Billions of Earthlings carry little bits of Africa around with them in their pockets. While rare minerals (coltan, gold, wolframite) are dug out in the People's Republic of Congo to make the tiny capacitors in cell phones, these same minerals end up dumped on toxic e-waste sites like Agbogbloshie in Ghana. African earth is the beginning and end of the machines of planetary scale computation.
Earth and Cloud
Mining sites on African soil are strategic locations in the harsh geopolitical game between Chinese, European and American multinationals over valuable resources. African peoples are also the subject of fierce competition between primarily North American cloud platforms like Facebook, Google and Uber for access to and control over the rapidly growing African user base and the data they generate. Although internet penetration varies significantly between regions, Facebook has signed up almost half the countries on the continent to its free 'internet' service in a controversial move to corner the market in one of the world's biggest mobile data growth regions. As a result, underprivileged Africans find themselves in a walled garden in which they can access only a limited set of extractivist corporate websites and services. Uber runs city mobility from Nairobi to Lagos and Silicon Valley-like start-up culture is spreading across the continent and has inspired the birth of countless hotspots, incubators, accelerators and tech districts from Nigeria's Yabacon Valley to Google's first artificial intelligence lab in Ghana.
The GAFA stack (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) is openly attempting to dominate the African cloud, while Chinese tech giants are making massive investments in hardware and infrastructure. Chinese phone maker Transsion Holdings has become Africa's top smartphone producer, selling more than 80 million phones annually. Other Chinese firms have been exporting facial recognition software to Zimbabwe with the aim of optimizing and expanding its vast database for massive-scale facial recognition to millions of Africans. In order to accommodate such fast-paced developments, special economic zones are sprawling through the continent, with several already operative on the Nigerian coastline.
African states are reacting in different ways to the power struggles over the earth and the cloud and attempt to strengthen African sovereignty in the new techno-political power dynamics. Rwanda is developing an African type smart city. Kenya is putting in place its own fintech regulations around the M-Pesa mobile currency, and Uganda and Tanzania are trying to enforce a profit margin on the GAFA stack through a social media tax. Simultaneously, local knowledge practices across the continent shape not only the way technologies are adopted, but also how future technologies are developed in relation to different African cosmologies and flavours of algorithmic thinking.
In this iteration of the Vertical Atlas series, the aim is to develop a view on the composite African technological culture emerging from the clashes between alien geostrategic interests, foreign cloud platforms' ambitions and Africa's native technological developments, local cosmologies and ancient computational thinking.
What kind of African future is growing out of the intersection of old knowledge networks that connected cities from Timbuktu to Great Zimbabwe, from the Benin empire to the library of Alexandria and the new networks like the SEACOM cables connecting the continent and the deep economic reach of the M-Pesa currency?
The Internet of Voice vs. The Internet of Economy
On Thursday Night Live! Vertical Atlas: Networks.africa of April 11, 2019, 'Gbenga Sesan (Nigeria) and Nanjala Nyabola (Kenya) traced the histories of two different tech-related struggles in the African geo-zone.
'Gbenga Sesan introduced his talk with the cover of the Economist from March 7 2019: 'The New Scramble for Africa'. The title references the first 'scramble' for Africa, when European colonial powers sought out the continent for its value in size and resources and succeeded in doing so based on the relatively poor defence in comparison to their strong military forces. Africa was cut up and divided between the colonial strongholds: Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, United Kingdom Italy and Portugal. The next scramble for Africa came during the Cold War, when the East and the West fought for global domination, the Soviet Union supported African countries in favour of Marxist ideologies, whilst America did the same to any African leader in favour of capitalism. The third 'scramble' happens now, in the fields of international trade, exchange and the spread of technology. The subtitle of the Economists cover reads:_ 'and how Africans can win it'_.
The Guardian has been publishing a series called The Tech Continent: Africa's digital renaissance. which details innovation and new technology in Africa. This content is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which perfectly illustrates how Africa's technological story is overshadowed by multinational companies and foundations. If companies have had and continue to have such agency over the development of a whole continent, how can Africa really win the scramble?
Elections in Nigeria
The 2007 Nigerian Presidential elections were highly anticipated and were supposed to herald a new chapter in Nigeria's democratic advance, marking the first time since the country's independence from British ruling in 1960, that a president, in this case Olusegun Obasanjo would hand over leadership to an elected successor. Nigeria's government has swung between democratically elected civilian governments and military dictatorships since 1960, but in 2006 a ruling was put in place, stating that a president could not serve more than two presidential terms.
Despite the optimism, the 2007 election turned out a deeply controversial affair, with apparent rampant vote rigging, theft of ballot boxes and voter intimidation. The new president Umaru Yar'Adua, of the People's Democratic Party was sworn in on May 29, 2007 amongst much turbulence and objection.
The election and its controversy generated the first movement of social media protest amongst the citizens of Nigeria, who used BlackBerry Messenger to securely communicate within the hostile political climate. This indicates one of the biggest positive effects of the broadening and democratisation of internet access, namely the opportunity for political participation and articulation of political voices, which has remained an important political force in Nigerian politics.
From the 2007 election online participation grew and by 2010, a group had emerged called Save Nigeria, the members of which were questioning the presidential running of the country after the death of the president Umaru Yar'Adua. These groups contributed to the examination of the electoral system, and in 2011, new electronic voter registration software was introduced. This meant that the 2011 election could be monitored live and online by the public and was considered a big step towards democracy.
The technology for this was developed by a Nigerian start-up, , TimbaObjects. Founded in 2009 by Tim Akinbo, the company created an SMS-based programme called 'Apollo' which could facilitate election monitoring in a more efficient way. Partnering with the National Democratic Institute, TimbaObjects rolled out their election monitoring tools for the first time during the 2011 Nigerian presidential elections. Sadly, it is rare that this kind of innovation and solution-based intervention comes from the continent itself. More often technologies are offered by non-African companies.
Yaba, a fast-evolving tech-hub in a suburb of Lagos and a birthplace of technologies such as Apollo, serves as a case study for the issues around African tech development. Its nickname, Yabacon Valley, controversially illustrates the 'inferiority complex' prevailing in Africa: the hard to root out idea that the 'East or the West is Best', fuelling African governments to grant technological opportunities to European, North American or Chinese companies. For Africa to win the scramble, there needs to be validation of the innovation and solutions that African start-ups can bring to Africa, much like in the case of Apollo, used to assist election monitoring in Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Azerbaijan. What would be needed for Yaba to be a label in its own right, instead of using the derivative Yabacon Valley?
Kenya's First Digital Decade
Nanjala Nyabola narrated another story of African technological innovation, this time focused on Kenya. The independent Republic of Kenya was formed in 1964 and was ruled as a one-party state by the Kenya African National Union (KANU), led by Jomo Kenyatta during 1963 to 1978. Kenyatta was succeeded by his minister Daniel arap Moi. After a failed coup attempt in 1982 his regime made a significant autocratic turn. In 2002 election, the opposition parties united and managed to overthrow Moi and his chosen successor. This lead to hope that Kenya could exist as a democratic state after all this time, and in 2007 election support and enthusiasm was building for the opposition party.
The December 2007 presidential election was a two-horse race between Mwai Kibaki, leader of the Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Early results published by the Kenyan media gave Raila Odinga the lead in 69 of the country's 210 constituencies. Odinga held a strong lead in vote counting on 28 December, and the ODM declared victory on 29 December. However, as more results were announced on the same day, the gap between the two candidates narrowed and on December 30, Kibaki was announced as president, placing him ahead of Odinga by about 232,000 votes. Within minutes of the announcement of Kibaki's victory, protests in the street alleging Kibaki had rigged the election turned violent. In the days and weeks that followed, Kenya slipped dangerously close to outright civil war.
The violent troubles of 2008 gave an important push to a particular wave of innovation focused on the internet and mobile technologies, strengthening a particular Kenyan connection between technological and political cultures.
M-Pesa evolved as a lifeline for money transfer during the violence within Nairobi. It allowed money to be transferred across the lines of conflict without the need for bank accounts. M-Pesa was launched in 2007, responding to the fact that only 19% of Kenyan adults had access to a bank account, but 54% of Kenyan adults had access to a mobile phone. Enabling users to deposit money directly into an account stored on their mobile phones, as well as to send balances via PIN-secured SMS text messages to other users, M-Pesa hugely democratised bank access for Kenya, contributing to one third of Kenya's GDP.
In addition, the 2008 troubles lead to emergence of Ushahidi (Swahili for 'testimony' or 'witness'), an online platform that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text messages, and placed them on a Google map of Kenya, allowing people both inside and outside Kenya to follow the local events.
The speed of uptake of internet-based technologies in Kenya is outstanding: 83% of its population is active internet users, compared to the continents average of 18%. Since 2013, WhatsApp gained more than 12 million Kenyan users, while Facebook attracted 7.1 million users in just two years between 2015 and 2017.
Testing the Datafication of Politics
The amount of Kenyans online combined with the absence of any regulation on data practices, rendered it a unique terrain for testing the mechanisms of profiling, and user data analytics, and a testing ground for the technological, datafied influencing of political campaigns and elections worldwide.
Cambridge Analytica's involvement in Kenyan politics began in 2013, when they were employed by Uhuru Kenyatta and The National Alliance, claiming to have conducted a 'large-scale research project' sampling 47,000 people. The scraped profiles included 'key national and local political issues', 'levels of trust in key politicians', 'voting behaviours/intentions', and 'preferred information channels'. They then 'devised an online social media campaign to generate a hugely active online following'.
Despite the use of fully digitized systems, biometric voter registration and online results tracking, the most expensive Kenyan election in history turned out to be the most disputed one too. The voting took place on August 8 2017, and by August 9 2017 outcry was forming that the voting system had been rigged, and that there were discrepancies in the data within the official 34A and 34B forms. It is thought that previous to the election Cambridge Analytica had targeted young voters via social media, much like their involvement in Trump's election campaign and the Leave campaign in the UK, prompting concerns about data protection in Kenya and other African countries. The lack of data protection legislation coupled with the rapid technological development raises concerns of exploitation of African users under the strain of digital colonialism. Nanjala Nyabola ended her talk with drawing parallels between the role of technological aid in Kenyan politics and the election processes in Nigeria, South Africa, India, Myanmar and Brazil, referring to it as a warning in relation to the May 2019 European elections.
The talks on April 11, 2019 by 'Gbenga Sesan and Nanjala Nyabola provided the groundwork for the Lab the following day. Taking place on April 12, 2019 in Amsterdam, the Lab was devoted to collective research and discussion about the realities of Africa's digital sphere. The lab was set up around the following questions:
- Is there an 'African' model of technological development?
- What is the relation between African technological development and various African cultures and knowledge systems?
- How do the technological developments relate to states' political ambitions and fears, current infrastructural limitations and foreign geopolitical strategies?
- What is the relation between the internet of expression and the internet of economy in different African contexts?
Invited participants: Tegan Bristow, Oulimata Gueye, Halima Haruna, Serubiri Moses, Sylvia Musalagani, Nanjala Nyabola, 'Gbenga Sesan, Alexander van Wijnen. Facilitated by: Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Arthur Steiner, Benjamin Bratton & Leonardo Dellanoce. Report: Fiona Herrod. More information about speakers and participants can be found here.
1\. Earth -- Extrastatecraft
The first session was introduced by Serubiri Moses and Halima Haruna, and interrogated the question: What is African at the Earth Layer? They started with a quote from Global Citizenship by philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah, 'A politics that respects individuality: if it tries to give people as much control over their own lives as is consistent with ensuring that they do not derail the lives of others-cosmopolitanism, [...]'
They formulated the way that 'Africa' exists in relation to other world powers as a construct by colonial forces, and that control over African resources has always been so useful to external powers, that is has traumatised the development of Africa's own identity and sovereignty by its dwellers.
Using Keller Easterling's Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space as a framework, they discussed how several forms of sovereignty play out in the African context: 'As a site of multiple, overlapping or nested forms of sovereignty, where domestic and transnational jurisdictions collide, infrastructure space becomes a medium of what might be called extra statecraft--a portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes even in partnership with statecraft.' The terms 'Statecraft' and 'Non-Statecraft' serves as key elements within the discussion.
The current foreign interest in Africa is unprecedented: between 2010-2016, 320 new foreign embassies were built within the continent. China openly admits to working with 45 out of the 54 African nations and Russia is working within 19 nations. The issues here relate to transparency and possible corruption; there are countless examples of un-accountable African leaders signing deals with outsiders which benefit them personally or their government, but not the citizens of their country.
Characteristic forms of extrastatecraft in the Nigerian context are performed by OPEC (The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and _SPDC _(Shell) and their position in Africa managing the extraction and trade of resources. This reads as a prolongation of the colonial image of Africa as a 'bounty-land'.
There is a typical dynamic at play between states and non-governmental bodies, as non-governmental bodies tend to step into areas where states are not performing well and develop their alternatives to statecraft. In this process existing state bodies weaken further and tend to even more lapse in their responsibilities towards their citizens. In other words: non-state sovereignties exploit the gaps in the state-based governance structures of the African geozone, a practice known as 'predatory capitalism'
Discussion: predatory extrastatecraft
- The performance of extrastatecraft can be witnessed on the examples of Microsoft and Facebook. Microsoft entered the African continent in the 1990's, building colleges, labs and a University, training users to be computer literate with their International Computer Driving Licence and, most crucially, bringing access to the internet. Microsoft thus captured the African market and triggered brand loyalty across the continent. Still the Windows operating system prevails on the market.
- In 2015 Facebook signed up almost half the countries in Africa to its free internet service in a controversial move to corner the market in one of the world's biggest mobile data growth regions. The initiative called Free Basics enables mobile users to access Facebook free of data charges. Free Basics does not give full internet access, but only allows access to certain Facebook affiliated sites, and is criticised as a ploy to grow the number of Facebook users, and to get access to their data. As Facebook's policy operates in the absence of any data protection in African countries, this story illustrates again the typical dynamic of African extrastatecraft, in which non-state bodies exploit the gaps in state-based governance structures.
Discussion: Africa as a generalising frame
Africa is made up of 54 countries and individual nations and there are clear issues with the grouping all those differences under the label of one continent. The colonial powers installed their colonial legacy under the label 'zones of influence'. English speaking countries still belong to the British Commonwealth, no better demonstrated than by Theresa May's pledges of trade and economic relations with Africa post-Brexit to fill the gaps left from leaving the EU. Western media stress the geographic division between 'North Africa' and 'Sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa'. Then there is also the 'Arabisation' of North Africa and the perspective of Sudan and Somalia as extensions of Middle Eastern Arab geography. This raises questions about whether there is an Africa entity that could ever be able to develop an overarching African identity on its own terms, or whether individual nations would better approach this process of identity development separately.
The persistence of international media narratives that present 'Africa' through the trope of a site of trauma is problematic in the context of understanding African realities on their own terms.
Discussion: African sovereignties in relation to African cosmologies
Outside of The Stack's (and for that matter, most Western) reference frames there exists another kind of sovereignty stemming from African cosmologies and social systems embedded in them. The importance of ancestors - the land itself as well as deceased family members - is crucial in constituting African identities. The understanding of land ownership is also highly influenced by these notions. As ancestors cannot be 'owned', ownership of land is an awkward concept to most African cultures. Land can merely be borrowed. Following African cosmologies, the Earth is an ancestor and constitutes its own sovereign and is referred to as an agent capable of subjectivity.
2\. Cloud -- Predatory Capitalism
The second session was introduced by 'Gbenga Sesan and Sylvia Musalagani, drawing upon the earlier introduced notions of predatory capitalism and digital colonialism. The problematics of Supply and Demand in the African technology market is well illustrated with the case of Microsoft's intervention in Africa: the market starts from the logic of supply, rather than that of demand in nearly all African cases. There is a projected impression and imposition of what the African market wants and needs which was called the Pusher Model.
Microsoft's cloud service, Office 365, was not as successful as hoped in Africa, as the model relied on good internet connection. Microsoft's legacy in Africa is still very much based on the first wave of innovation in the 1990's. In the discussion, a division was made between parties with infrastructural advantage (Microsoft) and parties with cloud advantage. The ongoing doubt about who can achieve the cloud advantage, based on the access to consistent power supply, justifies construction of serves outside of the country's borders. With increased interest in data localisation, global companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Amazon and Huawei are currently battling over the development of the African cloud. Microsoft built their first data centre in Johannesburg, and South Africa and Huawei quickly followed, launching their cloud-based services for their customers in January 2019. Huawei has recently announced plans to build data centres in Kenya and Nigeria too.
Discussion: huge differences within Africa
- Out of the 54 countries, only 5 or 6 are actually implied in this discussion: Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Senegal. Each nation in Africa has a different experience of techno-capitalist system: for instance, coastal nations have access to ports and fibre cables and place them at a drastically less reliant position than those landlocked nations. The central nations continue to rely on the help of global companies, while African nations could potentially support and trade locally between each other instead. It is clear that there can be no such a thing as a 'one-bottle afro-capitalism', which is often implied in discussions.
Discussion: states versus citizens
- Technological innovation is strongly related to political voice and participation. Governments now actively watch and monitor the Twitter and Facebook accounts of their citizens, meaning the 'Golden Age of Tech Innovation' is perhaps over. Governments are able to shut down the internet, monitor their citizens and deploy bots to spread political messages on Twitter. In 2016 alone, the internet was shut down in Algeria, Mali, Gambia, Libya, Egypt, Chad, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
- Cyber security in Africa is focused on the interests of governments rather than on the interests of citizens. Most data are being collected while there are no data collection laws in place. African citizens data can be bought (and is known to have been bought) by Chinese tech companies to train machine learning systems. African governments have a responsibility to their citizens to create legislation that protects internet users, but instead, governments often ask private sector companies to develop technological data protection schemes.
- Local players are being side lined in the development of infrastructure and cloud technology. For local companies, it is nearly impossible to compete alongside the global players. The non-African companies hold market domination and will continue to do so unless the governments invest interest and offer opportunities to local companies.
- There is a lack of transparency in technological agreements between governments and private corporations. Most agreements hinge on personal connections. Deals are not user focused. A good illustration would be the rather cynical business model with which safari.com exploits its monopoly position to sell data bundles. Small bundles come relatively expensive. Big bundles always expire in one day, even if they are only partly used up.
- Even the celebrated story of M-Pesa can be understood as a case of predatory capitalism. The mobile app greatly democratised access to banking for the population of East-Africa but has been doing this with interest rates sometimes up to 34% on borrowing. M-Pesa is making profit based on the failings of the banking system to their citizens. Additionally, M-Pesa is commonly used to crowdsource money within a community, usually to pay for a community members' medical care. This is only necessary due to the failure of the public health system and unaffordable medical costs. A regulation for this dynamic is clearly required.
3\. Interface -- African Cosmologies
Tegan Bristow introduced the final chapter of the conversation, starting with different knowledge regimes outlined by a philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe: Expert knowledge, Vernacular Knowledge and Insurrectionary Knowledge. Tegan's introduction picked up the discussion point that was raised in the Earth discussion on African cosmologies. African knowledge practices are mostly dismissed based the argument that they are not scientific, and from an assumption that technical knowledge almost by definition can only be Western. Tegan posed questions of how local African traditions could find a role in the modern context, and how that could look, drawing comparisons between the algorithmic processes involved in beading and weaving with those in coding.
Discussion: other knowledge practices
- There is a strong need to decolonise ideas about science, and to develop non-normative ideas about what counts as knowledge and what is perceived as superstitious witchcraft.
- Women's expertise in medicine was not considered as viable or a scientific truth for a long period of time, despite its contribution to health of entire communities. As knowledge traditionally held by women is often doubted or deemed unimportant, the gendered aspect of this discussion was brought to attention.
- The educational regime across the world and in Africa is largely based on the STEM logic (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). STEM validates what counts as important knowledge, and in dire need of decolonisation.
Discussion: hierarchy of technological practices
- As part of the effort of decolonisation it is also important to abstain from discussing the relevance of beading as validated by similarities with coding practice. Also, vernacular knowledge should not be validated by its association with Western ideals of knowledge. To do so, would amplify the inequality between knowledge practices instead of equalising them. The opposite should also be possible: to consider coding as an interesting form of beading.
- This tied in with the issues that African tech hubs (Yabacon Valley and Silicon Savannah) have taken on names dictated and themed by that of Silicon Valley. Perhaps it is impossible to break this tendency at the moment. Africa still wants its technology and innovation to be validated by the West, and this mentality is still difficult to overcome.
The aim of Vertical Atlas is to develop a multivocal, multivocal atlas, representing (experiences of) powers and sovereignties of the global digital sphere from different perspectives, inspired by Benjamin Bratton's model of the Stack. One recurring question in the Vertical Atlas labs is how to visually or diagrammatically represent the dynamics and concepts at play in different geozones, to explore the ways in which they can become part of the actual Vertical Atlas.
To stimulate a discussion on different forms of representation, Oulimata Gueye presented three stories as a way of provoking the translation of the many narratives involved in the digital sphere of Africa into something visually tangible. Following this, the group split into smaller groups taking Earth, Cloud and Interface as the starting points for visual translation.
Interests around the interface
The group of Tegan Bristow, Sylvia Musalagani and Oulimata Gueye) explored the representation of different interests at play in the Interface. They came up with a proposal for an optical illusion or a 3D model that should be looked at from two different angles.
That way it would be possible to get a differing view of the role of the internet. One version of the internet as interface for big business, big data, technological determinism, and colonial scientific standards: everything that Microsoft stands for in the continent. But looking from a different perspective, a different image of the internet as interface in Africa is revealed, with smaller scales of nets operating on the same technical infrastructure, but relatively independent from mass-interest. This would be the internet of interacting vernacular knowledge, survival, emancipation, solidarity and de-centralisation.
Choreography of demand
The group of Nanjala Nyabola, 'Gbenga Sesan and Halima Haruna explored the interrelations between policy, infrastructure, demand and supply in relation to different kinds of players.
Between the groups of Government, Makers and Users, a hierarchy in relation to technological development can be seen, with policy and infrastructure as vectors that allow agents to create demand. The group considered which agencies and vectors would need to be paired in order to have the highest level of advantage of a position of power. For example, Makers can use the policy and infrastructure vector to enact on Users, and are able to create false demand, but Government is able to enact on Makers, creating gaps in the market, and consequently also facilitating false demand.
Government has the most powerful position, as it can create policies which immediately generate demand. Makers, through the policy and infrastructure vectors are able to create supply, thus lowering demand. Whereas Users are placed lower on the axis, as they only have the limited capacity to either lower or alter their demand. Collectively they do have some influence on the policy vector, which can benefit their position. The power relations between governments, technology providers and makers together form a choreography of demand.
The OPEC Ritual
The group of Serubiri Moses, Leonardo Dellanoce, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer and Alexander van Wijnen explored different notions of time that are at play in the context of the African continent: Earth time, geological time, global time, human time and political time. Reading processes of mineral extraction and the formation of supranational corporations in relation to each other led to an understanding of OPEC practices as a powerful and hermetic manipulation of the temporal domains of past, present and future.
Their diagram took a minor incident in the Niger Delta as a case study. Satellite surveillance and Earth observation technologies are deployed by OPEC in preparation for future geological material extraction. Based on this observation, OPEC develops a simulated projection of extraction of the observed resources. As soon as this future projection is created, the actual situation in the present - the whole of its material realities and relations - is covered by a conceptual void - a vacuum. The present (with exception of the observed resources) is no longer there as something that matters. This is the first step towards manifestation of the projection. The now present combination of a vacuum with an imagined future on the same geographical location is able to suck finance towards the present. The funds are not moved from another geographical location, they move instead along a temporal axis - they come from the future, where they already exist as a probable result of the projected profitability of the process of resource extraction. When the funding is made present, the process of material manifestation of the projection commences, replacing the matters of the present (that are obscured by the conceptual void) with the materialisation of the projected forms. Once running, the materialised process of resource extraction then physically generates the funds, of which parts have already been used (transported to their own past) to create themselves, so to speak. This powerful piece of time magic was labelled the OPEC Ritual.