Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘ESSAY’ Category

doctor-protestA Few days ago, Nigerian polling organisation, NOIPolls, released the results of a survey which they conducted in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch. The research revealed that about 8 out of every 10 (88 per cent) of medical doctors in Nigeria are currently seeking work opportunities abroad. In other words, not counting those who have already left, among the very inadequate number we have, 88 percent have their eyes set on leaving at the earliest opportunity.

And this is not just among young doctors. The findings, according to media reports, cuts across junior, mid and senior level doctors in both public and private medical institutions — house officers, corps members, medical and senior medical officers, residents, registrars, consultants and medical directors.

No surprises here. The survey has only brought what has been a long known fact to the front burner of national discourse, albeit for as long as our fleeting attention span on important matters such as these can accommodate. You know we have this national habit of discussing our problems seasonally in piece meals and before we as much as arrive at a consensus or a clear path forward, we leave that issue and jump to the next one. For example, how often do you see headlines or public forums on recession these days? It used to be the order. Yet, we are still in recession. Same applies to Boko Haram, herdsmen killings, the Forex challenges, the President’s health and restructuring — the more recent craze.

But I digress. The result of the survey is a reminder of how bad things are. Indeed some will be surprised that there is actually a 12% who are happy to stay. Is this loyalty to Nigeria, lack of ambition or simply a case of ‘I really cannot be bothered anymore’? which ever it is, the real tragedy, as I had written here in the past, is that a lot of Nigerians are in a hurry to quit their country and this is not only evident in the medical profession. If the same survey were administered to everyone else, perhaps the only group who will express majority desire to remain will be our politicians and those who this rent-seeking economy has helped to have their mouths positioned very close to our revenue nozzle.

The challenge with doctors and health workers generally is particularly alarming though. Health they say is wealth. This statement holds even more value for a country where the large majority of the people live in poverty with attendant poor nutrition and hygiene, which leaves them susceptible to a wide range of communicable and incommunicable diseases. Millions of Nigerians die yearly from what has come to be known as “brief illness” — mostly a cocktail of easily treatable and avoidable diseases. A lot of our people simply cannot get to a hospital to access medical care because there is none within reach or when one exists there is no doctor or the doctor really has nothing to work with. This explains the scandalously high infant and maternal mortality rates and low life expectancy in these parts.

It should be a national tragedy that we have just 72,000 medical doctors registered with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria given our population, but it gets even worse when you find that only approximately 35,000 of them are practising in Nigeria. And of this number, 88% are eager to leave.

So why are they leaving?

The simple answer is that the country is not in good shape. The economy is bad, the security is horrible, infrastructure is non-existent and the system generally discourages merit, innovation and hard work. This is in line with the findings of the NOIPolls study. The reasons respondents cited for the looming brain drain in the health sector included challenges such as high taxes and deductions from salary (98 per cent), low work satisfaction (92 per cent), poor salaries and emoluments (91 per cent) and the huge knowledge gap that exists in the medical practice in the country (47 per cent), among others.

It is one thing to simply want a better life for yourself and thus aspire to be where the grass is greener. It is, however, something else when you are willing to work but the tools are simply not there. Nothing could be more frustrating. And by tools, I don’t even refer to sophisticated diagnostic equipment. We are talking about everyday hospital supplies. And as if that’s not enough, you are most of the time embroiled in an argument with your employer and the government over your pay and allowances. Nobody wants to live in such a circumstance, the Hippocratic Oath and human conscience notwithstanding.

What to do? Clearly, we cannot force them to stay as long as there are other climes ready and happy to welcome them with open arms and offer them a far better condition of practice. We also cannot afford to just fold our arms and lament while the situation gets worse. We must do something.

The NOIPolls result should be the conversation starter for government and other stakeholders in the country’s health sector to begin to seriously discuss and fashion out the much-needed reforms in the sector and redesign the health system to make it one in which our people can have a fulfilling career in and to which our poor citizens can look up to for help when they are ill.

Above all, we need to fix this economy and the structure of the country as a whole, otherwise, regardless of what else we do, we will just be kicking a can down the road.

@nzesylva

First published here on olisa.tv on Aug 9, 2017.

My new ebook, My Mind is no longer here is available here on amazon and on the okadabooks app.

Read Full Post »

MacronEmmanuel Macron has become France’s youngest ever president following the official handover by François Hollande. Since the victory of the 39-year-old centrist whose campaign took France by storm, there has naturally been some reaction among Nigeria’s very young population, referencing Macron’s age in relation to their own realities.

This is not unexpected. Despite the provisions of the constitution, at 39 most politically active Nigerians can at best aspire to be hand luggage carrying Assistants to politicians and social media aides, acting like thugs online to burnish the narrative around their principals. They appear only useful during the campaigns where they are either used to run ‘situation rooms’ or on the field as political thugs to manipulate results but not deemed fit to handle sensitive positions where they can bring their intellect to bear in influencing the policy direction of government.

It is a situation where 39-year-olds cannot even be Youth Leaders of their political parties. When you consider that Macron has already been France’s Economy minister two years ago, you will see the sense in the outcry among young Nigerians and the merits  of the “Not too young to run’ campaign.

Personally I align myself to calls for younger people in government but with a caveat which I will explain shortly. There is no doubt that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking (and the same people) who created them. We have been held back by years of recycled politicians, yesterday’s men who have refused to retire, who have planted themselves with deep tap roots in the system because they have the resources to sustain their influence in Nigeria’s rent-seeking polity and buy their way through elections. And like chameleons, they have mastered the act of remaking themselves to suit the current circumstance. They’ve dumped military Khaki’s for agbadas and swear to be converts of democracy. The PDP lost power and they trooped in their numbers to the APC, singing tunes of Change…just anything to remain relevant and keep young people out.

You would wonder why a population tilted heavily in favour of young people has not taken a clear stand to birth a new order, just like we’ve seen in France. The politicians have been able to (and continue to) exploit the most basic necessity of life — food — to remain in charge. Young people are happy to take the handout and crumbs, to be seen somewhere in the photo ops of the politician, they are content with feeling among, or being driven in the long convoys of the old man, in the hope that perhaps, if they show enough loyalty (even if this goes against the principles they loudly espoused as private citizens) they will someday be found worthy of a seat at the table, to commence their own ‘chopping’. One hopes we get to change this mindset and that ongoing advocacy is able to change the system to make it more favourable for young people to run.

But it is not enough to allow young people into office though. This is the caveat I talked about earlier. The fact is that when it comes to leadership age doesn’t matter – competency does. Our own history is full of examples of leaders who have succeeded and failed at every age, a good number of them young people.

Most of our post-independence leaders, military and civilian (most of who continue to hold the reins today), got on the podium first as youngsters. In recent times we have also had a few democratically elected youngsters whose performance does not in any way solidify the argument in favour of young people.

It is thus clear that just as corruption and incompetence do not have any age limits, the passion, character, commitment, discernment, and talent to be a good leader certainly also does not depend on a person’s date of birth. The real issue is competence and it is important we hold this dear in all conversations around leadership, especially as the 2019 drums begin to roll out. It is not enough to be young. You must also be competent. If somebody exhibited a certain level competence and success, nobody looks at your age.

While experience counts, energy matters and certainly, as we have seen over and over in our recent history, health also does feature strongly on the checklist for our next set of leaders. Some more salient issues are education and exposure. I am still not certain why being a graduate is seen as the minimum qualification for holding regular jobs but we leave the more sensitive issue of leading this nation to persons who have as much as attempted the secondary school certificate. That doesn’t appear very smart to me.

The whole conversation around Emmanuel Macron is one I hope will inspire changes in Nigeria and bring about a paradigm shift in the composition of our leadership. I hope that young people will sit up and take back their country from those who are currently running it down. This is a conversation that has to be had. But even more, we must interrogate more closely, the competence and moral character of the people we vote for and send to take decisions on our behalf at all levels of government.

First published on May 17, 2017 on Olisa.tv

Read Full Post »

Bail is FreeAlong with “police is your friend”, one inscription you are certain to see boldly written in every police station in Nigeria is “bail is free”. You might have even heard the police top brass make such claims in public statements. If you believe any of that, then you will believe anything.

But it ought to be free, or at least on paper it should be. Bail is the temporary release of an accused person, or a suspect, from police custody pending the conclusion of investigations or the final determination of the case, on the condition that he would report to the police station when necessary or attend court for trial. It flows from Section 35 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution which intends to preserve the liberty of a suspect and is built on the assumption (at least among democratic states where the rule of law is more than a mere campaign slogan for politicians) that an accused person is innocent until he is proved guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Anyone who has had a police case will tell you a different story. It doesn’t matter whether the arrest was for a criminal or civil offence or even a mere disagreement with a neighbour. The Nigeria police will demand money in exchange for your freedom, the amount charged and paid depending on such factors as the size of the greed of the investigating police officer, the profile and bargaining power of the accused and the nature of the case. It is now almost a non-issue. Bail payment is sacrosanct. And when you fail or are unable to meet the payment terms, the Nigeria police, who do not have the best of human right records nor regards for the rights of citizens, will torture you, even sometimes to death as was recently reported in Ibadan.

That this sad situation which is illegal and a mockery of the popular police lingo continues to prevail is however not the subject of this intervention. So many legal minds and human right groups have been in the trenches on this matter for so many years and the struggle continues. To them I pay my respects for the thankless job they are doing. My interest in this piece however is to ask what exactly the police do with the bail monies they receive from people?

You see, ideally, the bail payment is a bond placed as guarantee that an accused person will be available to the authorities when needed and forfeited otherwise. That’s ideally. Nothing about Nigeria as we know is ideal. Here it is a payment for freedom. Are there any records of such payments kept? Does the police issue receipts for such payments? Does the police account for such payments and/or forward same to revenue generating agencies of government? Are you really able to retrieve from the police any payment you make to secure bail after an arrest if investigations later indicate you are innocent of any offence?

The answer to these questions is obvious to all of us. What we have done is that, in furtherance of the rent seeking culture, we have created an industry for criminal minded police officers through which they dubiously make money from the public by extorting innocent and often hapless citizens. Because there is no consequence whatsoever for this, it is not uncommon for a team of police men, who need money to augment their paltry pay, to carryout raids, and round up innocent people including bystanders and pedestrians minding their own businesses, to whom they read no charges and cram them up in filthy cells. They then each have to pay a negotiated amount to secure release or be left to languish. This money collected is shared by the police officers.

This is a very sad situation. You don’t fully understand how bad it is until you have experienced it. When we talk about corruption, I wonder if we capture such as corruption. When you remember that the Police is supposed to be an anti-corruption agency of government but has successfully institutionalized this daily act of fraud, you then appreciate how deep the rot is.

Who do we look up to for help? The protection of the rights of citizens including enforcement of their bail rights lies with government. But when government itself is a culprit, disobeying court injunctions and rulings and infringing of the freedoms of expression of citizens, then there isn’t much to expect from them in terms of succor.

Nigerians, especially those who are not wealthy, who cannot afford lawyers, who are by virtue of their social status even ignorant of the law and their rights, will unfortunately continue to be taken advantage of by officers who are paid to protect them and a nation they had the misfortune of being born in.

Read Full Post »

A different approach to solving the power challenge

powerWhy is there still no power? Many Nigerians cannot wrap their heads around it. What with all the soundbites and political promises, the much talked about power roadmap and the privatization of the power assets. Indeed the way the privatization and unbundling of the then PHCN was sold to Nigerians, it was supposed to be like the wave of the magic wand that would turn everything around and turn the days of darkness to a distant memory. Now, years after, we do not seem to have made any progress. Power generation is continues to fall short of 5000MW at the best of times, and drops to zero at some other times. When Raji Fashola was appointed to the ministry, many cheered, expecting a swift turn around, but the sector has since proven that it not about strong men or hifalutin profiles.

Despite privatization and the enormous resources committed to the power sector, it has continued to defy all proffered solutions. The situation is compounded by the vandalism of pipelines in the Niger Delta which results in disruptions of gas supply to power plants, huge technical and commercial losses across the value chain and as it were, dwindling capacity of the grid and a weak transmission infrastructure which is dilapidated and susceptible to frequent breakdown.

The Distribution Companies on the other hand continue to wail about operating at a gross loss, with mountain heap of debt owed them, the rampant incidents of power theft, inability to attract new investment and a general hostile operating environment, with regulatory provisions they insist are unfavourable to them especially with regards pricing.

The challenge one must observe goes way deeper than just issues around generation, transmission and distribution. There are a host of other very critical issues which are seldom talked about but which are pivotal to solving this problem. First among this is pricing. If pricing is right, it will unlock the financing that is needed to build the power plants. Right now, the sector is not attractive to investors and the reason is obvious. While this is a really sensitive issue given the kind of hardship Nigerians are enduring at the moment and the political need to keep things going towards the next election, it is a conversation that must be had if indeed we wish to enjoy reliable power in this country.

The next issue is securing the gas feed stock that can power the plants. This will include keeping the peace in the Niger Delta, policing the pipelines, adopting modern technology and seeking alternative sources of gas outside of the very restive Niger Delta.

The third issue which is often over looked is the challenge of collection. No matter how much power you generate and distribute as long as you cannot collect from the end users, you will be unable to pay those generating and you will not be able to pay those providing the gas. Issues of power theft and non-remittance of charges to DISCOs especially by Government agencies cannot continue. Closely related to that is the need to solve the challenges around metering which is a giant challenge on its own.

The resulting effect of all these is that we’ve all continued to run on generators as a country with all its adverse economic implications. Multinationals, industries and small businesses trying to get a return on investment are suffocated with huge overheads on account of poor power supply. The Nigerian economy has lost and continues to lose significant industry and commercial entities due to the lack of energy and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for this quagmire.

The truth is, we must begin to think differently if we must solve this power conundrum. By this I refer to the need to explore other approaches to energy access including standalone electricity models, captive power generation and off-grid models.

One can say with some measure of confidence that for the millions of Nigerians who don’t currently have access to electricity, the old assumption that they will have to wait for grid extensions is being turned on its head by new technological possibilities in the off-grid captive and embedded power space. With their adoption, a broad transformation in the electricity sector in the coming years is possible. This will have a major impact on the future sustainability of incumbent generation, transmission and distribution utilities, and will also provide the needed push to jump start the Nigerian economy.

Off Grid system refers to any electricity supply system with its own power generation capacity, supplying electricity to more than one customer and which can operate in isolation from or be connected to a distribution licensee’s network. In simple terms it is the ability to generate power which can be consumed and paid for by persons within a particular locality (estates, university communities, industrial parks, resorts etc) without it being injected into the national grid. This power can be appropriately priced and sold to the willing buyers under pre agreed conditions. Herein lies, in my opinion, the solution to Nigeria’s power issues. Fortunately, the current regulatory framework recognizes this and has made provisions which various stakeholders in the sector can take advantage of.

Our ability to develop off grid systems will free up pressure on the national grid and make power available to be distributed to the rest of the populace. It will also solve a lot of the other current issues in the value chain from pricing to gas supply, to collection and power theft. These things are known. The worry however is that we are known for sloganeering and mouthing off on the best ideas, developing blue prints and releasing white papers, but when it comes down to implementing it, we somehow fail consistently.

Read Full Post »

stiglitzOne of the festival books of the just concluded Lagos Book and Arts Festival was Joseph E. Stiglitz’s The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do about Them.  I had gone to the Freedom Park, Lagos Island, venue of the Festival over the weekend with the intention of only attending the Cassava Republic Press organised session featuring Toni Kan reading from his new work, Carnivorous City. But then I sauntered by chance into another session where a discussion on Stiglitz’s book was ongoing, one which I found very interesting especially for its implications for Nigeria, and the emerging new world order following Brexit and the election of Trump in the United States.

The book, published earlier this year is a gathering of Stiglitz’s essays and articles in various popular channels, written over the past seven years and is summarised under three major themes. Stiglitz put the blame for the 2008 financial crisis squarely on President George W. Bush, bankers, deregulation and inequality. Secondly, he highlighted the very wide income divide in America, and thirdly, he opined that he, Stiglitz had answers for the world’s problems and the world would be well, if he could run it.

I was new to the book, but not to the author who was the former World Bank chief economist and an Economic advisor to former president Clinton. I was also familiar with one of his recent and very popular books The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. From what I could gather immediately from the discussion and from my personal readings since, Stiglitz in this new book expanded on his thoughts around inequality. He goes into detail about ineffective and poorly thought out policies such as deregulation, tax cuts especially for the top 1 percent and the bailout of the rich after the economic crises which has left many Americans behind and is fast eroding anything that is left of the proverbial American dream.

bookPerhaps the result of the recent elections is a vindication of Stiglitz’s thoughts. The division in America which has largely been glossed over and ignored by the media was brought to the fore. This divide is not necessarily a race thing or conservative/liberal parallel, it is simply an Economic Divide, a big rift between the haves and the have nots with the latter staging some kind of revolt to make their voice heard and by extension advancing anti trade and anti-globalization ideologies which have varying consequence for the world as a whole.

The solution according to Stiglitz includes: increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy; offering more help to the children of the poor; investing in education, science, and infrastructure; helping out homeowners instead of banks; and, most importantly, doing more to restore the economy to full employment.

I cannot think of any other country that needs to take Stiglitz’s advice more than Nigeria, for nowhere else is inequality more glaring than around here. Stiglitz talks about a 1% in America, we have ours too but while theirs is made up of individuals and corporations who care about their image and go to great lengths to smoothen the narrative, ours is made up of persons (and corporations or maybe cults) who are happy to puke and fart on the remaining 99% with impunity. Indeed it is the goal of this group to continue by whatever means possible to advance the gulf between them and the rest of us and the easiest way of advancing such an agenda is to take away access to opportunities that could help us and our children climb out of where they would rather we remain.

For example, while in America the cost of education is expensive and puts a ceiling on the educational attainment of many; a way of keeping the great divide in place, here our own 1% have ensured education is simply nonexistent. A few days ago the Academic Staff Union of Universities served notice of a strike action which will commence on Wednesday 16 November, effectively taking life out of what is a comatose system. The bone of contention is a 2009 agreement which remains unimplemented. The implication is the advancement of the inequality with the dreams of the children of the 99%, deferred for longer.

This is just one example of many. We see this inequality in every facet of our national life. From access to health care, affordable housing, multiple taxation, absence of incentives for SMEs, to insecurity and the likes. Economic inequality is the bane of the Nigerian society and one we must begin to treat as the political and moral issue that it is.

The challenge however is that while America has scholars like Stiglitz, who are actively advancing thoughts and economic theories, constantly questioning their systems in order to refine it, persistently holding those in power accountable and keeping a robust conversation alive, here in Nigeria, the conversation hasn’t even started. There is a complete disconnect between the political leadership, the economic bigwigs, the knowledge base and the masses. Everything is simply ‘under alarm’ with no control in sight. Everyone is so preoccupied with keeping ‘Food on the table’ today, that we don’t bother to wonder if there will be any for us to eat tomorrow.

I must end by commending the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), organisers of the Lagos Book and Art Festival, for the hard work and commitment to promoting literature, arts and scholarship in Nigeria. In a country where good thing don’t last, it is uplifting to see that they have carried on with this laudable annual event for 18 years now and by the evidence of the just concluded festival, they do not seem to be losing any steam. Well done!

First published here on 16 Nov 2016

Read Full Post »

sdgs1This week, I am attending the National Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Conference in Abuja with the theme “Going Beyond Monitoring: Evaluation of the achievements of the SDGs in Nigeria.” The three-day conference is organized by a collaboration of public and private sector organisations including the Federal Ministry of Budget and National Planning (MBNP), Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on SDG’s (OSSAP -SDGs), UNICEF, PwC Nigeria, NBS and a host of other local and international development agencies.

The truth is that one year on, the SGDs are yet to catch on with the general public and is popular only among those whose daily activities and means of livelihood revolves around the development world. Many, yours sincerely inclusive, have just a passing knowledge of it. It is thus important to give here, some background and attempt a robust introduction of the goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of global goals adopted by the UN 193 member states. They’re the successors of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were good at least on paper but fell short because they were focused on poverty alleviation in the developing world and even there, as in the case of Nigeria, the goals were not met despite all the rhetoric. The SDGs, on the other hand, are globally applicable and integrate economic, social and environmental aspects. They are composed of 17 goals with 169 indicators to help define progress and businesses as well as society, rather than governments, are expected to drive their achievement.

Governments who’ve signed on to the SDGs, which includes Nigeria, are thus going to devise means such as regulation, taxes, communication campaigns etc and working in consonance with the private sector to achieve the goals. In other words, governments will set the tone, create the enabling environment and then workout a framework under which the private sector will drive the goals. Governments will also measure and monitor progress and manage the effectiveness of their interventions.

In the NGO community, there is so much excitement and expectations for the SDGs. One may say this is because a new programme like this guarantees more flow of grants, endless travels to workshops and conferences with juicy estacodes and other such opportunities which people in this sector enjoy. I have heard jokes about the fact that the MDGs aimed at fighting poverty only ended up making a few people involved with the programme rich as the funds were not trickling down to the people who really needed it. But that is one thought. Looking at the goals, one cannot help but observe that they are a game changer for the planet. However, like in all things, it is not about what has been written on paper, it is all about translating them into tangible development for the society.

Like I mentioned earlier, the SDGs have been designed to be Private sector led. However, we all know that businesses are profit oriented and will seek to cut all corners possible to make profit, including damaging the environment. While the thinking around the goals is that if business key into the goals and deliver, they will be able to do business and be more profitable for a longer period. This is not something many businesses, especially in these parts, care about, indeed, that is not how they think. We continue to see examples of businesses that degrade the environment, subject employees to debilitating conditions, promote harmful behaviour and give nothing back to their host communities. Even today, the culture of corporate responsibility is still something not many companies have a proper strategy around. For many, it is something they do annually, spend some money on some obscure projects for the opportunity of the Photo op without creating any impact at all. It thus appears to me like a tall order to expect these same businesses to key in and drive the attainment of the SDGs.

sdgs2

So how do we ensure that at the end of the day the SDGs are not just another feel-good rhetoric and a complete waste of everybody’s time?

I believe some of these are what this National Conference aims to define and it will be interesting to read the communique that comes out of it. However, one must note that like in most things, we are already running late. Oftentimes our leaders are quick to sign up to global agreements in a show of how great a global player we are but when they return, bureaucracy and our general penchant for running down good ideas especially when it behoves on the civil service to implement, ensures we hardly register any success.

I have however read about how the SDGs presents a great opportunity for business who will now need to collect, assure and report new data and evolving their reporting too. This is in addition to having to rethink their strategy and change their business behaviour so they can clearly show how they are contributing towards the attainment of the goals. This essentially involves overhauling business visions, long-term strategy and processes towards becoming more sustainable and profitable for the long term. The SDGs are also a framework to identify opportunities perhaps in new markets or create a demand for new or alternative products and to expose risks too. These are the thoughts Nigerian businesses must begin to consider as they consider whether or not to key into the SDGs.

On the other hand, to ‘force’ compliance, the public — customers, suppliers, civil society and government — must engage and essentially put pressure on businesses to evidence how they are helping or hindering the achievement of the Global Goals, and hear what they are doing about them. For this to happen, however, the people have to be informed about the goals and what they seek to achieve. Right now, this has not even started in Nigeria. One only hopes that the agencies of government and the NGOs will do the needful in engaging all stakeholders and publicising the goals and that businesses will respond accordingly for us to make this country and the plant itself, a better place for our children and the generation to come.

First published here on Nov 30, 2016

Read Full Post »

pix1In 2008, following post-election violence in Kenya, a group of young techies in Nairobi created Ushahidi, a data-mapping platform to collate and locate reports of unrest sent in by the public via text message, e-mail and social media. Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, has become the world’s default platform for mapping crises, disasters and political upheaval. As at September of 2016, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had seen over 90,000 deployments, reaching a population of over 20million across the globe.

Digital technology is transforming how we live our lives and sub-Saharan Africa has been an interesting theatre for this revolution. While its adoption has varied greatly between countries, reflecting the peculiar needs of the people, it is, regardless of the country, transforming economic activity, evolving new platforms and opportunities for delivering new products and services to Africans while also breaking down the barriers that has long held the continent back.

A number of underlying drivers are responsible for laying the groundwork for the ongoing technological revolution. The first of these is the emergence of Africa’s new ‘Consumer Class’ with access to income that is truly disposable. The second driver is Africa’s demographic and urbanisation boom. By 2050, Africa will account for almost 24% of the world’s population while Africa’s rate of urbanisation has risen from just 11.2% in 1950 to an estimated 38% in 2015, creating more than 50 African cities with a population of over 1 million. This rate is forecast to rise to 50% by 2030. The third driver is the ubiquity of mobile phones in Africa. Back in 2000, barely 1% of Africans had a mobile phone; by 2016 this proportion had risen to over 80%.

Together these growth drivers have made sub-Saharan African ripe for disruption with a number of digital services making a huge impact in the development sector. Fintech (financial technology) leads the charge, blazing a trail across the continent as its boosts financial inclusion and challenges banking models. So successful has the launch of mobile banking been that over half of the world’s mobile money deployments are in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 223 million registered accounts and 84 million active accounts.  The poster child of African fintech is M-PESA, Kenya’s mobile money platform. The mobile payments network created by M-PESA has transformed Kenya’s economy – bringing millions of Kenyans into the financial system – and laid the groundwork for a wave of innovation in financial services, extending credit to Africans who were previously unbanked.

Similarly, digital technology has had a huge impact in Agriculture, providing channels to disseminate information to farmers about their crops and livestock. Apps have led the way, with numerous services providing live price data, marketing information, training and community services. Leading examples include Cocoa Link (developed by the World Cocoa Foundation for cocoa farmers in Ghana), Esoko (the so-called ‘Facebook for farmers’, providing farming and marketing information in a dozen African countries) and i-cow (providing husbandry tips for Kenyan dairy farmers). In addition, there is the example of the innovative use, by the Nigerian government, of cell phones as an e-wallet to change the way farmers get fertilisers and other farming inputs. This was hugely successful in helping to remove middlemen, reduce corruption in the sector and increase productivity.

One new technology could address the difficulty of delivering goods to African locations that are remote or poorly served by roads: drones. The use of drones to deliver small to medium-sized packages is being piloted in a number of countries in Africa. Rwanda is experimenting with using drones to deliver urgent medical supplies to mountain communities – a trip that could take 2-3 days on a motorbike can be accomplished by a drone in a few hours. If successfully implemented this new technology could be a breakthrough for the retail sector as well as for health and agriculture extension services, enabling the rapid and efficient sending of high-value or urgent items to otherwise inaccessible locations.

In health, Peek, the portable eye examination kit that lets users carry out eye exams by taking high quality retinal images with their mobile phone, and Cardiopad, a tablet computer designed to test for heart problems in remote Cameroonian communities which lack cardiologists, demonstrate how with relatively simple technology local health worker can carry out medical examinations and get remote diagnosis of the results quickly and cheaply. In addition, Sproxil and M-pedigree, both SMS based technologies, have been successfully used in combating counterfeit drugs and other unwholesome products.

Technologies are also being developed that use mobile call-data records (CDRs) to map outbreaks of diseases and identify where treatment centres should be built. A pioneer in this space is the Swedish non-profit organisation, Flowminder. Using anonymised voice and text data from 150,000 mobile phones in Senegal, the company created detailed maps of population movement during the recent Ebola outbreak, helping inform decisions on where to target help.

These success stories and prospects have not been without challenges. Chief among these is regulation from government. The disruptive effect of digital technology often brings it in conflict with traditional systems with some governments putting regulatory provisions in place to ‘restrain’ it. This is reason why for example Mobile money has not been as successful in Nigeria despite the mobile phone penetration. Next is the power situation on the continent. Without reliable power, developers are unable to work and end users are unable also access these services. There is also a skills gap with only very few programmers, a host of them self-taught, working in mostly independently funded creation hubs to develop applications. Digital technology is not a common feature of formal school curricula on the continent. In addition, with funding coming mainly from venture capitalists, focus has been more on services that have commercial value and not necessarily those with developmental impact on poor communities.

These challenges notwithstanding, the opportunity for digitally enabling development on the continent is huge.

This piece was shortlisted for the Haller Prize for Development Journalism, 2016.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: