Mapping Africa’s tech ecosystem
Written by GeDIA member Caroline Wamala-Larsson // Associate Professor in Gender Studies & Head of Research for SPIDER (Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions), at the University of Stockholm. SPIDER is a partner of the GeDIA Network.
Africa’s tech ecosystem growth and development has been visualised over the past decade through info graphs, maps, and impressive images depicting a young, innovative, techno-savvy continent.
The latest GSMA map illustrating the tech scene in Africa (see Figure 1 below) informs that over 600 tech hubs are strewn across the continent. From less than 50 back in 2011 to the staggering number of tech hubs, incubators, and co-creation working spaces, the discourse around these spaces has focused on the burgeoning tech community found in African cities, and what must be done to nurture its growth.
I have been fortunate to visit iHub in Nairobi, BongoHive in Lusaka, and Buni Hub in Dar es Salaam — the energy in these spaces is palpable. The casual atmosphere is very inviting, from the whiteboards with doodled notes to the bright coloured bean-bags and Post-it notes on walls. Africa’s young population is hard at work developing homegrown digital solutions with socio-economic relevance. This trend has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world.
Global tech conglomerates such as Facebook and Google are settling in, setting up shop on the continent, clearly vested in participating in Africa’s digital futures and beyond. Facebook is set to launch its second office on the continent in Lagos — the first being in Johannesburg.
Visualising Africa’s tech growth through mapping tech hubs, in particular, has me reflecting on representation and the politics this term embodies. Taking the maps as sites of representation, and what meanings they assemble or describe to the map-reader, I ponder several questions at once:
(1) Does mapping Africa’s tech scene legitimise Africa’s digital futures?
(2) Do the maps illustrate a shift in Africa making its own technology?
(3) Who is the intended map-reader?
(4) How should I read these maps?
Specifically, my musings seek to interrogate the mapping of Africa’s tech hubs, asking what purpose they serve and how they further the whole tech scene agenda. Here I am looking at the process of mapping through the prism of representation. Representation is a slippery, politically charged concept, and visualising representation through maps carries a particular form of power. In the Stuart Hall sense, I ponder the extent to which these maps represent accuracy with reality.
I first saw BongoHive on the map below, in 2016 (see Figure 2). I then had the pleasure of visiting the hub a year later, because the map had a hand in shaping my view and interest of what to see in Lusaka. Maps are meaning-making illustrations of the 21st neoliberal African society, ones that give space to the continent’s young population’s creativity.
Visiting BongoHove in Lusaka (Zambia)
Tech hubs have, thanks to a loose legislative environment thus far, mushroomed in almost every country on the continent. The maps illustrate a steady incline of tech innovation spaces on an annual basis, and herein representation is, as Hall would suggest, constitutive in the mapping. In other words, representing Africa’s tech scene is not just focused on a product — a map — but a process that happens in conjunction with the mapping.
As I contemplate the GeDIA Network and the work we aspire towards, I immediately turn to the maps reflecting over the representation, asking if mapping the innovation hubs suggests a belonging of African tech solutions globally.
When I referred to representation as inherently political earlier, I commented in light of the growing presence of tech hegemonies, such as Facebook and Google, on the continent. Are these maps the e-vites that these tech giants needed to establish a physical presence in Africa?
Even as mapping is inherently political and powerful, it is also problematic. Part of the dilemma with representation lies in its close, albeit tense association with identity. The question of whether these maps legitimise Africa’s belonging in the global tech scene lingers. Moreover, while the visual representation suggests to me that Africa is taking charge of its digital future, I question how just that future is.
In this case, the map homogenises the tech scene in its sweeping representation. Do the north, south, east, west and central regions of Africa enjoy the same representation or do the actual representations of Africa’s tech scene suggest a continued investment in select regions? Maps, and the representation they put forward, may not adequately visualise the practical aspects of representation, such as the underrepresentation of women and other minority groups. Tech start-ups have a short life span and governments moving into the tech development space with policies and supportive legislation will bring with it a new dynamism.
Facebook has opted to establish its presence in Africa’s more significant economies, which jettisons the representativeness, begging the question of whether ‘Africa' as a brand is controversially referencing a handful of countries. Post-colonial theorist Gyatri Spivak would clarify such representation as symbolic, and not necessarily reflective of the diverse continent.
On joining the GeDIA network, I immediately turned to the maps, marvelling at the exponential growth I have witnessed through this visual medium over the past five years. However, what these musings here reinforce is that maps need to be read with caution. Not least, that they, in reality, do not reflect the African collective, and while representation can be transformative, the meanings these maps produce and perform need to be examined closely. It allows for a powerful moment of reflection, which can hopefully result in a conscious shift in attention to where gaps still exist.