Foreign Policy Blogs

Do Good But Don’t Offend Africa

Do Good But Don't Offend Africa

Children at Rema Primary School in Ethiopia with their OLPC computers. Photo by Panos/Petterik Wiggers

Guest post by Andy Kristian Agaba

Recently, a friend recently sent forwarded to me an article he had read curious to hear what my opinion was. He wrote that after reading the article, he had mixed emotions of which I am not keenly aware as I didn’t bother to ask. After responding to him, I felt that I needed to address this issue to a wider audience.

The article, published in Mashable, is a triumphant tale of an organization that seems to be making remarkable work in poor countries (Africa) by introducing an education alternative. At first, the ambitious goal was to provide one laptop per child, hence the derivation of the name, and now the program seeks to provide a tablet per child as the computing industry has been disrupted by handheld devices.

By thinking and pioneering in that direction, OLPC is commendable. They realize the potential for educating millions of African children by getting them acquainted with technologies and sparking thinking and creativity that erstwhile would have been difficult to achieve. Even then, as The Economist reports, OLPC methodology has not proven to improve test scores in poor countries such as Peru where it is massively present.

Africa’s huge youthful demographic presents a big opportunity for growth for the continent, but also a potential catastrophe if new opportunities are not created. According to the World Bank, 70 per cent of Africa’s 1.03 billion people are 30 years old and under. Educating this population and exposing and intentionally including them in global technologies is both crucial and urgent, so that the potential of African youth does not become a missed opportunity.

Mobile penetration on the continent is among the fastest rising, with an estimated 1 billion connected handsets projected to be in the hands of the people by 2016. The Next Web reports that by then, Africa will be the second largest mobile market in the world, only next to Asia. Although internet connectivity is still sparse and expensive, these costs are likely to go down with increased investment, competition and economic growth.

Tablet computers will therefore be the way of life especially when businesses and telecommunications companies realize this enormous opportunity and start to make cheap tablets that are accessible and affordable to people at the last mile. Already, India has such a program while a young African entrepreneur in Nigeria, Saheed Adepoju, has started producing first African-made tablet. At $200 the tablet is still very expensive, but when Amazon starts to sell the Paperwhite Kindle at $120, you know that a $50 or less tablet is around the corner in a matter of months.

Tablets and mobile computing units are what will truly change the game in Africa, especially when it comes to knowledge acquisition and learning, market access, economic participation, information access, content production and civic engagement. The 30 years and under demographic is perfect. The youth, whether with or without formal training, will adopt and adapt to new methods, provided applications and content is developed with the potential limitations to this technological immersion are considered.

Therefore, in taking laptops and tablets to first graders and poor kids, OLPC is light years ahead of most of us and they deserve due credit. But I found one statement offensive, which to me insinuated much. OLPC founder, Nicholas Negroponte, in his exuberant report of discovery, describing how they delivered tablets to kids in the Ethiopian villages “taped shut, with no instruction” declares, “I thought the kids (first graders or 6 – 7 years of age kids) would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch…powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android.”

I grew up in a village, not 40 minutes from Addis Ababa but about 300 miles from Kampala, and by age of 5 I could sing the ABCs. To suggest that a poor African child of sound mind would not have the intelligence and sense of discovery at a basic minimum is repugnant. I am aware that I have jumped onto one statement, but this is where the sales pitch for OLPC and the common trend for many development entrepreneurs/organizations lies. That somehow, one man and his organization must save the day.

My less than one year old child and indeed many other infants who are exposed to devices can figure out how to use an iPhone; intelligently use the home button, move apps icons around, and then inadvertently delete them. It is not surprising therefore that when OLPC dropped off tablets to a rural village in Ethiopia, the kids were able to figure out stuff. In fact, many (unschooled) Africans, despite enormous limitations have been on the path of discovery, basic innovation and scientific inquiry for generations.

90% of auto mechanics in Africa have no formal education, and yet they have the ability to repair engines that require complex science and knowledge of electricity. It is amazing to me how people with no education and no reading abilities at all are able to repair electronic radios, cell phones, other electronics, and fix other machines.

Let me emphasize that I support any ideas of creatively fixing the education, learning and other development deficits like this program is doing or wants to do. Evaluating its success and failures is for the experts. But actions and comments that continue to place Africans, and indeed the poor everywhere, as second rate are not helpful and we will continue to reject them.

Andy Kristian Agaba is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Hiinga, Inc., an Agricultural Social Enterprise working to end hunger and alleviate poverty in village communities of East Africa.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa