• Flying drones or more roads? What will connect more Africans?

    Posted March 17, 2014 By in General With | Comments Off on Flying drones or more roads? What will connect more Africans?

    There’s an ongoing debate going on right now spawned by recent news that Facebook’s bid to buy a drone manufacturer has implications for the company’s goal of “connecting Africa”. Whether Facebook actually intends to pursue that goal or it’s just a ploy to keep the company’s investors happy, the idea that Africa’s future could be filled with the buzzing of drones has sparked a heated debate.

    2 sides to the debate
    On one side are those who champion the idea. On the other hand detractors criticize the initiative as a dumb, libertarian fantasy I agree that the Facebook’s drones, Google’s balloons, or Microsoft’s tv white spaces won’t be the magic bullet that solves Africa’s problem. I’m not as skeptical as Bill Gates though, that any of these ideas are off base. Facebook, Google etc. might have their own motivations for pursuing these initiatives, but that does’t necessarily make it a pie in the sky idea. I’m not sure about Facebook, but Google has made a business of executing on pie in the sky ideas. Remember what we said about self-driving cars? The company has shown us that it has the chops to prototype, test, release a solution and then work with government to make their solution a widespread option.

    What I think many critics of the Facebook project get wrong is that there’s a need there. Maybe not for Africa, but certainly for Facebook. Take Facebook or Google out of the equation and the idea that Africa’s skies could be a resource to connect large areas and people becomes a viable discussion. In my role as a strategist I often counsel partners and clients not to start with an “I want to build/do/be like X” perspective. Rather you must take yourself out of the equation, identify the problem that needs solving, and then see if you actually provide a solution to that problem. The appropriate solution will always be the result of analyzing the problem or a job that needs to be done.

    What problem is Facebook solving?
    So let’s take the Facebook drones initiative. The news that spawned the debate highlighted the initiative as a way for Facebook to connect Africans. Using the “what problem are you trying to solve” question, we can safely deduce that Facebook – a public company whose main platform is the social network to which it’s advertisers could pay to connect to – has a monetization and growth problem they need to solve. The idea that they’d look to Africa – one of the youngest regions in the world with a growing middle class – as a potential solution, makes sense. To tap into the African potential Facebook needs to be able to control/guarantee users’ connectivity and engagement with the platform and in Africa access is a barrier. Facebook is actively exploring solutions hrough acquisitions (e.g. WhatsApp), interface redesigns (e.g. Every Phone app), and now, potentially with drones to deliver their product while maybe even bypassing regulatory barriers. So drones help solve Facebook’s growth problem but does it help Africans?

    Solving Africa’s connection problem
    The bigger, more interesting question for me is whether drone technology can actually help bridge some of Africa’s barriers. In this case it’s the connectivity problem. Not connectivity as in connecting to the internet, but easily connecting to people and services that make everyday life easier. I won’t go as far as saying Africa needs more drones than roads, but I think the idea that drones could help Africa connect virtually or in person could be a good idea. As with most growing societies, African countries need to be able to connect it’s people – especially the youthful population – in a reliable and efficient way. In this day and age, technology has been the most effective was of doing so. Whether it be to tell your spouse that you are running late, or compare the price of fish, technology has been a great enabler in Africa. When you’ve lived in the USA or Europe you tend to believe complex technology is the way forward, but as Africa continues to show, scaled down options like feature phones can also enable societies. Beyond the hype, it’s been well documented that the mobile phone has boosted connectivity and productivity in Africa. The mobile phone has been successful in Africa because it helps solve the information exchange and dissipation problem, among others. But the mobile solution was the result of a specific problem.

    What problem could drones solve in Africa? Well what about the problem of location and proxymity? Both for unban and rural dwellers. Anyone who’s set foot on the continent knows that roads and traffic are a MAJOR problem in cities. One of the many reasons is that many of Africa’s cities were never really planned and the ensuing growth in population is only helping highlight the deficiencies. While in Ghana recently, I realized that almost all of the cars during rush hour had single passengers. Image that. A large population, few roads, and an abundance of cars with single drivers in a city of millions. It is a recipe for chaos and disaster. It’s not just roads Africa needs, it’s proper urban planning and ways to connect people and services without bogging down the limited infrastructure we do have.

    If we think in traditional ways of solving the location-based connectivity problem we would likely labor about ways to build complex highways to allow the growing population to navigate the cities for goods and services. But if you invert the solution there stands a possibility that instead of bringing people to goods and services, we could explore bringing goods and services to the people, particularly if they are in remote areas. Imagine if Jumia explored using drones rather than scooters to deliver products to it’s Nigerian customers. Could drones be a solution? Possibly in some cases it will be – cost permitting. Technology by itself will never solve Africa or any other society’s problems. To truly begin to develop solutions we need to redefine our problems and maybe technology will enable our solutions.

    What do you think? Would you welcome the use of drones in Africa?

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