Alison Roadburg, programmes manager for Ghanaian incubator iSpace, says the narrative used by journalists and others describing Africa’s growing tech startup ecosystem needs to change.
Words can be extremely powerful. When strung together correctly, they have the ability to entice, and influence, shape beliefs, truths and even perceptions. For those paragraphs and for those pages, the author is driving. This is paramount.
The words that have been used to describe the continent of Africa have for decades been terribly misleading. From popular media to volunteer blogs, 54 countries have been, and continue to be, perpetually skewed by clichés. I find much inspiration from the satirical essay ‘How To Write About Africa’ by Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, in which his portrayal of Africa, and how it is often depicted, is both sarcastic and revealing. Some of his most striking writing includes excerpts like this: “The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular”; “Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated”; and “Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red.” These words have real power.
No doubt, the charity and development sectors have used patronising language and narratives (if not more so) about Africa for decades, to sell their missions and their brands. Many NGOs rely on the hearts of donors, philanthropists, grants and sponsorship to support their work. Whether they use the language of ‘helping’, ‘saving’ or ‘empowering’, we have been made to understand and relate to an entire continent as the other, normalising discrimination and undermining not only diversity, but also the realities that exist within varying contexts.
Take for example, a large international NGO’s developmental model like Adopt a Village, whose mandate suggests that ‘Success for us is when someone never needs charity again. You can make that happen when you Adopt a Village’. The term ‘adoption’ for a development model clearly echoes sentiments of a parent-child relationship – a relationship that is loaded with power disparities. The parents have the experience, are wise, impose norms and values, are generally right, and hold most of the power not to mention the wealth. They know what is best for the child, which in this context is an entire village in a southern country! As a child, this village is weak, still developing, and cannot fend for itself without guidance. Furthermore, the notion implies that the entire village (wherever that may be) is in the position of needing parental guidance. Even when the child grows up, the power dynamics are still present. The parent is still looked upon as older and wiser.
Though there has indeed been backlash, criticism and those who challenge this kind of language, I fear that a similar normalised discourse is beginning to brand ‘innovation’, ‘hackathons’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and the emerging tech space in the African context. This emerging sector truly has the ability to smash stereotypes, yet is being shamefully assumed by the far too familiar damaging, harmful and misrepresentative language.
A recent article was published about the ‘largest hackathon ever held on the entire continent’ [Africa], on February 20-22, in Accra, Ghana, entitled ‘A Brave New West Africa – unlocking the potential of an entire peoples.’ The author describes why Ghana was selected as the host for this event, and signals that “Ghana serves as the central hub of activity with high potential for investment growth in young startups looking to shake things up in the world. They just need a little push”. I beg to differ. It is my opinion that the talent and entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Ghana, is one that is firstly not ‘new’, as the title implies, and most certainly does not rely on any ‘push’ from outside.
In true form, the article continues this narrative by presenting how the weekend unfolded in a very categorical way. Our heartstrings are tugged as we are told the story of participants who had “spent their entire life savings” to attend this event, and who had stayed the night at the venue because “most could not afford the price of local hostels or hotels”. I was stunned. The word hackathon is a hybrid of the words hack, meaning clever programmer, and marathon, an event marked by endurance. Generally lasting no more than two days, participants often spend the night at the venue, no matter the geographic location. If the hackathon had taken place in San Francisco, or in a context where this poverty narrative has not become the defining factor of an entire population, these types of personal parallels and stories would not have been drawn.
As the author continues to commend the participants for working through severe power cuts, it is concluded that, “To witness this was a deeply humbling experience and it served to remind the rest of us how much we take for granted in the western world”. The focus here is immediately taken away from the hard work and determination of the participants, to the benefit of the foreigner, who was reminded about their privilege – all too reminiscent of the ‘white man burden’.
I was lucky to attend this event, and I am surprised by this article’s misleading depiction. They had over 400 participants in one space, who dedicated their time to creating something – and that in and of itself is inspiring. Full stop. An event of this size and influence has the power to change the rhetoric and challenge stereotypes. I fear that we have become lost in the prizes, the buzzwords, and romantic language to tug at the hearts of donors – as behind all of this lay true innovation.
***It is important that I acknowledge my own positionality as I reflect on the ideas discussed in this post. I am a foreigner and I can only claim to be writing this on behalf of me, and my experience as someone who works in the tech space in Accra.