Translating Africa’s tech enthusiasm into an enterprise ecosystem


Technology is disseminating across Africa and technology consumer markets have grown rapidly as a result. But so far, only a few local technology entrepreneurs have seized the economic opportunities that ensue. In contrast to consumer markets, entrepreneurship ecosystems may take more time and resources to grow than enthusiasts of Africa’s technology boom anticipated.

Various media stories regularly celebrate the surges in mobile phone penetration, the distribution of laptops in rural schools and the steadily growing base of internet users, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, 10 years ago, less than 20 per cent of Africans owned a mobile phone; today, roughly 80 per cent do. The initial hype around Africa’s rapidly emerging technology markets was significant. Development and economic experts alike predicted that technology would allow local people to solve local problems and therefore drive innovation: rural farmers might access market information through feature phones and individuals in remote places could benefit from mobile healthcare and virtual education services. With technology consumer figures in East Africa growing at double digit rates every year, it seemed likely that the next big technology start-up would come out of Africa.

Multinationals profiting from tech boom

But now, a few years in, patience is starting to wane. Although technology is helping address local problems, the major start-up boom that angel investors and venture capitalists hoped for has not yet happened. Instead, the big economic opportunities of Africa’s technology catch-up are largely being seized by traditional multinationals. For instance, Kenya’s mobile service provider Safaricom, owned by Britain’s Vodafone, offers the mobile money service MPESA, which is returning million dollar profits across seven African nations. South Korea’s Samsung has a 50 per cent share in Africa’s overall smartphone market.

The reason is that, just like anywhere in the world, suddenly owning a mobile phone does not automatically make people relentless tinkerers and innovators. Instead, skilled developers, graphic designers and other technology experts tend to prefer stable employment to the start-up world. Given that unemployment rates are as high as 40 per cent in some African nations, this is not surprising. Add to that the risks associated with starting a business. Globally, an average nine out of 10 technology start-ups fail. Locally, starting a business tends to be even riskier: in the absence of personal savings and alternative employment options to fall back on, entrepreneurial success often becomes a matter of livelihood.

Forging a technology entrepreneurship ecosystem

One example of how to encourage entrepreneurs to seize the opportunities of Africa’s technology boom is through business incubation and acceleration. Across Africa, roughly 40 such organisations provide co-working and networking spaces, intensive business development programmes and sometimes seed funding. Although the basic parameters of African business incubators and accelerators are similar to those of their counterparts in Silicon Valley or London, their role couldn’t be more different. Instead of selectively fostering individual start-ups, Africa’s innovation hubs are driving the much more fundamental emergence of a technology entrepreneurship ecosystem.

For instance, innovation hubs are helping build technology skills by offering a space for collaboration. Before their existence, technology enthusiasts met irregularly in coffee shops or at universities. Now, there are dedicated spaces brimming with developers, graphic designers, hackers and bloggers every day. Business accelerators and incubators are also legitimising technology entrepreneurship as a profession, particularly in the eyes of parent generations. “Now you can actually say, I’m going to the hub. Before, it was like: I’m at the coffee house. It looked kind of like idleness,” a young technology entrepreneur explained to me. Finally, hubs’ seed funding for technology start-ups significantly reduces the financial risks associated with business creation or makes starting a business possible in the first place.

The question of how many vastly successful technology start-ups have come out of Africa might therefore not yet be one to ask. Instead, entrepreneurship takes more than the availability of technology. Although technology entrepreneurship ecosystems are emerging across Africa, often with the support of business incubators and accelerators, they are one example of how not everything can be leapfrogged.

*Marlen de la Chaux [2013] is doing a PhD in Management Studies.


How technology is changing opera


Technology has played a role in opera from its inception: Baroque-era stagings dazzled with live water features and gods riding chariots across the sky. The Metropolitan Opera’s infamously expensive and inconsistent machine for their recent Ring cycle and the current popularity of projected animations as scenic backdrops are simply a continuation of this trend. Opera’s elevated place among the arts is due, in part, to its incorporation of many media: music, acting, dance, architecture, painting, woodworking, costume design and more. To include modern feats of engineering, computer animation and cinematography fits this model.

But technology is also changing opera more fundamentally by enabling new rehearsal and performance methods and by itself becoming a topic for new operas. In the former category, we have the advent of singers’ lessons and coaching via Skype, online-only concerts and even an attempt at an online opera. Also worth considering is the way modern transportation has allowed top singers to undertake more global engagements and the influence live streaming (online or in cinemas) is having on performances. Video streaming shapes costuming, sets, make-up, the importance of singers’ appearances and even whether top singers will accept a role.

When I consider new operas that wrestle with questions of technology, two come to mind. Tod Machover’s futuristic Death and the Powers, often dubbed the ‘robot opera’, was created by the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. It questions billionaire Simon Powers decision to achieve immortality by merging his consciousness with ‘the System’. He becomes a disembodied presence in his home (importantly, one who can ‘still sign cheques’ and has ‘billions of bucks’), but his family members must come to terms with his confusing presence and decide whether to merge with ‘the System’ as well. The technological demands of presenting the opera are high: it includes autonomous ‘operabot’ characters and a complicated sensor array through which aspects of Simon Powers’ offstage performance (such as movements and body temperature) control set elements.

In contrast to this ‘opera of the future’, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys deals with the recent past. Loosely based on an English murder case from 2003, it dramatises the stabbing of one teenage boy by another, precipitated by a complicated web of chatroom provocation and deceit. The reception of Two Boys points to the challenges of recent technology as a theme:  some critics mentioned that the focus on chatrooms already felt passé by the opera’s 2011 premiere. It is harder for audiences to see the universality of stories in near-modern settings than of those in the distant past or future. (Is the letter scene in Eugene Onegin also passé because written letters are no longer the fashion? Is Death and the Powers inaccessible because it deals with technologies that don’t yet exist?) Regardless, the internet is hardly superannuated, and Two Boys pioneered the musical and visual representation of the internet on the operatic stage. Its ‘digital space’ appears in the form of towering white walls of text and projections and the choristers’ faces are lit by the glow of their ever-present laptops. Characters sing full sentences while chatspeak abbreviations appear behind them; choruses routinely intrude with short, layered phrases –  bits common to internet chatrooms or even arbitrary pieces of data from the singers’ memories.

As both a tool and a topic, technology wields great influence on the arts, and opera is no exception. Operas that engage with technology- as an innovative performance method, a subject to explore, or both – have the potential to attract young, wired audiences. Operatic newcomers who attend the internet-fuelled drama of Two Boys or the futuristic dilemmas of Death and the Powers may find they like the experience of sung drama in general. Similarly, long-time subscribers who are familiar with the classic repertoire may find enjoyment in both new operas and technologically innovative stagings of old favourites.

*Ilana Walder Biesanz [2013] is doing an MPhil in European Literature and Culture. She was involved in the first online opera and is on the panel of Opera21 Magazine’s ‘Technology and Opera’ discussion. Picture credit: Stuart Miles and

Fingers point to the future of healthcare

SimPrints Scanner Diagram-1

Health workers in developing countries face challenges that are often taken for granted in the developed world, but new technologies have the potential to become leap frog solutions that address such barriers. Major obstacles exist today in the identification of patients, a fundamental issue at the very core of delivery of healthcare in resource poor settings. All too often patients have medical histories that doctors or community health workers (CHW) have no access to. Addressing this difficulty would potentially revolutionise prevention and treatment in a diverse array of public health areas ranging from vaccination campaigns, to prenatal care, to improving treatment adherence in diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

Despite this, there has been limited innovation in this area. Most health systems in developing countries depend on paper records, which are easily lost and not immediately accessible. These records also assume a western notion of identification that fail to adapt to cultural variations such as multiple members of a community having the same name, and rural villagers often not knowing their exact date of birth. Compound this with inconsistent access to health care across wide geographical expanses, and it becomes extremely difficult to guarantee that a health worker will be able to identify the needs of her patient during an encounter.

Let’s take the example of childhood vaccinations, one of the most cost effective interventions in public health. One child dies every twenty seconds from a vaccine preventable disease and almost one third of child deaths can be prevented through vaccinations. But the vulnerabilities of paper records make it challenging for CHWs to identify what immunisations a child has already had and which ones they needs during their visit.


In part due to these difficulties, we have only achieved approximately 80% coverage world wide using existing technologies and health systems. A recent study estimated that a scale up of five immunisations in 72 of the world’s poorest countries could save 6.4 million children annually. We have started a social enterprise start up calledSimPrints, which has the potential to contribute towards solving this global health challenge, as well as many others.

SimPrints is in the process of developing a mobile-based fingerprint scanner that instantly connects an individual’s fingerprint to health records such as immunisation records and prenatal visits. This Bluetooth-enabled scanner, allows for real time access to health records, which enables CHWs to instantaneously access critical information necessary to provide care. In contrast to paper records sitting unhelpfully back in the clinic office, this technology would enable a CHW to swipe the mother’s fingerprint and receive an instantaneous update of what vaccines they have received and what needs to be administered that day.

This versatile technology would be compatible with existing mHealth applications and platforms, allowing for seamless integration into pre-existing systems through an application programming interface (API). Many future opportunities exist for SimPrints to become a platform technology that works with other technologies such as rapid diagnostic testing and point of care lab testing, to address challenges in drug adherence, disease monitoring and diagnosis.

Another exciting arena for SimPrints are its potential applications in areas beyond public health. For example, mobile biometrics can address the challenge of tracking refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP). Identifying refugees is a significant challenge since many refugees lack formal identification and may have crossed several national borders. In these settings biometrics offer a powerful tool for aid workers to link refugees to a single unique identification that can connect GPS location, medical data and aid records. This fingerprint identification would transcend time and geography to allow aid workers to adequately supply the camp and facilitate reunification of family members torn apart by war and conflict.

Dr Alain Labrique, Director of the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative recently challenged us with the notion that “identification is the holy grail of mHealth”. We at SimPrints are excited to take on this issue and strive to substantively impact on-the-ground healthcare delivery through mobile biometrics.

*Toby Norman [2011] is doing a PhD in Management Studies, Elizabeth Dzeng [2007] is doing a PhD in Sociology and Daniel Storisteanu [2012] is doing a PhD in Medicine.

The disappearing Arctic sublime

In the book, “American Technological Sublime”, author David Nye explores how the US has established its national character through the use of the technological sublime. Readers may be familiar with the work of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, who depicted the sublime. His paintings of orange-tinted moonrises and mountains, fog, and ocean waves dominating miniscule human figures evoke a sense of wonder at nature and the smallness of man. A stormy sea, a volcano eruption, the Grand Canyon – these are all instances of the natural sublime. Iceland might be the most sublime country I have ever visited, with both glaciers and volcanoes packed into less than 40,000 square miles. The observation of the sublime causes a certain type of fear, though a healthy one at that. Man, being astonished, better realises his place in the universe. He is overpowered, but not in fear of his life. The technological sublime, however, departs from the concept of the natural sublime. It is realised in gigantic manmade structures such as the Hoover Dam, which is a “spectacle in the midst of emptiness and desolation” that author Joseph Stevens notes “first provokes fear, then wonderment, and finally a sense of awe and pride in man’s skill in bending the forces of nature to his purpose”.

In the early days of the US, the nascent country sought to develop a national character. Nye argues that since the US lacked age-old institutions such as a royal family or national church, people instead harnessed the immensity of the American landscape to fortify their beliefs in the greatness of their country. I would argue that Canada is proceeding along similar lines with its northern landscape. Canada, of course, is technically ruled by a monarch, yet like the US, it is a relatively young country without too much historic heritage. Thus, the landscape, too, becomes an integral part of the national psyche. Whereas the US has constantly looked west throughout its history, following the creed of Manifest Destiny, Canada has aspired to go not only west, but also north.

The natural sublime and its counterpart, the technological sublime, were both used to dramatise the landscape and make people essentially excited and proud to be American. All sorts of festivities surrounded the opening of each new bridge, skyscraper, and tunnel, often with the president involved in turning on the first light. The connection between the political and the technological is important, for infrastructure such as bridges and railroads were seen as democratising forces. They tied together various parts of the country, increasing trade while also enhancing political ties. The Erie Canal, for instance, was seen as “a product of democracy”. It was men who built the canal and men who would benefit from it. Technological achievements such as canals and railroads became monuments to America’s “democratic virtue” and also to the country’s ability to tame the wilderness. The epic forests, mountains, and deserts of the US were symbols of the country at the same time as they were “transformed into a man-made landscape”.

Nature was seen as something that, once domesticated, would no longer be the dominion of Native Americans, but rather “this great Anglo Saxon race,” as Edward Everett, a prominent American Whig politician in the late 19th century, commented. In a similar way, we can view Canadian attempts to conquer the north through machinery and technology – Arctic Offshore/Patrol ships, research stations, and ports – as the government wresting power from the indigenous peoples who have lived there for centuries (and who have tamed the landscape in their own, though admittedly less visually imposing, way).

Technological sublime

In the US, the railroad was supposed to knit the country further together by tying the breadbasket of the Midwest with the industrial powerhouses in the Northeast and the factories around the Great Lakes. The Transcontinental Railroad went even farther, linking the Eastern Seaboard with East Asia by way of California. Yet while it became remarkably faster and easier to travel from place to place, Nye argues that the railroads did not actually unite the disparate states. Instead, they caused rifts. For instance, the railroads hastened the pace of industrialisation in the Northeast while turning the South into a “dependent, agricultural region”, becoming almost a vassal of New England. Regional economic specialisation followed as well, causing the South to fall further behind as it privileged agriculture over the more profit-intensive manufacturing industries of the Northeast.

When the Eads Bridge was built in 1874 across the Mississippi River in St Louis, a new narrative was emerging within the technological sublime. Nye writes that the story went from “discovery to conquest, the explorer giving way to the engineer”. This bridge, like others, represented the geometrical sublime, rather than the dynamic sublime epitomised by trains. The geometrical sublime was something massive and static that imposed itself over the natural landscape. Skyscrapers and other man-made promontories also were imbued with power and the magisterial gaze; those at the top could look down at the piddling masses below. In the Arctic, though, I would argue that this is one place where the explorer narrative has not given way entirely to that of the engineer. People still try to journey to the North Pole on skis, foot, or by boat, and they are often still lauded for their valiant attempts. To conquer the Arctic remains a badge of honor. In a way, the explorer has been more successful than the engineer in the Arctic, especially today. Technology has advanced enough to allow people to brave sub-zero temperatures in relative comfort, whereas petroleum engineers are still figuring out how to drill for oil safely. People cheer on the explorers, but not so much companies like Shell and Gazprom, whom many see as desecrating an almost sacred and sublime space.


So how does this all fit in with the Arctic? First, we can use the concept of the sublime to explain why the region has captivated so many. Fluorescent blue icebergs, mammoth glaciers, and seemingly endless stretches of tundra certainly inspire awe and astonishment. For thousands of years, the Arctic almost felt timeless, with an ice cap that seemingly would never disappear. Explorers such as Robert Peary crossed the snowy, icy expanses of the Arctic in order to test the resilience of the human spirit. Issues of colonialism, commerce, science, and evangelicalism also all played roles in early Arctic exploration, but there is no doubt that pure human endeavour was a main motivating factor.

Second, the appeal of the technological sublime – the ability to conquer nature – carries some weight in the Arctic and motivates many countries’ attempts to build infrastructure up north. Structures such as the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building all have a certain amount of power invested within them, whether it be state power or economic might. When a country can build a nuclear icebreaker to cut through the otherwise impenetrable ice, that assists in fortifying the national character. The opposite is also true: when the US lost such icebreaking capability, there was probably a collective sigh in several quarters of the country. The US, once the pinnacle of engineering and technological capability, has a superior in the Arctic.

We can also look at the core-periphery relationship that the railroad network helped to instigate and compare it to how development has proceeded in Canada. All of the runways, ice roads, and ports built in the territories have helped to allow corporations to extract material wealth from the Canadian Arctic. Yet the money from the resources in large part goes back to the south, while the territories largely subsist on transfer payments from Ottawa. Certainly, the North has benefited in some way from increased ties to the southern region and access to their goods and services. But the flow of wealth is predominantly from north to south.

Though there are no railroads to northern Canada, the Dempster Highway serves as a good example of the government attempting to build a piece of infrastructure for the ostensible purpose of better linking together the country, when counter-intuitively, it could serve to emphasise regionalism and the core-periphery divide. The Dempster Highway is the only existing all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle in Canada. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper was reelected in 2011, he vowed to complete the highway so that it would stretch all the way to Tuktoyaktuk. Currently, the highway only reaches the town in the winter, when an ice road stretches the last 121 miles across the frozen Mackenzie River Delta. Harper observed: “In 1958, Prime Minister Diefenbaker set out his vision to construct a highway through the northern wilderness and connect Canada for the first time from coast to coast to coast.” His rhetoric underscores the idea of the “wild” north and Canada’s three oceans, turning the landscape into something that must be tamed and subsequently interconnected.

When the highway was first conceived in the 1950s, one of its main purposes was to link the growing oil and gas industry in the Mackenzie River Delta to the south. Thus, the road was built primarily for economic purposes – not to assist social development in the north or transportation connections between indigenous communities. Regardless, the idea that Canada could have an all-weather road connecting three oceans is quite impressive and seems to carry a bit of the technological sublime with it.

Roads, pipelines, and bridges alter the landscape, but they do not change the essence of its character, for the most part. Consider the Golden Gate Bridge: though there is a brilliantly orange span connecting Marin and San Francisco, the bay, the headlands, and the peninsula all remain more or less unaltered. Thus, these types of technologically sublime feats of engineering can often coexist with the natural sublime. In the Arctic, though, mankind is effecting likely irreversible change onto what is arguably one of the planet’s most sublime landscapes. It is one thing to lay a pipeline across thousands of miles or build an ice road across frozen lakes deep into the Canadian North. All of that creates a sense of wonder at the prowess of engineers and the ability of man to make his mark on the harshest of territory. Yet when the natural sublime itself begins to disappear, and only the technological sublime – or nothing at all – remains, then the earth surrenders a little bit of its power to astonish. When the day comes where there are no longer ancient glaciers or creaking ice caps, I believe mankind will lose something very important: the childlike sensation of being lost in the sublime, of viewing a landscape that is greater, more ancient, and more astonishing than himself.

*Mia Bennett [2012] is doing an MPhil in Polar Studies. This blog was first published by the Foreign Policy Association’s Arctic Blog.