The 21stcentury has come with it a revolution. Not political revolutions akin to the ones sparked by Napoleon Bonaparte in France or John Okello in Zanzibar. In many ways, this revolution differs from previous industrial revolutions that occurred in Western Europe and Central America. This one is not only underpinned by unbridled innovations and creativity, but it is also creating more impact in the global south. Africa, a continent that has always lagged behind in the technological development is fiercely rising up to the occasion. This revolution is undeterred by geographical boundaries and its speed is unprecedented. 

Before the advent of the new millennia, change was slow, localized and less fascinating. The transition from foraging to farming made possible by the domestication of animals about 10,000 years ago felt like man’s pursuit to a greater productivity was an endless wild goose chase. Monumental progress ushered in by the first industrial revolution that spanned from 1760 to around 1840 was not wide spread as it mostly benefited England and Western Europe. Even the second industrial revolution from the late 19thCentury to early 20thCentury left several parts of the world unserved. As such, economic gains that resulted from steam engine invention, rail road construction and electricity generation among others were skewed in favor of the Western hemisphere.

In the 1960s and 70s when the wave of political independence was blowing across Africa, the third industrial revolution epitomized by mainframe and personal computing was being shaped in the West. Again, the continent was left behind. 

But in the 1990s, orange flashlights of digitization started blinking across Africa’s horizon. There was now a stark realization by the global community that exclusive advances in technology, politics and economics meant the undoing of great milestones that had been achieved. African digital and technological footprint started being felt and by the commencement of the 21st Century, many parts of Africa had started emerging out of their blackholes of technological aloofness.

Today, the best demonstration of this technological advance is perhaps the mobile money revolution. Almost instantaneously, we can now conduct businesses and impact millions of lives with a simple handheld device. Even most revolutionary in money transfers is the ease with which money is being sent from one part of the world to the next through platforms like World Remit and Western Union. 

Donnas Ojok

Another exhibition of today’s technological disruption is the rise of on-demand economy or what many of us might refer to as the sharing economy. It is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. This growth is well encapsulated by Media Strategist, Tom Goodwin when he wrote in 2015: ‘’Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owners creates no content. Alibaba, the world most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider owns no real estate’’. And let me also add that, Hello Food, Uganda’s biggest food supplier owns no restaurant. I am a proud beneficiary Airbnb’s hotel business disruption. A spare room in my rented house now contributes almost half of my monthly rent fare. The benefits that come with the cultural blend in my home are immeasurable. It almost feels like we are living in small world in our house.  

Empowerment

What’s most important about technological advancement is how it empowers. How it enables government-citizen engagement; how it promotes access to basic goods and services even to people at the bottom of the pyramid; how it comes to the rescue of those trapped in complex and humanitarian emergencies; how businesses can harness its emancipatory potential, for instance, through customer engagement and stakeholder collaborations; how it builds and strengthens social relationships and communities. 

But also, most importantly, how it can build a fairer, equal and an egalitarian global village. Not one that is skewed in favor of just a few rich and the struggling middle class to detriment of the majority poor urban slum dwellers and farmers in the rural areas.  This is essentially the greatest area of contestation in the technological advancement discourse. In fact, it is the central argument of Professor Juma Calestous’ book, Innovation at its Enemieswhich ‘draws from 600 years of technological controversies ranging from attacks on coffee in Medieval Middle East and Europe to today’s debates on the potential impact of AI, drones, 3-D printing, and gene editing. The book argues that society tends to reject new technologies when they substitute for, rather than augment, our humanity’. If we become oblivious about how technology divides societies, we shall all be guilty of perpetuating the grandest inequality project ever invented on the face of the planet. Addressing this requires being cognizant of our privileges and using that privilege to advance the cause for social and economic justice. 

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