What if the internet was invented in Africa by Africans?
What would an African version of the internet look like?
The first time I asked a friend of mine this question, he immediately responded with a laugh: “It would probably be as slow as hell and not work half the time”
That of course cracked me up.
But seriously, what if the internet was invented in Africa by Africans?
This is interesting even as just a thought exercise.
For real, what would it look like?
Would it work the same way?
Would it be distributed or centralized?
Would we interact with it in the same way? Mainly through a browser? Or a Visual App with a keyboard or something else?
Would the same kind of business models and companies dominate?
What would the identity model be? How would you identify yourself?
To feed your imagination and spark a conversation, consider the following:
The internet is a global network of networks. Many of the protocols and applications that make up the internet today like the World Wide Web, email, file sharing, and internet telephony were invented in the United States and Western Europe mainly thanks to a lot of funding from the government, particularly the defense departments after world war II and during the cold war. The main use case was the transfer and processing of information for the purpose of research and also the coordination of their defense systems.
This left its mark on the internet we know today in a number of ways. E.g.
- The default language of the internet is English. Think of the keywords and syntax for HTML for example.
- The internet is largely text-based likely resulting from its origins in the research, academic and administrative space.
- We do not have one universally accepted way of billing for the use of internet services and applications given that, unlike Telephony, its predecessor that had billing designed into its protocol from day one, the internet protocols were initially meant to transfer information between two or more machines within the same enterprise or corporation and so the issue of billing never came up. This is also probably why the internet today is currently primarily powered by ads.
Now let us put your imagination to the test.
As part of our exercise, let us imagine a world where the funding for the internet came from a number of African governments for the primary purpose of facilitating and growing retail commerce at all levels within and across their borders in the 60s. How would it have turned out?
- What would have been the default language? Would there even have been a default language? Would language features have been built in at a more fundamental level?
- Would a text-based internet as we have today have worked for this use case? An interesting question, given that a huge part of the target population, those involved in retail commerce, in those countries at that time did not have formal western education. Or maybe it could have been something different, like voice-based in order to allow people to communicate in a language and form that they are used to.
- What would have been the means of exchanging value on this African internet? Would payment have been designed into the protocols as well in the same way it was for telephony given that it would mainly be serving a commerce use case?
This certainly makes for an interesting conversation.
But another more fundamental question arises.
Why is this conversation even important? Moreso, why is it important today?
We live in the age of information technology. Information technology, according to this Wikipedia article, is the use of computers to create, process, store, retrieve, and exchange all kinds of data and information. With this definition in mind, I can think of at least 3 reasons why this conversation is important today.
Culture and technology are intertwined
First of all, when discussing the use of technology to create, process, store, retrieve and exchange information, the culture in which that technology was developed will invariably affect the manner and outcome of the information creation, processing, storage, retrieval, and exchange. This in turn affects the adoption of that technology.
It is my hypothesis that there would be faster adoption of information technology at all levels in Africa if there was less of a mismatch between the culture of those who developed the technology and the culture of those doing the adoption. I believe that today, the adoption of internet applications in the region closely tracks the rate of adoption of western culture and education with its attendant consequences.
For example, how many 30-year-old traders without formal western education in the middle of the Onitsha main market use a smartphone commerce app like Shopify to transact? Not many. The closest they may come to this is probably using Whatsapp with its ability to send images, voice notes, and very simple text. Is this the best we can do? Could there be something different or better? Which is more likely to yield the desired outcome? Getting the trader to adopt the Shopify app or creating a technological solution (app, device or something else) that is compatible with the trader’s way of life which enables them to transact? There are multiple directions that we can take this point but I will leave it here for now.
We need Africa-compatible internet business models
Every now and again, I connect with friends and acquaintances in the Angel investing and venture capitalist space in Africa. While the tech ecosystem in Africa is currently hotter than it has ever been, smart investors are on the hunt for those special deals that will unlock the next generation of entrepreneurs in much the same way that innovation from the likes of Mpesa, PayStack, and Flutterwave unlocked a whole wave of growth in the region resulting in growth not just for the Fintech space but in other areas like insurtech, health tech, and proptech. Where will the era-defining innovation come from? I do not know. What I do know is that the next era-defining innovation in the region will be the one that in some way unlocks access for millions in the same way that MPESA, Paystack, and Flutterwave unlocked access to financial services for millions of underserved. Will this next era-defining technology be formulated in a different culture and retrofitted to Africa or will it (can it) be homegrown? Think about the fact that today, a huge chunk of the tech world that relies on online advertising revenue has become collateral damage in the wake of the Apple -Meta lovefest. Could this intensify the search for an alternative revenue model for the internet? What will Africa’s role, contribution, and position be?
Technology and sovereignty are also intertwined
As mentioned earlier we live in an information age, in an interconnected world. Recently we have seen how those countries and economies that developed and control various technologies can use these technologies to their political, economic, and military advantage by simply controlling who can and cannot access these technologies. Imagine what it must be like not being able to create, process, store, retrieve and exchange information simply because another country says that you cannot. This will remain the fate of all regions that do not invest time, energy, and resources in reimagining what information technology means in the unique context of their people and culture.
The Story of Okeke , the Apprentice
What could this African version of the internet look like in reality? I do not know, but I can only attempt to spark your imagination by referring you to what the Asians have done with super apps like WeChat, Grab, Kakao, etc, and what the Indians are doing with devices like the Jio Phone
Again let’s task our imagination. Try to picture this.
Okeke, an 18-year-old with no formal western education, is an igbo trading apprentice who earns his living working for his boss in Ariaria market in Aba, southeastern Nigeria He just heard that his favorite music artist had dropped a new track and he would like to listen to it and maybe even watch the music video. He pulls out his phone. Except that this is not your everyday smartphone. This is a device similar to the Indian Jio phone with its own voice assistant technology. This enables Okeke to immediately search for the song by voice in his local language given that he may not know how to spell the name of the song correctly. The song and accompanying video is immediately downloaded to his device for playing. Note that the device has all the necessary Digital Rights Management capabilities to prevent piracy.It only takes a few seconds to download the song and video because there are small network devices in different sections of the market that cache the hottest media content circulating amongst the network users in that section. This caching device is deployed and maintained by a 3rd party company and is used by several apps on Okeke’s device. The caching device and indeed the entire network leverages a special transmission protocol that is optimized for the transmission of information for the purpose of transacting in physical and virtual (digital) goods over channels that are assumed to be asynchronous by default.
Payment for the content is handled from Okeke’s mobile wallet which is tied to his device in much the same way credit cards are tied to devices in the US. Okeke can fund his wallet by going to the agent located two shops down from him. The entire transaction is brokered by a fintech platform that automatically settles all the parties involved from the app developer to the music label to the 3rd party caching provider, the network provider, and so on. The same fintech platform facilitates international trade using blockchain and other Web3 technologies thereby enabling all the traders in Ariaria market to seamlessly conduct business with their foreign customers and suppliers on their mobile devices using their local languages.
Okeke also happens to be a social media influencer on TheApp, a voice, video, and image-based hyperlocal neighborhood social media network that is optimized for neighborhoods like the section of Ariria market where Okeke operates and allows people to make posts and reply to comments using voice, video, and pictures. This social network enables the traders to stay abreast of everything going on in the market including economic, commercial and social trends. This is again made possible by the local network caches that maintain all the media generated in the neighborhood and enable people to stream posts and responses within a neighborhood without incurring heavy data costs. Okeke is also able to receive and process orders for his boss through the same device. For example, he is able to view an order from Mama Funke who made her order through a voice message in pidgin english. The shopkeeping app on the device is able to take note of the order and keep records of the transaction through its voice recognition capabilities augmented by manual verification from Okeke. The delivery is picked up by the e-commerce app’s delivery team and delivered to Mama Funke. They are able to locate Mama Funke using the addressing system that does not rely on street addressing but can map Mama Funke’s location using the description “House Number 4 by Kpako bus stop Ariaria”.
I will pause here to allow your imagination to take it even further.
Is this just another pipe dream?
It’s fine to imagine all we want and discuss all we want. After all, imagination is free and talk is cheap. But is this even feasible? Is it possible that one day Africans will be able to reimagine and implement technology for information creation, processing, storage, retrieval, and exchange that is naturally compatible with their culture and environment? Are there even Africans thinking like this?
I certainly know the answer to the last question. The answer is yes, there are people thinking like this. Here are some examples
Sometime in 2017/2018, during my time at Meta (fka Facebook), with support from my organizational and regional leadership, I conceptualized, motivated for, and implemented the FbStart Accelerator in partnership with the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos and a network of hubs across Nigeria. The aim of this accelerator was to explore the feasibility of deep tech (or research-based) entrepreneurship in Africa. A number of great people passed through that program creating a number of great projects. I will just mention a few here to make my point. Note that my point here is about both the feasibility of the projects and the thinking behind the projects.
First is the Olafenwa brothers (Moses and John) who were straight out of university at the time and exploring the possibility of enabling people to build artificial intelligence-powered applications in a region where access to the internet is not guaranteed. In the end, they came up with the DeepStack AI server, an AI server that enables you to easily build AI-powered Applications with Recognition and Detection APIs offline and on the cloud.
Another interesting project was Chinikiguard by Abdulhakim Bashir who was working on a human activity recognition service that provides real-time updates by analyzing a video feed. According to Abdulhakim, one application of this could be in preventing shoplifting in retail stores by flagging suspicious postures or movements. His reasoning was that this was a much better method than having store assistants profiling people based on their appearance and following them around the store.
There was the team of Taofeek Olalekan and Abdulwaheed Alayande, a pair of university students that founded TREP LABS, a healthcare startup that builds low-cost, simple to use and easily accessible Medical Devices and Software as Medical Device (SaMD) Applications. Their first product was RealDrip, a combination of hardware and software leveraging the internet of things and artificial intelligence to simplify intravenous therapy.
I should also mention Samuel Odeloye and his team at Roadpreppers who built Lara bot, a chatbot for public transit directions in Nigeria and other countries. This is an interesting approach given how notorious street addressing is in these regions.
Outside the FbStart accelerator, I have seen a number of other initiatives and I will just mention a few here.
Ńdébé is the first one, It is a modern writing system for the Ìgbò language Invented by Lotanna Igwe-Odunze with one of the implications being that it makes it easier for digitization for use in computers.
Talk and comment is another one by Zak El Fassi. He originally developed it as a way to enable internet users to add voice notes as comments on Facebook and Twitter but since then it has grown to much more as people who previously struggled to fully express themselves with text used it to literally find their voice on the internet
In the hardware space and maker space, I have also seen impressive work from the likes of Kamau Gachigi and the team at Gearbox Nairobi as well as Tochukwu Clinton Chukwueke who is curating Nigeria maker efforts out of his innovation center in Aba.
Lastly, I will mention Amazethu, a project by Babatunde Oladimeji. This is a platform that turns your Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Applications into engaging conversational experiences. The goal here is to be able to build voice bots that work like Alexa or Google Assistant but in your local language. Imagine what that could unlock?
I will stop here for now, but before I leave you, I would once again ask that you take a few minutes to think about what a version of the internet in your local culture would be like. And then consider the impact of creating such an experience. Then maybe one day we can discuss why this experience has not been created yet and what it would take to create it.
If you are one of those thinking like this, you are working on something interesting (no matter how early) and you would like to continue the conversation with a smaller group of like minded folks, send me a DM and we can figure something out.
Until then I thank you for reading to this point. Please enjoy this humble reward :-)