Dear Mr President
About ten years ago, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, Switzerland, you made a remarkable speech on technology in third world countries, and this speech galvanized me to do something about technology from the moment I read it. I have included an excerpt of that speech below:
Long after we have talked about the need for information & communication technologies as tools with which to contrive the information society, we are soon to discover that receivers and computers are powered by electricity which is unavailable in a typical Third World village. Long after we have talked about connectivity, we are soon to discover that most platforms for electronic communication need basic telecommunication infrastructure which does not exist in a typical African village.
What is worse, we will discover, much to our dismay, that the poor villager we wish to turn into a fitting citizen for our information society, is in many instances unable to read and write. Where we are lucky to find the villager literate and numerate, we soon discover that he or she is not looking for a computer terminal but for a morsel of food; an antibiotic to save his dying child; a piece of land on which to eke out an existence, in short, looking for a humane society that guarantees him food, health, shelter and education.
Ten years later, the technology landscape has shifted in Zimbabwe; for example, internet and mobile penetration rates have increased, and I can write this letter to you on my internet-capable phone. However, the state of the economy largely remains unchanged; the average human being in the typical Zimbabwean city/town/village still longs to have access to the basic human needs than this technology we talk about.
Or is it maybe because we talk about the wrong kind of technology, a technology form that is not relevant in our third world African context. What if we shifted our focus from the kind of technology we see on High Frequency Trading platforms on Wall Street for example, or the kind that mostly comes from Silicon Valley? What if we shifted our focus to technologies and innovations in agriculture, health, construction, and education?
The kinds of questions we probably should be asking are:
- What role does technology have to play in ensuring that pregnant women have easy access to information so that infants do not have to unnecessarily die due to preventable causes?
- How best can we connect farmers and their markets or ensure that they have access to all the climate and weather information so they can make timely decisions?
- Instead of our Universities spending huge sums of money resources on researching expensive construction styles, could we instead redirect some of that money to invest in newer low cost housing technologies?
- How can we revolutionize our education to ensure its relevance and access to all?
These and other questions cry ever louder for answers in our Zimbabwean context, and I am a strong believer in the ability of technology to be the shortest route to the attainment of these goals towards greater access to food, health, shelter and education.
So, yes Mr President, receivers and computers are powered by electricity which is unavailable not just in the typical third world village, but in our towns and cities as well. Yes, Mr President, our telecommunications infrastructure cannot compare to that of the developed world, but neither can it compare to that of our more advanced neighbors like South Africa.
However, instead of seeing these obstacles as impediments to our technological progress, we should see them as stepping stones, problems begging to be solved by this technology we talk about. As you may well know, Mr President, Zimbabweans have been blessed with immense intellectual potential and genius. In case you didn’t know, there are many entrepreneurs in the technology space in Zimbabwe doing (or able to do) amazing things in any of these fields.
What we ask of you, Mr President, is to create an enabling environment for these entrepreneurs to thrive. You spoke about electricity, infrastructure and education; I believe the government can do a whole lot more in that regard, but without ruling out the potential of partnerships with entrepreneurs invested in green energies, infrastructure and education revolutions.