Africa in 2079 is unrecognisable - it is digitally connected and is helping to set global standards

Wednesday December 11 2019

A train on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou high-speed railway in Zhangjiakou

A train on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou high-speed railway in Zhangjiakou, in north China’s Hebei Province. “The Addis Ababa-Lagos high-speed rail, operational from 2035, connects the largest cities in two of the most populous countries.” PHOTO | XINHUA 

AIDAN EYAKUZE
By AIDAN EYAKUZE
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This, broadly, is the 60th anniversary of the independence of many African countries from colonial rule. Nation Media Group’s Kusi Ideas Festival is gazing into the crystal ball and taking a bet on how the next 60 years will be.

It is a long way ahead, but successful nations have been able to seize the future by being bold and daring to imagine what the world might look like even 100 years ahead. Frequently, fortune has that boldness.

In 2079, Africa is unrecognisable. A century earlier, we had just started to run our own affairs and the anticipation was intoxicating.

Things have not turned out quite as we had expected. Undaunted, we have drafted, in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, an optimistic vision of an optimised “integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”

The road is far from straight, and neither is the destination clear or assured.

Young, scrappy, and hungry

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Our future is shaped by a multitude of powers, but there is one that is as inescapable as the force of gravity because its trajectory is set: our demographic momentum.

During the next 80 years, we will increase in number from 1.3 billion to an eye-watering 4.3 billion souls. In 2100, every second baby born on the planet is African, and five of the world’s 10 largest countries by population are on the continent (Nigeria, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Egypt).

The continent is, quoting from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, “young, scrappy and hungry” for food, fun, and fulfilment. How might that hunger be satisfied?

Liberal democracy falters

All of this will play out against the backdrop of a global context that is transforming in fundamental ways. During the 30 years to the middle of the 21st century, there is a visible shift in the centre of global political, economic, and military gravity from the north Atlantic to the Indian Ocean dominated by China and challenged by India.

The existing global economic and security architecture crumbles under the weight of various convulsions that seriously undermine the bastions of liberal democracy—America and the European Union.

Disarray among progressives and deepening polarisation among American voters help the Republicans to hold on to the White House for two, two-term presidencies. During that time, America turns its back on the global agenda driven by shared secular values.

A weakened North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) security alliance leaves an increasingly isolated European Union (EU) struggling to contain an assertive Russia allied with a muscular Turkey on Europe’s eastern frontier.

More fundamentally, Europe’s ageing population combines with chronic social unrest driven by immigration, which inexorably changes Europe’s complexion and saps the continent’s energy.

The union falters as the freedom of movement, one of its core “four freedoms”, is restricted in a bid to control immigration. The EU also turns its gaze inward. The liberal democratic West loses Africa’s deference and affection.

African nature abhors a vacuum

Into the vacuum steps China. And India. And Japan. And Russia. China’s Belt and Road initiative, announced in 2013, is most coherent.

To the north, the land belt links China to western Europe across the Eurasian continent. To the south, the maritime road traverses south-east Asia and crosses the Indian Ocean to [eastern] Africa, bringing with it transport infrastructure, free trade and, ultimately, tighter coordination of economic policy.

Japan counters with its Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, promising superior durability, sustainability, and safety in infrastructure.

Russia and India join the fray and this collective courtship turns into money and expertise competing for the continent’s $100 billion in annual infrastructure construction.

Between 2020 and 2050, Africa’s infrastructure buildout is impressively integrationist. The Addis Ababa-Lagos high-speed rail, operational from 2035, connects the largest cities in two of the most populous countries.

It is the first link in one of the African Union’s Agenda 2063’s flagship projects, the Integrated High Speed Train Network which “…eventually connects major capitals and commercial centres…”

In 2050, the Grand Inga Dam is commissioned to become the largest in the world and, combined with the Grand Renaissance Dam in an East and Central African power pool, provides electricity for almost two billion people. And then there is the terrestrial broadband internet network that is built alongside the rail and electricity lines. Combined with mobile towers and low-earth orbit balloons, super-fast internet is available to 99 per cent of users on mobile phones.

Africa’s infrastructure is also debt-ridden. The borrowing spree that funded it undermines policy and territorial sovereignty. This starts in the early 2020s, when government guarantees for loans to build railways and gas pipelines in East Africa are called in by the banks.

The financial institutions are willing to forego cash repayments for multi-decade leases on prime urban property – where the growth is. The result? Large cities whose cores are dominated by Chinese, Indian, and Russian capital and commerce. Domestic policy-making must now be vetted in Beijing, Delhi, and Moscow.

The combination of the networks and the people unlocks some amazing talent. Africa is an intellectual property (IP) lab. After 2019, when Africans’ contributions to GitHub—a global collaboration space for coders—expanded by 40 per cent, faster than from any other continent, companies from China, India, and Russia collectively out-pace Microsoft’s $100 million investment in African developer hubs by a factor of five by 2030. It pays off.

After a team of young Kenyan and Tanzanian coders teach autonomous vehicles’ AI systems how to “see” and avoid running into dark-skinned people with 100 per cent accuracy, China’s self-driving car exports to Europe, North America, and Africa surge. The coders retain some intellectual property rights to their technology, assuring them of billionaire status.

The vast and digitally integrated African market helps set global standards, especially for digital products and services. Powering through 5G and 6G mobile internet connection speeds by 2030, China tests and deploys high-speed ambient connectivity—that is, being online all the time and everywhere, which was predicted by Microsoft President Brad Smith in November 2019—first throughout Africa’s urban conglomerations and then across its huge territory.

From 2035, China’s xG standards are used by over two billion Africans and are the de facto global standard for hyper-fast digital connectivity that is at the core of economic and social life.

The good life is urban and vegan

Life for ordinary Africans by 2080 is overwhelmingly urbanised, deeply unequal, and saturated with intrusive tech.

As early as 2020, some of the fastest growing cities in the world are African. By 2100, Lagos and Kinshasa, with over 83 million residents each, and Dar es Salaam (73 million) are the world’s largest mega cities. These and other urban concentrations of African humanity are surrounded by human and environmental wastelands.
Over the preceding decades, wild variation in rainfall patterns makes farming catastrophically unpredictable. Vanishing pasturelands lead to the starvation of huge livestock herds across the continent.

Young people are uninterested in life in the bush and are concentrated in major and secondary cities across Africa.

Urban living ranges from sublime for the rich to alienation for everyone else. Pockets of urban sanity feature pedestrianised neighbourhood streets connected by private rapid transit systems served by driverless cars.

Driven by the scarcity of natural animal protein on the one hand (livestock is protected and lab-grown meat never took off), and the desire to live longer healthier lives, the diet for middle and upper-class urbanites consists of hydroponically-grown vegetables produced in large urban hanging gardens.

From all-inclusive to all-intrusive tech

The vast majority of Africans earn their living through multiple micro-tasking (MMTs) ever since every “job” was unbundled into its component tasks.

Structured, repetitive tasks have been automated, leaving only those unbundled micro-tasks needing social intelligence, creativity, or dexterity to be done by people. All “taskers” are always-on private contractors who bid relentlessly for the privilege of tasking (“I am the app for that task!”). Incomes are kept low by the relative scarcity of tasks requiring intuition and imagination.

Beyond tasking, digital hyper-connectivity is all-intrusive. Everyone has a wearable or implantable device. Most have both. Those unwilling or too poor to connect are cut off from economic opportunity and any quasi-public service. The unrelenting competition for tasks is both stressful and socially divisive—you are competing against everyone all the time. “Ubuntu” transforms from the unifying idea that “I am because you are” to “I am in spite of you”. Even marriages have renewable term limits, “in case someone better comes along”.

To cope with the deep social alienation, everyone uses commercial SMS (sentiment management services) to regulate their emotions through digital nerve stimulation. The most popular setting: sedation!

Aidan Eyakuze is a Tanzanian economist, scenario maker, and executive director of Twaweza East Africa.