Amplify the Potential of Smartphones to Fight Poverty in Africa but Keep the Dark Side of Mining Rare Minerals in Mind

The following was submitted to the Editors of the Economist magazine “Intelligent Life”.

Dear Sir or Madam:

I congratulate J.M. Ledgard on his article ‘Digital Africa’ in the Spring 2011 Edition of Intelligent Life. The author skillfully sheds light on the transformative role smartphones are playing across the African continent to empower people and communities for a better future. As a development practitioner specialized in this field, I too am a passionate proponent of intelligently integrating Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) including Smartphones into poverty reduction projects addressing better access to health services, education, market prices for higher incomes while increasing transparency to hold their leaders accountable. The pre-condition being that the people with their needs are in the center rather than the technology itself. If more systematically applied, I wholeheartedly agree with the author that we are just at the beginning of a economic, social and political transformation unimaginable a decade ago.¬†¬†Recent events in Northern Africa are as telling as inspiring.

Regretfully, one critical element is missing in the article, namely the ‘current bad and ugly side’ of this revolution- the use of rare minerals within various technologies necessary to fuel this techno-centric revolution. As illustrated by a recent documentary titled Blood in Mobile’, appalling mining practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo were documented which need to be stopped. Similar to the outrage and concrete action following the discovered link between diamonds and the civil conflict in Sierra Leone, a corresponding international process with clear rules and regulations should be put in place to change the policies of governments and companies accordingly. It would be a collective shame if this revolution would be fuelled on the backs of those people, namely the poor and most vulnerable, which may benefit most from its potential.