I had dreams and tears in equal measure, imagining what our own Konza City could be as a properly established hub for digital.
A five tray trolley moves unassisted down the corridor to a door. “Room 311 your dishes are on the third shelf. Please take and press finish”. The door opens, a person covered in the now famous surgical mask and gloves picks the food and the talking trolley wishes them good health, “bon appetite” and moves on to the next door to repeat the process.
Welcome to China in the age of the corona virus pandemic, where hospitals were using robots to deliver food to people in isolation so as to minimize infections on contact. This image, the first I ever saw of Wuhan, China, remains etched in my mind.
In my lifetime, I have prayed many times. Many of those prayers have been answered and many others have not. At the Christian Union in high school, they taught us that God has three answers to prayer – yes, no and wait for some time. The wait can be a real test of patience and of course Yes is often the answer I want when I go to pray. Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed, I am silent and I say to my God, Lord, I don’t know how to pray.
I had never heard of Wuhan, so I looked it up on the map. It seemed some remote place so as I said a prayer for Africa that day, I was sure the answer would be yes. I prayed that this dreadful disease would never set foot in Africa because I was sure none of us had the capacity to deal with it. No economy in Africa uses robots on a regular basis.
A few weeks prior to this, I had been to Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley. In 1980, Shenzhen was established as China’s first special economic zone. With a population estimated at 13 million, Shenzhen now hosts the Shenzhen Stock Exchange as well as the headquarters of numerous multinational companies including Huawei. Standing atop a 100-storey building, one of several in this leading global technology hub, I had dreams and tears in equal measure, imagining what our own Konza City could be as a properly established hub for digital.
Dateline: Nairobi, March 2020. Prayer not answered. COVID-19 announced in Kenya. I remember the robots in a Wuhan hospital (via internet). I race in my mind to Konza City, to what might have been, had we taken up our “Silicon Valley” dream more seriously. I dream that a Kenyan equivalent of Huawei would have been established and become a leading technology giant. This Chinese company, Huawei, was founded in an old factory in 1987. Now, it employs nearly 94,000 people, its headquarters stretches over four campuses across two square miles and it has operations in more than 170 countries.
Days later, I am catching up on WhatsApp and I press one of the myriads of videos that come through. Oh! Hold that! It’s the von Trapp family choir singing about COVID-19! I play it again, very delighted to hear those voices. I remember the storyline in the movie from decades back.
It is set in 1938 when Maria, a young Austrian postulant in Salzburg, is sent as a governess to take care of seven children following the death of their mother. The widowed, retired naval officer, Georg von Trapp, has a military approach to his family but with the arrival of Maria this changes. Her jovial and loving nature transforms the household to one of love and music. She spends her time teaching the children through music, creating a song for almost everything. Eventually, even the heart of the officer is tamed, leading to their eventual marriage.
Now here I was listening to the song about COVID-19 in a 1930s setting. The work of technology. Modern technology.
I realized the boundless opportunities that digital, when properly harnessed can produce. Employment, learning and in these days of #stayhomestaysafe, one certainly gets a lot of edutainment.
I thought of Uhuru’s laptops for kids. It has taken COVID-19 to expose our soft underbelly as a nation. With schools forcibly closed and emphasis laid on digital learning, what should have been a seamless shift of learning space, became a nightmare for our learners and their teachers. Indeed, the most reliable learning partner has been the radio teacher who taught me long ago before we heard of digital. Supposing we had properly executed this project, providing computer labs, electricity and computers to every school in the republic and training all their teachers and converting all curriculum to digital. Suppose every child in the republic had their laptop or tablet with them at home, what would this #stayhomestaysafe experience have been for all of them? We would be in the same tuff with South Korea where learning is ongoing at home via technology
With little or no institutional support, one of these tech-savvy characters created Mpesa. It is the one innovation that is now keeping our economy moving. What can several minds like that one do when given the right support? Are we aware that we are standing on the edge of a technological evolution and the faster we embrace it the better for us as a nation?
According to the Global Industry Vision (GIV), by 2025, exactly 5 years from now, industrial robots will be working side by side with people. For every 10,000 people there will be 103 robots. Many of these will be purpose built, for hazardous environments from undersea rescue to fighting forest fires as well as managing repetitive tasks and high precision assignments. On the domestic front, 14% of household chores will be performed by robots. From basic chores such as ironing, vacuum cleaning and picking up things, to complex areas such as nursing, replacing body parts and companionship in study and at therapy, robots will be present.
These few weeks during which we have been under the spell of COVID-19 have put the spotlight on the corrupt tendencies we have that have undermined our technological progression leaving us at the mercy of other nations. We even import toys for our children to play with. The laptops for children project had a poor start and choked all the way due to greed and selfishness. In a February 2019 article, the Nation newspaper averred that the project failed because of theft and misuse among other things. That we stole and continue to steal from our children is both ugly and unforgivable.
If one city can be built on a foundation of technology, one single company employs over 90, 000 people, then we must do everything possible to secure our future and that of our children through technology. That investment in technology- the children’s digital learning and Konza City– need to go full circle. For that to happen, there must be no sacred cows.
If there is a lesson to learn as we seek to protect ourselves in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, it is that we must hold ourselves together as a nation. There comes a time when external solutions cannot be depended on. Building the capacity to manage our affairs is the key. Integrity must stop being a word we use at election time. It must be the norm because integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.
One Africa against COVID-19