Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Africa's 'Text Generation' is Here

| November 8, 2007


This op-ed also appeared in Daily Nation (Kenya) on November 8, 2007, with the same title.

Kenyans will elect a new president in December. But unlike in previous elections, the president will preside over a country dominated by the youth who have a new outlook on life.

There is a new generation of Kenyans who believe that they can define their own destiny rather than conform to the status quo. This is a networked generation that is connected more by text messaging than by traditional cultural bonds. This “text generation” will demand a presidency that looks to the future rather than pander to the past.

Expanding economic opportunity through innovation and entrepreneurship will define political success in the new Kenya. Performance standards will soon take centre stage and will start to directly challenge patronage as a management style.

The “text generation” will be more interested in a functioning economy and less in ethnic politics that has dominated Kenya and most of post-colonial Africa. Like other young generations, the country will be dominated by people who aspire to improve themselves and the rest of the economy.

Sustaining Kenya’s economic recovery will require the new government to focus on integrating technological innovation into economic development strategies. Doing so will require special efforts to strengthen the country’s technical capabilities; align governmental agencies with long-term development goals; and muster presidential leadership to overcome resistance to change.

The presidency will need to rethink the overall economic outlook of the country in terms of technological innovation. More specifically, the term “science and technology” as currently used in government will need to be replaced by a more pragmatic view that focuses on fostering continuous improvement and change.

The youth will not wait for future technological break-through; they will seek to improve their lot by tapping into existing knowledge. They have tasted the fruits of the cell phone revolution without seeing their parents invent them. They will demand the same opportunities in other fields such as agriculture, transportation, energy and the service industry.

To meet the expectations of the “text generation” the presidency needs to pay special attention to building institutions that help to harness existing technical knowledge through productive enterprises. It will need to be a technology-savvy leadership that recognizes and uses emerging technological opportunities.

African presidents are now working to boost science, technology, and engineering education. But their efforts are undermined by poor governance structures, especially the low levels of interactions between government, academia and industry. This is compounded by the separation between research, teaching and extension or commercial activities.  

Outmoded laws stand in the way of reforming higher education to meet the needs of the “text generation”. For example, Kenyan law requires that new universities must own 20 hectares of land to be registered. But in the modern world, access to faculty, internet connectivity and proximity to the productive sector are more important than access to land. .

Young Kenyans are growing up digital. But university laws still require proof of space for library stacks. Such medieval requirements are forcing new universities to be located away from communities and industries that they could serve or benefit from.

Such detailed legal provision might appear to be too technical to require executive involvement. But they provide the basis upon which various government agencies and vested interests subvert reform and lock Africa into outmoded practices.

The reforms needed to change such laws cannot be championed by the same ministries of officials who benefit from their existence. The impetus for change must come from the presidency and must be reflected in the way he or she structures the cabinet.

Kenya and the rest of Africa needs presidencies that reflect the changed times. Otherwise the youth will text them out of office.

Professor Juma texts from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalization Project

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For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Africa's 'Text Generation' is Here.” Business Daily, November 8, 2007.