Whether we talk about the global north or the global south, it is clear that for any society to effectively apply technology it must actively engage its own software. Richard Heeks, a professor at UPenn explains, ‘Information technology (IT) overall is one of the most critical technologies affecting economic growth in Africa and, within the overall set of technologies that make up IT, software is vital since other technologies cannot function without it.’ As African countries recognize their growing dependence on technology, and foster an increasing desire to modernize their societies, the role of software is made apparent. F.J. Gaio says, ‘Software is increasingly becoming a pervasive technology embodied in a vast and highly diversified range of products and services.’ In a 1993 report the World Bank says, ‘Computer software has become the ‘lifeblood’ of business, industry, and government.’ It’s the fundamental role of software that clearly makes it an essential component of any ICT strategy.
It is important that African countries develop their local software industries if they are going to be able to adapt and create solutions that meet specific local needs. K. Fialkowski explains, ‘Software production is nowadays an industry, essential for the growth of the economies of the developing countries; and the launching of programs to promote strong and indigenous software industries is a priority task.’ At the same time, software production serves as a practical entry point to the ‘IT production complex.’ Heeks explains, ‘For example, compared to hardware production, software production has much lower entry barriers because it is less capital-intensive, more labor-intensive, with a lower rate of obsolescence, and (at least for certain types of software) it has far fewer economies of scale. All of these factors work in Africa’s favor, and software’s labor-intensity of production combined with low African labor costs offer a clear opportunity.’
But how does an African country or the continent go about making this transition? Africa faces a broad range of social, economic and political challenges. A serious lack of resources, ICT skills, education systems and government commitment only serve to hinder development. A continued failure to recognize the importance of local ICT producers, and the wholesale implementation of products from the west, illustrates some of the forces at work. Part of the issue stems from African countries and their continued struggle to fully implement their own ICT policies. Although significant progress has been made in countries like South Africa and Tunisia, Sub Saharan Africa remains the real challenge. The countries that fall outside of the few exceptions better exemplify what Heeks describes as the ‘economic and socio-political problems facing the industry.’ And despite the rapid expansion of ICT infrastructure, and the quick uptake of mobile and Internet technologies, it is important to remember the continent is starting from a very low base. Africa lags seriously behind both developed countries and other developing regions in terms of ICT penetration and its use.
Southeast Asia, China, India and Brazil have all received considerable amounts of foreign direct investment. The size of their local markets makes them viable for business and helps attract needed capital. The reality is that Africa remains a diminutive market when compared to North America, Europe, Asia or the Middle East. Africa still only contributes less than 1% of gross revenues for the ICT sector globally. This takes into account continental heavyweights like South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Kenya. As a result, most multinationals have yet to set up dedicated African operations and lump the continent into their ‘emerging markets category’ or as part of the ‘EMEA’ (Europe, Middle East and Africa). It’s not uncommon to find the person responsible for Africa at the regional headquarters in London or Dubai as opposed to offices in Johannesburg or Lagos. These companies don’t treat Africa as a separate market and they can’t justify spending the resources needed to offer it tailor made solutions. The result is that the ICT industry in Africa is too often used as a simple point of sales. This leaves little interest or room for local capacity building. On the other hand it makes the continent vulnerable and forces it into a position in which it ‘must accept’ whatever is on offer. In turn, this opens a lucrative space for NGOs looking to gain new ground.
In such a small sector, where government’s face limited budgets and depend on partners willing to invest, preferential relationships crowd out independent ICT development. This adversely increases the cost of information goods and services. In the report, Opening the Door to State ICT Development Agendas, it explains that these tactics, ‘Typically cut out the local software developers, and underwrites a pattern of instability for independent initiatives.’ The result is that over time, African countries have found almost a complete reliance on foreign companies and NGOs, their products and services. Local businesses face an unequal playing field and lose out to foreign actors. They don’t have the same level of resources needed to effectively lobby their own governments for contracts. This disparity works to maintain the status quo and affords foreign actors complete control over public sector initiatives.
The same report goes on to explain that, ‘this is evident from some recent Government initiatives to partner with proprietary vendors in the education sector and agreeing to expose pupils and students to a single proprietary vendor product. This has the effect of creating a community of users at the national level with minimal effort directed to creating capacity for local software developers.’ Some Government tenders even stipulate that they require certain proprietary vendor products despite potentially better and cheaper open source alternatives. Corporations like Microsoft and NGOs like the OLPC effectively lock in government contracts that make the entire student population subject to its ‘self designed’ programs. Tactics from both the commercial and nonprofit sector effectively crowed out the rise of local actors. This approach, and rooted in the historical notion that local producers don’t have the skills or capabilities to deliver professional ICT services, now hinders their growth and development.
As a result, to date most of the technologies in Africa are imported. Yash Tandon of SEATINI explains, ‘most of the so-called technology transfers are essentially excuses for transnational corporations (TNCs) to take over local companies, or to carve out a share of the domestic markets.’ Instead of fostering local industry and capacity, multinational organizations seek to tap market opportunity instead. The development sector works in the same way and undercuts local players by donating capital, ICT tools and expertise. Offering services for free makes it near impossible for local organizations to compete at cost. In the process local government’s develop a dependency on foreign partners as opposed to ‘stripping naked’ in the effort to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). Tandon goes on to argue for the ‘creation of a home based Domestic Scientific and Technology Capacity (DSTC), including capacity to undertake relevant research and development, the actual purchase (as opposed to transfer) of appropriate technology from the open market, and a transfer of technology, preferably between South-South, only under certain conditions.’ But Tandon’s argument stops with the need for more intelligent purchasing and the better application of technologies produced elsewhere. Here the argument falls short. It is now interesting to see how the continent will move beyond the status of consumer, not only becoming active users but also creative producers.
To understand this potential it is important to recognize that the rules have changed. For example, intellectual property rights have become embedded in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Tandon argues that under the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) a few thousand multinational corporations and NGOs have successfully worked to monopolize scientific knowledge. They actively protect this capital in the effort to control the economies of the third world they now dominate. As a result, Africa is forced to develop given this increasingly restricted context. He explains, ‘It is in this context that Africa must develop its own DSTC, including a policy on relevant research and development. The R&D policy must be based on the production conditions in the region, the need first to produce for the domestic/regional market (only secondarily for the export market), and Africa’s location within the global value chain.’
Tandon goes on to argue that the options for local production have to some extent already been exploited by the ‘Asian Tigers,’ meaning these options are no longer available to African countries. His argument follows, ‘Countries such as Korea and Taiwan, as all other now advanced economies in history, were able to do it because they disembedded the technology from its capital base (by, for example, copying intellectual property, and through reverse engineering), and by creating a ‘national’ base for capital.’ He makes the case that some countries were able to make this transition during the cold war years. This was at the same time the West was looking for allies in their fight against the Communist threat, mainly China and Vietnam. He explains that since the end of the cold war this avenue for growth has closed.
But do we seriously believe that this is not happening in Africa today? Do we seriously believe that programmers on the continent aren’t actively ‘disembedding the technology from its capital base’ in any way they can? Charl Everton, Microsoft SA anti-piracy manager, explains in a recent ITWeb article, ‘In SA, one in every three copies of our software is used illegally.’ Funny enough the company responded by raiding a business in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The owner is being prosecuted for selling ‘hundreds-of-thousands of Rands worth of counterfeit Microsoft software. Packaged to look like the real thing, and featuring simulated holograms and counterfeit certificates of authenticity.’ The article goes on to explain that, ‘evidence uncovered during the raid points to the supply of products manufactured by a global counterfeiting syndicate from the Far East.’
This is South Africa in what is by far the continent’s largest market, otherwise a consumer base Microsoft seems eager to protect. What about the rest of Africa? Do we assume that this scramble for technology isn’t happening everywhere and on a scale that would be hard for most to fathom? If people don’t have the money to pay for expensive software licenses they are forced to secure alternatives. It is unfortunate the software business is forced to take on illegal forms, this only adds to the continent’s bad image stemming from 419 scams, but this is only because the counterfeiters make the effort to respond to a market the rest of the world chooses to ignore. This demand for access is the same reason Africa is one of the fastest-growing markets for open source in the world. Granted, Tandon makes an interesting argument, the rules have changed and the systems in place certainly do work against Africa’s development, but increasingly there are signs that show this process is growing roots regardless.
It does not matter what kind of scenario we sketch out for the future, it is clear that a billion individuals possess an increasing desire for technology. These individuals are quickly becoming part of the global information society and seek out the network, skills and tools needed to service their needs. The real question asks to what extent the continent chooses to be involved. Is this process going to take place without African participation? Or can African government and society find their own way to connect with the information society in a new effort to secure an equal spot at the table?
Establishing a local software industry in a place like Africa remains a real challenge. It is clear the cards are stacked against the continent. At the same time, and given the increasing significance of software, this is a process African countries would be bold to ignore. Given developed countries have an incredible head start, and their governments, donor agencies and multinationals continue to secure their competitive advantage, Africa has to look to its own people for solutions. Given this context, local capacity is a critical component to Africa’s story. If the continent is ever to take control of the technologies it consumes it will need the people intelligent enough to know how it works. I argue that this is where we need to focus our attention. It is in this space that we can see a glimmer of something new emerging that could potentially shift the balance and change the status quote forever.
The field of computer science builds on the lifetime work of people like Vannevar Bush and the Western industry, military and government interest he represents. Most of what has been developed post 1940 is built to serve these basic interests. Modern day computing has almost wholly emerged out of a western context and with a western user in mind. The subsequent ‘computing age’ is thus an artifact of the same culture, embedding its values at different stages of its development. Recognizing the historical roots of the computing phenomena, and the culture it embodies, helps us to understand its odd shape when placed in other parts of the world. Only by recognizing these points of intersection are we able to see viable alternatives.
At the same time, software’s growing role in society makes it an important component of any ICT4D debate. Software increasingly acts as the glue that holds society together. It is the middle layer that collects, organizes and distributes our data and information. It is the organization of code that increasingly controls our systems and manages our actions. As Mathew Fuller explains in his book Software Studies, a Lexicon, ‘as software becomes a putatively mature part of societal formations (or at least enters a phase where, in the global north, generations are now born into it as an infrastructural element of daily life), we need to gather and make palpable a range of associations and interpretations of software to be understood and experimented with.’ It is the pervasiveness of software and its critical function that makes it an important point of study. At the same time its relevance is not exclusive to the North but is increasingly part of African life too. It is only a matter of time before each person on the African continent owns or has access to a mobile phone and is thereby subject to the same ‘infrastructural element of daily life’ experienced elsewhere. Software is increasingly pervasive the world over, also in Africa, and it is exactly in the fringes of the global information society that the questions need to be asked most.
As Matti Tedre and Ron Eglash argue in their article Ethnocomputing, ‘there are two central arguments: a design/social justice argument and a theoretical/academic argument. The first argument is that a better understanding of the cultural dimensions of computing can improve the design of computational devices and practices in disadvantaged groups and third world populations. The second argument is that an understanding of the cultural dimensions of computing can enrich the disciplinary self-understanding of computer science at large.’ Both arguments open up a new space for analysis that not only better serves the needs of marginalized populations but demands a better understanding of computer sciences at its core foundations.
This line of thinking aims to break down the historical mantra, the idea that solutions come from the north and problems from the south. The challenge in creating a ‘paradigm of equals’ stem from our own definitions and the intrinsic belief that knowledge is localized in developed countries. Matti Tedre and Ron Eglash make the point that, ‘one of the most difficult barriers to the research of Ethnocomputational ideas is the unequal assessment of knowledge in locations of high social power (e.g., Western, first-world, high-tech) and knowledge at the margins of social power (e.g., indigenous, third-world, vernacular).’ To this extent Ethnocomputing moves to encompass both worlds meaning neither is given preference over the other. To this extent, there is reason to believe cultural variation should be celebrated as opposed to the technology that too often precedes it. We fail to recognize our cultural differences as important sources of ideas, alternative lines of thinking that lead to new forms of problem solving. If anything, it is cultural diversity that puts oneself, and the technology we use, into its proper context.
Andrew Pickering argues science builds on a history of adaptations. This is not a process of complete replacement. Out of experiments society receives critical feedback needed to improve a design or modify a system. He makes clear that this process builds on technical, social, and natural relations. As cited in Ethnocomputing, ‘there are undoubtedly universal physical laws that govern the operation of computational devices, but only through a multiplicity of experiments – whether carried out by silicon chips, carved African game boards, or the generation of theorems and proofs – can one learn those disciplines.’ It is this learning process that is critical to understanding, using, deconstructing and building effective technologies. Unfortunately, and as seen with the OLPC project, this process too often occurs without the input of the very stakeholders who ultimately depend on a technology. A greater value should be placed on the cultural feedback loops otherwise too often ignored. Whether it is a computer hacker living in the global north or a young .net artist living in the global south its clear knowledge builds from the scientific process the world over.
By studying the role of software in a place like Africa it becomes possible to reflect on the subject of software itself, and in a dialectic turn, steer its further progress. It is important to look beyond its use and into its local production, where applications are deconstructed and designed for a local context. Otherwise the individuals who have the knowledge, skills and motivation needed to translate modern technologies to the needs and desires of their local surroundings. This approach looks beyond the technical and places a new focus on these ‘cultural bridge figures’ instead. By understanding the ways in which they connect to the global information society we are able to better understand how technologies need to be modified and adapted to meet the needs of the cultures they represent.
Given the rapid spread of mobile communication and growing Internet connectivity, it is only a matter of time before the entire global population is connected, the reality being that most of the new users live in the developing parts of the world. This phenomenon requires us to rethink computing and forces us to recognize a rapidly changing context in which it is applied. More specifically, it means we need to appreciate the perspective of new users and thereby broaden our historical perspective. As these new digital populations become part of an increasingly powerful economic base, as seen in countries such as China, India and Brazil, alternative versions of the information society are bound to appear.