Reflections on the Madeira conference on ‘Strategic Narratives of Technology and Africa’


This blog is different to normal in that I am not providing my regular weekly review. I have been in Madeira for a conference last week. I will do a separate blog that looks at my life last week including details on non-conference aspects of my stay in Madeira. However here I present reflections on the conference itself including the thoughts it raised in me.

The conference itself

M-ITI logoThe theme was ‘Strategic Narratives of Technology and Africa’ and took place on Fri 1st and Sat 2nd Sept – two very intense days. It was organised by M-ITI (Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute). They have been doing research on Social Tech Ecosystems in Sub-Saharan Africa for me. Students and academics were drawn from across the world to present papers and discuss them. It was fundamentally about the development of technology in Africa and also the inter-action of art with this. I’m not sure that is the actual description but that is what I thought it was about.

I was warned it was primarily an academic conference. And that was true. Indeed, it took me back to my under and post-graduate days. I had forgotten the need to stake out a position which might be quite obscure though still interesting. My current job has made me a person striving for practical assistance to tackle poverty and social injustice, and I find frustration in too much over-thinking of problems. The art is finding the balance between thinking things through and taking action.

What I learnt

There was a selection of fascinating papers, obviously some better than others and some that I didn’t totally understand. Particular themes that came out for me:

    How the developed world / North / West can create its own narratives around technology in Africa that often fits its wishes and desires (generally related to profit or a sense of doing good) rather than the reality on the ground i.e. ‘mobile Africa’ or Africa ‘leapfrogging’ in its use of tech over other nations currently heavily using tech.
    That there is invention and creativity (including simply repair and making do) in Africa but some of the best stuff is very much based on what is real-life. This often isn’t app development but rather more practical and hardware based projects. These include creating local internet connections, community radio towers, using solar power to give people electricity off-grid, and hippo water rollers so that women can push or pull the water they collect rather than carrying it on their heads.

creating useful tech for the developing south

Technology in Africa

    Women were the majority of people at conference which was excellent. And in an African context, it is women who often suffer the most and have least voice. Technology and art must make their lives easier. It cannot just be about dealing with unemployed or underemployed young men.
    By spending time with people you understand more about their lives and how they use tech or aspire to use it. For instance, which social media people use and why plus how often they actually even have their phone switched on. The cost of data can be prohibitively expensive.
    There was a lot of reference to participatory design. The idea that we empower people to design the products and services that they need. However, it was pointed out that the level of participation is often lower than we think and we have much more power. For instance, we often decide where it will happen and about what. We (as in Westerners) are also the ones who decide what success is and how the work is portrayed. Perhaps even to the point of deciding which photos to show in a presentation some of which the people involved may not have liked.
    Tech hubs do have a role to play but they can’t be relied on to do everything or be given blind approval to do whatever they want. The business models of many have to be analysed to ensure they are realistic and fit local conditions. Similarly care needs to be taken with Telcos who provide the networks we wish to use. They are profit-driven (frequently monopolies) and will normally only provide service where it provides profit. And they can also look to snuff out innovation threatening their markets.
    There are problems with current forms of teaching and training young people about ICT. Often this is seen in a traditional university context or hubs providing coding classes. However some more creative (and practical) courses based on what works in the developed world can be unpopular and untrusted i.e. where young people perceive lack of academic rigour and clear guidance on when things are ‘correct’.
    Art can be a simple and popular way for people to present themselves. For instance, the appeal of radio in Africa is strong and many people still listen to it perhaps communely. Thus radio can be used as a real service for local communities to assist each other as well as providing entertainment.

Achille Mbembe

Famous African thinkerThe end presentation by this Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist, and public intellectual was excellent (as indeed also was the opening one by Nanjira Sambuli whose website can be found here), if not a bit depressing. Basically he set out the idea that nowhere in the world really welcomes black Africans and would ideally like to keep Africa self-contained. Fundamentally to make Africa into something like a prison camp but with internal borders that stop people moving around easily. This is linked to a general movement in the world towards putting up barriers (i.e. Brexit) and we do need to be careful where that leaves us in terms of people, ideas, and innovation being stopped, divided and neutered.

Where to from here?

On a work-based level of how we promote tech for good in Africa, the whole conference left me a bit lost. I think this is the risk of over-analysing, that it paralyses us into non-action. I need time to chew over it all and I am glad the main researcher of our report is coming to London to do some presentations. Perhaps the lesson is to find and invest in technology on the ground in Africa (and over developing nations) that really practically makes everyday lives better.

Believe in young people

One positive I did take from the conference was the importance of optimism and believing in young people. Africa is a very young continent whilst the developed North / West ages. Indeed the majority of people on my plane out were old and very self-centred. They were off on holiday and reading the Daily Mail. I was actually stuck with a nightmare baby-boomer couple in the hoppa minibus to my hotel. They went on lots of holidays and didn’t care where they went or its impact on others, all that mattered were that they got value for money. Indeed their favourite places were linked to being the cheapest!

Then at the conference you had all these young and enthusiastic people worried about poverty and climate change. There is definitely something serious to consider in barring older people from power (or time limit them) as they usually do everything  from their perspective of the past and impose it on young people who then have to live it. Again one only has to look at Brexit, Trump, and some of the African presidents.

On a personal level

The conference made me think about my own PhD period which was a huge and wasted opportunity. I spent three years researching and never wrote up. If I had done things better and completed it then my life would have been very different, probably as an academic.

Though from my life now I actually look back with slight sadness on my education so focused on history. Clearly I have empathy so I can relate to events that happen. But two probs. First, thestudy of history teaches you to see all sides and then reach a conclusion though not necessarily a judgement. That can also create circular patterns of over-thinking that stymies actually doing. Second, history in itself tells us nothing. It is the dead past whereas what really matters is the future. I think this conference was useful in that it made me think about different ways of seeing things particularly through creating and adapting to practical situations and non-Western/Northern/developed perspectives.

One final thought

People there were very comfortable with languages. Many were fluently speaking several languages at once i.e. a very pleasant female sculptor who fluently spoke English, Portuguese and Afrikaans at least. The conference was in English which suited me and other English speakers (such as from the USA and Canada). But we were so lucky that people were willing to accommodate our language inabilities. People in Europe are very sad about Brexit and genuinely don’t want us to go. Indeed they don’t understand why we are going (who does?). It is very unfortunate that we are throwing away such goodwill and flexibility.

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