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The West’s mistrust of digital Africa
From Covid tests to NFTs, why are African digital systems still excluded from the world?
On November 23, 2021, South African scientists, while doing routine genetic sequencing of coronavirus samples, identified a new, infectious, and rapidly mutating strain of Covid-19 that PCR tests were struggling to detect. On November 26, they alerted the world to the Omicron variant.
Instead of acknowledging South Africa’s world-class disease surveillance, Western countries turned to a typical response: exclusion. Against the recommendations of the WHO, the United States, Canada, and many European countries imposed bans on travelers from southern African countries. Canada went further and stopped accepting QR-bar coded molecular Covid-19 test certificates issued in South Africa and nine other African countries, forcing travelers to get a test from a third country.
The move was part of a long-running architecture of suspicion against Africa: from medical tests to travel documents, to social media, and even web3, African people and technology are excluded from global technical infrastructure. And this has consequences that designers, engineers, and policymakers in the West should think more about.
We can find the origins of this digital mistrust in Western colonialism. In the thinking of colonial corporations like The Dutch East India Company or The British South Africa Company, Africans had to be dispossessed of their resources so that “responsible” colonial administrators could exploit them for the benefit of “modern civilization.” Even then, Western colonial armies did not trust that Black inhabitants of Africa had the skill, intelligence, and know-how to mine the continent’s enormously rich coal, diamond, gold, or silver deposits. Colonial scientists carried out medical experiments on the bodies of Black Africans, not believing that the bodies of Africans could feel pain.
Centuries later, that mistrust remains. If someone from my country, Zimbabwe, wants to get a visa to stay in a Western country for more than a few months, we are usually required to get tested for HIV and tuberculosis and submit digital results. But Western embassies will only allow these results from a tiny handful of labs, ruling out most of the local clinics that people rely on. Then, if our visas aren’t denied and we make it to our destination, our passports are aggressively scrutinized—even though they contain chips and a scan-friendly, numerical barcode that any airport machine-reader should be able to easily authenticate.
It reminds me of my daily life. As a writer, I receive my income from publications around the world. But to get paid digitally, especially from the US, is an uphill endeavor. When billing American publications, I’m required to insert numerous digital signatures certifying that my personal wages don’t violate US Department of Treasury sanctions. But numerous Western editors whom I work with only pay via PayPal, which is almost impossible to sign up for in my country of Zimbabwe due to those sanctions. That forces me to use expensive online correspondent banks in places like Germany, which deplete my earnings due to rerouting fees.
It’s true that African nations like Nigeria have earned global notoriety for hosting internet scams that swindle Westerners. However, digital crimes don’t only originate in Africa. The UK has been named as a “global epicenter” for online financial cyber crimes. The US hosts the largest number of botnet servers in the world, which are commonly used to launch DDoS attacks or steal sensitive data. The majority of dark websites—where drugs, phishing, bots and malware, and illicit money are said to be traded—are either heavily used in the US and originating in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. A 2019 Price Security study revealed that North America leads the world when it comes to the use of the dark web. So is Africa really the problem?
Yet Africa’s exclusion persists. Yasin Kakande, a pan-Africa technologist, TEDx speaker, told me he felt this when sampling American dating apps as part of informal personal research on the under-explored aspects of online racism. “I was disturbed to see straight-up on some Westerners’ profiles: “I don’t accept love proposals from users in Africa…sorry,’” he said.
It’s not just Western users who ignore Africans. Western tech platforms have excluded Africa’s internet spaces from some of their most important initiatives. For instance, Big Tech AI algorithms, which are reasonably busy flagging hate speech in the West, have a poor or non-existent capacity when it comes to incorporating African languages, and often do very little to address hate speech-language formations in Africa. Crucially, Facebook’s algorithms appear to have failed to flag online hate speech posts in Ethiopia’s two dominant languages in the lead-up to Ethiopia’s bloody civil war, according to disclosures from whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Unfortunately, the “web3” movement hasn’t brought more inclusion, either. In the booming world of tokens and NFTs, many platforms ban blockchain miners from my country—including Zimbabwe citizens living abroad. As Michael Musekiwa, one of Zimbabwe’s most prolific NFT artists told me: “To mine NFTs on the blockchain from Zimbabwe is such agony. We usually use Virtual Private Networks to connect to American blockchain platforms like Open Sea and thus mine NFTs, but as soon as they notice that the connection is coming from Zimbabwe, they usually slow the network or throttle it.” And then, of course, there’s the emerging, troubling data that NFT buyers prefer white male avatars, and that light-skinned avatars on average fetch higher money than you know…darker ones.
There are some initiatives that give me inspiration. Home-grown movements like WikiAfrica are trying to improve African representation on the internet, by organizing efforts to add African knowledge to platforms like Wikipedia, and digitally rescue the languages that Western tech ignores. Nigeria-based publication TechCabal—Africa’s answer to WIRED—documents the grit, innovations, disappointments, and triumphs of Africa’s tech scene. And then there’s Rest of World, a global nonprofit media project that documents the internet’s effect on society outside of the Western bubble.
These efforts give Westerners—including its coders, programmers, UI designers, illustrators, and network engineers—an important opportunity to get past their suspicions of Africa and its technology, and hopefully develop a deeper understanding. Then, we might be able to talk about building a better internet—where trust is more fairly distributed, and a world where African technology is integrated at last. 🌳
Nyasha Bhobo is a freelance journalist whose focus is the interplay between technology and society beyond the Western bubbles of California or London. Her work appears in Rest of World, Newsweek, The New Arab, The Africa Report, and The Globe and Mail newspaper.
Illustration by Josh Kramer.