A Perspective on Africa: Community is Key

Successful technologies in Zimbabwe must focus on we, not me

19 February 2015

Photo: Gertjan van Stam

Gertjan van Stam [second from left] with his wife and children on a road near their home in Harare, Zimbabwe.
This article is part of our February 2015 special report on “Global Development,” which highlights IEEE’s efforts in using technology to help advance developing and underserved regions.

Gertjan van Stam is a member of the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa, which formed two years ago to help the organization determine how it can best assist sub-Saharan Africa. An IEEE senior member, van Stam has been living in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, for the past two years where he is a research fellow for the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre, a government-run national institute that develops technological solutions for sustainable development. He analyzes what the country needs in the area of information and communications technology and provides consultancy and support services to the local manufacturing and technology industries as well as entrepreneurs.

Van Stam is a former entrepreneur himself. Before moving to Harare, he lived for a decade in the remote south Zambian village of Macha, where he built and ran the country’s first rural Internet cooperative called LinkNet Zambia. Its users share the costs of a local Internet connection and wireless infrastructure and maintenance.

During the committee’s visit in January to the IEEE Operations Center in Piscataway, N.J., van Stam shared with The Institute some of his research findings about the country’s culture to help businesses succeed there.  

DESIGN FOR A COMMUNITY

Africa is all about community. You as an individual are a derivative of the community, according to van Stam. The Western paradigm is an individualistic one where the person is his or her own entity who has to compete or cooperate with other entities, he says. Tech developers for Africa must recognize that a product geared toward an individual that doesn’t benefit the community as a whole will be viewed with suspicion there. “If a technology helps only one person, it might not be used,” he explains. “The quality of life in the African setting is the quality of the community first and the individual second.”

Moreover, the African culture can be described with an Ubuntu term, which according to van Stam, translates to ‘I am because we are.’

“As a person, I’m defined by we. It’s not we defined by I,” he says. “It’s the communal self that needs to be empowered through technology, and not all technology does that. It’s difficult to understand it from an outside perspective, but developers have to learn how to do so in order to be successful in Africa.”

Africans also prefer face-to-face communication. “The West often uses text to describe something but in Africa we meet,” says van Stam. “We look each other in the eye. Exchanging stories and narratives is super important.”

When creating applications for locals, he says developers should consider videos and video chat over other options such as texting and e-mail because of their preference for seeing one another when communicating.

And if individuals get access to resources such as electricity or Internet access, it is imperative they share them with the community.

“If I share with someone else I don’t necessarily do it because I expect them to give it back, but of course I expect to get it back one day,” says van Stam. “So when I have a surplus I’ll share, knowing that is how it works in a community. But when I don’t have much, I’m expecting someone to give me something. It would not be good if the other person doesn’t do that. It’s not about taking; it’s about sharing.

“Business in Africa will grow when people realize that their products and services have to serve communities, and not individuals necessarily,” he continues. “There’s nothing wrong with products for individuals, but it’s about having the right focus when it comes to Africa.”

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