Afri-Tech Can’t Save Us

Can we survive on “innovation” alone?

It is a weekend in the time of coronavirus. I spent my Friday night listening to my friend DJ Boat’s #StayHome live-streams and making simple medical-grade face-mask designs in OnShape. Though there are many mask designs out their already to make up for the slowly collapsing supply chains all around us, Ethiopia does not have stockpiles of 3D printers or hobbyist machinery that could be repurposed in this time of need. I am trying to make a different sort of design, one that could use existing resources — we have plenty of leather and textile craftspeople, so maybe a leather mask, using a thick leather that could get close to the structural rigidity of plastic, could be a ‘last resort’ solution. This requires a 2D flat pattern that is then cut and sewn into a 3D shape. Of the design tools I have experience in, the closest that comes to this type of manufacturing process is bending sheet metal.

I sigh and tsk at my work, while Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba” blares, trying to figure out how the OnShape version of the sheet metal tool works and wrangling this difficult, organic shape. “It looks like an avocado,” my roommate remarks, and I laugh. Tools for metal are not tools for leather products, but it’s what I have right now. I settle on a more angular shape just to get the point across, fire off a Slack message with a long explanation and shut down my laptop. On Saturday, a hackathon is beginning where an army of Ethiopian citizens, diaspora, and others invested in the nation will all collaborate on ideas to combat COVID-19. For the software developers, which this initiative was initially started around, it is a project sprint as they rush to get various online tools up and running — surveillance of cases, infographics and content to share with the general public, self-diagnosis questionnaires by text, and so on. I have taken my abilities as a mechanical engineer and lodged myself in these barracks, a footsoldier for DIY medical gear when the imports inevitably stop coming, or the system is simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases. These are all technical people. We know the nature of growth is exponential — it is only a matter of time for Ethiopia.

I have to admit that I am comforted by the technical skills in my possession at this time. The benefits are manifold — in terms of pure survival, if I’m laid off I can still find work in the medical device, chemical processing, or manufacturing fields that can barely hire fast enough now. On an abstract level, it is comforting to feel useful.

In the years since graduation, I have asked myself difficult questions about what I should do with my life. I was frustrated about how technology was either repurposed by outside forces for nefarious purposes, or by the paradox of some innovations — DIY gear for COVID-19 included. Governments fail at their abilities to prepare with the conventional means, so technology must devise a way around what are really social and political problems. As a sophomore in college, I spent two years designing and building a well in a rural area of Kafa, Ethiopia. But the town could have already had a bore-hole well, septic tanks, or even conventional plumbing pipelines if the regional and national governments performed their roles effectively — we know because this already happened in other regions of Ethiopia. These issues of regional favoritism plunged the country into division that led to the installation of PM Abiy Ahmed, but the underlying issues remain. I began to feel that those with real power were rendering technology pointless, necessitating “innovations” that were really crutches to get through the difficult terrain of corruption and special interests. In the worst case, tech can even be a crutch that allows those transgressions to continue. Add to this a lay-off, three months of unemployment, and a new job at a U.S. defense research contractor, and my pessimism about my field was at an all-time high.

But as coronavirus took nation after nation by surprise, even when they did make the best of efforts, I admit that it was comforting in a most selfish way to be handed a piece of paper that said I was essential and serving a “duty to the nation”, as well as to indulge in the maybe-possible fantasy that my experimentation with leather mask designs during my free time would help even a few Ethiopians. At the end of the day, these competing forces in government, industry, and society were simply a reality, and technology was another part of that reality. It is neither solely responsible for all the good or bad in the world nor a completely neutral tool. If I can at least contribute to leveling the playing field of Earth’s racist geopolitical dynamic, then I am glad I have something to offer at this time. At the end of the day, at least I could be useful to someone, to some degree, in a crisis.

My pessimism remains, though, when in the very same Slack group organizing the diffuse Ethiopian technical combat unit, headlines are published about PM Abiy Ahmed’s claims that Ethiopia has found “traditional medicine for coronavirus”. The concern is that when media reports of this “cure”, some citizens will no doubt stop staying home or taking the illness seriously. There have not been enough aggressive social distancing measures implemented in Ethiopia. Religious gatherings in particular, with hundreds of people in some cases, continued even after schools were closed. Technology, then, can only serve as yet another ‘magical’ innovation to “fix” these political issues —to band-aid them without really fixing them. When the masks run out, we will devise new ways to make masks, and the same with the ventilators. We will use social media tools to do the public-awareness job that the media should be doing.

It’s not only in technology, either — gangs in Brazil intervene to do the job that police forces should be doing. Everywhere, these ‘innovations’ arise, again and again, to fill the neglected spaces governments leave behind. It would be much more efficient to fix those problems at their root — oust the corrupt officials, expand accountability and education. But I know that this is much harder, and in many cases more dangerous, than tinkering with leather mask designs.

I am torn between an earnest commitment to the goals of the Slack-organized Ethiopian tech task force and despair around how little it might actually help. I even worry my own contributions are a vain delusion about my ability to have a significant impact — maybe it’s just a way for me to “feel useful”. The “traditional medicine” headline felt like one step forward, three thousand back. Technology does not move faster than people in this case. And Ethiopia, fortunately, did not face the worst of Ebola as harshly as Central and West Africa. Unfortunately, Ethiopia also did not develop the infrastructure needed to deal with Ebola that those other countries are relying on now. I was impressed by Senegal, which was delivering coronavirus test results in four hours when the U.S. still took several days. I was even impressed by other Ministers of Health and their serious, solemn admissions about how ill-prepared their countries are— honesty counts for something, at least.

In many of my social and professional circles, there is a belief that technology as that kind of problem-solving magic can actually work. It is true that Africa got to skip landline telephones, for example, and houses several promising clean energy initiatives. But again, technology is just a tool, which serves the intention of the hands that wield it.

A few weeks before Massachusetts issued a shut-down order, in February, I celebrated my birthday. Myself and my friends, representing 4 African nationalities, happened to pile into an Uber with a Congolese driver. He was glad to hear about our positions as engineers or students on our short trip. He reminded us to be sure to do something good for our home countries with our skills and our lives, remarking that it was more difficult when you already had a family in the States as he did. We all agreed, respectfully acknowledging our shared obligations. It is always like this, the mutual agreement, the acceptance that we traded this promise to ‘do something back home’ for our good luck and good opportunities. In no other settings do I see this so instantly recognized, only among young Africans.

The only hope I hang my heart on is the energy of this new generation, at the enthusiasm of these masses of people, as in Ethiopia’s COVID response group. Those obligations are felt deeply, all over the world, and I hope that energy will sustain us, will give us the power and courage to fight this virus, as well as the underlying issues at hand.

P.S. I’d like to note that there are hundreds, if not thousands of tech professionals coming together to combat coronavirus, and I do not mean to diminish their hard work and progress in this blog post. I think they know, as well as anyone else, how important it is to have government and other influential figures on their side. This blog post is simply a call for those powerful figures to do more, not a call for those already working hard against coronavirus to do less. I commend everyone who has already given much of their time, talent, and energy for this cause.

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.