Three factors that give children in Africa a head start in technology for a digitally driven world.
This past week Facebook went public and in the process made its Founder Mark Zuckerburg and many others either billionaires or millionaires. Its once again a story of a young kid in America who achieved the American dream. Its the same story again with Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs as some of the Titans of Technology in the the world that we know. However, if you look at the fine detail, in all of these technology stories, one thing you will find is that they all had a head start in technology compared to the average person, which made them outliers. Mark Zuckerberg was coding software for his Dad as a teen. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were there when the first affordable home computers came out in the world, and saw the potential of the revolution that they could unleash. The story is told, again and again. The thinking is that you need to be ahead of the curve to win the game. In such a scenario, how can this pan out for children in Africa to achieve what all of these technology mavens have done? I would like to share an anecdote of my own life, in technology, in Africa.
I do not recall exactly when it happened but it must have been around 1984. It was Christmas and as usual we expected Dad to have presents for the whole family. However, this time was different as instead of individual gifts he came back with one large-ish box and a big smile on his face. My siblings and I opened it and it was the first time we had laid our eyes on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The Spectrum was one of the first affordable home computers of the day which you plugged into a TV set and off you were playing games or figuring out stuff. The Spectrum was a simple computer that sold millions globally in the eighties like other similar and low-cost computers such as the Commodore 64. It was a golden age since it was the first time that computers were sold on a mass scale to so many families and introduced them to the concept of computing for the very first time.
My experience with the Spectrum was a life-changing one for several reasons. Once we got over the initial hype of having it and finish all the games, there was a big question of what next? The games in those days, as they are today, were pretty expensive so it was not possible to simply ask the Old Man to buy more. He clearly frowned on this and instead bought us some books that had printed BASIC code for games that you typed into the Spectrum manually. Now, this was not a simple process in the days when electricity was still highly unreliable and there were no UPS devices available. So, you would type in code page by page and save it after you reached the end on an audio tape (yes, that predates flash disks or even floppy disks! early days indeed). The most interesting thing about this process was that you often screwed up entering the BASIC code and it made you “work” late into the night as a ten year old with your siblings. However, in the process, you started to see “patterns” in the code that you started to understand. This understanding meant you started learning what the code actually meant, especially when you made mistakes. Once you knew what code did what, you could actually hack it and make it do all sorts of interesting things – it was fascinating, even liberating – you almost felt as if you had super powers. It was a geek out moment for sure!
My learning experiences on the Spectrum were only the beginning of what would be a life-long love affair with computers and all things technology. A few years later, my Dad acquired what was one of the first low-cost IBM PC clones in Kenya in the late eighties. This was an Amstrad Computer that had no hard drive and but a slot for a 5 and a 1/4 inch floppy disk. Over time, the Amstrad was upgraded to have a hard disk and this worked wonders. For me, my Dad’s computer became my new playground and I even had him enrol me for classes to learn Microsoft’s MS-DOS, Lotus 123 and Dbase in my early teens. This was all before Windows came out and lets just say things were a lot simpler, and harder then for the average computer user. It was also around time that computer viruses started to proliferate as floppy disks were often the media for exchanging content and software which was largely due to the fact computer networks hardly existed in those days.
A few years after the Amstrad, I literally fell off the computing map until my University days when I picked up the old habit. By then, Windows was coming into the mainstream and you could find me spending loads of time in the computer lab on campus. Computer networks were now “de facto” even if they were slow and prone to breakdowns. Microsoft Office was killing Lotus 123 and WordStar in those days and CorelDraw was dominant as a graphic design software. Multimedia computers were only just starting to make headway and trust me all the rave in those days was about Multimedia which referred to computers that could play CDs and rudimentary audio-visual files. The Internet was still just a few years away.
I first encountered the Internet in early 1995. Not initially for real but rather due to all the hype that started around then. The big deal at the time was not browsing the web as such as that was yet to be invented in the shape and form we know today but it was more about email. At the time, the most cost-effective and efficient way of sending information over long distances globally was the fax machine. Faxing was “state of the art” at the time in Kenya and having a fax number meant that your organization was “with it”. However, email, as new as it was, presented the promise of even less expensive and more data transfer capability than the analogue-powered fax machine. For this very reason, you could say that 1995 was the year that the Internet started to take off in Kenya. Internet access was slow. It often required you to connect from Kenya to an International email server via a long distance call to send and receive email. It was still outrageously expensive.
My first experience in late 1995 of sending and receiving email as well as browsing the web was at the Africa Regional Centre for Computing in Nairobi. They had a cyber cafe and connected to the Internet on an analogue leased line to a Point of Presence somewhere in Europe. It was slow, really slow, and expensive, but it worked. For the first time, I could visit a web site. This was using one of the early versions of the Netscape Browser which was originally invented by Marc Andressen as the Mosaic Browser that effectively ushered in the age of the consumer Internet since it was a point and click user experience that was easy to use for the masses. For me, the defining moment that drove my plans for the future that year was seeing Marc Andressen on the cover of Time magazine sitting on a mock throne barefoot after the Netscape IPO. This was a guy around my age who had just made millions of dollars from developing a new kind of computer software for the Internet. It was a heady time. For me, right there and then, and not just for the promise of money, I knew I would make a career out of the Internet.
I know that this blog post is somewhat long-winded from the title but there is a good reason for this. In Steve Jobs style, I am trying to “connect the dots” for you where my own life and career are concerned, and how I think its relevant to that of children in Africa. You see, if I had never had a chance to access a computer in the form of the ZX Spectrum back in 1984, I would never have understood or even seen the possibilities of technology at such a young age. It drove decisions like choosing to take courses in computer programming as a teen and also made me change classes at University. My early exposure to the Internet made me decide to pursue a career in this space – no matter what it took. Today, I have been working in Kenya’s space for over 15 years which is a pretty long time and the funny thing is it still feels like its just taking off. Honestly, I think we are just at the beginning which is why it is so vital to give our children the best possible head start in a world that is increasing going the digital way.
Watching how fast and versatile my children are at learning stuff is astounding. They pick up songs, movies, mathematical concepts and iPads with complete ease. They are the generation that never knew a world without the Internet or mobile phones that are more powerful than computers that we used just a few short years ago. In the coming decades, as they finish school and enter the working class, their future will be defined by how “digital” they are and their skill sets will be the keys that either open doors or keep them closed forever. The caveat obviously is that Africa has often been the laggard of technology within the global landscape and it is now more critical than ever to give our children all the help they need to succeed in the ever evolving digital workplace. This means getting them using and leveraging technology from an early age and there has never been a better time than now to do so. Indeed, as this blog post is titled, there are 3 critical factors that make this possible on a previously unprecedented scale for children growing up in Africa. There is simply no excuse any longer for children to not get the head start they need so that there can be a level playing field in the coming work years. So, here we go:
Internet Bandwidth is no longer expensive or slow in Africa.
The reality today is that Internet access is relatively inexpensive whichever way you look at it. You can buy in Kenya for instance a mobile bundle with close to 2GB of data for around Kes. 1,000.00. This is actually really cheap even by global standards and I am not saying that this is the case for the masses but used productively and for all the right reasons, this means that your children can be online for the cost of a night out. This may not apply to everyone out there but you cannot compare the cost of access today to what it was in 1995 when I first gained access to email. In addition, the quality and speed of bandwidth owing to the arrival of a good number of high speed undersea cables as well as high quality last loop access makes it possible to access large data files for learning content. Right now, right here, this one factor has made a huge difference for the African child to get an early start in technology, or via technology in whatever vocation they choose.
Mobile devices and computers are now super inexpensive to purchase.
Mobile devices and computers in most of Africa are now super cheap. I say this since you can buy a mobile device that can go online with 3G for under Kes. 4,000.00 these days and Android devices are expected to be as inexpensive as Kes. 5,000.00 by the end of this year from the already low price of Kes. 8,000.00. These prices are actually lower than in most emerging and developed countries and therefore the barrier to entry for our children is actually lower. I have also noted with great personal excitement that you can now pick up entry-level netbooks for less than Kes. 20,000.00. There are even Government supported programs that help university students in Kenya acquire loans for computers if they cannot afford them outright. The bottom-line is that the cost excuse is no longer as relevant as it used to be for children to have access to computing platforms since they are now relatively cheap. I am not even talking about the Raspberry PI which went on sale in the UK recently that has been designed for children to learn how to program at a young age and costs as little as US$ 25.00 to buy (but you still need to buy a keyboard, a mouse and have a TV screen or monitor to use it).
Free Internet learning classes that are certifiable and world-class.
The last key factor that can give children in Africa the edge is that of free and fully accessible Internet-based learning courses. There are some that standout in this respect including the Khan Academy and CodeAcademy. What this means is that the oft used argument that high quality education is expensive is no longer as relevant as it once was in Africa when all you need is access to the web, YouTube, and some 3G data bundles you can use on your mobile phone or computer. Your children can learn the same stuff that the best in the world are learning, often from some of the best teachers in the world in each case. This alone levels the playing field – the rest is really about ambitious your own children are.