“Two thirds of all stories about mobile phone use in Africa are illustrated by the journalist using a picture of a Masai warrior,” says Dr Jasper Grosskurth, “Please ask them stop.”
Grosskurth thinks about phones and Africa’s digital future a lot. He’s a futurist for Research Solutions Africa, and he sees two common themes in today’s prophecies.
“You can imagine positive futures [for Africa] and dystopian futures,” he said to the audience at TEDxJohannesburg this afternoon, “The trick is that positive futures require work on behalf of the people of the continent.”
Grosskurth comes down on the side of positive futures, on the whole, driven by innovation and digital skills which will transform the continent “faster than the change in the mindset of observers” who still see mud huts and tribesmen.
He gives an example: “Household power is changing fast, solar is already taking over from kerosene for lighting.”
Power use and generation is critical, Grosskurth says, and it’s unlikely that infrastructure will improve quickly enough. He is full of stats about energy production on the continent. Whatever you think of Eskom, South Africa is a long way ahead of its neighbours.
According to Grosskurth, Rwanda would need to increase energy output tenfold to produce the same amount of power per capita as Ghana, which would have to increase by the same amount to reach the levels enjoyed by South Africa. Kenya – where backup generator capacity is twice that of the national grid – sees energy production per capita as being more or less on a par with the amount of electricity produced by the human brain.
Tech hubs, which are springing up all over the continent, will play a big part in the future development of the continent says Grosskurth, encouraging entrepreneurs to develop locally relevant technology and apps. That’s a subject the next speaker knows a lot about.
Prof Barry Dwolatzky of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Excellence (JCSE) is in the middle of revamping the old Inc nightclub in Braamfontein into a massive tech hub, the Tshimologong Precinct. He also says there are two alternatives for the future.
“My concern for most of my life has been youth and young people,” he says, “I teach at university and train engineers. There are two visions of youth. The low road is that in Africa 60% unemployed people are between 15-24 years old.”
While acknowledging the huge issues around youth unemployment, Dwolatzky believes they’re not insurmountable.
“The bright view is that I am always amazed at the energy of young people.” he says, “Our challenge is how to create opportunities for our young people and give them a stake in the future.”
Specifically, Dwolatzky says, its digital skills which will provide those opportunities, in industries that don’t even exist yet.
“We have to think about how the youth of Africa can play in that sweet spot to become creators of this new technology.” he says, “We have to be innovators, not consumers. In digital innovation we get new things, and in learning about them we get to dream up ideas about how it can be used in a way that wasn’t intended.”