Ideas & Debate

How history of technology shapes its future

Blockchain is no longer an abstract concept. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

“Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.” -David Hume

The Scottish enlightenment philosopher wrote these words in the 18th century, but they remain true to date. The rich history of technology rarely informs us of new things to come as it is supposed to.

We are often quick to fight emergent technology. In fact, we are doing that now as the fourth industrial revolution beckons. This is the conclusion I reached while attending the European Union’s (EU) Global Blockchain Congress 2019 in Malaga, Spain, last week. Internet, the first wave of digital technology came and we disparaged it. Other countries embraced it, developed new transformative solutions and greatly improved their productivity. Their economies grew exceedingly. Even as laggards, we have made use of it to create massive productivity.

Mobility came and we were reluctant to use it to solve our major problems except for making calls. It has transformed the world too. We barely got into it as early adopters through the introduction of Mpesa. Here, we basically leap frogged. We had no legacy issues to worry about.

Here comes blockchain at the early adoption stage. We can think of all our problems, come up with the solutions using the technology and leapfrog, meaning jobs for the youths not just at home but in many other countries trying to build capacity in these emerging technologies.


At the conference, I listened to EU make their presentations. They have as much problems developing human resource capacity as we do. The difference, however, is that they are doing something and we are not. Since blockchain was mooted, they set up a blockchain observatory, mapped its application, and noted that blockchain has potential.

The observations have paid off. They have noted, for example, that blockchain can be used to fight bureaucracy. It can ease cross border problems like tax collection, efficiency and effectiveness. They are confident that enough ideas and learning has happened and it is time to start implementation for impact.

As a result, the union is setting aside 9.2 billion euros to upscale the skills, invest in startups, step up research and development and promote adoption and use of these emerging technologies.

Their plan echoes a recent United Nations White Paper on blockchain that validates its potential in transforming economies. Further, they are intent on leveraging partnerships to exploit the digital single market to rival the US and China.

The pain point, however, centers on the emergence of cryptocurrency, which leverages blockchain in its development. Participants, who included senior regulators from different banks such as European Central Bank and Bank of Japan, had a difficult time explaining why cryptocurrencies have not been formally accepted.

Some even suggested that there was no reason why the central banks cannot issue their own digital currencies. Their response was that although the eventual use of digital currency is inevitable, the jury on digital currencies is still out there.

It clearly emerged that we cannot ignore the emerging technologies anymore under the pretext that they destroy employment. EU data shows that digital jobs grew six times higher than other sources of employment and that two out of five employers faced difficulties in finding employees with the right capacity.

If we monitored data in Africa, you will find that for every person laid off especially from the banking industry for redundancy, there are three to four digital jobs that cannot be occupied by locals.

My interaction with many commercial banks points to the fact that the sector is in dire need of data analysts to analyse tonnes of data lying idle when it should be creating new revenue opportunities and more jobs.

More jobs will come from intensified funding of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

At the Summit, more than 200 million euros funding opportunities for blockchain based SMEs were presented with most of them bringing the academia together with private sector and policy makers.

Blockchain is no longer an abstract concept. As a technology, it cannot work on its own without policy.

We must seek to leverage the emerging exponential technologies to solve our unique problems and create employment in the process. It is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog.