‘Food or Phones?’ Africa decides…

What’s hunger got to do with being poor? — everything.

As recently as the 20th century, the depiction of the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness reflected the popular European view of African societies at the time: primitive. Yet, with the first quarter of the 21st century nearing its end, darkness is still associated with the people of the continent — but for a less sinister reason. Africa’s 1.4 billion people have the lowest access to electricity in the world, — a reality owing to an enormous infrastructure gap that is the bane of the continent.

With this picture in mind, it’s not mysterious that so many of the poorest countries in the world are in Africa — it’s a clichéd narrative usually linked to an exploitative colonial past, often compounded by poor self-governance. This has left many people on the continent unable to afford necessities of life as basic as food. According to the United Nations, following the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 282 million people in Africa suffered from hunger.

Likewise, given a host of factors hiking global food prices like the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications on wheat supply, the number of hungry people in Africa is expected to rise again.

A possible solution ?

A think tank high-up in the Swiss Alps town of Davos — the World Economic Forum, came to the rescue with a proposal. They argued that Africa could capitalise on the fast-emerging fourth industrial revolution, aka the fourth industry, to leap past its problems. But, what’s this fourth industry? Moreover, how can it help solve a human issue as dire as hunger?

To fully understand what the fourth industry is all about, we have to take our minds backwards through history to the 18th century, — a time when the first industrial revolution kicked off in Great Britain. At this point, innovations in technology like the steam engine introduced new and better ways of doing things — encouraging massive industrialization which came with tremendous wealth for society.

Today, the fourth industry is simply jargon for the idea that recent leaps in technology like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, 3D printing, and blockchain would provide unimaginable benefits to society. Having this in mind, the World Economic Forum suggests that Africa can address its development concerns by using these cutting-edge technologies.

Agreeing with this thinking, the Brookings Institution — a Washington-based think tank, proposes in their report that these formerly sci-fi technologies can: fight poverty and inequality; encourage economic growth; improve healthcare and human capital; among many other golden opportunities that await the continent.

Africa’s reality

When you consider the rampage of hunger on the continent, the noble argument for solving Africa’s development problems with innovative technologies starts to crumble. To the 9-year-old street child, Abdul, attentively searching for food to eat from the waste bins of Nigeria’s capital city — Abuja, the proposal holds no value. His priorities clearly differ from those of the big think tanks.

In what sense? For one, many countries in Africa are struggling economically, and this makes aloof the proposal that they acquire advanced technologies, which are often expensive. Even if these countries were able to afford these technologies, should it then come at the price of ignoring more pressing issues like hunger? That’s the question for African leaders.

Another obvious reason the fourth industry would be a disastrous investment decision for the continent is the lack of expertise and technical know-how. Emerging technology industries like artificial intelligence and blockchains often require specific skill sets, which are mostly lacking in Africa because of low literacy rates compared to the global average.

Laying the argument to rest, an additional factor testifying to the hopelessness of the proposal put forward by the think tanks is the earlier mentioned infrastructure gap that exists on the continent. For instance, in the operation of artificial intelligence, certain existing infrastructure is needed for its optimal use. This may include things as basic as electricity, powerful processing capacity, and communication technologies — all of which are sparsely available on the continent.

Hence, relying on the antithesis that food is more essential than phones, Abdul, the earlier mentioned 9-year-old boy on the streets of Abuja, Nigeria, would have food in his belly before having a phone foisted into his hands as suggested by the big think tanks.

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