Sitting and drinking Coca Cola in a cafe on a fine April Saturday evening, watching live Premier League football, there was a moment of forgetfulness. Getting into the car and heading out into the traffic, progress was slow as it began to get dark; the fact it was Saturday didn’t appear to make much difference to the number of people going somewhere. It was when the edge of the city was reached that the realities of the place returned. Bicycles laden with fruit, vegetables and assorted household goods frequently had no lights. Huge lorries laboured up winding roads, clouds of black smoke sometimes testifying to impending mechanical problems. No longer were there European buildings in sight, this was the middle of Africa; the electronic sophistication of the centre of Kigali gave way to single storey mud bricked houses in villages where women and children gathered at communal water pumps.
Technology has revolutionised life in Africa; it has also widened the gap between the rich and the poor.
Kenyan entrepreneur Barbara Birungi writes for the BBC, ‘African women must use tech to change business’ – it is an assertion with which it would be difficult to disagree. Ms Birungi is optimistic that technology can bring a revolution in the lives of poor rural African women.
If a businesswoman selling potatoes in a rural district in Uganda has access to markets in Kampala and Gulu through use of a mobile phone, she will have bigger sales and can probably work in a more cost-effective way which would not have been previously possible.
It is a scenario that seems to offer a prospect of a very different future. Mobile phones are pervasive through much of rural Africa and it would seem a simple matter for the telephone to be used to find a profitable market for the potatoes.
But things are not always as they seem. The potato seller has still to overcome the problems of everyday African life; poor roads, vehicles costing far beyond what any ordinary African might afford, high fuel costs, inefficient bureaucracy, corrupt officials, restricted access to markets.
Technology offers advantages when it combines with access to all the other resources, which means that those already with access to those resources are best positioned to benefit from technological development. The rural potato grower might find that those with phones and lorries, and the cash necessary to do business in some African countries, may phone around markets to check where prices are best and sell on those markets, pushing down the prices that might have been anticipated by those with no access to any other market. For poor rural dwellers, technology has the potential to improve their lives, but also to make them poorer.
The Luddites, named after an Eighteenth Century protester, Ned Ludd appear in English 19th Century social history. A derogatory term now, a Luddite was someone who protested at the weaving jobs of skilled artisans being lost to low-skilled, low-waged labourers operating mechanised looms. The Luddites were protesting against injustice, but were powerless in the face of the new technology. Industrialisation in England created an economic chasm between those with access to wealth, resources and technology and those whose physical labour was their only resource.
Technology may offer much to middle class African women, but unless African history follows a course very different to that in Europe, and access to resources necessary for economic development is available to all; poor African women may find themselves further disadvantaged.