When I decided to move to Africa, I did so with the goal to do good. I had spent four years in college studying algorithms, building software and even having fun, but when all was said and done, I craved to do something meaningful. I came to Africa because I wanted to see a different side of life, to broaden my way of thinking, and to make a positive impact where I could. Now just how I would manage to do that was less immediately clear. How could I use my skills to make a difference?
Within the African IT community, there's a lot of talk about something called ICT4D, short for Information and Communication Technology for Development. ICT4D practitioners argue that with the right insights and cultural understandings, technology can be appropriated to solve problems for the developing world. Notable ICT4D efforts have ranged from providing African school children with laptops (One Laptop Per Child) to serving reliable health information to rural populations via SMS (Google Health Tips). Through my time in Africa, I've seen first hand the impact this kind of technology can have. Access to education and health information are both extraordinarily important. But I would argue that the greatest benefit of technology to this part of the world is not just its ability to solve problems. Rather, technology brings something more, something transcendent: Technology brings empowerment.
A large part of my job at Google is working with small businesses to help them get online. In my first few months on the job, I had spoken with hundreds of African entrepreneurs, from the Ghanaian woman who exports handcrafted shea butter products to the Nigerian man who sells homemade paint solvents around the world. As is the case with the vast majority of small African businesses, both were one-person operations. I had helped them establish web presences for their businesses, sign up for email accounts and get a taste for what the Internet could do for them. The work was immediately gratifying; I got to see the exhilaration in each person's eyes as they saw their company on the Internet. But after months of plugging away and wondering what the outcome would be, I had a bit of an existential crisis. What was the real impact? Was any of this doing any good?
Fortunately, my fears were assuaged quickly. Several weeks after my first big push, I had the chance to observe a focus group of the very same people I had met weeks prior. I had chosen not to sit in the room itself because I didn't want to influence anyone's answers (as you might guess, I tend to stick out in most circles in Africa), but in the end, I was glad to be removed from the group for an entirely different reason: I didn't want them to see the look of delighted surprise on my face. One consultant said that he had been contacted by a member of the diaspora now living in Europe who was looking to return to Africa to start a business. An exporter mentioned that he had gained a substantial contract with a new client in Singapore. Many noted that in a culture where getting new business often relied on brand name recognition, having a presence on the net was invaluable. But more than anything, the word that kept coming up again and again was empowerment. These people I had met, perhaps for the first time in their lives, felt that they had the potential to transcend their circumstances, and that technology had given it to them.
There's an old adage, widely retold, that I've heard since I moved to Africa. It goes something like this: "Talent is universal. Opportunity is not." As I've observed on a daily basis here, truer words have never been spoken. My colleague Ory Okolloh summed this point up beautifully in a talk she gave at TED. Her concluding words were these: "My vision is that my daughter, and any other African child being born today, can be whoever they want to be here... [that] they can have the possibility of transcending the circumstances under which they were born... For most Africans today, where you live, or where you were born, and the circumstances under which you were born determine the rest of your life." It has never occurred to me just how much one's circumstances can dictate his opportunities in life. Born to two educated, prosperous parents, raised in suburban America, the world was my oyster. I never thought anything else. The tragedy is that I can't say the same for the kids I meet here on the streets. This is undeniably a tragedy, but it's a tragedy that technology may have the power to overcome.