On tech, representation, and African agriculture

There is a way in which popular media and development literature presents Africa, and Africans, as paralyzed by modernity, at a standstill: young people leaving agriculture and going to cities, inequalities rising, cities exploding, changing tastes via KFC and packaged noodles like Indomie.

The flicker of hope du jour is tech, and writers, especially when discussing agriculture, often cite high cell phone use, which apparently is an indicator that the paralyzed African is still able to adapt to modernity somehow, and that there is hope in technology. Tech can break us from the modernity stalemate and paralysis.

A recent example of this discourse at work is the Mashambas Skyscraper project, which was recently awarded first place in the eVolo SkyScraper competition. The Skyscraper, which its Polish designers say can be placed anywhere below the Sahara, is meant to compliment efforts to spark a green revolution in Africa:

The main objective of the project is to bring this green revolution to the poorest people. Giving training, fertilizer, and seeds to the small farmers can give them an opportunity to produce as much produce per acre as huge modern farms. When farmers improve their harvests, they pull themselves out of poverty. They also start producing surplus food for their neighbors. When farmers prosper, they eradicate poverty and hunger in their communities.

Mashambas is a movable educational center, which emerges in the poorest areas of the continent. It provides education, training on agricultural techniques, cheap fertilizers, and modern tools; it also creates a local trading area, which maximizes profits from harvest sales. Agriculture around the building flourishes and the knowledge spreads towards the horizon. The structure is growing as long as the number of participants is rising. When the local community becomes self-sufficient it is transported to other places.

They characterize “hunger and poverty” as being “only [an] African matter,” which is of course incorrect, but consistent with the way that the continent is often discussed as a singular, homogenized, hungry entity, paralyzed in modernity.

The design images associated with the project are fantastical: women with babies on their backs and buckets on their head walk on dirt paths through green fields towards the towering, 18 floor structure, while drones fly overhead and giraffes graze in the distance.

The Mashambas Skyscraper

There is no doubt that big thinking is required to tackle the pressing issues of today, but time and again, tech-centered interventions for African agriculture misrecognize problems, causes, and thus proscribe inadequate solutions. As the West African ebola crisis brought to light, temporary hospitals are not what’s needed, permanent health infrastructure is.

Agriculture is no different. Interveners have attempted temporary injections of modern inputs many times. In West Africa, British colonizers obsessed over commercializing agriculture and making it more “productive.” In the 1980s, international donors and NGOs sought again to increase “productivity,” and introduced corn and accompanying fertilizers.

The correlate through all these narratives, replicated in the Mashambas design, is the idea that African farmers are inherently poor stewards of the land, and thus unproductive and in need of intervention. Another assumption that underlies such discourse is that farmers and agriculture are similar throughout the vast continent, and thus uniform, non-contextual, solutions are appropriate.

These dark continent narratives are racialized, inaccurate, and demeaning, and are continually replicated in development speak, academic logic, and popular media. As long as these logics persist, the issues that designers desire to ameliorate will more than likely subsist.

On an endnote, the use of animals in graphic depiction of the continent has got to stop.

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