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An African Hunger

April 24, 2012

Africans know hardware. I have never known more innately curious people than the Mozambicans that I lived with. If something stopped working, they did the only thing they knew how to do; they took that thing apart, messed around with its wiring, and then put it all back together again. Then they just kept their fingers crossed that the thing would work. Telephones, televisions, radios, even computers. The nephew of a neighbor of mine devoured any electronic I could throw at him. He played around with radios, batteries, voltage regulators. He was fascinated by what was on the inside of these gadgets – gadgets that we have taken for granted.

My friend Tobias tries to fix a mobile phone.

As smartphones migrate to the developing world, it will become ever more important for homegrown technology talent: software engineers, programmers, and developers. I met many Africans, in Mozambique, Ethiopia, and South Africa, who understood the hardware. I had a much harder time finding Africans who knew software (at least outside of the more developed South Africa). A number of African nations are on the cusp of a digital revolution, but they lack the programming capability to take economic advantage of it.

In Mozambique, many of my students possessed the hunger. They wanted to learn about computers. I once taught a class English computer vocabulary using, not an actual computer, but a drawing of a computer. It was a poor substitute. A friend of mine once delivered an hour-long lecture on the mouse because the few computers available at his school were all broken. Even in the cities, using a computer for just an hour could cost as much as $1, which adds up if you have little or no income. Internet connections were almost mind-bogglingly slow in most countries I visited. Only in South Africa did I ever connect at a speed that didn’t leave me twiddling my thumbs, waiting for a page to load.

The online education revolution could change all of this. Websites like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and others offer college-level courses to people around the world. All it takes is an Internet connection. Smartphones will make an impact. Increased access will make an impact. Faster Internet will make a big difference. Africa’s young people know that their digital future is just around the corner, they can sense it. It is tremendous optimism mixed with fear – fear that forces outside their control (their government, the West, war, etc.) will snuff out the greatest hope they’ve ever had.

It will take years yet, but the young people I met wanted desperately to find meaningful work. They wanted to learn new things. Most importantly, few of these young people wanted to leave their home nations. They expressed their desire to stay and make their home countries great, the pride of Africa. All they need is an opportunity.

The next time your child complains about his Internet connection, tell him: “Think of the children in Africa, starving for an Internet connection like yours.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. themillsinmoz1 permalink
    April 24, 2012 11:14 AM

    And then think of the poor teachers who are trying to teach their students how to use a computer with hardly any working resources. However, your stories about Mozambicans opening electronics up and fixing them reminds me of one time when I couldn’t plug in a computer because I was out of extension chords so the Director at the school just cut the end of the plug off and jammed the wires in the same socket where another computer was plugged in. How they manage to survive these endeavors is beyond me but it definitely shows both their resilience and desire to make things work.

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