World » Africa

The best books on Digital Africa

recommended by Mohammad Amir Anwar

The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work by Mark Graham & Mohammad Amir Anwar

The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work
by Mark Graham & Mohammad Amir Anwar


The internet and digital technology are transforming not only the way African countries trade and conduct business but also how they cohere socially and politically. Mohammad Amir Anwar, Lecturer in African Studies and International Development at the University of Edinburgh, recommends books that investigate the opportunities for Africa from the growth of technology—but focus on specifics and avoid the hype.

The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work by Mark Graham & Mohammad Amir Anwar

The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work
by Mark Graham & Mohammad Amir Anwar

Buy all books

Before we get to the books on digital Africa, I wanted to ask two very broad questions. Why is the digitization of Africa an important thing for Africa? And why is it an important thing for the rest of the world?

That’s a really good starting point. I’ll give you some brief context. When we talk about digitalization or digitization or digital things in general, these technologies are widely seen as having tremendous potential to transform our economies, and even our politics in their ability to build participatory democracy, for example. Digitization is expected to emancipate people from poverty and inequality around the world.

But when we talk about Africa in particular, it becomes increasingly important because of the poverty and the unemployment across the continent. When thinking about a lot of development challenges—food insecurity, for example—these technologies are expected to alleviate these problems and put Africa on the path to economic development. That extends to some other parts of the world where these problems exist as well—Southeast Asia, Latin America, parts of Eastern Europe.

We have seen numerous accounts from academia, the media and institutions like the World Bank, building on the same tropes, that the power of technologies will bring development to Africa. The basic idea is that it will level the playing field for African economies. Far more than has been the case before, they will be able to participate in the global world economy on the basis of equality. The access to technology for people will help them achieve the socio-economic development that they’ve always expected. These hopes, and the aspirations behind these technologies, are the reason why we should investigate what is going on. The books that I’m recommending provide a balance between hopes and aspirations and the reality behind the role of technologies for development in Africa.

Let’s turn to those books. First up is Invisible Users by Jenna Burrell, a professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley.

This book looks at urban youth accessing internet cafes in Accra, Ghana, and how they “socially interact with other youths from around the world.” In particular, it examines young people’s sense of their wider world changing through the use of internet cafes. It goes back to the hopes behind technologies. The discussion up until that point had tended to assume that if we give people access to technology—such as the internet and mobile phones—people will automatically do things that will help them to climb the development ladder, so to speak.

The book investigates that assumption by looking at what people do in these cafes. What did she find? People interact internationally with their friends, family members, strangers, build partnerships, they watch music videos, engage in online dating. But there was also a growth in scamming, people impersonating other people, for the purpose of economic gain. Essentially, the process involves becoming cosmopolitan, or enacting a ‘cosmopolitan self’ as Burrell calls it. In that sense, the internet can actually enhance knowledge among urban youth and help to develop their social skills.

For me, this book provides an early assessment of the potential of technology, not taking technology as given, but how it is actually used and made to work by people. One of the key messages that comes out of the book is how technology has this interpretive flexibility. The meanings and the uses of these machines or systems are not predetermined. They should be understood in distinctive ways. Burrell writes that with different users and among different groups they can take on different meanings. To me, that stands out, because subsequent work has built on that understanding, that we can’t presume technology will evolve in a path-dependent manner.

Next on your list is Digital Entrepreneurship in Africa: How a Continent Is Escaping Silicon Valley’s Long Shadow by Mark Graham, Michel Wahome, and Nicolas Friederici. How does this fit into the realities about digital Africa that you’re describing?

Invisible Users, tells a great story about development and technologies. It describes how a lot of second-hand computers and laptops have been imported into the country by local businesses in order to set up internet cafes. There is another angle to this, which is the country as a place where e-waste is accumulating. People are participating in that waste economy, so to speak. Then there’s a third idea as well, which is about entrepreneurship. People are developing new forms of value-creation activities, whether they are digital or analogue.

That last dimension isn’t covered in Invisible Users, but is very much connected to Digital Entrepreneurship in Africa. This book directly deals with the aspirations and realities of digital entrepreneurs in Africa. Digital entrepreneurship is seen as a key driver for socio-economic change on the continent. There is this simple idea that if you give access to the internet, it will help generate economic value for an organization or a firm. So local businesses and local entrepreneurs are becoming agents of change. Different institutions are investing a lot of hope in this. Local policymakers, the United Nations, the World Bank, Silicon Valley firms including Facebook, are a few examples. They all talk about how Africa is a breeding ground for digital entrepreneurs, how there are over 600 tech hubs on the continent. All of these things confirm that digital revolution is happening at exponential rates.

The book puts that digital entrepreneurship discussion within the local context where it actually takes place. It unpacks the hype, the myth that is being created and talks about digital entrepreneurship working within a very specific context. It doesn’t look at it working in terms of the vision that Silicon Valley people might have created about entrepreneurship.

What they find is that the success and benefits are highly unevenly distributed. One of the underlying findings is that “contrary to expectations conveyed in popular discourses and management scholarship, the average African digital enterprise does not grow exponentially, does not scale internationally, does not produce digital infrastructure, does not attract venture capital (VC), and does not disrupt traditional industries.” People are creating different products that target local customers and local markets. In essence, they found that some of the positive socio-economic effects are there but just not at the rate and scale as many mainstream narratives have suggested. If entrepreneurs, investors and policymakers are going to understand the transformative impact of these developments, they need to avoid the Silicon Valley model and look at what’s happening on the ground and how things actually operate.

Does China come into this story?

China is helping to build the wider infrastructure of the internet across the continent. There is a lot of discussion about China in Africa, a China-Africa partnership and how China influences the shaping of information, infrastructure and society, and what this means for the global internet.

Let’s find out more about that in the next book, China, Africa and the Future of the Internet by Iginio Gagliardone.

This book tells the story of the increasing presence of China in Africa, vis-à-vis the internet and how and to what extent China is actually shaping the information societies in Africa. China has supported a lot of national projects at the government level, setting up projects for delivering e-services and communications infrastructure in Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya, for example. China’s presence in this respect is quite unique: it always gets presented as radically different from what western firms are trying to do. There is this idea that a ‘Chinese model’ is being exported to Africa.

What the book is doing is trying to unpack that myth and say that the fight isn’t about West and East. It tries to balance the claims about the dangers of the Chinese model being exported. There’s this fear that the Chinese model is a closed internet model, but the book also points to contradictions in the agendas of other international donors from the West.

One of the questions that the book asks is, ‘Is it really about China?’ The book offers a really interesting answer to the idea that there is a war emerging between the two parts of this new bipolar world. Gagliardone argues that this polarity is exaggerated because, in reality, there are various levels of engagement. Both sides are actually working together in some cases, or in some kind of hybrid fashion. The book tells you how Chinese firms have gained entry to the African market, through different kinds of partnerships and networks that already existed. They had to contend with pre-existing firms and their partners.

“The books that I’m recommending provide a balance between hopes and aspirations and the reality”

The Chinese model uses a concept of sovereignty that allows countries to choose their own conception of what the internet is, what kind of models they want, and what kind of plans they put in place. They are trying to navigate these things. One of the things Chinese firms would normally do is to highlight the benefits of their technology, but not the Chinese model per se. That comes out quite strongly from the book. In Ghana and Kenya, Huawei helped support infrastructure development, to deliver e-services for the government, while for the Ethiopian government, ZTE and Huawei were helping the government expand the internet, under the monopoly control of the government itself, perhaps for different purposes, namely to control and monitor and surveillance of the local population. These things stand out.

The second important message that comes out of the book is that while this does suggest that China is increasingly exerting influence over African economies and African politics, there is a sense of increased agency, or the capacity of the African states and their governments, to shape their societies, including in relation to the role of Chinese firms and the Chinese government. It’s not necessarily about bringing in an authoritarian actor, it’s also about helping the government to achieve certain gains. I think that is why in some circles China’s presence is applauded and accepted and in others it is not.

For individual users, there is a very bleak picture emerging. There is a danger of surveillance and monitoring of users. Governments have been doing it in Ethiopia, they have done the same thing in Rwanda and in Kenya. So I think overall, it’s not that the Chinese strategies are worse or better than their competitors, but they are basically contributing to a trend of eroding any possibility of shaping a global internet that is open and free for most people. I think this book captures that message perfectly well.

Shall we go on to Digital Democracy and Analogue Politics by Nanjala Nyabola?

This book connects well with the previous book, in that it specifically deals with these new forms of internet technology. It looks at the role of these digital platforms within the political life of Africa. The book gives a really lucid account of ordinary Kenyans using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. They’re accessing internet networks that were previously inaccessible. And those networks transcend race, gender, ethnicity or other kinds of divisions. There is a sense of cross-border connections taking place, both internationally, but within countries, too. At the same time, the book also tells a story about the same platforms being used by the political elites for their own benefit, stifling activism, rigging elections, and spreading fake news. One of the underlying themes of the book is that online activities are not separable from the economic, political and social landscape of the offline world, nor immune from its political influence. There is a passage in the book that talks about how “what is possible online is dependent on what exists offline.”

The tension between digital and analogue is made very clear from a number of examples in the book. The book describes how during the Kenyan elections of 2017, screenshots of voting results at polling stations were posted online to be compared with what was being announced by the electoral commission. They were able to broadcast what the reality actually was, bringing some sort of accountability to the public sphere.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

But at the end of the book there’s a really important message, that while the digital world will impact democracy in Kenya through the increasing diffusion of technologies, that does not mean it will lead to more democracy, or a democratic society and politics. In fact, these developments might actually come to undermine Kenyan democracy. There are examples of this not just in Africa, but in other parts of the world, in India and elsewhere. Governments are increasingly using the same platforms for the surveillance of citizens.

Does she have any hopeful messages at the end? Or is that just a risk that she’s highlighting?

There is a very optimistic message in the book. She talks about this young, radical, feminist movement emerging. There is this hope that things might change, particularly with the example of online activism taking place. But, having said that, because all of these activities are still embedded in a local context, existing hierarchies are still entrenched. So, while women get a chance to participate in online activism, they are still less represented in online discussions, and still more subject to harassment.

Let’s move on to Africa’s Information Revolution by James Murphy and Padraig Carmody.

This book changes the discussion slightly. It goes back to the discussion we had earlier about the role of ICTs (information and communications technology) in development—ICT4D as we call it. The book discusses at a very concrete level how the diffusion of ICTs affects small-scale firms in Africa. They talk about two particular sectors, tourism and the wood industry/furniture industry in South Africa and Tanzania. What they’re trying to understand is, firstly the limits of ICT in bringing economic development. They’re trying to test this idea of technological determinism, that technological diffusion will automatically lead to some modernization.

The message that comes from the book is that African firms still face a lot of challenges. Local small firms are attempting to use ICTs for their own transformational purposes, but it’s not happening for a number of reasons. They are part of a global market where the leading firms are mostly foreign and are exercising increasing control over the value chains within which they exist. They use the example of tourism in South Africa, where firms are increasingly using ICT for business purposes and relying heavily on or TripAdvisor in order to gain access to customers. But there is a sense of monopolization as well. The rise of these foreign intermediaries also raises critical concerns regarding the structures of the African tourism sector where value is being extracted from local firms (e.g. through high commissions).

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

In the wood sector, it is a similar story. The firms are becoming part of global networks, where the use of ICTs does not necessarily lead to smaller firms capturing higher value. They are unable to compete with foreign imports because the furniture that is coming from other countries, especially Asian countries, is cheaper. It becomes unprofitable for people to source that furniture locally. Overall, the book showcases that this ICT effect, which was expected to have a transformational impact on local firms and to be a key element in the development of African economies, isn’t there, or at least is not as transformational as we thought it would be.

It’s opened these countries up to globalization in a very unforgiving way.


November 9, 2022

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at

Mohammad Amir Anwar

Mohammad Amir Anwar

Mohammad Amir Anwar is Lecturer in International Development and African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is a Senior Research Fellow (Honorary) at the British Institute of East Africa, Nairobi. He is also Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg and a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. He had been a Fellow of the Global Future Councils at the World Economic Forum. His latest open-access book, The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work, is published by the Oxford University Press.

Save for later
Mohammad Amir Anwar

Mohammad Amir Anwar

Mohammad Amir Anwar is Lecturer in International Development and African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is a Senior Research Fellow (Honorary) at the British Institute of East Africa, Nairobi. He is also Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg and a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. He had been a Fellow of the Global Future Councils at the World Economic Forum. His latest open-access book, The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work, is published by the Oxford University Press.