The Futurist Interviews Matthias Mordi, Empowering Africans Through the Internet
Internet connectivity is spreading across Africa, and it is giving rise to new waves of civic activism, according to the nonprofit Accender Africa. Nigeria alone saw the numbers of Internet connections triple between 2000 and 2008—to 24 million, up from 8 million—according to the organization.
Accender Africa welcomes this expanded Internet access and makes it its stated mission to support it. Average citizens who have Internet connections can monitor their governments’ activities and uses of taxes and aid funds. They will know when government leaders fail them—and will make sure that other citizens know, too. With this knowledge, they will be able to rally and hold their leaders accountable, demand reforms, and ensure that under-served communities at last get the support that they need.
Rick Docksai, a staff editor for THE FUTURIST, spoke with Matthias Mordi, Accender Africa’s executive director, about the organization and the overall trajectory of digital media in Africa. (Graphic courtesy of Accender Africa.)
THE FUTURIST: Let's start with a few words about Accender Africa itself. Basically, you use new-media technologies to help reduce poverty in Africa. How do you go about that?
Matthias Mordi: In a very broad sense, that’s an ultimate goal. The route to achieve that is by improving governance. The technologies are resources for building better government policies. The idea is using new media to promote transparency, which we hope would encourage good governance.
THE FUTURIST: Why is mobile Internet access taking off among African countries’ citizens but not the citizens of an industrialized country like the United States?
Matthias Mordi: I’m not an expert on the United States, but from my honest opinion, I think the United States faces challenges that are not quite present in the economies in Africa, where we are seeing exponential growth first challenge is that of being the first mover. The U.S. already had the existing technology and infrastructure. It’s like the man who already has train tracks versus the man trying to build a new train. The first man is constrained by the tracks he already has.
In America, many communities have the old infrastructure, like copper cables as opposed to optic fiber, for example. They would need optic fiber or an equivalent infrastructure, but there is a high cost of switching them over.
Having first-mover status is different from being someone who is starting fresh. In Nigeria, Ghana, and other parts of Africa, you’re starting from scratch. In Africa, most people never had a landline phone in their lives.
The second challenge for the United States is how the government works. Europe was able to move faster than the U.S. because they had a uniform standard. Countries in Africa, also, some have rules. Regulation gets them to expand to areas lacking service.
The U.S. lacks one common standard. Everyone is running in different directions. And in the U.S., the U.S. the private sector doesn’t invest in areas that are not profitable, and the government is not involved in encouraging them to make investments. Because in America, it’s a different philosophy. People don’t want the government to get involved the private sector. People are going to cry foul about government interference, which is why it isn’t going to happen.
THE FUTURIST: What services could a person in an African country obtain via a Web-accessible mobile phone that he or she might not be able to obtain via a Web-accessible mobile phone here in the United States?
Matthias Mordi: Very limited. I think the U.S. actually provides more services. The difference is accessibility. In Nigeria and many other African countries, the Blackberry has a feature called the BBM messaging service. You can add pictures and beta, and it’s free in Nigeria. So obviously think about it, free, you can send text messages for free. A service like that exists here in the U.S., but it costs more money.
Text messaging is one of the most common uses of cell phones in Nigeria. In the U.S. the cost of text messaging based on the existing revenue models of the cell phone makes access difficult for low-income people. In Nigeria and across Africa, access by low-income people is easier because the financing models and the form of use are different.
THE FUTURIST: Does that hold true for Web services, too?
Matthias Mordi: Not so much for Web access, but for other services. In terms of Web access, you’re seeing usage in cyber cafes. You see cyber cafes everywhere. It’s one of the most common ways for people, low-income people above all, to access e-mail and text messaging. But as for the middle class and the more affluent populations, most of the access is wireless.
THE FUTURIST: Do you think there might be lessons that the United States could learn from African communities on how to maximize mobile-phone Web access for disadvantaged groups?
Matthias Mordi: Yeah, absolutely, they could learn from Africa. But I think they could learn also from the Asian countries. Look at what’s happening in South Korea. The public sector co-invests with the private sector in a way that the resources of society are going heavily into building infrastructure, and that that has encouraged them to provide access to users across every sector. It’s worked nicely. There is something to learn from that.
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