Thursday, August 18

Are tech companies Africa’s new colonialists?

Foreign-owned start-ups are driving an African tech revolution — and prompting old fears of exploitation

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In 1886, barely a year after Europe’s great powers met in Berlin to carve up the continent of Africa, Queen Victoria granted Sir George Goldie a charter for his Royal Niger Company. The charter gave Goldie, a moustachioed, waistcoated gentleman of Scottish descent, the right to administer the Niger Delta and its hinterland. Like most of his peers, he was motivated by extraction, which in those days meant kola nuts, peanuts and palm oil.

There were many variations across sub-Saharan Africa, but the pattern of exploitation was basically the same. Europeans arrived with power and technology, and left with goods and profits. First, they took slaves — the original sin — before turning their attention to commodities including gold, cocoa, rubber and coffee. Chartered companies would in due course give way to formal empire and Goldie’s was no exception, transferring its rights to the British government in 1900.

Much has changed in Nigeria since independence in 1960. But here, as elsewhere in Africa, the economic template established by the Europeans has proved difficult to shift. Trade continues to be conducted through political elites with access to resources. Most value is added to commodities after they leave the continent. The perennial puzzle of African development in the postcolonial era has been how to break the mould — how to extract Africa from its history of extraction.

For some, the great leveller of new technology offers a solution. The technological revolution sweeping the world is beginning to have a profound impact on the continent. Many have put their faith in “leapfrogging”, the idea that Africa can escape its poverty and colonial heritage by skipping whole stages of development. The biggest example of that has been Africa’s jump straight to mobile phones, almost entirely bypassing fixed-line technology. Continue reading