Are Tech Companies Africa’s New Colonialists?

Written by Staff
Photo by Matt Atherton on Unsplash

In 1886, barely a year after Europe’s great powers met in Berlin to carve up the continent of Africa, Queen Victoria granted Sir George Goldie a charter for his Royal Niger Company. The charter gave Goldie, a moustachioed, waistcoated gentleman of Scottish descent, the right to administer the Niger Delta and its hinterland. Like most of his peers, he was motivated by extraction, which in those days meant kola nuts, peanuts and palm oil. There were many variations across sub-Saharan Africa, but the pattern of exploitation was basically the same. Europeans arrived with power and technology, and left with goods and profits. First, they took slaves — the original sin — before turning their attention to commodities including gold, cocoa, rubber and coffee. Chartered companies would in due course give way to formal empire and Goldie’s was no exception, transferring its rights to the British government in 1900. Much has changed in Nigeria since independence in 1960. But here, as elsewhere in Africa, the economic template established by the Europeans has proved difficult to shift. Trade continues to be conducted through political elites with access to resources. Most value is added to commodities after they leave the continent. The perennial puzzle of African development in the postcolonial era has been how to break the mould — how to extract Africa from its history of extraction. For some, the great leveller of new technology offers a solution. The technological revolution sweeping the world is beginning to have a profound impact on the continent. Many have put their faith in “leapfrogging”, the idea that Africa can escape its poverty and colonial heritage by skipping whole stages of development. The biggest example of that has been Africa’s jump straight to mobile phones, almost entirely bypassing fixed-line technology.

Story from the Financial Times. Story by David Pilling.

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Behind such hopes, however, lies a familiar anxiety over ownership and control. What if Big Tech, far from being a liberating force, turned out instead to be a new kind of colonialist? On April 12 this year, Juliet Anammah, chief executive of the Nigerian operations of a company called Jumia, stepped forward to ring the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange. Anammah was one of several senior executives there to celebrate the initial public offering of an e-commerce company that had been dubbed the “Amazon of Africa”. Jumia, which operates in 14 African countries from Nigeria to Egypt and from Ivory Coast to Kenya, this year became the first entirely Africa-focused e-commerce company to be listed on the prestigious US stock exchange.