The Big Idea: All over Africa, people are talking tech.
Technology already reaches deep into nearly every sector of African society. Internet use on mobile phones is expected to expand by 20 times its current rate over the next five years on the continent, double the rate of growth than the rest of the world. And countries all over the continent have tech as a core part of their development plans (think Rwanda 2020) – whether it’s the development of a software industry or a focus on broadband, or the establishment of tech-enabled entrepreneur platforms like Kenya’s iHub. Everyone is banking on tech as a source of jobs and inspiration.
At the same time, Africa – once seemingly so distant – is now a regular focus of young adults in the global north. There is a clear demand for online engagement from networks of fearless, innovative, tech-friendly young Africans. And today many in the global north see partnering with and working in Africa less as an adventure and more as a solid early career move – one that will set them apart in an increasingly dynamic international job market.
So how can we bring African youth and young adults more into the globalized online world? Why not start by building bridges – and programs – to create connections between young techies in Africa and the US? Building off of the old Peace Corps model – which sends mostly young adults to work in the developing world for two years at a time – why not form an Africa Tech Corps?
How It Could Work:The Peace Corps provides young Americans an invaluable opportunity to be exposed to other cultures. Many leaders in fields from economic development to security got their start as Peace Corps volunteers. Still, for many potential volunteers today, a two-year commitment is out of their reach. Moreover, most potential volunteers from the US don’t have backgrounds on agriculture or education, long mainstays of Peace Corps work – and they are unlikely to stay in those fields upon their return home. On the other hand, young adults growing up in the US have – almost by osmosis – both technology and some entrepreneurial experience. The idea of an Africa Tech Corps would be to take advantage of both strengths.
The system could be simple. Volunteers could be matched with local teams of young adults working together on a simple joint curriculum creating a joint learning experience. It would focus heavily on tech entrepreneurship – with the goal of launching mini-businesses, apps or other solutions out of each team. Importantly, outside of some basic connectivity and agreed rules of the road, the infrastructure needed would be very limited – and increasingly within the reach of all parts of the continent.
All manner of partnerships with suppliers of hardware and software could be possible. Essentially, ATC programs could live well beyond a volunteer’s period of service. With internet access, Skype and some simple legal documents to guide them, we can see ATC teams morphing into successful small companies which could help ideas born in one nation spread to populations all around the globe, using the web. ATC could offer real business-focused training aimed at creating real businesses, directly addressing issues of project sustainability and employment that have stymied the growth of these markets.
What Makes The Approach Cool:
It could change the dynamic: Africa Tech Corps would not simply be a program where Americans go teach the rest of the world something then go home. The program would be designed from the start as a joint curriculum to be approached together. It could also further change the mentality of both sides, helping them better see Africa as a vibrant and valuable consumer market.
Each side brings something key to the table: From the US side, ATC Volunteers contribute an integral knowledge of tech and entrepreneurship, while local ATC members bring understanding of global south markets – what people want and need.
It could last: Companies or projects started under ATC could last indefinitely, creating not only economic value, but also enabling team members to maintain and build relationships that could pay long-term dividends.
It could be self-supporting: We can imagine massive potential for partnerships with the private sector, governments and donors. Many of these local teams themselves could be economically successful themselves, serving as tech hubs and mini-incubators for the local community.
It will not reach the poorest – for now – but with the expansion of web-enabled cellphone service, it may not be long: In a real sense, the infrastructure for ATC will be expanding, helping the approach scale easily with time.