[Column] Cathy Smith: Don’t believe the negative hype: tech is a force for good
Is a dysfunctional relationship with technology keeping us from harnessing tech for the greater good?
Having worked in the tech industry for over 30 years, I still get goosebumps when I consider the positive potential of technology on our continent. Thanks to technology, we are better off than ever before.
However, popular culture tends to accentuate the worst of technology's potential. Movies glorify hackers that bring cities to their knees. Future humans are enslaved by robots, with rebel groups celebrated as they save the world from 'the machine'.
Social media, designed to connect people and create platforms for engagement, have been misdirected to spread fake news, perpetuating a mistrust of businesses, governments, and brands.
All of this has done serious damage not only to democracies around the world, but to the relationships we have with one another. This has hampered our ability to come together in the face of the enormous challenges we face.
An era of unprecedented progress
And yet, it's not possible to think about progress without considering the role that technology plays.
Technology and human innovation have unlocked huge benefits for mankind and have helped usher in an era of unprecedented growth and opportunity.
We are healthier than ever before, and our life expectancy continues to increase, thanks in part to advances in medicine including vaccines that have eradicated previously lethal diseases.
Fewer people live in extreme poverty than before. One UN report showed a 50% drop in people living on less than $1.25 per day between 1990 and 2015.
More people have access to education, and most of the world enjoys greater freedom than ever before, thanks largely to the internet and our smartphones that give us new ways of expressing ourselves socially, politically, and creatively.
Solutions to an uncertain future
As we enter an era of uncertainty and rapid change, it is worth considering our relationship with technology and whether we are positioned to meet the inevitable challenges coming our way.
We will face more change in the next ten years than the last century. Our current ways of living and doing business are unsuited for this future.
Futurist Gerd Leonhard believes it's not a question of whether we will have the technology to solve the world's most pressing issues - we already do.
What remains a question is whether we will cooperate to use technology wisely and whether we can act in time.
Overcoming the challenges of a changing climate, food insecurity, pollution and waste, economic development and social upliftment require new technologies – or new and innovative uses for existing technologies.
Let's take the issue of food security as an example.
The farm as digital enterprise
Food is one of the most basic and fundamental needs. Alarmingly, nearly nine million people die of hunger or hunger-related disease each year. And yet, the US alone spends more on diets every year than would be needed to ensure every hungry person on Earth can eat.
Africa is particularly vulnerable to food scarcity due to its relatively lower levels of development and wealth. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem: data indicates that about 20% of the continent's population experience hunger.
This makes the agricultural sector, which is responsible for 60% of jobs on the continent, vital to Africa's fortunes.
According to UN data, food production in Africa is led by 250 million smallholder farmers who collectively produce 80% of food consumed on the continent.
However, the farmers are often at the mercy of the elements with very little in the way of tools, technology, or data to improve their yields or unlock market opportunities.
The introduction of technology tools in the African smallholder farming supply chain has helped farmers mitigate risk and scale their operations to move away from subsistence farming.
SAP's Rural Sourcing Management tool, which connects smallholder farmers with agriculture supply chains and brings transparency to the sourcing of raw materials, is turning these farms into digital enterprises and the farmers into digital entrepreneurs.
In Nigeria, for example, 850 000 small maize producers have been integrated into the larger agricultural value chain and now enjoy access to weather, crop and farming data as well as better selling opportunities.
Tech as a force for good
Every person and every business have a role to play in helping to solve some of our current challenges. In Ghana, for example, a collaboration between SAP, the World Economic Forum and the Global Plastic Action Partnership is bringing positive change to the country's plastics supply chain.
More than 2000 Ghanaian waste pickers are being incorporated in a ground-breaking circular economy initiative in a project that measures the quantities and types of plastic they collect.
Through the Rural Sourcing Management tool, data about the plastic waste they collect is analysed and matched to market-related prices in local and global value chains.
Organisations that prioritise sustainability can then opt to pay a premium for more socially responsible plastics, while the waste pickers can enjoy higher wages for their work.
In our own business, SAP has committed that 5% of global procurement will be with social enterprises by 2025, with another 5% to diverse businesses.
As we journey into an uncertain future, we have the opportunity every step of the way to choose to use technology in the service of good. Whether you are a tech start-up looking for a breakthrough, a social enterprise solving the next big problem or a corporate wondering how to make a difference, think about the future you want to help shape on the continent.
In a world with so many challenges and such an abundance of bad news, technology holds the key to a brighter and happier future - provided we choose to use tech for good.
Cathy Smith is the Managing Director at SAP Africa