Editorial: Technology Travels.
Monday, 18 January 2010

Technology is great. Because it travels. I don't necessarily mean this literally, although the IPhone came to Kenya on a plane in what was a bit of an overblown PR gag, I felt at the time – probably because we were all secretly aware that the phone had not actually flown in from the Republic of IPhonia, but that the Orange-branded plane had just done a twirl up, round, and down again over Wilson Airport. But the bottom line is, it came to Kenya , and even before the official Orange launch: many little IPhones sneaking, strangers in the night, into the country in traveling friends' hand luggage.

Hah, you will say – Andrea, that's just for the wealthy in the cities. Is it?

Technology is fluid and it travels not just physically, but also between demographic groups. Remember the days when mobile operators thought that Africa wasn't a viable market? No? Because I don't either. That statement scuttled off long ago to the realm of myths and folk tales. When I moved to Uganda , almost exactly ten years ago, I had my first mobile phone ever. Picking up a pre-paid SIM card was, I remember, was as easy as collecting free soap at the petrol station . So I was astonished, flabbergasted even, when I came back to Germany two years later and was asked for EUR50 to purchase a prepaid card. Airtime not included.

I had been contacted a while ago by a journalist writing for a US publication whose pitch for an article about ICT in Africa had been ‘innovation in unlikely places'. That's the wrong way round, I told him: It is the very nature of this place that drives innovation. You'll do raging business if you tweak technology a bit to make it work for your clients. Not just the easy prepaid connections, but also solar phones, data-enabled handsets, portable modems, airtime sending and so on. Which is, really, a no-brainer, since that's how it works everywhere.

And not just mobile technology is being transported by intense lust and longing and desire for the latest shiny toy: When I potter around town in my ancient mitumba car, I am regularly overtaken by the bestest, newest, biggest vehicles (because, around here, they are never cars, they are always ‘vehicles'). The latest in vehicular technology also comes to Kenya with the ease of a charter tourist.

But now explain this to me: How is it possible that the same honourables who find it dishonourable to drive anything but a Mercedes, who were underwhelmed by a shipload of sparkly new Volkswagen purchased just for them, who presumably all have very funky phones, too – how is it possible that they run a country where the capital city has but one functioning fire engine?





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