supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet.” Even Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey expressed such a commitment, as he prepared to live six months in Africa until the pandemic curbed plans.

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Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said, “this is the start of a beautiful partnership between Twitter and Ghana,” after a virtual meeting with Dorsey. Under his tenure, President Akufo-Addo has been working to increase Ghana’s presence in multiple global markets with “policy towards national development . . . on ensuring that science, technology and innovation drive all sectors of the economy.” 

Twitter making a home in Ghana solidifies the country’s efforts to generate an economic boost and stability. But in general, Ghana’s efforts are one of many administrations across Africa that are increasing the continent’s presence in digital ventures and innovations.

A report by the International Trade Center details how governments across Africa have “updated their national telecommunication policies and framed new laws governing cybersecurity, data protection and special economic zones,” to provide more stable infrastructures for nascent tech hubs and international tech companies. In more specific regions, “Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria and South Africa, have built technology parks” to increase their businesses in exports and foreign business.

Juicing the digital lemonade

For centuries, the continent, rich in natural minerals and people, served the tech industry in two ways: extraction and dumping. From the cocoa industry powering Belgium as the chocolate center of the world to the Congo’s rubber plantations fueling American and European car industries—the system of extracting raw materials for processing in other nations has been a normal operation between colonial and post-colonial Africa and countries considered to be the most developed nations.

Now, located between three of the largest tech nations—China, India and the United States—Africa performs as a passive, yet essential player in developing key technologies towards the development of other regions. With a wealth of natural resources that are critical to powering most digital devices, the mining of gold, diamonds and cobalt positioned Africa as a critical site of the most recent tech boom.

Gold, diamonds and platinum are top minerals extracted from South African soil. More specifically, the country provides 67 percent of the world’s production of platinum. This metal is critical in making flat screen televisions, laptop screens, computer monitors and smart phone screens. Another mineral, cobalt, is an essential material for stabilizing lithium-ion batteries. These batteries power computers, smartphones and other digital devices such as Tesla’s batteries for its electric cars. While the world needs cobalt, seventy percent of the rare earth mineral is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Currently, the DRC is in a years-long Civil War centered around the control of mining cobalt.

Even Europe must depend on Africa to fuel its initiative of sustainable energy such as using solar-power. Moreover, this accompanies its reliance on Africa’s natural resources centuries before colonialism. The Moors of North Africa brought “advances in mathematics, astronomy, art, and agriculture helped propel Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance,” as well as imported fruits, grains and other foods.

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Nigeria is a country used as a dump site for e-waste. But, it has taken that industry to create its own tech innovations. Photo credit: Godisable Jacob

For Asia, especially China and India, Africa is seen as the “new frontier.” A perspective similar to that of the expansion of European settlers in the Americas in the 1700s and 1800s, both countries have been encroaching on African land. At the same time, their presence has embedded itself in local politics and the future of Africa. Quartz reported how China funded the rebuilding of the Africa Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. In turn, it planted bugs in it to spy on African nations. The surveillance was discovered five years later.

Since China’s aggressive strategies to be an economic superpower in the 1980s, Africa serves as an important location for the East Asian nation’s reinvention of the Silk Road. A global trade system with routes using shipping waterways, airline carriers, railroads and highways, China has developed parts of Africa to carry out its initiative, which also includes extracting natural resources from several countries.

On the other hand, “the West” and East Asia use Africa to dump its old technology. In Accra, Ghana’s capital, the Agbogbloshie district is the largest electronic waste site in the world. Key American, Asian and European nations use locations in Africa to discard toxic and high-pollutant technology without offering any substantive assistance, if any, on how to rid the rubbish. Ironically, some hot zones in Africa are not the doing of its citizens, but from foreigners who use African raw materials to develop technologies and infrastructures that include greening their part of the planet.

Yet and still, Ghana, and Nigeria, another West African country with several large tech dumping sites, have used the mounds of toxic sludge as fertile grounds. As a result, one nation’s e-waste turned out to be another state’s tech treasure trove. In Africa, scavengers and tech virtuosos repurpose imported refuse to new, innovative digital devices. Some have even taught themselves how to hack into discarded hard drives for information they use to hack into virtual terminals, emails and accounts. However, most energy goes into fueling digital savvy citizens from Casablanca to Capetown.

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One of the most salient industries from turning e-waste into a viable industry is Nigeria’s Nollywood. Nollywood is a sobriquet for an ecosystem of multiple hyper-local production operations throughout Nigeria. A movie video industry recorded as making the most movies in the world annually, it is also noted as infusing the informal and formal economies throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. From the Igbo to the Yoruba tribal nations, Nigerian tech entrepreneurs borrowed Ghana’s 1980’s budding camcorder movie industry by recording on-location feature movies on handheld novice cameras. They then dubbed them onto old VHS tapes dumped into Nigeria by Chinese businesspersons.  To show the power of Nollywood, today, Netflix heavily relies on Nigerian filmmakers to fulfill a growing sector of its viewership.

. . . .

Nollywood is one of Africa’s latest examples of how the continent significantly contributes to technology. Before cell phones populated the daily movements of its users in “the West,” Africans experimented with the multiple uses of  digital devices because of its mobility, accessibility and affordability. Quickly, mobile phones penetrated markets and in areas that other technologies and private sectors could not. 

For example, financial ventures used mobile phones for Africans who did not have bank accounts or could not rely on the local banking system to send and receive money. As well, mobile phones became a central technology for those in the diaspora to connect with their families, and remain connected to their home country.

As cell phones became central in Africa, telecommunication companies studied its users to develop technology in “the West” without the heavy regulations on research and phone use. So, Africa was not only the dumping ground for e-waste, but a fertile ground in developing devices that eventually would be thrown away in Africa, once its use seemed limited in the West and Asia.

In 2019, Market Watch reported what colonizers already knew: Africa is “one of the biggest emerging markets in the world, offering tremendous opportunities for companies brave enough to seize them.” But, instead of Africa waiting on the world to curate and control its tech industry, it has stepped into the global challenge with its own initiatives and incubators.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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