The ability to solve social and economic problems in Africa using technology is real

It was a stressful and difficult time in Malawi in 2001. It’s an African country synonymous with poverty, infrastructure gaps and relative economic and political volatility. Malawi had a famine, brought about by intense flooding and drought that harmed the grain harvest. As a result, many villages experienced grain shortfalls, resulting in unbearable prices. At the same time, Malawi experienced political turmoil, and the government turned its back on people. There was no hope. No money for food. People were starving.

But, during this period of hardship is an amazing story about a courageous boy who transformed a social and economic problem into an opportunity. 

Thirteen-year-old William Kamkwamba had to drop out of secondary school because there was no money but he used to sneak into the library to learn about energy generation. He stumbled on a textbook, Using Energy, with a snapshot of a windmill on the front cover. He found various pieces of scrap metal, batteries and an ancient radio and, coupled with the science and technology textbook, built a windmill that generates enough electricity to irrigate the land. 

In this story lies optimism, hope and courage. One young boy could defy the odds by using technology to solve social problems that help eradicate hunger and poverty and raise living standards, aligning to the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals.

There are strong similarities between this story about using technology for social good and Society 5.0, an initiative by Japan. Society 5.0 is the vision and blueprint for a smart society that aims to resolve various social problems by incorporating innovations and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, big data and multisided platforms into all facets of social and economic life. 

It is a fully integrated, data-driven, inclusive, human-centred and equitable society that balances economic advancement with resolving social challenges. The author of the Unesco Science Report, Yasushi Sato from Niigata University, further defines it as a society using next-generation technologies to simplify daily life, overcome global problems and solve each of the 17 sustainable development goals by 2030. 

Society 5.0 envisions a sustainable, inclusive socioeconomic system powered by next-generation digital technologies such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things and robotics. 

Products and services will be optimally delivered to people and tailored to meet their needs. Imagine autonomous vehicles and drones delivering goods and services to remote villages. Another example is 5G technologies enabling ambulances to become mobile hospitals where doctors could remotely control robots to deliver specialised operations in a remote village. 

The Japanese government acknowledges that this smart vision can only be achieved through the government and other stakeholders, such as the private sector and civil society, working together to solve societal challenges.

We are not Japan. And Africa has very different problems. But the ability to solve these using technology is real. 

Acha Leke, the author of Africa’s Business Revolution, argues that Africa has huge potential. The continent is home to more than 1.2 billion people, has a median age of 20, and has more than 122 million active users of mobile financial services who are radical adopters and innovators in everything digital. Yes, Africa has enormous gaps in education, health systems, electric power and transport infrastructure and is behind the curve in the ease-of-doing-business rankings. But, when benevolent leaders transform these difficulties into opportunities, they create real social impact by connecting people to previously unavailable services, boosting productivity and growth, and creating jobs at mass.

We have many examples of great technologies doing social good. A great example of financial inclusion is the Mpesa success story. According to a 2016 study on poverty and the effect of mobile money, it has been proven that increased access to mobile money in Kenya increased long-term consumption and lifted more than 2% of households out of poverty. 

In developing countries, with scarce resources such as bank branches and fixed-line telecommunications, cell phones are adopted to do daily financial transactions. Money is deposited into an account linked to a phone, which could then be transferred to other users and easily converted back into cash. Africa is well positioned to leapfrog historical and technological barriers by using next-generation technologies that deliver financial inclusion and eradicates poverty. 

In South Africa, we share similar difficulties. We need leaders who can reimagine these unsolved problems as opportunities to eradicate the high poverty levels, redress the education and infrastructure gaps, and protect the environment. 

In 480 BC, in ancient Greece, 300 Spartan warriors made a heroic last stand resisting a significant invasion force by the Persian Empire. Surrounded and outnumbered by a ratio of 40:1, they put up a spectacular fight showing the power of an army defending its native soil. The Spartans had a secret strategy for their success. It was their battle formation, also known as Hoplite warfare. The Hoplite war technique was a team effort. Half the shield was to protect yourself, and the other half protected the person to your left. Coordination and discipline were critical but most important of all was trust. If your neighbour broke rank, you would be exposed to the spear points of the enemy. 

Just as in the ancient Spartan wartime, South Africa must appoint 300 of our best leaders from government, business, civil society, and academia to address the social and economic problems. Three things are needed from these benevolent leaders to deliver impact, which include establishing a collaborative culture, well-entrenched trust and the sharing of a deeper purpose and a sense of ubuntu in solving our country’s problems.

 In addition, centres of excellence must be established that coordinate and focus on how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things and robotics can address healthcare, financial inclusion, smart energy grid and infrastructure and innovative public services. 

Finally, Graca Machel further advocates a social compact where all stakeholders accept a shared responsibility to solve Africa’s most significant social and economic challenges and meet the sustainable development goals. 

This enaissance provides a clean canvas where we can paint a new story. A story where technology can address the unique problems that create opportunity for all. Perhaps more than anywhere else, this is a country where we can do well by doing good.

Justin Siljeur is a lecturer in digital transformation at Stellenbosch Business School on the MBA and BMA programmes and the co-founder of Pétanque NXT Africa.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Justin Siljeur
Justin Siljeur is a lecturer in digital transformation at Stellenbosch Business School on the MBA and BMA programmes and the co-founder of Pétanque NXT Africa.

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