Anyone Anywhere: Narrating African Innovation In A Global Community Of Practice
information communication technologies
African Languages and Societies
Social and Cultural Anthropology
The last eight years have seen rapid growth in the number of technology startups emerging in urban centers around Africa, from Lagos to Nairobi to Bamako. The growth of annual investments in African startups – rising from $12 million to $560 million between 2013 and 2017 (Kazeem, 2018) – is an indication that many, including investors abroad, believe the trend in African involvement in international technology innovation practices is just beginning. Yet while these changes are promising, this dissertation encourages critical reflection on them and asks: To what extent are Africans really able to fully participate in the production of the new technologies shaping their experiences of the modern information economy? To attempt to answer this, from 2013 to 2016 I conducted an ethnography of one of the centers of innovation in Africa that has received the most media attention, a “technology hub” based in Nairobi, Kenya called the iHub. I spent a year as a participant observer on the iHub’s communications team, conducted numerous focus groups, site visits to other tech hubs, participated in dozens of events and interviewed over 80 members of Nairobi’s tech community. With this data, I built an analytical lens that brings a critical communications perspective to communities of practice theory. By integrating narrative theory, this lens draws attention to the potential for conflict and hierarchies of legitimacy in transnational communities built around shared practices. In the pages that follow, I argue that the actors around the iHub are engaged in a Global Community of Technology Innovators in which their participation, and the community’s larger narratives are mutually constructed. One such narrative about how “Anyone Anywhere” in the world can become a successful technology entrepreneur helped attract Kenyan entrepreneurs, while others restricted their ability to be taken serious, often leading to their being pigeonholed as “social entrepreneurship”. By the end of 2016, the discrepancy between narratives and lived experiences led many to reject certain global practices – like the pressure on startups to scale globally – and focus instead on building a Kenyan community in which they had greater legitimacy and power to construct narratives and shape future practices.