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In just a couple of years, Africa has gone from possessing a total bandwidth availability comparable to that of Norway to having almost one hundred million internet users and seven hundred million mobile users. Could this growth in access to information and communication technologies (ICT) represent an opportunity for economic development? Many have described this moment of transition as "Africa's century", ERC grantee and Oxford scholar Prof Mark Graham, a leading authority on the topic of technology and development, aims to understand this "digital revolution".
On the 9th November Prof. Graham will talk as part of the Kapuscinski Lecture Series. The Kapuscinski Lectures focus on the topic of development and have been held, amongst others, by speakers such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Angel Gurría. Watch it live here
Why did you decide to study the African ICT sector?
A lot of hopes have been placed on ICTs as a way of transforming African economies. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for instance, has noted that while his country has missed the agricultural and industrial revolutions, they fully intend to take advantage of the digital one. All of this makes for a field ripe for study. I want to know whether some of the grand hopes for the African ICT sector are actually being realised. To do so, I am using a comprehensive array of data sources and methodological approaches, to tackle an area that is - thus far - very under-researched. Such a comprehensive analysis of the subject has not been conducted before.
A part of your study focuses on creative services. What are these and why do you think they are so important for Africa?
In our project, we distinguish between relatively low-wage, low-skill work and relatively high-wage, high-skill work. The first, also known as bottom-of-the-pyramid work, includes call centres, contact centres and other forms of "micro-work" that people can perform rapidly and cheaply. Creative services are included in the second type of job. Work on innovative and high-end software, for example is a creative service. Both are part of the increase in access to digital technologies that Africa is experiencing. One of the things that we do is look at these in different African countries to better understand what pre-conditions are required for either type, and what their respective outcomes are.
What role does Africa have in shaping the global digital revolution and what effects can this role have for other regions, such as Europe?
There is undoubtedly a lot of innovation happening in the African context. I think we would be mistaken to imagine technological innovations as solely happening in economic cores like Europe and then diffusing to economic peripheries. So projects like this one are important as they ask and answer key questions about where powers reside in our globally interconnected systems, and who benefits most and least from some of the changes that we are seeing.
What's next for you and your team?
In 2016 we hope to start the first phase of fieldwork for the project. We are going to be speaking to different people, from workers to business owners and policy makers, in environments such as innovation labs, software companies, call centres, consulting firms, design firms. These all have different approaches to digital technologies. We will conduct interviews in countries in several parts of Eastern, Western and Southern Africa to try and encompass the heterogeneity of the region.
How did the European Research Council help with your work?
By funding our project! A research project at this scale would be impossible without the support of the ERC.