High-tech for the future of Africa

Public Domain - NASA

Public Domain - NASA

Jonathan Ledgard, Africa correspondent at The Economist, warned that now is the time to deal with the population explosion in African cities during his Landolt & Cie Chair Lecture in front of a packed audience last week.

Africa is youth-centric. Over half of its sub-Saharan population is less than 19 years old, immensely creative, entrepreneurial, a powerhouse for finding solutions through reverse engineering. But projections show that the majority of the youth will come of age in countries where job markets are too weak to absorb them, in cities that do not yet exist, and in a changed climate. In his Landolt & Cie Chair Lecture last week, Jonathan Ledgard, East-Africa correspondent at The Economist and currently on sabbatical at EPFL, pointed at the potential role that high-tech could play in employing the young and solving many of the continent’s problems.

In his talk, Ledgard showed that the cell-phone, and in particular the Nokia 1100, had proven that technology could be made affordable to the African population at large. Internet access has now hit “sub-banana” rates, meaning that in many parts of the continent, the average daily consumption of data has gone from being unaffordable to all but the richest to being cheaper than a banana. But, he said, it was important not to stop at the cell phone.

High-tech could play an important role as well. Ledgard defined high-tech as the most advanced technology available to solve existing problems, citing some unlikely yet real examples: bicycle rickshaws with WiFi connections to increase internet access, and latrines which use microwaves to transform human waste into water and a fuel source. Hardware hacking, 3D printing, and reverse innovation could be taught at technical universities, still desperately lacking in Africa, to empower young students to solve the problems they are confronted with on a daily basis.

In the active discussion that followed the talk and continued during the reception, Ledgard shared his hope to bring people from academia, politics and financial institutions around the table to start thinking about the future of Africa in a new way.

Jonathan Ledgard is the author of a new book, Submergence.