A different kind of future for Africa

It’s the morning of 1 January, 2018 and Africa is waking up to the New Year. All across the continent, Africans are thinking about what’s changed for them over the past year and what they’d like to see in the coming year. Russell Southwood engages in a piece of imaginative speculation about the different kind of Africa that might emerge.

Christmas and the turn of the year are the time when everyone in the tech sector makes predictions. This gadget or app will succeed and this or that trend will become popular: we’re not immune to this ourselves. However, isolated tech trend spotting somehow fails to capture a bigger picture.

What follows is a fictional attempt to try and imagine some of the changes that will happen over the next five years and the how these will inter-relate with technology. Some people live technology but most of us live our lives and technology contributes to them.

Nairobi: Gitonga looks out the grimy office window in his incubator space at the slow-moving traffic before leaping from his chair and executing a triumphal dance. He’s just got off the phone from a US company who’ve accepted his software concept and want to sign contracts shortly. There are the details but there are always the details.

He twitches his phone into life and by habit checks the daily headlines and stories. There’s an election coming soon and the most popular candidate is from what’s being dubbed the digital generation. His age? 45, not the usual geriatric dinosaur. His wife complains there’s no women candidates who have a chance but give it time, he says to her, things are changing.

There’s another headline about a Chinese hi-tech firm opening its first research facility in the slowly emerging Konza Techno City. He wonders at the constant arguments and allegations of corruption that have beset its construction. He’s pleased that the local city councillors finally seem to understand that they now have a problem with the city centre where is incubator space is based. One Green-tinged Councillor is talking of planting trees along the main avenues and forcing owners to maintain their property frontages but it needs more than that.

He has a meeting across town and wonders to himself whether it would make better sense to take the train or the car. The train still doesn’t have enough stops so he had to complete the journey on foot, something that would please his wife who often comments on his growing waistline. Gym time always seems to drop off the schedule.

The city’s changed so much in the last five years, it’s hard to keep track of it. All the Chinese built roads have improved the flow of traffic but the number of cars seems to grow relentlessly. The old tenement buildings across the city are slowly being torn down and being replaced with tenements that have slightly larger rooms. But the tenants are already sub-dividing them to generate themselves some more income.

The slums like Kibera have become cities in themselves: there’s a local politician from Kibera who has grown his own small media empire with a radio station and a mobile newspaper. A local developer is sell kit-built shacks that are somewhat more robust than those you might build yourself and they’ve got a built-in wi-fi receiver.

David takes the train and although it’s late, he uses the time to scan his content device. He’s always slightly amazed to realize how full it’s become and flicks the screen to pull up the journey’s soundtrack. He reads a local thriller writer whose central character Kimunya is a policeman of ambiguous moral compass who manages to solve high-profile murders, whilst avoiding the political wrath of his boss. He’ll leave watching the Kenyan movie he started until his return journey.

Soldiers keep getting on the train as there is a training camp at the end of the line. His brother is in the army far away in Task Force Elephant on a confidential assignment somewhere in the badlands. He runs a local counter-terrorism task force for an un-named country, having got his spurs when the war in Somalia wound down.

His wife has started work two hours ago as an administrator in a large health clinic. She knows that although the electricity supply has improved over the last several years that unless she gets all the appointments in place before 11am, there’s likely to be a power surge that will knock out all their computers. Luckily, they have a back-up with a local data centre but re-instating the system will take several precious hours from their technician.

These days the clinic seems to be getting more and more crowded and with more people getting jobs, more and more of them are buying “mobile pocket” health insurance. They’re not polite as in the old days: everybody wants more and they want it now. She worries for her two children who they’ve got in secondary school. She checks in with her maid by video-phone (which doubles as a security check) to ensure that she’ll be there when the boys get back.

Every evening she settles them down to the virtual tutor and the edutainment games that help them understand their school homework and projects . It seems so unfair not to let them watch the TV but you have to draw a line somewhere…One of them’s so bright and hardworking but the other one is a day-dreamer and keeps talking about dressing Zepp-style. If only she could make sense of what he talked about: you can’t blame the Internet for everything.

Meanwhile in Lagos: Abi knows that she’s not going to make her first meeting of the day. As a fashion designer, she was trying to meet the wife of a rich client who wanted to see her latest collection and might order. But she’s not worried because using a brilliant local app called “I’m on my way”, they agreed they will meet at a different time. Why’s she late? Partly because her boyfriend took so long getting out of the house (who said women use the bathroom longest?) and partly because one of the bridges is closed for an accident.

It’s hard to know whether an accident is euphemism for another bomb. Ever since the peace agreement with Boko Haram that was signed two years ago, endless splinter groups have been trying to get everyone’s attention. But bombs were really only the half of it. There seems to be a bitter hate campaign being waged on SMS against Christians in the north that occasionally ends in murder.

Abi marvels constantly at her ability to get anything done in this city. It has improved enormously but something always seems to be going wrong. Despite this stop-start progress, she’s amazed that she can now send her designs across town to be made up. She has a runway collection where individual items are put together in 72 hours and a retail collection that sells well in the country’s 100+ malls. But if she didn’t have online sales she doesn’t where she’d be.

Her boyfriend works in the Future City department of Lagos State Government and as far as she can make out, he seems like a high paid “step-and-fetch-it” for his boss who’s rarely “on seat”. Her boyfriend’s ambitious but she worries whether he’s sincere.

The boss is driving the Future City Lagos programme, which includes an expanding Media City and a financial quarter on VI designed by internationally famous African architect. The less fancy end of all this activity is a network of rather grubby incubator units on the mainland to help young people start businesses. Oh, and five new markets to help try and coral street traders off the main routes of the city.

One of her girlfriends is pressing her to go and see the latest Nollywood movie by a director who’s been asked to Hollywood to direct a Nigerian Western. Things Nigerian are becoming so fashionable globally: it makes sense if you look at all those skinny white boys who seem to have less and less work than they used to. She keeps dreaming that one day some big fashion house will ring but she knows it’s only a dream.

Meanwhile her boyfriend Tunde in the Future City department has a different problem. An international investor is visiting and looking at putting in a large data centre. He’s been courting him for a long time and has been showing him around the more forgiving parts of VI and the near mainland, But you have to let them off the leash sometime. The man was flying to Abuja to see the Government and you only have to turn your head and some lowly employee of the regional airline asked him for “dash” in order for him to get on the plane in time. Now he’s complaining…

Lagos is like the fly. If it stopped to think about how it was flying, it wouldn’t. So Tunde has to try and make the best hand he can of the erratic power, the endless jams that the light railway has made little impact on and the endless complaining. Things getting better, only seems to make people want more. Only the other day, three stockbroker friends of his with nice apartments in Lekki were asking when proper roads were going to be built to the doorsteps of their complexes. Whatever next?

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A different kind of future for Africa