Africans, African diaspora included, could do a lot to help their own continent develop and raise to glory. Why aren't they doing anything? And if they are, why isn't it enough? Legit.ng guest author Mawuna Koutonin takes a closer look at the problem and comes up with a number of solutions.
Africans are sending their kids to school to gain knowledge that would help solve their problems, but the kids are yet to fulfill that promise. They have betrayed the hope and prefer to go to work for the banks and international organizations, leaving their people crushed by a fast-changing world they lack the knowledge and skills to deal with.
According to the African Development Bank, there are 30 million Africans in the diaspora. In developed host countries like the US, Canada, the UK, France, Africans are often among the most educated people. In the US, for example, 58% of Nigerians over 25 have a Bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 30% of Americans.
Our education system has produced all these professionals, but they have very little impact on their own continent beyond sending remittances. What is the point of being so smart if your country is still a shithole? As a friend of mine put it: "Many of these top schools produce great Africans with bright professional prospects, but not great African citizens."
After living in Europe for over 15 years, I made the decision, last year, to move back to the continent, with a unique goal to create world-class schools in rural areas which would raise a new generations of Africans rooted in their local realities. My first step, once I arrived here, was to spend most of my time on the roads, streets, in farms and markets, living, eating and working with the most unprivileged people in my country, Togo.
Last autumn, I spent 45 days living and working in a small village in the center-east Togo. The majority of the population live in small huts covered with straw. When it rains, people have to hide inside their house from the water which, nevertheless, always finds a way to their bed or farm stocks. When they cook with charcoal or firewood, a slightest wind can start a fire and burn down a house. Regardless of the hardships, people complain very little, and pour the little hope they still have into endless prayers.
While I was in the village, a group of French tourists visited the place with their kids to show them how primitively people live there. Yes, it’s really primitive, and the shame appeals to every one of us as Africans – wherever we live, whatever our personal fortune – because once these tourists are back to Europe or the United States after they'd seen you on the street, those images will come first into their mind. They know where you come from and how your country looks like.
None of us could proclaim ourselves a successful person when millions of our people are living in such shameful conditions in our rural areas.
Below are the top ten problems I've witnessed that are affecting ordinary people in Africa and need to be solved urgently so that the dignity of our continent can be restored.
1. Fetching water: According to a UN report, African women and girls spend 40 billion work hours annually fetching water. Off-the-pipe innovations are needed, along with expecting state-driven tap water systems.
2. Fetching firewood: Over 70% of African families still cook with woodsticks and charcoal. They invest 30% of their income in stove fuel. Along with water fetching, firewood fetching also consumes time and work. It is also a dangerous activity. My mother died from a snakebite while she was collecting firewood to make us food. Our people need innovation here to alleviate the pain and the ecological impact of massive deforestation.
3. Grinding: After fetching water and wood, African women and girls have to spend countless work hours manually grinding grains and vegetables, and with very primitive tools. Affordable Innovations are needed here too, to alleviate the pain.
4. Contamination of wells: A solution to the soul-breaking water-fetching duty of a woman is digging wells. Unfortunately, their water has been contaminated by latrines. Wells are still part of the solution in remote places, but new and innovative ways to dig and protect them need to be provided.
5. Farming tools: Our farmers still use primitives tools like hoe to stir soil and remove weeds. It's back breaking, and productivity is low. Africa still have to buy annually over 40 billion dollars of food from Europe and Asia. Our farmers need innovative tools they could afford.
6. Food conservation: According to a CGIAR [the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research] study, African small farmers lose 30-40% of their harvest due to lack of appropriate harvest and conservation tools. The tools they are using now need improvement. Small-scale innovations in harvest and conservation tools would save lives.
7. Washing clothes with hands: An ordinary African household can’t afford a modern washing machines. Therefore, beyond water fetching, wood fetching and grinding, African women and girls have to spend millions work hours to manually wash clothes, sometimes with bare hand and on rocks. Low-tech and affordable technologies are needed.
8. Merchant tools: There are millions of informal markets around the continent in villages and cities where people just get out on the streets to sell, exposing everything to wind, dust, and microbes. This huge and informal African sector requires innovation to move to a next level, benefitting public health.
9. Latrines: Providing every African household with modern flush toilets is neither affordable nor sustainable. At the same time, the traditional way of building latrines has infected underground waters and wells. Innovation is a necessity here, to preserve people's dignity and protect public health and underground waters so many depend on.
10. Housing: When it comes to housing, the bottom 80% of our population can't afford modern house construction using cement and imported materials. In rural areas, our people live in almost inhuman conditions. Innovation for affordable housing for the majority would represent a huge progress for the continent.
Solutions to these problems won't come from abroad, because most of the problems affecting ordinary people in Africa are not attractive to developed countries’ firms which have the knowledge and resources to solve them. This means that, without a strong local innovation, the pace at which we move the bottom 80% out of despair will be slow, and even that slow pace could be broken by unpredictable social unrests (see recent events in South Africa).
All around the continent, technology has not yet entered daily life, leaving people crushed by manual work, ineffective approaches, and belief systems which prevent progress.
There are, of course, numerous attempts and prototypes which have addressed some of the issues above. But what we need are both solutions and the entrepreneurs who would build sustainable business models and sales channels to bring these innovations to the people who need them. Otherwise, the innovators would receive awards for their discoveries, and gains some celebrity status but the technologies never reach the very people they are intended to.
Serving the bottom 80% is not just a good thing to do, but something commercially viable. Ordinary African people are already buying mobile phones, TVs, bicycles, motorbikes… If provided with affordable solutions, they would become customers of a big market.
The purpose of this post is to make a personal call to all African engineers and innovators to use their skills and talents to create or re-purpose technology that could solve problems affecting the majority of our populations on daily basis. There is more to technology than another cool iPhone app.
Compassion for these people is a first step. Education in emerging societies should be utilitarian; otherwise, it’s useless.
I've written more notes on the same topic earlier on my blog: Conversation with our people, Where Are the African Men?, Ordinary People Problems In Africa, The Top 10 Fears of African Diaspora About Africa, etc.
Mawuna Remarque Koutonin is an editor of SiliconAfrica.com and a social activist for Africa Renaissance. Koutonin’s ultimate dream is to open a world-class human potential development school in Africa in 2017. Follow @siliconafrica on Twitter.
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