Nanjira Sambuli "African countries are caught in the middle in the geopolitical tech debate" – Københavns Universitet

Nanjira Sambuli, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shares her insights into her exploration of technology, governance, and global dynamics. If you want to really understand the geopolitics of tech, says Nanjira, we need to look to the ones who are caught in the middle.
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If you want to really understand the geopolitics of tech, says Nanjira, we need to look to the ones who are caught in the middle. Photo: Mette Frandsen
Insights from Tech Policy Days As part of the Tech Policy Days initiative, we are publishing a series of interviews with key players in the tech sector. They were made in Copenhagen in November during the first annual Tech Policy Days event. The initiative was planned in collaboration with the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science at The University of Copenhagen, The Confederation of Danish Industries, Danish Tech Startups and with generous support from the Danish Industry Foundation.
In the tech debate we often focus on what is happening in Europe, the US and China. The African countries rarely have a big say in the realm of tech. But the world needs to pay more attention to what is happening in Africa, says Nanjira Sambuli, an international expert on technology and governance, currently affiliated with the think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I like to make an analogy to the African tech position by using a saying in African cultures that, ‘when two bulls fight, it's the grass that suffers’”. To say that at least for Kenya and many African countries, in both tech and broader geopolitics, we don't have a share in any particular fight because we are caught in the middle. We need the Chinese infrastructure that has been working well for the last 20 – 30 years to build the tower bases that have connected the telecommunications companies. Americans and other players are coming in at the infrastructure level in different ways. So when geopolitics gets to a point where you're being told to pick a side, we're caught in the middle. I like to say that we're sort of like the theater where all these ideologies play out because everybody's still rushing to connect us.”

Where do you see the biggest challenges for African countries getting involved in the tech field?

“We have regions or countries from which the critical minerals that are going to drive the next great tech wave are coming. We are forced to investigate the conditions under which those minerals are extracted, and what value addition is done on-location building and growing local industry. And that necessarily must fit in this conversation. This will introduce new aspects to the geopolitical tensions because you have everything from the tussling between Western and Eastern powers as mine (stake) owners to different actors that are really involved on the ground, trying to get these resources at a significant scale. Again, if you want to really understand the geopolitics of tech, look to the ones who are caught in the middle. Look to the grass, even as you watch the bulls, and it's a very interesting fight.”
We have to look out for the fact that the development aspect, which digital technologies can offer us, requires strategic pragmatism. It is not as simple as taking a side or aligning neatly with a particular ideology, perspective or country - or whatever is supposed to be driving this geopolitical competition.

You are currently doing research on cyber security in the financial system in African countries. Why is that important seen from a tech policy perspective?

“Because we have digital financial systems that are at once the digitization of the traditional banking system, but also new innovations like mobile money. I've been leading a project to assess the landscape in about nine countries in Africa, just to give a snapshot of different markets and where they are with these different financial systems. It is about framing cyber security as not only about the technical aspects of how do you actually code or build products that are secure, but also how the societal impacts of (in)secure systems and products, because it impacts trust in digital systems. We are assessing how you can secure digital financial inclusion and the continued trust in digital solutions as the pathway for people to take, from being underserved or unserved to being in a financial healthy position.”

What do you see as the main challenges in tech policy from your perspective?

“For Africa, the biggest challenge is that the continent consists of 54 countries. It's very hard to even get three countries to have the same position or even a shared position for that matter. So how do they see it as a priority to participate in the geopolitics of tech? We tend to find that the development agenda is what preoccupies policymakers. That is, who's on the ground to help create jobs? Or address the developmental challenges they have? The people in Europe or the US, who will be talking about geopolitics, may not always have insight into the demand signals by, say, African countries in international digital development assistance from their respective governments and institutions. There are these silos across the board that need to be broken down or shown that they're interconnected.”

Where do you see this challenge right now?

“With developments such as green tech, especially electrical vehicles, you have to consider how the critical minerals powering these technologies have been extracted. The downside effects of extracting the minerals, or the (predominantly forced) labor that is used leaves behind a trail of harm and destruction in the local communities, that at the end of the day are supposed to be connected to this infrastructure, that has cost them so much in blood and sweat and tears.
We need to figure out how we manage to extract these resources better. That's the big question. This is where this concept of interdisciplinarity comes in, because how do we speak across our fields of expertise, our regions of expertise, and how do we make those trends of how connected we are? Because we cannot afford to have evolved this far and then forget to see the big picture.”

What do you bring home from Tech Policy Days and meeting the members of the committee?

“In a world that is polarized, we're creating more safe spaces to have tough yet critical discussions in. So, with this committee I think we are really modelling what will be another way to address the big questions in society. I think this committee is really viable and can serve as a case study for how we can do things differently and across disciplines, communities and geographies that also catalyzes others to do the same.
It is almost like town halls, it's like rebuilding democracy through a committee like this. It's the age of tech, but never has the human connection been needed more. Because we can connect virtually but this connection is not going to be an interpersonal connection.”