Mark Kaigwa is a Kenyan blogger and new media consultant based in Nairobi, whose work is to “help international companies and African brands to connect with each other to develop creativity”. He is also a former film maker and was a judge at the 2012 Kenyan Bloggers Awards that took place on May 5.
His session at the recently concluded re:publica conference, “Silicon Savanna, how African technologies are changing the world”, was dedicated to illustrating the shift in Africa's image – a shift from the clichés of crisis, war, or even wonders of nature, to an Africa that is showing the world a way to foster development in a competitive environment, specifically through the use of mobile technologies.
Global Voices caught up with Mark at the re:publica to better understand his hopes and dreams about Africa's digital future.
Global Voices Online (GV): When and how did you get into blogging?
Mark Kaigwa (MK): I started blogging in 2007 – 2008, first with a personal blog. I wanted to express myself so that someone in the world would listen and hear.
Now I run three blogs : my personal blog mark.co.ke – where I give my personal views about creativity in African technology, afrinnovator.com – with focus on technology, start-ups, who is bringing money and from where and africandigitalart.com - about animation, illustration, graphic design, in one word, all about the combination of art and technology. It features, for instance, artists giving responses to the North African uprisings.
GV: Do you have any links/connections with French-speaking African countries?
MK: I have personal business connections through the Internet, yes, but I have yet to travel to a francophone African country. I am trying to get inputs from francophone as well as lusophone countries, but not because they belong to the non-English sphere (editor's note: The notion of language-based sphere appears pretty much irrelevant to Mark). To give you an example, Angola is interesting to me as a country regardless of the fact that it is part of the lusophone sphere.
GV: The world went through a period in which low-cost labor was the most sought after commodity. Then recently it was low-cost natural resources. In your opinion, is it now a period in which low-cost technologies will be the most sought after?
MK: The 1990's were the decade of China's boom, the 2010's are India's and the 2020's will be Africa's. The West was going to the East, now the East is coming to Africa.
The east has a smart strategy. It brought to Africa what it learned and it does not consider Africa as one entity. On the contrary, eastern countries have understood that Africa is composed of 56 countries. They build the infrastructure in exchange for the natural resources that they are of course in need of. Technology is last on their agenda.
GV: It has been said that Africa's real problems are transport and the banking systems. What is your opinion?
MK: Those problems indeed exist but these are not the only ones.
The African challenges are the infrastructure and the economic climate for doing business, but we as Africans are in the process of solving them; and as a prominent economist of the World Bank noted, Kenya's debt-to-GDP ratio amounts to about 45%, which would make many European countries very envious !
GV: So how will the shift of economic power work in favor of Africa?
MK: They know that Africa will compete with them. China's competitive advantages – economies of scale, low costs – are going to shrink, and might even cancel out in the next 10 or 20 years, along with the development there of the middle classes, the rise of wages and consumption. China's low-cost advantages will then probably go to Africa. Once the infrastructure is up to par, Africa will be able to be competitive with the East – provided the political leadership holds its end of the bargain.
GV: Regarding African breakthroughs in technology that came about after the well-known Ushahidi, you mentioned the following in your session – SwiftRiver, CrowdMap, Kopo Kopo, iCow, M-Pedigree, MXIT. However, these are mostly operating on mobile phones. Is technology in Africa over-hyped ?
MK: What we have now is that for the first time, Africa has a way to influence the world. Political leadership permitting, technology is getting some serious attention. Furthermore, the Kenyan government is acknowledging that opening its data will result in better accountability and leadership, and that this is good for their political legacy.
I don't deny there's hype, but it's a good hype and I prefer it to the former one-sided vision of Africa.
GV: A meaningful fact for conclusion?
MK: All of East Africa started to learn Chinese – starting, not from English, but from Swahili.
The interview was conducted by Global voices author Suzanne Lehn. The photos of Mark Kaigwa used in this post were taken by her.