The Africa Stack
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Tech firms from the U.S. and China are competing to dominate the African Stack. Although we assume that this reflects a new type of colonialism, this colonial perspective reflects a certain Western bias. As pan-Africanism is rising and stable dynamic countries have emerged, especially smaller African countries will increasingly detach from the American and Chinese layers of the Stacks.

Observations

  • We have previously analyzed the conceptual framework of The Stack or the emergence of digital verticals for industries as well as states (e.g. Russia, India).
  • The African continent has become a battleground in the fierce competition between the American Stack (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft) and the Chinese Stack (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent). The Vertical Atlas research project notes that the former is attempting to dominate the cloud, while the latter is making massive investments in hardware and infrastructure. For instance, Facebook has signed up almost half the countries in Africa to its “free internet” service, while Chinese phone maker Transsion Holdings has become Africa’s top smartphone producer.
  • In Precolonial Black Africa, Cheikh Anta Diop offers an alternative perspective on Africa by exploring African traditions before the colonial period. In Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1650, John Thornton also offers an alternative perspective on African history. He argues that Africans were more active in the slave trade than we often assume. Many African societies then were strong enough to force Europeans to deal with them on their own terms. According to some accounts, in the 14th century, King Musa of Mali was the richest person in the world. He crashed the Egyptian economy by donating gold to the poor.
  • In recent years, African societies have produced several technological innovations. South Africa’s Naspers was an early investor in Tencent, Kenya’s Safaricom developed the mobile-phone based financial service M-Pesa, Rwanda’s capital city Kigali has become a smart city hub, and Nigeria’s e-commerce company Jumia will become the first African tech startup to list on a global exchange.
  • The African Union has grown more ambitious in recent years. The Agenda 2063 strives for African unity inspired by the spirit of pan-Africanism. Its African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is set to cover a market of 1.2 billion people and a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion.

Analysis

The Africa Stack is largely dominated by American and Chinese technology firms. Such competition has led many commentators to speak of a new type of colonialism. Based on the fact that Africa’s place within planetary computation is still highly focused on its rare minerals, there is certainly merit to this argument. But to look at Africa merely from a colonial perspective is also indicative of a Western bias. To understand current developments, we need a new way to think about Africa. For one thing, authors like Thornton and Diop show that we could adopt a pan-African perspective to think about Africa. Although it is true that Africa is a huge and diverse continent, the colonial period exacerbated divisions as Europeans used tribal cultures to “divide and conquer”. In fact, some pan-African traditions (such as the Ubuntu philosophy and languages) point to a certain type of African unity, which is now being revived by the African Union and infrastructure investment.

these African societies that are strengthening political institutions and growing more innovative, will increasingly try to build their own layers in the Stack

First, we have to understand that Sub-Saharan Africa is largely still in an early phase of modernization. This manifests itself in different ways. Economically, as most countries are struggling to build up manufacturing industries or suffer from “premature deindustrialization”, only a few countries have entered the phase of “take-off” to reach a GDP per capita level of around $8000 (most notably, South Africa and Botswana). Moreover, African societies are still struggling to develop a modern political order, market economies and cities (only a few countries have stable democracies, non-corrupt regimes and livable cities). The corruption, violence and terrorism that plague many parts of Africa indicate that Africans are struggling to embed their traditions in a modern context. Another example of this is the attempt to link African traditions of panpsychism and animism to modern ICT such as IoT. Rather than providing a fruitful foundation for technological innovation, this reflects attempts to disprove Africa’s backwardness, which is indicative of societies that struggle to give their traditions a place in the modern world. However, these optimistic responses to modernity do point to a more positive future for African societies.

In the coming years, African momentum may increasingly grow in the places we least expect it. Africa’s regional powerhouses have struggled in recent years. In Nigeria and South Africa, the largest economies of Africa, reform efforts have stalled, growth has stagnated and corruption plagues the political order. But meanwhile, their smaller counterparts are becoming more dynamic. In western Africa, Ghana has long been a champion of pan-Africanism, a stable and democratic country since 1992, and its GDP per capita is catching up to that of Nigeria. In southern Africa, Botswana is the most stable democratic country at one of the highest levels of GDP per capita. In eastern Africa, Ethiopia is reemerging as an important regional leader (the recent Boeing disaster reflected the high status of Ethiopia’s airliner). All of these smaller countries are more successfully fusing their traditions with modernity.

All in all, these African societies that are strengthening political institutions and growing more innovative, will increasingly try to build their own layers in the Stack. Although this will not happen in the short term, it will eventually disrupt the American and Chinese Stacks. Indeed, Tanzania and Uganda are already taxing the American Stack. Growing African unity, which will be boosted by the coming free trade area of the African Union, will add further momentum to an African Stack. Traditions of pan-Africanism, which the African Union will increasingly try to propagate, could point to a new type of African cosmotechnics, rooted in ancient traditions. As such, Africans will increasingly shed their colonial legacy of a reserved attitude towards international cooperation, which is already apparent in the rise of the American and Chinese Stacks, the growing clout of the African Union and free trade agreements.

Implications

  • Small African countries are more likely to create the conditions for economic take-off. Recent technological innovations from Africa indicate that African societies will increasingly leapfrog industrial economy towards the digital economy, especially since many countries will struggle to develop robust manufacturing industries. Especially smaller countries will succeed, since the political order of larger countries will struggle, as they are not able to build industries to create jobs for burgeoning youth populations, which is already apparent in Nigeria and South Africa.
  • The clout of the African Union will rise with the new free trade area. It will increasingly be inspired by ASEAN and its model (instead of the EU model) by mainly focusing on the integration of a common market.