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16 December 1999

Africa 2010:  Thinking about a Take Off

How could the Internet contribute to an economic leap forward in Africa?

Drawing on conversations between myself and my colleague David Abernethy
at the recent ASA meeting in Philadelphia, here is one scenario.
Readers will be the judge of its plausibility or implausibility.

In its short lifespan the Internet has proven itself a benefit to small
business.  From Bamako to the offices of this is one of its
transnational characteristics.  For its part, small business is often a
major engine of job creation.  We know that, at present, the Internet in
Africa is mostly confined to capital cities, or major urban centers.  We
also know that most of these cities include large numbers of unemployed
and that the unemployed tend to be youth.  (The populations of many
African countries exhibit a youth bulge.)  Unemployed, and hence
dissatisfied, youth can be a key factor in various socially negative
phenomena, but is there a potentially positive response that can
pre-empt worst case scenarios such as more African insurgencies?

With our focus on generations rather than on ethnic groups, for example,
can we reconceptualize youth as a category and ask what can be done to
shift them to a positive future.  Age group is the key 'driver' in this
scenario, not technology.  How can youth be encouraged to move into the
world of work, and work that can be taxed in the formal sector to
produce revenue for financially strapped governments, (some of which
will have been recently put into power via democratic means)?

Known demands of the rich for high-end or luxury goods represent a
possible second element of this equation.  In the West a different
generation is about to start retiring with substantial sums in
retirement savings accounts.  They may have an interest in new forms of
tourism, more daring forms of tourism which involve seeing Africa at a
deeper, closer-up level, that will entails risks.  Their appetite for
the products of African craftspersonship will likely increase and become
more sophisticated.  Boomers, after all, have always been consumers.
Nor should one discount the possibility that this American generation,
with time and investment experience on its hands, will take an interest
in new African stock markets and exchanges.

Enough technological infrastructure is already in place to support a
union between youthful African entrepreneurs and a wealthy generation of
retirees in the West.  This infrastructure is in part the product of
efforts such as the Leland Initiative and of businesses such as Africa
Online and Starlight Corporation.  Enough Internet experience in Africa
exists to forge such links as well.  Recent travelers affirm Africans'
ability to learn quickly how to use the Net.  Women, in particular, are
emerging as leaders in many aspects of the Internet's development in
Africa.  (See, J. P. Barlow, "Africa Rising,"  Wired Magazine archive,
January 1998.)

It is still early days for the Internet in Africa, but a foundation is
in place for hopeful developments.  The future could be better than we
are used to letting ourselves imagine.

Jim Sanders
Department of State
Office of External Research