Not Ingenious, but Indigenous: Africa in Virtual Worlds
It was a great honor for our project, and company, UTHANGO Social Investments to share our experiences in development in Southern Africa as ‘On the Spot’ guest at the same event and participate in the ‘backchat’ with interested viewers. We had the opportunity to give feedback to Second Life residents about the African bicycle project – now tied to a small under-resourced school outside Cape Town – and also refer to Virtual Africa. More importantly, we shared a snapshot of our real world projects and approach to development where it is crucial to tap into the wisdom of the (local) crowd in solving local challenges. For too long have development been initiated and facilitated by ‘outsiders’ that are well-meaning and well-resourced, but implement non-sustainable projects in their haste to make change happen. I think here about Ernesto Sirolli’s talk in South Africa and his book, ‘Ripples in the Zambezi’: “After six years of economic development work in Africa, Ernesto Sirolli witnessed how little most foreign aid programs were actually doing for the people they hoped to help — from creating a communal tomato field on the banks of the Zambezi river (only to be demolished by the river’s hippos at harvest time) to donating snow-ploughs to African nations! However well intentioned, Sirolli points out, inappropriate development often creates more problems than it solves”.
We should indeed first help individuals to know and practice their own problem-solving skills, and then become part of their network of knowledge to assist them in access to opportunities and resources (also in virtual worlds!) to unlock more opportunities and income. Lack of involvement, access, skills to participate and even enthusiasm for specific projects often relate to great wastage of international funds and efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. As technologies are explored in and open to, Africa, this is the best possible time to recognize social capital and existing social networks and listen carefully to communities and African-based civil society organisations (nonprofits, public benefit companies, religious institutions, clubs, etc).
In the same way as the World Bank reports on business conditions in regions around the (real) world, there is a real opportunity to examine the conditions of Second Life (R) for Africans doing business online in virtual worlds. It makes 100% sense that a stable virtual economy with income potential could indeed change the economical landscape for individual families and entrepreneurs in Africa – IF a “bootstrap model”; could be developed – as Philip Rosedale calls it in his talk with Robert Bloomsfield of Metanomics when talking about his vision for the future. It is after all what prompted UTHANGO themselves to engage with the South African Reserve Bank to explore how to best do business with Linden Lab in Africa, and how to scale such model and set precedents.
We have always had the vision of a ‘base-of-the-pyramid’ application of Second Life (R) or similar platform, where the benefits of the platform is spread widely across Africa . Consider a small profit margin at the bottom of the pyramid of users that makes good financial sense as a product offering, but also has meaning as an investment in an application with a social return. We would like to see that access to virtual worlds become a reality across the continent and that the virtual currency becomes a driver for real world local economies. Far-fetched? We think not… and time will tell that all things are possible if a few people pursues it passionately and with the support of individuals with influence and business ethics. And listening, always listening…
There is more than one way of making Second Life (R) more of a (virtual) reality for African and move beyond the less-than-five-percent penetration of the platform from Africa. And one of these ways will work; not necessarily because it is ingenious, but because it is indigenious. We need to pursue Virtual Worlds for Africa with a spirit of longevity, innovation, dedicated resources and most of all, a focused effort by a collective of willing people… this is nothing less than VISION. We have never been this optimistic about the future, since we sense, and hear, and experience how more and more leaders converge to share a common vision where emerging technologies are put to fascinating use in Africa.