Tablets, Africa's Next Leap-Frog Technology

14 Nov, 2012

Tablets, Africa's Next Leap-Frog Technology

Naa Oyoo Quartey, blogger, mentoring a young person about social media at BarCamp Tema. (Photo: Reginold Royston)

Reginold Royston, Ph.D. candidate in the African Diaspora Program with a Designated Emphasis in New Media

In an age of 32" monitors and four-CPU-powered laptops, few tech gadgets have begged the question 'What's the point?' more puzzlingly than the tablet. Just as smart phones were getting smarter, and the $100-laptop was becoming a reality (thanks in part to One Laptop Per Child), along comes an all-in-one computer doohickey that's as light as a donut and as big as a lunch menu. But what does this device afford early-adopters in the West: slick 'one-upsmanship' or true sociotechnical innovation?

Interestingly enough during my stay in Accra, Ghana, I began to see more iPads than I do on Berkeley's campus, or at the very least notice them a lot more. Tablets were literally everywhere: In street corner-stalls, at the bank, on public mini-buses ('tro-tros'), at cybercafes and telecomm centers, at high-end restaurants and street-side BBQ joints. I witnessed them in use among journalists, streets-salesmen, culture bloggers, in the club with DJs and socialites, and even at church, where the faithful would take notes on sermons and/or simultaneously check their calendars.

Among the pallets of the second-hand cell phones sumptuously laid out for would-be buyers near Nkrumah Circle market, a few Acer and Samsung tablets sat prominent but unassuming among dozens of cut-rate gadgets. Ghana's current president John Mahama famously used an iPad as teleprompter on the day of his inauguration following the untimely death of President John Atta Mills in July.

I asked myself, why is tablet-use such a growing phenomena in this West African country where the gross national income is $1,410/year (less than $10/day for most), and the Internet reaches at best 14 percent of the population?

The answer is perhaps, that the tablet, a luxury good in the West, could become the next leap-frog technology in developing economies such as Ghana and the developing world.

'Leap-frog' technologies refer to innovations that jump the status-quo of contemporary practices transforming a society's total technical ecosystem. Phil Emeagwali's essay 'Can Nigeria Leapfrog into the Information Age?' was one of earliest tech writings on the subject. The concept describes how a nation struggling with poor infrastructure and failing Industrial Age systems could by-pass the West, by broadly adopting light, swift and smart IT ahead of places like the United States — where legacy systems such as municipal electricity, the landline telephone and fossil fuels remain trenchant despite technological advancements.

Mobile computing in Ghana is not just a convenience, it's a necessity. The 'doing-well' (entrepreneurs, mid-level government workers, moonlighters, and members of the emerging middle class) tend to have travel great distances throughout urban Accra to live and do business. Family and social commitments often compel people to return their 'hometowns' in cities such as Kumasi and Takoradi, or in rural areas, trips that can take more than a few hours. A real estate boom is afoot in urban Accra, with malls and condominiums threatening to uptick the level of traffic congestion in this city of 2 million. Already, an 8-mile trip through the center of town could easily take an hour. Accidents and poor road conditions — tack on at least another half-hour. In this cosmopolitan center of the nation and perhaps West African region, transit is a daily reality.

For computing on the go, tablets simply make the most sense: Slim design, extreme portability and battery-life that tends to outlast laptops. And they often come connected to the Web: You don't need a USB-enabled modem hanging off the side. 3G+ services are typically built into the device and connected through telecomm providers like Vodafone (Ghana's version of AT&T). That wireless connection is often the most reliable form of Internet in the country.

Residents who ride the local mini-buses, where patrons can often sit knee-to-knee, are unlikely to have room to pop out a laptop comfortably. If you're so brazen to do so, expect to spend all night defragging your computer, as you bounce 30 minutes along a barely paved road with your spinning hard-disk drive jostling in your bag.

Tablets also make sense as a leap-frog technology, because they can be so intuitive that advanced literacy is seldom required to work something like an iPad very well. The World Banks lists Ghana's adult literacy rate at 70 percent, but in rural areas that is much lower. Combine the issue of proficiency in speaking English (the language of commerce), no less-reading/writing English. One software developer I talked to opined, why bother teaching illiterate farmers how to use smart-, or lesser-feature mobile phones to communicate with aid-workers or in-town merchants: the large button, touchscreen tablet with high-resolution photos could possibly have a lower usability barrier and be more effective in communicating via FaceTime or Skype. Taking a picture and swiping the image to a shortcut enabled email address or phone number might be infinitely more productive for rural-to-urban communicators, than keyboard-dependent mobile phones.

And it seems the tablet industry is not far behind in this thinking. A recent market report states that the $35 tablet may be the $100 laptop of the future. Cloud-based tablets significantly reduce the size and weight of device architecture: This light interfaces could be the ideal tool for schools or medium-to-large scale businesses attempting to circumvent land-line Internet connectivity, complex software applications, and heavy capital investment and training, especially in the world's developing economies. Indeed, One Laptop Per Child is experimenting with a transition to tablets as well.

But this potential belies the keen interest I observed among Ghana's digerati in exploiting tablets to the fullest. A blogger at a BarCamp event near Tema (one of 9 held so far this year in Ghana) instructed college students about the ins-and-outs of social media, using the tablet as her blackboard and portable computer.

Insofar as this highly visual, tangible and mobile device can be passed between users as simply as a sheet of newspaper, its use as a social medium rather than strictly a computing tool reveals perhaps it's highest promise.