The Cutting Edge of Tanzanian Hi-Tech

The first time I visited Tanzania in 1991 hardly anyone I met had even heard of computers or mobile phones, let alone seen or used them. Cost aside, major hurdles existed that prevented many Tanzanians from accessing even basic technology such as fixed line telephones. Now, twelve years later, the face of the world has been changed in many ways, Tanzania included. Technology has leapt into the laps of ordinary Tanzanians. Slowly but surely Tanzania is catching up with the richer northern countries in terms of technology.

This is not simply the result of northern or South African corporations expanding their markets into an under-developed country. Technology has been brought into Tanzania by Tanzanians themselves, adapting American, European and Far Eastern technologies to the environment and markets that exist here in Africa. Where telecommunications networks are not adequate for high speed internet connections, such as the DSL used in Europe and America, Tanzanian businesses have adapted network technology designed to be used within single buildings to wire up entire towns and cities. The limits of Ethernet networking have been pushed to their limits by these ISPs. To support customers beyond these technical limits another office technology has been adapted to spread the net yet further – wireless LAN or wi-fi. Using wireless LAN to connect distant people is the realm of enthusiasts and hackers in richer countries. In Tanzania it is bread and butter for local ISPs. This in turn has allowed many internet cafes to spring up in towns and cities of all shapes and sizes around Tanzania; enabling ordinary Tanzanians to access email and the web at costs as low as 500/- an hour..

In a country where short international phone calls quickly mount into tens of dollars, internet users circumnavigate the traditional telephone network (and unenforceable laws) to have conversations over the net. Systems such as Net2Phone allow phone calls to be made using a computer connected to the internet at a fraction of the cost. Some internet cafes offer this amongst their other services.

Mobile phones have brought voice communication deep into the Serengeti and all the way to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Obtaining a phone and line can take as little as ten minutes. All this in a country where, twelve years ago, getting a land line organised might take years and then reliability was a problem. Nowadays it is not unusual to see Maasai morani in full ceremonial dress walking around Longido with a mobile phone clamped to one ear, spear in the other hand.

Even those who cannot afford to own a mobile phone, have their own personal sim card – or “line” – which they plug into the local shared handset in order to collect messages. Informal distribution networks for mobile phone credits have sprung up deep within rural communities to ensure that mobile phone users in the know are always able to communicate, even if they aren’t physically buy top up cards. Even phone users who cannot afford to buy airtime are able to communicate through a system of beeping – something I mocked in last week’s article. Since then a reader contacted me to clarify the system – one beep means Hello – I am here!, whereas two beeps means Call me! Sending more than two beeps is simply rude.

African countries for years were at the far end of the queue when it came to distribution of new films. When they did arrive, the reels had passed through so many cinemas’ projectors that they showed up scratched and crackly in African theatres. They were barely viewable. Tanzanians can now see American and European movies before they are officially released in some countries. This is thanks to sneaky film goers who smuggle digital video cameras into the cinema and film the film. These are then copied onto Video CDs (VCDs) and sold cheaply around the world. Sound and picture quality is still somewhat hit and miss, but this hasn’t stopped the entrepreneurs at Arusha’s Metropole cinema from investing in a computer and video projector and showing films that have just been released in Europe. VCDs are also available for hire and purchase at low cost at a number of locations in town – in Dar es Salaam, “marching guys” will even bring them to your car at the traffic lights.

These examples of technologies, manipulated, appropriated, transformed and embraced by ordinary Tanzanians represent in themselves a cutting edge of technology. Unable to produce their own devices, Tanzanians have become extremely adept at taking what is available and moulding it to needs and wants that cannot be anticipated by outsiders. Next time you think that this country is somehow behind the times look around the streets.

Amidst the hand carts, goat herds and subsistence farmers selling a handful of surplus tomatoes walk the innovators of the future. Their ideas for twists of technology will continue to change our lives as much as the hi-tech multinationals.

Originally published in Arusha Times 283

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