Africa’s ancient practices are being digitized for the future

Ready for the future
Ready for the future
Image: AP Photo/Ben Curtis
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The digital revolution, often described as “leapfrogging,” has brought real change to Africa. In finance, communication, and entertainment, technology has allowed African innovators to skip a step, bypassing the West in significant ways as the continent tries to catch up to more industrialized parts of the world.

In leaping forward, many innovators have looked to their past to build the future. Traditions that sustained communities long before the internet arrived are now being disrupted and adjusted for a smartphone-wielding generation. With new tools, these community-based solutions have the potential to travel further beyond the village.

It takes a village

When he was growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Abbey Wemimo’s family increasingly had a challenge paying his school fees. As finances dried up, Wemimo’s parents then resorted to pooling money into an account with friends and relatives, allowing each member to withdraw funds from the group savings pot in turns. That process helped Wemimo not only finish school but also undertake university education in the United States.

Esusu app helps digitize centuries old lending practices
Digitizing centuries-old savings tradition
Image: Esusu

Wemimo and his colleague Samir Goel are now adopting that traditional practice for the 21st century. With their mobile app Esusu, the duo wants to empower users to save their income, access larger sums of capital, and more importantly, build credit and financial identity through a community-based savings system. Wemimo says their experience designing and testing the app was rooted in conversations with friends and family, many of whom struggled to borrow for their businesses or couldn’t raise money for emergencies.

“This app is grounded in our personal experiences and we wanted to drive it to execution,” Wemimo says.

Esusu serves as an illustration of how traditional African practices are being digitized for the future. In sectors as diverse as finance, fashion, culture, and languages, innovators are stepping in to preserve decades or centuries-old systems for the future. These digitization projects have spawned new collaborative networks, bringing together people from different backgrounds who share similar cultural traits or interests.

In South Africa, the Stockfella app has a similar origins story to Esusu. Collective savings, known as stokvels, have existed in South Africa since at least the 19th century. Stockfella has digitized this savings tradition while teaching members financial literacy.

In Somalia, the vibrant mobile money and remittance systems are being used to improve social lending practices known as hagbad or ayuuto—allowing families to not only save but also pay for school, medicine, and even weddings. A startup in Sweden has even digitized the much-loved camel commerce business in Somalia, allowing users to buy livestock through bitcoin, bringing the diaspora community back into the traditional fold.

Musical past

While digitizing traditions has moved them forward, in some cases it is enough to archive old tales for a new generation. Artists like Ghana’s multi-disciplinary creator Jojo Abot look to history to create contemporary art. As a musician, Abot released 2015’s concept album FYFYA WOTO, a four-track retelling of a forbidden love story of a Ghanaian woman and a white man during the time of slavery. In her photography, Abot dips into folklore and myth to unpack what it means to be an African woman today.

This new world has also allowed new artists to find a larger audience. Illustrators have become online sensations as apps like Instagram allow them to connect with new fans, when they may go unappreciated in their own communities. The image and video-driven online experience have been a boon for both independent designers and emerging filmmakers. Although these two industries differ greatly, in many ways they’ve approached this leapfrogging opportunity in the same way: creating products that are distinctly African and yet appeal to a global market.  

The Google Art Project, launched in 2011, also explores the connection between art and fashion, allowing users to view and closely examine garments from fashion museums across the world. One of the fabrics whose history is documented by the project is siShweshwe, a printed dyed cotton material that has extensively been used as a political statement against apartheid South Africa.

Ethics behind digitization

In a bid to improve access and safeguard knowledge, history and language are other sectors where digitization has come up in recent years. Five African countries—Benin, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, and Senegal—are currently taking part in an 11-nation UNESCO project aimed at preserving resources and knowledge linked to the Transatlantic slave trade. The Cooperative Africana Materials Project, part of a consortium of universities and research centers, has also been saving research material from across Africa in microform and digital formats. Their archives include newspapers, journals, government publications, personal and corporate materials that are in diverse languages including Swahili, Zulu, and Xhosa.

Yet despite the positive nature of digitization, the practice has been dogged with moral and ethical questions and whether it represents a new scramble for Africa. Scholars have also argued that the process of preservation can be problematic in the long run and raises questions not just about intellectual property but also economic, political, and legal repercussions. Digitization is also a sticky issue given that it’s driven by scientists and researchers from the West who have access to funding and advanced technology.

In spite of these apprehensions around digitization, soon no one will remember life before the internet. That comes with the risk of leaving behind traditions that have shaped communities. In this new interconnected community, the digitization of customs, culture, and art means these artifacts will be reinvented for a new generation. What’s more, these digitized systems will allow creatives to reach new audiences, while ensuring that diaspora communities remain part of the fold.

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