Allow me to introduce Joseph Scarantino, whom I have a lot of respect for. I’ve spent the past few months reading his tweets on Twitter (@jscarantino) and learning a lot in the process. He’s clearly passionate about Africa and technology. I’ve invited him to answer a few questions about where his passions meet each other. Now, onto the questions:
Welcome and thanks for taking the time from your really busy schedule to answer some questions. Let’s dive right in.
1. I read on your website (JosephScarantino.com), that your passion for Africa began when you were a teen. Can you tell us more about the role that young people can play in the future of Africa? Young people are at a pivotal point in their lives where they interact with other young people on a very local and viral sense much different than adults. This gives them an advantage of getting involved in causes on a completely different level. One of the ways they can play a role in the future of Africa is by volunteering in local community or nonprofit efforts that are already making a difference in Africa. There are many groups out there doing great work that need a volunteer for an hour or two every week. Even better, young people can tell their peers about activities they are doing and open up many other people to dialogue about things that are happening in Africa. Many of the greatest efforts I’ve seen from young people happen right in their own schools when they make an effort to focus some of their school projects on Africa. This has a double impact by helping to break the cycle of misinformation about Africa that is so prevalent. Having said that, I think the burden ultimately lies on the nonprofits to get creative with young people and figure out new ways to keep them engaged.
2. Traditionally the high tech sector has been led by North America, Asia and Europe. Do you see Africa’s influence gaining ground anytime soon? I definitely do and we are already seeing signs of Africa’s influence increasing, particularly in the realm of mobile banking and the rise of technology incubators and co-working spaces such as the new iHub in Nairobi and Limbe Labs in Cameroon, among others. Technological progress in Africa is everywhere we look, but is often happening on a much more micro-level than what we are accustomed to (i.e. the Microsoft’s and Apple’s of the West) until the big breakthrough happens. An example of progress would be the number of mobile users currently using mobile banking as their primary way of trading money. In many ways Africa is leapfrogging developed countries in technology use and the innovation is everywhere on that continent from mobile to Web. Without a doubt, we will see a true technological revolution in Africa this decade.
3. In your opinion, what countries show the most promise and why? Well, the obvious technology leaders of today are often distinguished as Nigeria, Kenya & South Africa, but many smaller countries are poised to rise up and become technology leaders in the next 5-10 years such as Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and many others. My forecast is that many of these smaller countries are going to excel in technology much faster due to the very nature of their size and scale of economies. Rwanda in particular has a great opportunity pending their government’s willingness to keep the economy open and operating on a free-market. I have my eye on Rwanda but don’t let the size of these smaller countries fool you.
4. Some disagree with the view that high tech is what we should invest in. They say that it is more important to put resources into basic infrastructure such as roads, education and access to food and clean water. What is your response to their views? This argument isn’t anything new. I certainly don’t disagree that money needs to be allocated to infrastructure needs first and foremost. However, having said that, technology is undoubtedly now a part of those infrastructure needs and must be considered equally, particularly in regards to education and communication. I believe the right approach is to analyze what the needs are and go from there. It is impossible to make a generic assessment of Africa as a whole when each country has a separate set of obstacles they are facing and are at different economic crossroads. Some need technology more than others, but all can use it in areas that will benefit the bottom line. It’s more of a matter of timing and necessity. People are quickly finding out that Africa is a continent of great economic diversity, so there are a lot of things to take into consideration when facing this question. It’s not so easy to disagree with technology when it is quickly becoming the solution to many of these problems.
5. Do you think that tech (i.e.: Access to, cybercafés, cell phones, wireless internet, etc.) is a “plus” or is it an essential component in Africa’s basic development? Even if I did not work in the technology field, I would most definitely say it is a necessity to have in Africa. We need to change the mindset to think in terms of access to information, education, and human rights. Whether people are examining the human rights benefit of technology or the economic benefit of technology, having access to information through technology empowers people on multiple levels. Technology connects people, it empowers people, it increases access to information, it does all of these things and more to everyone’s benefit. Once we put information in its proper context, then we can begin to make choices that have lasting effects on society.
6. As I’m sure you know, one of my passions is women and children in Africa. I understand the role that fair trade plays in improving their lives. Would you tell me what role high tech can play in making the average rural mother’s life better? The first example that springs to mind comes from the fact that African women make up over 60 percent of the agricultural workforce. Yet there is very little data out there about their agricultural practices in regards to gender and how that yield (big or small) affects the family from a community level to a national production level. Technology is helping these women learn from each other to improve their agricultural practices as well as form farming co-ops. It is also technology that helps feed this data to entities ranging from local governments to international NGO’s so they know where the need exists and what has worked versus what has not worked. All of this can be done from a simple cell phone. More recently, the UN launched an innovative program called the Agri-Gender Statistics Toolkit that does exactly that and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples to follow. Another agriculture-related example is how mobile technology is helping women check prices of their produce throughout the region before heading to market. In the information age, data rules and the person with the most up-to-date and accurate data has the advantage. Technology is helping women all over the continent, and often in areas where we least suspect it. I’m still being surprised by how new technology is helping people in rural areas.
7. What projects are you currently working on (or hearing about) that have you most excited? I am currently pouring all of my time into the African Tech Network, a for-profit initiative to help bring benefits to Africans working in technology. The idea behind ATN is to build community among technologists, create tangible opportunities for economic benefit, and to contribute to their continuing education. It’s a three-pronged approach that is already having some positive results with members from 10 countries so far. One of my partners, Simeon Oriko, is a bright young man from Kenya who has given me much inspiration to move forward with this initiative. So far, the rest of the tech community has been very supportive and I believe some really great things are ahead of us. On a side note, I do have to say that there is never a dull moment working on tech in Africa. Constant progress is being made and the people you get to work with are truly inspiring. I wouldn’t pick any other industry to work in.
8. Finally, what is Africa Gathering and how can it improve the life of a mother or child in the poorest regions of Africa today? Africa Gathering is an informal meet-up about people from all walks of life coming together to share innovative ideas that have Africa at the center of their focus. What I believe Africa Gathering can do is offer a forum for anyone who might have an idea that could directly benefit African mothers and their children. Whether the idea is based in technology or not, Africa Gathering is a great place to tell others about something you are doing that is having a positive impact. It doesn’t even have to be an idea, but can be a functioning nonprofit or business that you would like to share with the world. Also, the relationships you will build from any Africa Gathering meeting are priceless. I left the Washington DC Africa Gathering feeling energized and very encouraged. Many of the people I met there I had only met online, so it was much like a reunion of sorts.
I know you are a really busy guy and your willingness to come by Mama’s Round Table to chat is greatly appreciated! So, again, thanks so much for your time and most of all for sharing your viewpoint with my readers! It really means a lot to me and to them.