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The Making of a Revolution

The success or failure of cheap, reliable, internet


connectivity in (East) Africa
Mworia Wilfred Mutua
6/1/2009

A lot has been said about the sub-marine fiber cables becoming operational in a month or so, and the
expected boom to follow but is this all there is to it?
A year or two ago I got to read a book that I think literally changed my world view and to some extent
shaped my thought and perception. This book did not really impact me necessarily because of the
specific points raised by the author (though I definitely agreed and in some cases had some arguments
that did not necessarily completely agree with the author’s point of view); but because of some of the
subtle ‘principles’ that I gleaned out of this book. And I think in a way one key principle I got is
something that I can dare prophesy over my country, Kenya and by extension a good part of Africa, at
least in terms of technology. The book is Thomas Friedman’s ‘The World is Flat’.

A lot has been said about the sub-marine fiber cables becoming operational in a month or so, and the
expected ‘internet boom’ to follow, hurray for cheap internet access! Personally, I have been taking all
these predictions and expectations with a pinch of salt. I think the fiber will have an impact, but in itself,
will not really do that much to change Kenya/Africa’s technology landscape significantly. That’s a pretty
interesting statement. Everyone seems to think that the fiber will change Africa’s technology situation
seemingly overnight, all of a sudden, Kenya (Africa) will be connected! My question is, ‘and then what’?

Perhaps I should state where I’m coming from with this: there will be change, companies will experience
reduced costs of operations due to internet costs coming down, and we will definitely see a few call
centers and some outsourcing centers (hopefully) coming up. (Here’s the ‘but’) But, we might not see
what I would call fundamental or significant change. I should state what I mean by this –
fundamental/significant change is what happens when something happens that cannot be ignored, a
phenomenon that deeply impacts lives and the livelihoods of people so much that people can almost
not live without making explicit reference to it. Let me illustrate with an example; the internet (or more
precisely the World Wide Web) boom and bust in the US was a significant/fundamental change; in fact
the internet (revolution) in itself, from a global perspective is a significant/fundamental change; going
further back in time, the PC revolution was a significant/fundamental change.

Why is this? Well, it’s simply because these phenomena have left an indelible mark in our lives and our
livelihoods. Proving this is very simple, have you ever had someone ask something like ‘how did we ever
get by without Email (or Google or computers or…)’. In Africa, I think there has been one technological
phenomenon that has had this kind of fundamental/significant impact and that is mobile technology and
mobile devices – although I should also say that it’s not yet over, we’re just in the process of seeing even
more explosions in this area (but this article is not about that). Based on this argument of
fundamental/significant change, I think, that a grave mistake is being made in the claim (which has
become a very famous claim), that the coming of sub-marine fiber connectivity and its benefits will in
itself create such a fundamental/significant change (note where the emphasis is).

Now, here’s the thing, referring to the examples I gave to prove this whole fundamental/significant
change ‘theory’ – each of the examples I gave (the PC revolution, internet revolution, boom & bust) all
seem to have something generally in common and that is that they can all be rightfully referred to in
some sense as ‘revolutions’. Revolutions, precisely because they had such impact that, years later, their
effect is still felt and can be seen literally everywhere; they were turning points; out of them came new
ways of thinking or doing things, even living! – from the PC revolution, the notion that computers are
actually useful as ‘consumer’ goods and that they can be used in everyday life situations and not just in
the scientific community; from the internet revolution, the fact that connecting computers together can
other than being a cool thing to do have very useful advantages and from the boom/bust that the
internet and WWW can be used as a place to make money, a ‘marketplace’. So we can equate this
significant/fundamental change theory to a revolution, a technological revolution. And this word
(‘revolution’) has been used verbatim by many in describing what they expect in the next few months as
SEACOM and other sub-marine fiber projects complete.

So, here we are at last – a revolution. But is it really so easy to create this, ‘revolution’? Is it as simple as
just providing cheap, reliable, fast internet? Well, I don’t think so. I think what we will have is not really a
revolution but a potential revolution at most. In fact, my greatest fear is that, we might hit the ceiling of
what this fiber connectivity could mean really fast, and that ceiling may not even be that high! West
Africa has been connected for a while now, but I don’t think we’ve really seen a revolution or
fundamental/significant change there. Yet, India, has had fundamental/significant – revolutionary –
change! This is a quagmire.

And here is where I bring in what I learnt from Thomas Friedman’s book. Friedman argues in his book
that there is a convergence of factors (note the emphasis) that has made the world ‘flat’. He specifically
points out ten factors that according to him have made this happen.

The key thing to note here is that it takes several things, developing – in some cases totally separately -
and at some point converging to create a revolution or, fundamental/significant change. This can be said
of all the examples given. Even the growth and explosion of mobile telephony in Africa can be attributed
to this. This is why I believe that this whole fiber hype may be over-rated if not balanced out with a
number of other factors which are just as important. The fiber is a single component, it could be the
most important component or at the very least a very important component – I do not argue with that;
but the thing to note is that it is a component nonetheless! And components in themselves do not make
wholes.

Earlier on I contrasted West Africa to India, with the latter having fundamental/significant,
revolutionary, kind of change at least in part due to good/cheap connectivity. Friedman in his book to
some extent elaborates on India and the boom that has happened there and brings out other aspects
other than the connectivity factor alone that has made India what it is today. One key factor is the fact
that for a long time, India was running technology education centers and so they also had very ready
and very high skilled people to drive the revolution.

Up to this point, I can only hope that I have made my position on the ‘fiber factor’ clear and have
sufficiently justified that standpoint. However, stating the problem alone does not solve it. Hence in the
next part of this short article, I will attempt to point out the major areas that I think, need to be
developed significantly in order to get to a point where the connectivity really pays off in a very
sustainable, and economic, way.

Here are the key things, in addition to cheap, reliable, fast internet connectivity:

1. Education (Technology education)


2. A ‘startup’ culture
3. Specialized financing
4. Policy and regulation

These are, I think, the four major pillars (5 in addition to cheap, reliable, fast internet connectivity.

Education

Here the focus is on technical education i.e. ensuring that the potential creators of innovative services
and solutions have the right skills. The world of technology is very dynamic. The fact of the matter is that
technology education in Kenya (and most parts of Africa) is lacking. There’s a statistic that technical
knowledge doubles every two years. Furthermore, even without new knowledge coming in, there’s the
simple fact that technical knowledge changes a lot, some of the same concepts that came into play a
year or so ago have either been subsumed by new knowledge about that area or at least have had
developments to the underlying principles. If technical knowledge changes every two years, it means
that an undergraduate student getting into a technology-related field of study will be lacking in relevant
knowledge two years down the line if they do not keep up with the industry.

The case is even worse in cases where universities are teaching outdated or even obsolete technology.
An example is the fact that many institutions are still teaching Visual Basic 6 while the Visual Basic
programming language has greatly evolved with the introduction and evolution of the .NET platform. In
fact, many institutions do not even teach the .NET platform. The point here is not to be biased towards
Microsoft technologies but to illustrate the fact that students are not necessarily getting relevant skills.
So a student graduates into the industry and interestingly finds that most of the demands being made
upon him/her to be productive with the latest industry trends are too much for them and they have to
learn a whole lot in a very short time or in some cases, even un-learn what they know first and learn
new paradigms.

Therefore, there needs to be a move to strengthen technology curricula.

The other argument here is that these students will be competing in a ‘flat’ world; they will need to
compete with their counterparts in other places around the world. If it is cheap to get someone from
across the world to get some work done due to fast, cheap, reliable internet, it means that the
differentiating factor will be the level of skill of the worker. If the local technological labor market does
not offer the relevant skills, then these students may find themselves in a tough spot.

Furthermore there should be an attempt to get students started on technology in a very serious way
before they even get to the tertiary level of education. In fact, the problem of relevant technological
education could be more serious at the secondary school level.

The other angle of this particular aspect comes from the learner’s perspective, where the learner is
motivated and passionate about technology. Motivated beyond getting a grade and simply passing a
class to being passionate about technology!

A ‘startup’ Culture

This is related in a sense to the previous point and is perhaps one of the more challenging ones since it
deals with the development of a culture, a culture of technological innovation and inventiveness. The
huge success of Silicon Valley can be attributed to a large extent due to this ‘startup’ culture. The startup
culture is simply a culture where experimentation is encouraged, a culture where students and the
larger technological community is constantly, and almost at a serial rate, inventing. Here’s an
illustration: if say, only 1 out of 10 product inventions (of a particular kind, in this case technological)
really make it to market as ‘killer products’, then it may be close to impossible to create an economically
sustainable market system for that kind of product with only 20 attempts at invention in that product
area exist, because you would be looking at only 2 success stories. But suppose you had 10,000 such
attempts. Using the ratio of 1 success to 10 tries; it means you would have 1000 success stories! And
that is not just an economically sustainable market system, but a very vibrant one.

This is what the startup culture is - having multiple people or groups of people ‘inventing’, being
innovative (specifically in software based kinds of innovation since these are easier to get started and
faster).

What makes this even more interesting is if this culture is started from the academic environment such
that majority of the innovation is happening in academic institutions and students are starting up all
sorts of cool things. This would mean that technology education is actually being successful at imparting
relevant skills and that students are passionate about technology.

This point could be elaborated more along the lines of having a net production (of locally produced - but
not necessarily locally consumed internet services) vs. a net consumption (of foreign produced internet
services).

Specialized Financing

The previous point about a startup culture would be wasted without this. Today, in Kenya and East
Africa, there’s a lack of venture capital firms interested in funding software startups. It seems like such a
risky business. There is very little or no push or incentive for venture capitalists and angel financiers
specialized to financing software startups to exist. This incentive would be in the form of precisely the
startup culture. The reason why there are so many such financiers in Silicon Valley and the reason why
they are so successful is because Silicon Valley is a hub of technological inventiveness, right out of the
universities. In other words, Silicon Valley and the related universities have the startup culture. There
being a good number of possibly profitable technological ventures to finance creates a need for the
financiers to fulfill.

Policy and Regulation


This concerns making sure that there is a good policy framework and regulatory framework for people’s
ideas to be protected and for these startups to succeed.

There may be other factors to consider in addition to these as well as the ‘fiber factor’. However, these
four (five, including cheap, reliable, fast internet) are top of the list.

In conclusion: they say Rome was not built in a day; similarly, revolutions are not built in a day. It took
several years before all the factors necessary were developed to such an extent that there was an
explosion whether in regards to the PC revolution or the internet revolution or India or whatever else.
The unfortunate thing is that these ‘revolutions’ only become visible or evident at the point of
convergence, when the necessary factors are in place, the components have matured enough and the
convergence points are clear and there is a critical mass to push the phenomenon forward in a
significant/fundamental way. It is easy to look at this evident result without considering what went into
making it. I believe we are literally in a stone age in a sense, there are a number of years ahead. The
current situation, with the completion of the fiber connectivity, can be viewed somewhat as the point
whereby the collision (i.e. big bang collision possibly) occurred, there’s a bit of uncertainty, but certainly
the possibilities ahead are numerous, even amazing; but we cannot treat the collision itself as the end
result since it only serves to start the process of the creation of a universe.